Parkwood Scree: the shimmering hillside tip
April 17, 2013 2 Comments
For over a decade I’ve seen it every morning from my sitting room. Pulling open the curtains it looms large before me, the Parkwood tip fills my field of view, it is my horizon. It’s a dependable background, not a conventionally pretty scene but a shared familiar vista for thousands of Sheffield houses. for years it was a place known known to me, but at a distance. A canvas on which the seasons would play themselves out on that brutal bald hillside: grey hue in autumn, dusting of snow in wintertime, a brighter tinge to the scrubby green in the spring.
Glimpsed from different vantage points around the city the tip gives up very different profiles to its spectators. Seen from above, from the heights of Crookes, one can look down into the void. From here the tip is wide, muddy, sparsely populated by a handful of diggers. It looks like a child’s sandpit scene: Tonka-land at lunchtime. Viewed from the valley bottom around lower Walkley the hillside has a caldera like form – an erupted earth crater, whose edge-on view entices with what it does not reveal, offset by the off-white scratch marks of the adjacent dry ski slopes. Approached via the foothills of Neepsend, it is (like any ‘normal’ steep hill) a trickstery succession of false summits.
Parkwood Landfill sounds like the kind of oxymoron dreamt up by a PR company to reposition an eyesore. But the name actually precedes the tip. Old Park Wood in its day was a deer park, a hillside covered by ancient woodland. But even in this era it was a working place – a zone of extraction and resource management. Within their coppiced woodland charcoal burners felled trees roasting it to produce optimum fuel for the iron works in the valley below. Over time this hillside became deforested as industrial exploitation of the woodland resource intensified. Meanwhile mining set in, the adjacent ward of Pittsmoor talking its name from the abundance of iron ore and coal pits being worked there. The sandstone and underlying shale measures in the escarpment yielded workable stone, fireclays and coal. This hillside was gouged successively, and it was filled successively too. Ash wastes from the valley’s gas works, brick works, foundries and its power station were all deposited up on the hillside, with spoil from the mines spread upon the surface too. Holes appeared and were filled. Matter – like the demolition rubble from air raid reconstruction and slum clearance – rose up out of the city. This is how the hillside grew.
The naming of parts
Now, newly built hilltop houses (the resolutely named Standish Gardens) crowd right up to the edge of the tip site, a source of tension for all concerned. An earth bund was recently built to shield these houses from the sight of the active tipping area. The earth for the bund was excavated from a flank of the site. The hole that was created was then named, Cell 4.
Everything is assigned its place and productivity up here on waste mountain. Plans show the phasing of infilling, names are ascribed to amorphous zones of earth, mud, scrub and air. An empty surface is depicted vertically as active in a distinctly more-than-human way. We scratch at the surface and just below it, but our processes of shallow engagement require a wider network of deeper remote surveillance – a monitoring of the geologic through boreholes, a nervous apprehension of pollutant presence and migration through conceptualising the trafficking properties of subterranean space and the synergistic toxic potentialities of the intermixing of waste matter, with all of this to be managed across greater-than-a-single-lifetime durations.
It wasn’t always this way. Time was when tipping was an incidental and truly temporary activity – carried purely in the present, with no regard to the future. It was pure expediency. Matter to be got rid of and a convenient empty surface nearby to accommodate that. Getting rid required some transport engineering (gantries, buckets, loading bays) at the point of departure from the productive site down in the valley, but little at the point of disposal. It was just tipped out in smouldering heaps. Mapping from the 1930s shows Parkwood’s ash tips as conical piles along the course of the ropeways, acne on the hillside. Progressively the hill’s many quarries came to be in-filled too and later the mapping shows vast curling landforms as the mountain slowly rises through the cumulative action of an uncoordinated array of tips across the hillside:
different effects upon the hill.
The current operators acquired this extensive tipping land in 2002, and a few years later submitted plans to consolidate the planning permission and environmental permits under which the site would complete its operational life. That process spewed a wealth of paperwork: maps, engineering cross sections, geomembrane liner specifications, leachate and gas extraction schemes. Much of this engineering and premediation is mandated by law. I could take you through it if you had the time or the inclination, but I sense that you would soon fall asleep. No, instead let me summarise without the citations and footnotes.
Layers of learning
I spent a number of years advising on waste management law, and in part my career as an environmental lawyer was based upon the sudden eruption of legal control over tipping. Until relatively recently the law had little interest in where rubbish went, as long as it didn’t affect public health. The potential for illness and pestilence from waste matter has pre Biblical provenance. But it was urbanization that increased the attentiveness to the potential hazards of waste disposal. Waste disposal in the heyday of the industrial era had largely been a localised, often ‘on-site’ affair – with much matter consumed nearby in the process of making firm ground for further urbanization (the so-called ‘made ground’ underlying much of our settlements, as our contribution to the anthropocene). But as urban expansion slowed, as industrial waste producers consolidated in scale, as foundation building techniques changed and as the problem of differential settlement became better known (the danger of building on heterogeneous matter) waste matter increasingly came to be evacuated out of the productive / dwelling areas. Hillsides often seemed the most logical candidate destinations: nearby and too steep for development. So, as with Parkwood, the hillside became the conveniently located tipping space.
