As we stand looking out over Thrupp Lake, it begins to rain.
The rain shakes the leaves of the oaks and the willows, and frays the surface of the water. Canada geese and swans look unconcerned as the five of us put up the hoods on our raincoats and huddle under the trees.
It’s a strangely tranquil place. A thirty-acre lake, bristling with wildlife, surrounded by mature trees and studded with islands on which waterfowl nest and gather &emdash; you could imagine, standing here, that there was not another human being for miles. Yet we are standing in one of the most populated parts of southeast England, only minutes away from housing estates, motorways and &emdash; ominously &emdash; one of the country’s biggest coal-fired power stations.
With me are four local residents, who know and love this quiet, unassuming, unspectacular but beautiful place. They walk their dogs here, come here to think, to watch wildlife or just catch a breath of air. They live nearby, and as new housing estates, business parks, road widening schemes and the vagaries of breakneck ‘development’ hem them in further every year, Thrupp Lake has become a refuge.
‘There are a lot of people living round here,’ says Jo Cartmell, a wildlife expert who has just finished scanning the mud of the banks for otter footprints. ‘This is a place you can come for a bit of beauty and tranquillity, which is so precious these days. For me, it’s a much-treasured area. I’ve been here for twenty years now. I couldn’t believe when I first moved here that a lake of this size, with all this wildlife, was literally so close to home.’
Jo, Basil, Marjorie and Lynda walk me around Thrupp Lake as the rain continues, creating a mist of spray in the trees. Their knowledge and love of this landscape is clear as they point out long-tailed tits in the branches and coots scooting across the mudflats. They tell me of sedge warblers, cetti’s warblers, whitethroats, otters, water voles, firecrests, herons, bats, dragonflies, terns, cormorants, carp and orchids, all of which they have seen in or around the lakes, just minutes from their homes.
They tell me about the swans that nested on one of the islands, and the fox that swam across and ate their eggs. They tell me about the old ladies who come down here in their wheelchairs to look out at the view and watch the birds; about the anglers, the schoolchildren and the joggers who enjoy it.
Then they take me around the corner and show me the future.
Fifty yards away from the tranquil beauty of Thrupp Lake, across the old railway line, is a wide expanse of dark grey slime, studded with weeds and scrub. The slime is dangerous and unstable – the industrial equivalent of quicksand. It is also laced with arsenic, chromium, boron, cadmium, antinomy, vanadium, barium and copper. It is surrounded by a high, barbed-wire topped fence, with KEEP OUT signs spaced along it at intervals.
Four years ago this, too, was a wildlife-rich lake. Now it is a waste pit, filled with hundreds of thousands of tons of ash. The ancient, dirty, coal-burning Didcot power station, which is just visible above the tree line, killed the lake by the simple process of piping its waste coal ash straight into it. Nine other lakes in the area have already met the same fate. Only two remain, of which Thrupp is by far the biggest. Now, Didcot wants to fill it, too, with poison ash. But it is meeting fierce resistance.
The lake is a County Wildlife Site, and sits in the middle of the Oxfordshire Green Belt. Yet the county council has recommended that the dumping go ahead. The RSPB, English Nature and the local wildlife trust have not objected. Neither has the Environment Agency.
All that stands between the wildlife of Thrupp Lake and 500,000 of tons of waste ash, in fact, are Jo, Basil, Marjorie and Lynda: four determined, respectable, middle-aged middle Englanders who have set up a spirited and widely-supported campaign group called Save Radley Lakes. And what their determined local campaign has exposed goes far beyond their village of Radley, and its nearby power station. This is about more than just the future of an Oxfordshire lake. It is about electricity, waste disposal, climate change, government policy and corporate power. It is quite a story.
It starts in 1947, when the owner of the land which is now the Radley Lakes complex began mining it for gravel. Over the next few decades, gravel extraction created twelve deep pits, which filled with water and, over time, became a collection of lakes. As wildlife began to colonise them they became popular with local people. Walkers, anglers, birdwatchers, joggers, families, cyclists and parties of schoolchildren began to frequent them and they became a popular local landmark.
