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More than 20 years ago, a St Pauls petrol station was found to be leaking fuel into the ground. Locals remain unconvinced the area is safe for the flats now being built there.

Photos: Save the M32 Maples

Developers have started to build 31 homes on the site of a former filling station in central Bristol from which fuel may have leaked over many years.

Local residents have criticised Bristol City Council for permitting the work on Lower Ashley Road in St Pauls – and a further housing development proposed for the site next-door.

The M32 Maples group says the council has failed to show the site was cleaned up sufficiently so that future occupants can live there safely, in the wake of reports demonstrating serious contamination after a fuel leak.

“We are at a loss to understand why our council is so dismissive towards us when all we’re asking is for them to follow their own rules.”

Planning permission was granted in 2018 by the council for 31 flats to be built on the site, which was recently home to circus company YardArts.

The campaigners are also protesting the development of an adjacent site which threaten maple trees along the road. Despite the latest application to build 28 flats there being withdrawn by the developer in July, yesterday two of the trees were cut down, leaving only one out of the original five.

The group says its concerns have been treated dismissively by the council, with officers refusing to meet and discuss the situation in detail, and the Bristol-based construction firm Kore, who are developing the site.

Anita Bennett of the M32 Maples group said: “If these two sites are an indication of how business is done in this city we need carefully to examine who benefits. It certainly isn’t the community – nor the environment the council claims so much to care about.”

Steve Silcocks, a spokesman for Kore, said the project had “completed a very rigorous planning process.”

Bristol City Council said the site was inspected in 2017 and no evidence of significant contamination was found.

Toxic cocktail

Residents’ fears relate to the findings of a confidential report, commissioned in 2003 by the filling station’s owners and released earlier this year under the Freedom of Information Act.

This revealed that a cocktail of toxic chemicals, including lead, chromium, benzene, toluene, xylene, naphthalene and MTBE, a lead replacement, soaked into the ground over the 24 years station was operating. Many of the chemicals are associated with neurological disorders, with some also linked to miscarriages and severe learning disabilities in children.

The filling station was owned first by BP and then, from 1998, by Malthurst Retail Group, now part of the Motor Fuel Group, which did not respond to our requests for comment.

It is not known exactly how much fuel escaped in total from one or more of the five 10,000-gallon tanks under the filling station. However, a significant leak is known to have taken place in 1998 from one of the tanks, which was subsequently abandoned.

Six boreholes, which were drilled into the site that year to check the extent of fuel contamination, were examined again in 2003.

The resulting environmental condition report, carried out for Malthurst by SLR Consulting, confirmed that both intrusive investigations had established “petroleum-based contamination within the groundwater in the bedrock”. It said leakage was likely to have taken place prior to the known incident in 1998.

SLR’s report warned, “Construction staff undertaking future excavation works may be at risk from dust emissions.”

It went on to note that, as things stood, there was a “medium” risk of “volatilisation to indoor air in any new residential development”. It added that the eventual risk level would depend on whether adequate precautions were taken in the construction of the new buildings.

In a further confidential report, prepared in 2004, SLR said Malthurst had “voluntarily” removed almost 900 tonnes of material from the site in order to reduce its environmental liabilities and to satisfy council planning conditions and Environment Agency concerns.

The report estimated – in a figure quoted subsequently in planning reports by Bristol City Council, which did not oversee the work – that over 90% of the petrol in the ground had been removed. It added that “any residual petrol-based hydrocarbons will naturally biodegrade over time”.

Laying the foundations

In 2018, Bristol City Council granted permission for 31 homes on the site, with a subsoil membrane designed to protect residents from toxic vapours. Consultants T&P noted in 2017 that these remained an issue.

The foundations of these homes are now being built and, with the project recently being designated as social housing, the developer will pay no community infrastructure levy to benefit the local area.

