Castle Mill “contamination” sparks student fury

A local environmental campaigner has urged concern over possible ground contamination at the Castle Mill graduate accommodations.

The blog Castle Mill Contamination argues that measures taken to prevent exposure of construction workers and residents to brownfield contaminants have been too weak. Others, including University officials and City Councillors, are not convinced of the danger.

Before construction at the Castle Mill site at the base of Port Meadow began, testing found possibly dangerous concentrations of asbestos and heavy metals in the soil. Sean Feeney, a local environmental campaigner, has called on both the University and the City Council to conduct further testing at the site to investigate possible dangers.

The University and some Councillors have dismissed activists’ claims. A spokesperson for the University stated: “There is absolutely no basis for these allegations.”

Castle Mill houses several hundred graduate students and many spouses and children. The recent worries around contamination are the latest in a long string of local issues surrounding the buildings, including their impact on Port Meadow. The accommodations were built on a brownfield land, formerly home to railroad siding. Major construction began on the site in 2012 and the first graduate students moved into the new accommodation in September 2013.

A 2011 independent assessment of soil and groundwater samples from the site reported potentially dangerous concentrations of several contaminants. Using a conservative measure, taking into account frequent potential soil exposure for a female child under 6, asbestos, lead, arsenic, and several polyaromatic hydrocarbons were noted as exceeding safe levels.

The 2011 report and a subsequent filing in 2013 both recommended that uncontaminated soil be imported to the site in order to prevent exposure to the contaminants, and noted that construction workers could be at risk. The blog, citing a 2014 Environmental Impact Assessment, has expressed concern that the actions taken were not enough to mitigate the risk, writing that “Asbestos may have been incorporated into the fabric of the building”.

Sean Feeney told the The Oxford Student that he believes serious crimes may have been committed in the planning and building process. He suggested “possible criminal exposure to poisons, particularly during construction” and “possible fraud in the planning application”.

“I believe the Environment Agency the Health and Safety Executive and the Police have all failed to properly investigate these concerns.”

Prolonged exposure to heavy metals such as lead can lead to a variety of health problems. Asbestos and polyaromatic hydrocarbons are both known carcinogens. However, the risks were calculated very conservatively, assuming frequent and prolonged exposure to soil in young children.

John Tanner, Labour Councillor and Board Member for ‘Cleaner Greener Oxford’, is not convinced by the activists’ concerns: “I am satisfied that there is no danger whatever to residents or the general public. The land is probably safer now than before it was built on because it is covered in concrete and tarmac.

“Whenever a brownfield site is built on the ground, it is always tested and heavy metals are sometimes found. Asbestos is only a danger if it is exposed and in these cases it is removed by experts. There is no danger as long as precautions are taken, as they were in this case.”

The Council is not unanimous in its confidence, however. “We are seriously concerned about the risk of contamination at the Castle Mill buildings,” Green Party Councillor Sam Hollick revealed. “The development is still being considered by the council, and we will want to see confirmation that the site has been made safe and that a proper assessment has been made of whether construction workers were put at risk – and compensation paid if they were.”

The “Save Port Meadow” campaign, which has focused on the aesthetic impact of Castle Mill, also believe the possible contamination may have been mishandled. The campaign has asked the Environment Agency to investigate.

The University remains confident in the Environmental Impact Assessment and the measures undertaken to mitigate danger. A spokesperson stated: “The assessment prior to construction identified the contamination potential of the land and comprehensive mitigation works were carried out during and after construction, to the satisfaction of City Council requirements. The independent Environmental Impact Assessment confirmed this work had been done and that the site is safe and suitable for use.”

It is currently unclear whether further steps will be taken to assess contamination. Those speaking in favor and against have drawn markedly different conclusions from the two chemical assessments and the 2014 Impact Assessment.

Feeney is seeking to pressure the city council into a further investigation. He has contacted Oxford’s independent auditor Mick West, encouraging him to issue a public interest statement regarding the contamination.

“I may ask the auditor to use his discretionary power to issue judicial review proceedings. One of the issues I have already raised with Mr West is a concern that his client Council may have a multi-million pound contingent liability because there may have been, and may still be, unlawful exposure to poisons.”