Environmental Law News Update

June 16, 2020

In this latest Environmental Law News Update, Charles Morgan, Christopher Badger and Mark Davies consider mustard gas dumped in a Nottinghamshire lake, a challenge to the Department for Transport’s ‘Road Investment Strategy 2’ and COVID-19 waste in the seas and on the beaches.

Mustard gas dumped in Nottinghamshire lake

Three wartime memorabilia hunters have received jail sentences for dumping WWII mustard gas bombs in a Lincolnshire lake, making them the first in the country to be sentenced for possession of a chemical weapon.

Martyn Tasker (40) was jailed for 5 years for possession of firearms, plus 16 months’ concurrent sentence for possession of a chemical weapon. His wife Michaela Tasker (32) and friend Stuart Holmes (50) were both handed a 12-month jail sentence suspended for two years for possession of a chemical weapon.

The court heard that in September 2017, the Taskers came across wartime memorabilia in Roughton Woods, near Woodhall Spa – land which was historically requisitioned by the MoD for military training – and dug up a half-buried box of mustard gas bombs. They messaged a friend who used to repair weapons in the Territorial Army to ask what they had found, but didn’t get an immediate identification.

Ten days later, the pair returned with Mr Holmes and uncovered a total of 16 canisters and three earthenware bottles. One bottle was prised open – exposing what Mr Tasker called ‘really smelly oil’ inside – before his friend texted, confirmed the containers were full of mustard gas, and advised alerting the authorities.

But Holmes had already poured the three bottles of mustard gas onto the ground so he could take the empty bottles home with him, along with 10 unopened canisters. The group left the other six canisters, but didn’t report their find. Later that day, they decided to dump the canisters in Stixwould Lake, where Holmes worked. They secretly took a dinghy, rowed out into the lake, and left the containers to sink to the bottom, before burning their clothes.

The next day, Martyn Tasker sought treatment for blisters on his forearms and soon after, Michaela Tasker was treated for breathing difficulties after she collapsed in a GP waiting room due to respiratory problems caused by the toxic substance. Only then did the pair alert the police – but they lied about the circumstances and still didn’t tell officers about the bombs they dumped in the lake.

But it wasn’t long until inconsistencies emerged from their stories and all three were arrested.

Authorities then launched a major operation to secure the woods, lake, and suspects’ homes, and to recover the hazardous chemical.

In what has since been hailed the biggest operation of its kind, Lincolnshire Police led more than two dozen organisations including the Environment Agency, emergency services, and the Army, in an 11-day response. It saw roads closed, drones deployed, safety cordons put in place, and at least one home evacuated while teams worked around the clock to tackle the tactical challenges of safely removing the bombs from the lake while keeping themselves, and nearby residents, safe.

Environment Agency sonar equipment usually used for fish surveys finally determined the bombs’ location in the lake before Royal Navy divers were sent in to safely retrieve them.

The bombs were immediately transferred to the specialist defence science and technology lab in Porton Down. There, testing confirmed that the containers were still sealed and had not leaked.

You may not be aware but the disposal of chemical weapons after WWII was a significant problem. Scientists did not know how to destroy the massive arsenals of chemical weapons. Ultimately, Russia, the UK and the USA opted largely for what they considered to be the safest and cheapest method of disposal – chemical weapons were dumped directly into the ocean. It is estimated that 1 million metric tonnes of chemical weapons currently lie on the ocean floor.

The EA’s press release can be found here

Department for Transport’s ‘Road Investment Strategy 2’ challenged

As we suggested might happen in this blog on 4 March when covering the Heathrow Third Runway litigation, challenges to major infrastructure projects continue to be brought on environmental grounds, and particularly in respect of the government’s (supposed) failure to account for climate change targets.

On 1 June 2020 the Transport Action Network deposited its Statement of Facts and Grounds at the High Court, challenging the Secretary of State for Transport (with the Highways England Company Ltd as Interested Party) on the legality of his ‘Second Roads Investment Strategy’ (“RIS2”), which covers the period 2020 to 2025. RIS2 was made on 11 March 2020 pursuant to section 3 of the Infrastructure Act 2015.

RIS2 allocates funding as well as determining which specific road projects will be taken forwards by Highways England within the five-year period of the strategy.

The challenge has been brought on four grounds:

  1. Failing to take account of the impact of RIS2 on specific climate change objectives, namely achieving carbon budgets (particularly the fifth carbon budget covering 2028-2032), meeting the Net Zero target and adhering to the objectives of the Paris Agreement;
  • That in setting RIS2 the Secretary of State unlawfully breached the Claimant’s legitimate expectation that the strategy would include the establishment of a metric for measuring the emissions of greenhouse gases from road users;
  • That the Secretary of State failed to take account of duties placed on him by regulation 17 of the Air Quality Standards Regulations 2010; and
  • That the Secretary of State failed to carry out a Strategic Environmental Assessment of RIS2 contrary to regulation 5(1) of the Environmental Assessment of Plans and Programmes Regulations 2004.

We will endeavour to keep you up to date as this latest challenge wends its way through the judicial review process. The full Statement of Facts and Grounds may be read here

Plenty more (masks than) fish in the sea?

Many of us will be lamenting lost planned visits to the Mediterranean coast over the past three months (by bicycle, of course). It is perhaps cold consolation to learn that a dip in the sea at a Riviera resort might not have been so pleasant after all. The French non-profit organisation Opération Mer Propre began to report findings of Covid-19 waste on its Facebook page last month (to clarify, the waste was found in the sea and on beaches, not on the Facebook page) surmising that people were disposing of face masks with the same insouciance as cans and plastic bottles. Thus on 23 May 10 latex gloves and 4 disposable surgical masks were found in the sea at Antibes. On 24 May at Golfe-Juan, 5 masks and 4 gloves. On 28 May a latex glove turned up at Juan-les-Pins (and, to be fair, also a plastic coffee table and a plastic crate). On May 31 in Golfe-Juan Bay a mask and a dozen gloves washed up on the shore (again, to be fair, in the sea were also found, amongst many other items, 4 car tyres, a hood for an off-board motor and another plastic coffee table). Another glove turned up at Cannes on 14 June (as well as one boat hull in pieces, 25 tyres etc.).

Perhaps not yet quite enough evidence to substantiate fully Opération Mer Propre’s prediction that “Knowing that more than 2 billion disposal masks have been ordered, soon there will be more masks than jellyfish in the waters of the Mediterranean”, but you get what they mean. Many aspects of the human response to the coronavirus pandemic are, in the final analysis, examples of the anthropocentric nature of our attitude to the environment. In the dim and distant past of February 2020, single-use plastic items were the villain of the piece. Suddenly, there aren’t nearly enough of them …

It’s also interesting to note from the lists of detritus the apparent complete absence of the sort of items which are commonplace on some British beaches as a result of the outpourings of combined sewer and storm overflows, such as cotton buds and other (ahem!) less mentionable latex items than gloves. The French sewerage system is essentially similar to ours, but the standards imposed upon discharges into the bathing waters of the Côte d’Azur are known to be extremely high. You wouldn’t know it as you were strolling along it, but under the Promenade des Anglais at Nice lies lots of sewerage infrastructure which seems rarely if ever to make its presence felt (or smelt) either on the beaches or offshore.

Bonnes vacances à la mer once travel restrictions are lifted and wanderlust returns.

Please also view our Covid-19 Guidance Tracker and Blog – new resources set up by the Regulatory team to enable businesses and legal professionals to more easily navigate to the applicable Covid-19 guidance that is most relevant to their area of work.

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