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Landfill Sites: The Known and Unknown.

November 15th, 2017 in News by emily


Landfill sites have always been with us. The majority of though through time have been very local affairs for villages and even individual habitations. It was only with the 20th century that sites developed into major repositories of industrial, household and mixed source waste. In many instances landfill facilities up to the early 1960s were very long lived, not due to their size but that many of them burnt their waste uncontrollably. In the day when most residential units, or houses, had coal fires the waste was taken weekly by the rubbish collection lorry. This mix of food waste, paper, cardboard and the odd pieces of plastic, glass which had no deposit on it and the ashes from the household grate would be tipped into the same waggon. On route to the tip these wagons would travel along the road with their waste beginning to catch light, it was not unusual for flames to be seen coming from their backs.

Once tipped into the hole the conflagration would often consume all but the most solid waste and sites such as these would last for years. In the Forest of Dean (now an area of outstanding natural beauty) smog was often a problem for the local authority as they had up to six waste sites on fire at any one time. As the clean air act came into force across the country and the first major introductions of central heating came into play, coal fires ceased to be the norm. Dustbins ceased to be constructed of galvanised steel and were made of plastic. Industry was also booming after the recessionary period after the Second World War and consumerism was developing quickly.

The old, often traditional sites were filled in quickly and the local authorities were having to find locations for both industry and the consumer society to rid itself of its rubbish and waste. Throughout the 1960s, 70s and well into the 80s co disposal was acceptable and the normal practice, that is if it could not be taken out to sea and dumped by the barge load alongside the sewage sludge, as the GLC, Westminster and other Metropolitan councils managed to do. In the instance of London and the Southeast liquid wastes were tankered to the Essex marshes or those of North Kent and let go to be mixed with the natural saltwater inundations that took place twice daily with the rising tides. In many instances around other UK industrial sites the local ditches were used in the same unregulated manner. The sludges from industrial processes were also mixed with liquid wastes so as to ease their spreading in with the household waste in the new landfill sites that were being developed.

Sites and Suitability.

Most sites designated as landfill locations from the late 1960s though to the late 1980s were not lined or engineered. They were often old quarries or open voids. They were the leftover scars on the landscape after the limestone (cement industry), opencast coal, sand and gravel pits, clay pits from the brick and tile industry and others too. There were also old railway lines across the country, thousands of miles of them. These were the legacy of huge closures of railway limes overseen by the Minister of Transport Ernest Marples and his consultant Dr Beeching.

The many old lines had cuttings that were close to good road systems and were easy to adapt for the deposition of waste, some were even used for waste transported by railway wagons and tankers. These lines were often branch lines or redundant mineral lines from closed quarries and mines.

By the late 1980s early 1990s the landfill site was under scrutiny, there were licencing requirements alongside the need to protect the aquifers and groundwaters of the country. The science of landfill design and management came of age with many local authorities giving up their own landfill sites and relying on the private waste industry to provide the void space. Some local authorities kept some strategic sites but many handed their waste disposal sites and even the waste collection service to the private industry.


The Known.

The known sites are those that local authorities have some knowledge of or the Environment Agency or their forebears (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Pollution, National Rivers Authority) may have licenced. These are often small sites though the major strategic sites also should fall into this category. These sites should have operational details such as the operator, waste categories interred, geology, dates of the sites operation (opened and closure).

In many local authority areas these details have been lost. This being due to new local authorities being formed or new offices being opened with many departments skipping their old records as worthless. These events have meant that many if not all councils have lost vital information about property that they are owners of or at least legally liable for. These liabilities can be open ended.

Such events as houses exploding after filling with methane migrating from a capped off landfill site that is now a recreation ground is not that uncommon but seldom admitted to. Poor smells from land drains are a common complaint to local councils as are strange coloured puddles about such sites. Public safety being a major concern of all local authorities should develop know what sites exist within their areas and have an idea of what might be likely to have been placed in these sites.

Research of such sites has allowed a good understanding of the condition of the site, simple engineering actions can firstly allow one to ascertain any gas generation within an historic site and at the same time given idea of the condition of the fill. Research into the geological and hydrological nature of the ground in which the site is located will allow for a good understanding of issues that might concern the local populations and ensure the local authority is aware of good management practise. This includes prior historical land uses and condition that might allow for an understanding of the future care of the area.

The Unknown.

The number of unknown sites of waste disposal are larger than most local authorities would wish to admit. Sites close to industrial accidents which could be used for temporary interment of resultant waste has often been capped off and forgotten: small redundant railway cuttings have proved popular.

The nature of the unknown is complex but there are several options that allow simple research, invasive and non-invasive actions that can be undertaken that would identify sites as likely problem locations or put minds at risk. Both actions can have positive impacts on local authority public liability insurance premiums.


The primary options that will allow surety of knowledge once a site has been identified are

  • Geological makeup of the site. This is to understand the nature of the ground in which the site is located.
  • Hydrogeological investigation so as to understand the potential water routes into the fill of the site, the routes way from it and the possible receiving entities: aquifers, streams, rivers or subsurface drainage systems such as abandoned mine workings.
  • Site history. Understanding the nature and condition of the site prior to its use as a landfill site.
  • Drainage study of surface drainage is prudent so as to understand any effects that the drainage of precipitation may have and to consider impact sites. The understanding of major flora groups can help in this.
  • Study of potential contamination. This might be achieved by ascertaining likely fill groups (household, local industrial wastes or other local waste arisings).
  • Leachate sources, if any. This is achieved from looking at possible fill components and the understanding of the hydrogeological issues that appertain to the site.
  • Gas monitoring and if present characterisation and volumes. This is vital so as to ascertain if gas is being generated in the site and if it might be migrating through the surrounding strata.
  • Initial report of the findings and if needed discussion with the relevant agencies. The findings are usually discussed with the Environment Agency and the waste regulation authorities. This will include the remediation or other ongoing monitoring proposals.
  • Install medium or long-term gas/leachate monitoring arrangements. This will be agreed after the initial work, outlined above.
  • If considered prudent install gas management and or leachate treatment facilities. As with further monitoring arrangements will be installed to manage any issues found during the initial interventions as outlined above.



Author: emily

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