On the protective membrane, Kore’s Steve Silcocks said: “We are very used to installing these as, for example, naturally-occurring gases like methane and radon also require building protection,” he said. “Our own subsequent ground investigation included gas- and ground water-monitoring, and highlighted nothing requiring further remediation.”

Subcontractors who were laying the foundations discovered a void in the soil, but Silcocks said this did not imply inadequate decontamination work.

The council also granted permission in 2018 for student housing on the site next door to the ex-filling station, previously occupied by a probation office. No conditions were attached to the consent, despite the 2003 report by SLR Consulting noting that it was “not clear whether the petrol has migrated offsite [from the filling station]”.

Landowner John Garlick subsequently applied for permission to build social housing on the probation office site, instead of the student flats. He withdrew the application in July this year after planning committee members said they were minded to turn him down. They described the design as “Stalinist” and “brutal”, adding that local air quality was too poor for families to be housed there.

Residents fear Mr Garlick could still go ahead with work on the student flats development despite his social housing plans being rebuffed. He has been approached for comment.

‘No evidence of significant hydrocarbon contamination’

Asked to comment on residents’ fears of ongoing contamination around the filling station site, Bristol City Council’s senior land contamination officer said: “This former petrol station site was subject to further assessment in 2017 and no evidence of significant hydrocarbon contamination was encountered. Some remediation works will be occurring on this site in areas of soft landscaping and, as a precautionary measure, a membrane will be installed to the new building.”

They added that any issues encountered during the development would be dealt with under agreed planning conditions.

The Environment Agency (EA) was recorded on the cover sheet of the 2003 survey as being one of its recipients, and in the 2004 remediation report as being involved in meetings around the proposed works.

The Cable asked the EA about contamination at the site and whether it had considered prosecuting over the leak, as happened in 2006, when BP was fined £8,000 for polluting groundwater at a service station in Luton, Hertfordshire. BP was also required by the EA to clean up the site, at an estimated cost of £320,000. 

A spokesman said: “The Environment Agency does not hold any records related to this report within its Development Planning System. We are unable to comment any further.”

The spokesman added: “We do not hold any records of an incident that could have resulted in enforcement action.”

SLR Consulting, which compiled the 2003 and 2004 reports, declined to discuss them, or to confirm whether the EA had been sent copies.

‘At a loss to understand why our council is so dismissive’

Last month, Carole Johnson, the deputy Lord Mayor and Labour councillor for Ashley, tried to broker a meeting between the council’s land contamination team and local residents, represented by the M32 Maples group. 

Dylan Davies, a senior environmental health officer, told Johnson, whose ward covers the contaminated sites, that his team “do not usually attend public meetings on individual cases due to their very technical nature”.  

Davies told Johnson he would be “happy to provide a brief, non-technical explanation of how contamination is managed more generally in Bristol”. 

Another option, he suggested, was “a councillors’-only group to discuss the case in more detail and why officers are satisfied in this case that pollution linkages are broken and harm to human health or water will be protected”.

Anita Bennett said on behalf of the M32 Maples group: “We are at a loss to understand why our council is so dismissive towards us when all we’re asking is for them to follow their own rules. Instead of rectifying their errors, they seem more interested in covering these up. Where they should be working with local residents to allay fears and discuss the situation openly, they’ve denied us a fair hearing.”

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  • Alicia says:

    Woah hang on – the planning committee said that the ‘local air’ is too polluted for families to be housed there… WHAT ABOUT THE FAMILIES WHO ALREADY LIVE HERE?!
    Whoever cut down the trees should be facing criminal charges at this point. It seems like a pure act of spite to the community.

    I’m shocked that Marvin Rees prances about as if he’s a champion for racial equality and yet is approving things like the Diesel ban, knowing full well that it will further deteriorate the air quality around St Pauls (with people taking diversions to avoid the charge).

    Absolutely shocking.
    Also, while I’m glad they’re considering new social housing projects, how disgusting that the first one anyone’s considered in the area since J3 is right next to the motorway, where nobody who had real choice would choose to bring up their kids.

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