Sunday, November 13, 2011

Environmental Justice: The Thames Tunnel

The internet is currently buzzing with stories and comments regarding Thames Water's proposals for a sewage storage tunnel under the river Thames. The project was approved by government when Tony Blair was premier and is now approved by coalition. As I found out on Thursday at the Thames Estuary Partnership's Annual Forum the current minister Mr Richard Benyon MP is a firm supporter of the project. Unusually for a government minister he answered questions from the floor and it was clear that he was not just depending on a narrow civil servant's briefing, but that he had extensive personal knowledge of the subject. It is very clear that the project is going ahead.

On 4 November Thames Water announced the 2nd round of consultation on the project and on their website they make much of their "increased use of brownfield land" for the main tunnel drive sites. Thames justify this up by reference to inter alia "potentially serious health and safety risks to river users during the construction phase." The risks themselves are unspecified.

Here in Deptford the previously preferred bore site near Borthwick Wharf, where spoil could have left by river, has been replaced by a site in Deptford Church Street, where spoil will leave by road. According to Londonist a bore site at Barn Elms, Barnes has been replaced as the preferred option by a site at Carnwath Road, Wandsworth.

The picture is not entirely clear, but it is hard not to suspect that what has actually happened is that sites near middle class riverside developments have been replaced by sites in poorer areas. At this point I experience a feeling of déjà vu because some six years or so back I found myself helping to edit a petition opposing the Crossrail Bill. The organisation I was involved with did not oppose the line itself, but was fiercely opposed to what was then commonly known as the Hanbury Street Hole. This hole was a main shaft for removing the spoil from the tunneling for the railway line rather proposed in the heart of east London's Bengali community. In the face of many such petitions Crossrail eventually realised the error of their ways and dug their shaft elsewhere.

Environmental Justice
The term / concept of Environmental Justice originated in the United States in the 1980s in response to a realisation that polluting industries were disproportionally located in areas with large black populations.

In England there is a direct relationship between polluting industries and poverty clearly set out by Carolyn Stephens and others in a 2001 briefing paper for Friends of the Earth, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and the Economic & Social Research Council:
Environmental justice: Rights and means to a healthy environment for all (pdf)

More information about mapping such inequalities can be found in Muki Haklay & others' 2007 paper:
Bottom-up Environmental Justice in the UK: a fairer, greener London. (pdf)

At some point there will have to be a planning application of some sort for the Thames Tunnel and although nobody is entirely clear, in the light of government proposals regarding planning, who will be deciding the application it will require a full Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) by the decision maling body (or bodies). A proper EIA can only be conducted if Thames Water are required to submit, as part of their Environmental Statement, a fully verifiable report comparing the socio-economic data of original sites, preferred sites and other sites considered.

A public meeting with Thames Tunnel representatives will take place on Tuesday 15th November at 7.30pm in the Salvation Army Hall on Mary Ann Gardens, Deptford. See:

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