By the early 1980s, the twelve Radley Lakes had become so popular and well-used that proposals were discussed to turn the complex into a public water park and nature reserve, with separate lakes for boating, angling, windsurfing and wildlife. The idea was widely supported amongst local people. But in the intervening period, something else had happened which would seal the fate of the lakes.
Didcot’s coal-burning power station began operating in 1970, on a 300-acre site a few miles from Radley. Quite apart from its contribution to global warming, coal burning creates a huge amount of localised waste. At full capacity, Didcot can consume 5 million tonnes of coal a year. The coal is pulverised into dust and fed into giant furnaces, which create the heat which generates electricity. But this process also creates waste ash, known in the industry as Pulverised Fuel Ash, or PFA. Didcot can produce 3000 tonnes of PFA in a single day &emdash; up to a million tonnes a year. And it has to be disposed of somewhere.
Until 1984, Didcot’s PFA was dumped in a nearby landfill site. But this soon filled up, and other potential landfills nearby had already been booked for the disposal of waste from London, fifty miles away. One condition of the construction of Didcot’s coal plant in 1964 was that PFA could not be disposed of by road, because of the vast number of lorries that would be required to take it away. So the power station needed another nearby site to dump its waste, and its gaze alighted on the Radley Lakes.
In 1982, before many local people knew what was happening, Didcot had been granted planning permission to pipe its PFA into the Radley Lakes, just five miles away. So nearly a wildlife and water park, they were now to be a landfill site for industrial waste. But there were conditions attached. Any lake filled with PFA would have to be restored by the power station to a natural state afterwards. And they would need specific approval for every stage of the operation.
Over the next twenty years, ten of the Radley Lakes were filled with PFA and fenced off from the public. Only two remained: Thrupp Lake and its smaller neighbour, Bullfield Lake. Local people hoped that these, at least, would be preserved. Then, last year, Didcot’s new owner, the German-owned electricity firm Npower, applied for planning permission to fill the last two lakes with PFA as well.
Standing on the thin spit of land that separates Bullfield from Thrupp Lake, Jo Cartmell shakes her head. There is a kind of astonishment in her voice as she looks out across the water, as if she can’t quite believe it is happening. Jo has lived here for twenty years. She has seen the other ten lakes disappear. She is determined to save at least this one.
‘What amazes me is that the people from Npower didn’t even come to see the lake!’ she says. ‘They embarked on all these negotiations and they didn’t even see the place. If they had done, and if they had even an ounce of nous between them, they would never have embarked on the plan to fill it.’
Npower, of course, see things rather differently. Their press officer, Kelly Brown, who says she has been to Thrupp Lake, is keen to explain to me what a good job her company does for the environment. She’s also keen to stress that, in her words, there is ‘absolutely no alternative’ to disposing of PFA in Thrupp Lake. Npower don’t call it Thrupp Lake, though. They call it ‘Lake E’; the latest in a long line of waste disposal pits, labelled A to P, which they say were ‘a scar on the landscape’ when first mined for gravel, and are now being restored by the company.
‘Technically’, says Kelly, sternly, ‘Lake E is not a public amenity. All these lakes that people walk around, they’re actually private land. Eighteen months ago, we applied for permission to fill Lakes E and F [otherwise known as Thrupp and Bullfield Lakes] with PFA. There was a public consultation, which we studied carefully. Then we submitted a new proposal, to fill only Lake E. We have now guaranteed not to fill Lake F. And much of the land which is now Lake E &emdash; private land, remember &emdash; will be restored ecologically, and become a public park.’ The way Kelly puts it, it sounds quite nice. Soothing, even. And she hasn’t even got to the economics yet.
’Didcot’s coal burning power station meets the electricity needs of up to two million people,’ she explains. ‘And of course, it generates a lot of waste. If we can’t secure a 24 hour, seven days a week means of disposing of that waste, then there’s the possibility that power supplies will be disrupted. We have explored all the options very carefully, and I can assure you that there is no alternative at all. We have to use Lake E for PFA.’
