The part of Wales where people have been told opening a window could harm their health

Woman walking down road
The village of Spittal -Credit:WalesOnline/ Rob Browne

It wasn’t meant to be like this, not in this lovely corner of Pembrokeshire that most would dream to call their home. But since last August, for the people living within a few miles of a rubbish tip a short distance from Haverfordwest, that dream has turned into a nightmare - a smelly one.

The stench that people breathe in down here is emanating from Withyhedge Landfill and Materials Recycling Facility, a site which has welcomed thousands of tonnes of waste materials in recent months, materials that, when broken down, can lead to the creation of hydrogen sulphide, something Natural Resources Wales (NRW) describes as “a colourless gas which often smells like rotten eggs”. The landfill site is operated by Resources Management Ltd (RML), part of Dauson Environmental Group. That group also owns Cardiff-based Atlantic Recycling, a company that transports waste across south Wales to the Withyhedge site.

In March, Atlantic Recycling pleaded guilty to failing to operate according to a condition of its permit following an offence at its site in Cardiff. And in February, Vaughan Gething accepted £203,000 in donations from that group to aid his (ultimately successful) campaign to become First Minister of Wales, despite its director David Neal being handed two suspended prison sentences over the past decade or so for dumping waste. To get the latest WalesOnline newsletters e-mailed to you directly for free, click here.

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Mr Gething has stressed he did nothing wrong in accepting the donations, but he has been accused of “appalling judgement” as the row threatens to railroad the embryonic stages of his tenure. While Gething’s name has helped ensure that the issue has hit the headlines across the country, the people living near the Withyhedge site are still waiting for the issue to be dealt with. Deadlines have been set for the issue to be resolved, and all have come and gone.

Now, advice from Public Health Wales has emerged advising that odours and emissions from the site may be "harmful to health", and suggesting that locals should keep windows and doors closed. In a combined statement from Public Health Wales and Natural Resources Wales, a spokesman said the advice was included in Natural Resources Wales’ weekly update on Withyhedge Landfill on Friday, and was initially provided in March. It is said to refer to the "possibility" of physical and mental health harms.

MP for Preseli Pembrokeshire, Stephen Crabb, has said the “Welsh Government and First Minister Vaughan Gething should be held accountable”, while the MS for Preseli Pembrokeshire, Paul Davies, called the situation “outrageous”. Meanwhile, Pembrokeshire Council has written to RML outlining its intention to seek an injunction if gases continue to escape from the landfill, while NRW issued the site operators with a Regulation 36 Enforcement Notice a month ago, saying that steps “must be completed” by May 14. Days after that, people who live in the area said that nothing had changed. They said that, frankly, the whole thing stinks.

“We’ve actually been trying to sell our property,” said Cheryl James, who lives in Poyston Cross, a couple of miles from the landfill site. “But three potential buyers didn’t even make it into the house because the smell outside was too bad. They just said ‘no thanks’ and drove off. We live in Pembrokeshire, with so many beaches and a wonderful shouldn’t be like this. But nothing seems to change, nothing at all. Deadlines come and go but the smell is still here. At night if the windows are open the smell actually wakes us up. So we can’t even open the windows and doors in our house, and even the dogs are coughing now.”

Entrance to recycling facility
The entrance to Withyhedge Landfill and Materials Recycling Facility -Credit:WalesOnline/ Rob Browne

Mrs James’s husband used to suffer with asthma when he was younger but has not needed an inhaler for several years. He now uses a steroid inhaler and Mrs James said his tight chest had been caused by the smell outside their home. They both suffer from severe migraines, too. “He can’t look at lights and he can barely take his head off the pillow at times,” she said.

So, who is to blame for all this - RML, NRW, the Welsh Government? Mrs James thinks they’re all to blame. “Nobody seems to be doing anything,” she said. “Nobody seems to care about us. It really has an effect on your mental health as well. It can be a gorgeous day and I can’t open the windows to air the place and I can’t let the dogs out for long.

