Senior governments seem to have no shame about downloading enormous, undisclosed environmental liabilities on municipalities. In an English case, Corby Group Litigation v. Corby District Council, the Corby Borough Council (CBC) has been held liable for allowing residents to become exposed to toxic substances during its 1980s cleanup of an old British Steel works. British Steel had heavily contaminated the 680 acre site with metals, (including cadmium, chromium and nickel), PAHs and dioxins. The British government closed the British Steel plant, fired the workers, drove the local unemployment rate to 30%, and dumped the responsibility for cleaning up the site on the CBC. Later, the national government privatized British Steel and pocketed the proceeds. British Steel is now part of Tata Steel, the second most profitable company in India.
Corby Borough is a small town with only 55,000 people, poor education, poor health, high unemployment, and low property values. It also has high rates of congenital limb defects.
With little experience, expertise, or resources, and no apparent assistance from the British government, CBC had tackled the steelworks cleanup by moving 2,000,000 m³ of contaminated soil, on public roads, to an empty quarry. The English High Court has now ruled that the resulting dust exposed pregnant women to chemicals capable of causing limb deformities in their babies. According to the court, a “careful” local authority would have known in 1985 that the lorry wheels should have been washed, and the CBC is therefore liable for any resulting damages.
The decision allows 16 disabled children to move forward with cases against the CBC; they will be entitled to recover substantial compensation if they can prove that their mothers were exposed to unreasonably high levels of contaminants at the material time in their early pregnancy. Not surprisingly, additional claimants are also coming forward. The High Court decision also requires the CBC to pay more than 1,000,000 pounds in legal costs to the claimants.