So far, so simple. Yet there are other issues lurking in the background which make the story much more intriguing and complex.
Firstly, there’s the issue of PFA itself. Far from being a useless waste material, it is eminently re-useable. It is, in fact, in great demand in the construction industry, where it is used in concrete, road building, mine grouting, coastal defences and underwater construction. Didcot power station has recently constructed a plant to convert its PFA waste for industrial use &emdash; something which they are keen to trumpet. But there is no legal obligation on them to do so, and less than half of their PFA is currently reused. The rest goes into the lakes.
Secondly, as NPower are naturally keen to point out, the law is against them in at least one respect. For years, PFA was used for beneficial purposes, without too much bureaucratic interference. Then along came something called the European Waste Framework. In a well-intentioned attempt to protect the environment, it classified PFA as a ‘waste material’ rather than a ‘by-product’, which meant that reusing it was suddenly more expensive and bureaucratic. At the same time, no law exists in Britain &emdash; as it does in many other European countries &emdash; demanding that a large percentage of PFA is re-used or recycled. From NPower’s point of view, all this adds up to one conclusion &emdash; the cheapest and easiest thing to do with their waste is, well, to tip it into a lake.
This is not the end of the legal shenanigans either. In 1982, when the first lake at Radley began to be filled, locals were assured that PFA was entirely ‘inert’ &emdash; not toxic, not polluting, not dangerous. Then along came another European Directive. This one enforced a new way of PFA disposal &emdash; before tipping the stuff into a drained lake, the lake needed to be lined with thick clay, to prevent any leaching of toxins into the groundwater. Suddenly, PFA was potentially toxic after all. Suddenly, too, the filling of the lakes became a much bigger scar on the landscape. Whereas before the lakes would just be filled up to ground level, they must now be surrounded by giant clay ‘bunds’ up to four metres high, blocking off any view of what remains.
Basil Crowley, the Chairman of Save Radley Lakes, has worked hard to get his head around all of this, and he is dismissive of NPower’s insistence that destroying Thrupp Lake is the only option available.
’I’ll tell you what this is really about’, he says. ‘The reason Npower are going after the lake so determinedly, and resisting alternatives, is that they want to get their money’s worth. They paid Â£3.2 million for Thrupp Lake, before they’d even been given full permission to dispose of PFA in it.’ Plus, he says, the power station is coming to the end of its life. In 2015, yet another European Directive comes into play, which will require Didcot’s coal plant either to clean up its act, or to close. NPower have decided to close it. ‘Since it’s got no long-term future, it’s not worth their while doing anything else’, snorts Basil.
Finally, Save Radley Lakes simply do not believe NPower’s insistence that Thrupp Lake will be enough to suit their needs. According to their calculations, Thrupp is not big enough to take all of Didcot’s PFA waste for the next nine years. They say it will only take about twenty percent of it before it is full and they need to look somewhere else. They also point out, correctly, that on the site of Didcot power station itself sits another gravel pit. Much newer than Thrupp, and with virtually no wildlife value, it would be a perfect place to dump the PFA. It even has planning permission for dumping. But it has been bought by a company which plans to use it for landfill from London, fifty miles away &emdash; while the waste PFA from a hundred yards away is pumped, instead, into Thrupp Lake.
‘It makes no sense at all, when you put it all together’, says Basil. ‘The reality is that for NPower this is the cheap and easy option, and no-one will stop them.’
And it seems that no-one will. English Nature couldn’t designate the site an SSSI because they couldn’t find anything rare enough living on it. The local wildlife trust has remained mute. The Environment Agency is happy that no laws are being broken. And NPower are keen to play down the wildlife value of the site.
‘Save Radley Lakes produced a report recently which was full of inaccuracies about the lake’s wildlife’, insists Kelly Brown. ‘They say there are water voles there. They say there are otters. Well, we employed a team of specialist ecologists, who produced a very detailed report. There are no otters or water voles. It’s not the right environment for them. And when we have restored the site, its ecology will be richer than it is now. Our restoration work is second to none.’
