Top Tory councillor under fire after assurances over Tilbury dust fears are not supported

By Local Democracy Reporter
Steve Shaw

TESTS to determine if a metallic dust plaguing Tilbury is harmful to people’s health have not been carried out despite assurances from a councillor.

Councillor Aaron Watkins, cabinet member for the environment, claimed test results showed there was “no direct risk to health” during a council meeting.

Aaron Watkins

He said the Environment Agency tested the dust and concluded it is iron oxide and a consultation with Public Health England concluded there was no risk.

Both organisations have since denied this.

A transcript published publicly by the council quotes Mr Watkins as saying: “Tests were carried out by the Environment Agency” and “although residents will find it rightly concerning, it does not pose a direct risk to health and that comes directly from the Public Health England”.

Public Health England has denied involvement.

A spokesman for the Environment Agency said: “I can confirm that local officers have not done any testing, we don’t advise on health risks and we would not be the lead on this.”

It is still not clear if the dust is harmful but the council maintains it is not.

When asked about the comments, Thurrock Council continued to insist the Environment Agency has been involved but said it was working in collaboration with the Port Health Authority.

Councillor Watkins said: “The initial view of the Environment Agency and the Port Health Authority, who have responsibility for investigating and dealing with this issue, is that there are no health concerns being caused by the brown dust. That was what I was referring to in the debate in Full Council in November.

“Enforcement powers, and the responsibility to test the brown dust, do not sit with the council but with the Environment Agency and the Port Health Authority. The council is working with all the relevant agencies and has made clear we expect that they undertake further work to understand the source of this brown dust and then proceed with formal testing.”

The Port Health Authority did not confirm if they had made any conclusions about the health impact but stated: “Industrial processes at the port are governed by strict environmental laws.

“We are liaising with our colleagues at the relevant agencies including Thurrock Council, the Environment Agency and the port operator on this issue.”

Councillor John Allen, who represents the Tilbury St Chads ward, said: “Councillor Watkins is not medically qualified and can only rely on facts and data he has received but it seems there is no data that substantiates that testing has been done – effectively this is a bit of a lie.

“We need to find out whether the substance we are subject to is detrimental to one’s health. There are schools with little ones running about the playground and they are subject to it.

Mr Watkins said he would be meeting with residents in March to discuss the issue further. A petition of 750 signatures was submitted to a full council meeting in January urging the council to act.

The dust is understood to be coming from businesses at Tilbury docks.

Councillor Watkins told a meeting it was coming from “European Metal Recycling and possibly other companies” but the firm has denied responsibility.

A dock worker, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “I work for a company in the docks and there is one plant that produces lots of dust as part of its day to day operations.

“When loading and unloading their lorries, lots of dust is released into the air. They have dust suppressant sprays which are inadequate and hardly ever turned on.

“At the end of the day you can see the cars in the car parks are covered in the dust from this factory. I know that somebody working in a nearby yard has to wear a face mask because of it.

“It’s very worrying what effect this will have on all the people locally.”

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