"It’s soul destroying that they think this is acceptable.” When asked what hope she had that the stench would be eradicated in time for summer, Mrs James said: “Hope is a strong word. We’ve gone past three deadlines now and hope is really fading. We can’t sell our house and we’re stuck here. We can’t even bring our grandson down here to stay because of the smell.”

Sign for Spittal village
The village of Spittal in Pembrokeshire, one of a number of locations near Haverfordwest where residents' lives are being taken over by an awful smell -Credit:WalesOnline/ Rob Browne

Mrs James, her husband and their dogs live to the south of the Withyhedge landfill site, but things are no better to the north, where you’ll find the village of Spittal. “The stink has been horrendous - this morning (May 16) it seems worse than ever,” said Colin Barnett, who lives in the village with his partner Sue Lewis.

“It’s very, very frustrating - we’re still waiting for an update about the odours being contained, which they clearly haven’t been. The huge concern for us is our health. We can’t carry on breathing this air when we don’t know what’s in it. We keep being told that the risk is low and the levels are low but we don’t know. The big fear is that people can physically feel this in their eyes and in their throats - it’s toxic air that people are breathing in. Nobody has come out to see us to talk to us about our health.”

Couple standing in road
Colin Barnett and Sue Lewis, who live in Spittal -Credit:WalesOnline/ Rob Browne

Mr Barnett’s partner Sue Lewis said she had spoken to people who worked inside the Withyhedge site and been told that even they didn't know what was causing a smell that “literally makes you retch”. She added: “Nobody actually investigates, they just regulate. There was no smell before August last year but now there is. It’s not rocket science - something has changed."

Mr Barnett was adamant that there would be no further deadlines. He said the people just wouldn't pay any attention to them. “We can’t work with people on another deadline, we are taking more positive action ourselves,” he said. “We are looking at legal action as well as physical demonstrations taking place. We’re looking at all options. There are more than 2,000 people on the ‘Stop the Stink’ Facebook page and they all want action. We didn’t want the site to be closed down but now, after all this mismanagement, things have changed.”

RML has stressed that it does not believe the odours coming from the Withyhedge site are harmful to people's health, but it has not said how this can be guaranteed. The company has said it has been working closely with NRW, Pembrokeshire Council and Public Health Wales to monitor air quality in the areas around Withyhedge, and concedes that the smells coming from the site are and have been "unpleasant".

A spokesman for RML said on Friday (May 17): "RML has spent the past six months working with Natural Resources Wales to rectify the issues at Withyhedge Landfill site and has been fully committed to bringing a conclusion to the works. The issues surrounding Withyhedge have been both complex and challenging, but RML is pleased to report that planned works had proceeded in alignment with the deadlines of the current notice. RML appreciates that the gas that has, on occasions, been released from the site during the engineering works has been unpleasant, however, it is our understanding that this is not hazardous or detrimental to human health in the concentrations being experienced."

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When asked to respond to the concerns raised, the Welsh Government refused to comment and said it was a matter for NRW, which in turn has confirmed that its officers have been at Withyhedge during the past week carrying out a series of assessments to determine if RML has complied with the Regulation 36 Enforcement Notice mentioned above. It said the assessments were "complex and will take some time to complete", but added that a "full site landfill gas audit" would take place this coming week.

Furthermore, odour assessments have taken place every day over the past week, including in communities surrounding the landfill site, and NRW has confirmed that odours continue to be detected. A spokeswoman for NRW said: "Only when the site has been fully assessed and reports from the site operator reviewed will we be able to determine compliance with the enforcement notice, and whether the action taken by the operator has reduced fugitive gas emissions. We will then be in a position to consider if any further enforcement action is required, looking at all options available to us under the regulations."

So while it would be untrue to say that nothing is being done, for the disgruntled people who live in the communities around Withyhedge it is clearly not being done anywhere near quickly enough. There is hope, but as one of those disgruntled people said, "hope is a strong word". After nine months, they've given up on hope in this beautiful part of Pembrokeshire. Now, they just want action.

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