Tell that to Jo Cartmell, who has seen otter tracks, or to the other locals who have seen and photographed otters there. Tell it to the Environment Agency, come to that, who verified one of the sightings. Tell it to Basil, who employed a qualified environmental surveyor of his own, who came back with evidence of water voles, or to Jo who has studied them for years. Tell it to the Kingfishers and bats who will have nowhere to nest once the filling begins.
There is also the question of what ‘restoration’ actually means. Before the gravel pits were dug here in the 1950s, it was farmland. Originally, Didcot promised to restore it to agriculture. But these days, agricultural land is much less in demand. Plus, the intervening five decades have seen the scrubby gravel pits develop into mature lakes. Kelly Brown sends me a lovely picture of what their ‘restoration’ will look like. It’s full of detail about the lagoon they will dig for the water birds, the native trees they will plant around the edges, the special burrowing sites they’ll create for kingfishers to nest in, the small pond to be created especially for amphibians. In other words, NPower are not restoring the original farmland &emdash; they’re creating a smaller, cheaper, less wild version of the existing lake; one dug out of ash, rather than soil. It’s not terribly reassuring.
Ultimately, though, Thrupp Lake has a problem &emdash; a problem which may doom it. It is not ‘special’ enough. Take the otters, for instance. ‘Otters have been seen here,’ explains Jo, ‘but we can’t prove that they’ve bred here. If we could, we could stop the destruction, because otter breeding habitats are protected. But otters just being here doesn’t count, we’re told. It’s a ridiculous bureaucratic way to look at it. We know the place is suitable for otters. We know otters have been seen here. We know otters have been seen on the Thames, five miles away, well within their range, which is twenty miles for a male otter and ten miles for a female. Even if they’re not breeding here now, it’s a perfect breeding site for them. But that apparently doesn’t count.’
A similar rule applies to the kingfishers. Yes, there are kingfishers at Thrupp Lake, and kingfishers are protected &emdash; but their habitat isn’t. Yes, it is rich in wildlife &emdash; but not rich enough, and not in the ‘right’ sort of wildlife to become a protected nature reserve. To the local people, Thrupp Lake is a special place. To the conservation bureaucracy, it is apparently not special enough. And to NPower, it’s not even Thrupp Lake &emdash; it is Lake E; a location, not a place. A utility, not a landscape. An ideal site for the disposal of poisonous waste that nobody wants, and nobody is supposed to see.
NPower’s application to fill Thrupp Lake is currently with Ruth Kelly, the secretary of state for local government, who can either reject it, accept it or deliberate on it for longer. NPower are confident she will accept it. If she does, Save Radley Lakes say they will take it to the High Court. In an ideal world, they say, they would like both remaining lakes to be locally-owned and run resources. ‘NPower could have a great big PR coup if they said ’"we’ve decided to give it to the community instead of dumping in it"’, says Marjorie. ‘It would repay so handsomely for such a small amount of money.’
Meanwhile, though, the fight goes on. And as it does so, questions hang in the air. Who is to blame for this situation? NPower, for lazily dumping waste it could reuse or recycle? The EU, for making it harder for them to do anything else? Oxfordshire County Council, for rolling over before a big, powerful company which provides local employment? The government, for failing to insist that PFA is recycled rather than dumped? Or you and me, for using the electricity that Didcot and power stations like it produce? How would you feel if the lights went out, and who would you blame then?
Back on the shore of Thrupp Lake, what seems clear to me is that to fill this place with waste ash would be a crime. ‘What amazes me’, says Jo, ‘is that on the one hand, we’re all being behoven by the government to reuse and recycle more, and rightly so. On the other hand, a giant corporation are allowed to do this, which is fly dumping on a huge scale. There’s no joined up thinking at all. When you think about it, none of it actually makes sense.’
A pleasing update: NPower eventually backed off on their plan to fill the lake with poisonous ash, due to local resistance. Thrupp Lake is now a nature reserve. Chalk one up for the little guy.