Increasing coastal erosion could break up more than 1,000 UK landfills

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We’ve heard for years that the coastal areas are the most threatened for rising sea levels associated with climate change. Chilling photos of whole amusement parks underwater and homes washed into the ocean in New York during and after Hurricane Sandy offer a grim view of a worst-case scenario future that may just have too much ocean.

But in addition to swank beach homes and coastal commerce, UK landfills could also be under threat from rising sea levels and coastal erosion. On first glance, it seems like that wouldn’t be so bad. There are certainly more precious things to worry about when it comes to climate change, like where will all those adorable penguins sleep?

Yet eroding landfills means big problems in terms of pollution risks to wildlife and bathing waters, as climate change heralds in heavier rainfalls and increased storms. As the land erodes away, that old trash that comes back to haunt us. Worse, before the mid-1990s, there were no restrictions on what could be tossed in a landfill, so there’s really no telling what these old ticking time bombs really contain.

Hints of total contamination

A study conducted by the UK’s Environmental Agency looked at two landfills in Essex, Leigh Marshes Landfill that was in use from 1955 to 1967 and Hadleigh Marsh Landfill that was in use from 1980 to 1987. Most notably, they found toxic levels of lead and carcinogens called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

In Hadleigh Marsh they found 9,250kg of lead, 125kg of cadmium and 985kg of PAHs, out of 77,000 tonnes of total waste. All potentially coming right out of the ground to bite us. The study revealed that, in the event of erosion, local animals and plants would suffer death and fertility issues. Not to mention bathing water would be contaminated.

If the landfills were to erode into surrounding wetlands, wildlife would most certainly be affected, since 63% of HadleighMarsh samples had harmful chemical levels above the marine sediment quality guidelines. Worse, areas like Hadleigh Marsh are being considered for what’s called “managed retreat,” meaning the sea is allowed to flood in because keeping it non-flooded isn’t deemed cost effective. And salt water, the study found, is better at releasing pollutants from the trash.

Other landfills can only be speculated on at this point. Since dumping in landfills used to be a complete free-for-all, each landfill could carry its own level of risks. And yet relocating these landfills would be so costly, it’s unlikely to happen.

A widespread coastal problem

If you look at a map of the UK, red dots marking historic landfill sites form fragmented lines along the coast, like a broken red ring of death. That’s because many of them were used to raise land and prevent flooding along the coasts. The map shows 1,264 landfill sites located in coastal areas and estuaries, and 2,946 other sites are in flood plains, all prime areas for coastal erosion.

The fate that could await these sites has already happened to landfill sites in East Tilbury in Essex and on Walney Island. Chilling photos show layers of trash sticking out of the side of eroded earth, right under some grazing cows, like a nasty layer of fossils telling the history of our willy-nilly disposal of trash.

There is one ray of hope, however: the risk to these landfills from coastal erosion and rising sea levels is currently low. And being aware of these issues allows for local authorities and communities to put a plan in place.

Michelle Lovrine Honeyager is a freelance writer living in Southeastern Wisconsin. You can find out more about her at https://www.clippings.me/michellelovrine.

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