The wisdom of uncontrolled tipping on steep hillsides was challenged by the Aberfan disaster of 1966. The tipping of colliery spoil onto the steep hillsides above that South Wales mining village produced vast man-made heaps. Weakened by rain and underlying water courses that drained the mountainside, at 9.15am on Friday, 21st October 1966 one of these heaps failed, slumping down, avalanche like upon the village below. 144 people were killed, 116 of them children inundated at their primary school. After Aberfan conical tipping from aerial ropeways no longer felt a sophisticated evacuation of matter from valley bottoms. From the ensuing inquiries and compensation cases new technical understanding emerged of how heaps behave on hillsides. Specific legislation was enacted to regulate the disposal of mineral spoil, with landform design, stability monitoring and record keeping as central components.
Meanwhile the frugal Victorian approach to material efficiencies (the world of rag and bone men, collectors of night soil, toshers and the like that Henry Mayhew chronicled in London) and the early Twentieth century vogue for waste incineration, gave way to a vigorous embrace of former quarries as disposal sites. There was a modernist fascination with ‘hole-filling’ a neatness evident in the erasure of urban quarries and brick pits (something I also write about in Scree, with particular focus on the former excavation site at what is now Kilner Way Retail Park and its surrounding 1970s housing estates). English Law is littered with cases arising from subsidence damage suffered by rash 1960s and 1970s new build on such eagerly infilled voids.
And then a bungalow exploded early one morning in Loscoe, Derbyshire. The date was 24 March 1986. The time was 6.30am. We know this precisely because that was the time set by the elderly occupants for the central heating to come on. That morning the boiler ignited, but encountered a build up of methane gas that had seeped into the basement of this bungalow. The gas had come from the nearby rubbish tip, a former brick pit. Up until that point the English approach to tip design was one of ‘dilute and disperse’, put the rubbish in the ground and let its gaseous and liquid emanations seep into the surroundings. But with the new found awareness that stuff could escape from such sites, as liquid, gas, odour or litter and afflict surrounding land and its inhabitants. Tips were no longer simply a matter of physical (land stability) hazards, there was a return to health concerns – but not just those of humans, but also of the wider environment.
This environmental heath focus was accelerated by the Love Canal site in upstate New York, a housing estate and school built on top of a former canal strip infilled with industrial waste by Hooker Chemical Co in the 1950s. Medical studies showed elevated levels of congenital and other disease. The estate was abandoned in 1978, under federal declaration of a State of Emergency. Waste was excavated and an new industry launched – environmental consultants, environmental (as distinct from planning) regulators, environmental lawyers. A tidal wave of regulation and litigation ensued. Tips would never look (or be looked at) the same.
Then in the late 1990s the European Union jumped in, setting harmonised design standards for landfill engineering. Increasingly landfill became framed around a containment model. Tips would be repositories, sites from which no matter should escape. Waste cells would be lined with impermeable barriers and all liquid and gas would be contained within them, being sucked up into pipes and shunted to technology to manage those arisings. But an anxiety remains amongst the designers. No barrier is truly impermeable, no system is failsafe. Thus perimeter monitoring wells stationed like mute prison camp guards to detect signs of escape.
In my old job I would trawl through consultants’ fat reports compiled as part of licensing processes. I was always captivated by the images within, massive fold out maps and cross sections of landfill sites. The cross-sections read like a security diagram, layer upon layer of barrier, arrestment and monitoring devices. The maps showed expanses of empty space, blank white zones of future filling. The action in these maps always took place at the periphery, these deserts were edged with thick coloured lines, then rows of enumerated dots in the no-man’s land beyond: the sentinel boreholes guarding against a re-run of Loscoe.
Then there were the hydrogeological monitoring reports – replete with their complex mathematical models predicting migration pathways and outfall timings for hypothetical jail-breaking pollutants. If the modelling showed that any spill would took thousands of years to hit water resources then that was ok, it satisfied a workable notion of ‘impermeable’.
These maps, and their white voids bear little relation to the muddy, undulating three dimensional reality of the actual landforms. Mappers struggle to know how to capture such features, particularly as quarry and tip sites are dynamic, changing local typology day after day in a cycle of opening up voids, then erasing them, each phase unlikely to act upon the face of the earth in a nice neat urban-like linear form. Quarries and tips are all curves, sprinkles, jagged edges on mapping. They also lack a sense of scale, few human reference points (or humans) are there to help ground the observer in time or in space.
The hill’s lone beacon
Parkwood is a rare and extreme case. A void in the centre of a city. A massive tip on a hillside looked upon daily by many thousands of city dwellers. Little that happens there is out of sight, and yet the tip feels apart from the life of the city that feeds it.
On opening my sitting room curtains some mornings I see a lone amber light winking at me from the desolate hillside across the valley. This is the compactor dozer. It drives upon the freshly tipped waste, ploughing it into the day’s plateaux. This is one man against the waste-mass, almost a modern Sisiphys: as soon as the waste is flattened another batch arrives to disrupt and unsmooth the tip-face.
There are probably fewer than 10 members of staff at work at the tip site at any one moment. The driver of the dozer, a wheel wash attendant, a few orderlies on the tip face spotting for oddities in the deposited material, and perhaps a handful of portacabin office workers. That’s it. This is sparce, post-human almost. So much human activity is embodied in the truck loads of waste matter brought to this site each day, yet so few are involved in its interment.
The swelling of this hill requires few humans on the ground, but embodies so much of human action elsewhere, and not just in waste generation but also all of the abstract works to enable the act of tipping itself. If I stare at the hill I see many ghosts, including those of structures, frameworks, arrangements that leave faint traces upon the surface of the land. This hill is the way that it is, this tipping is the way that it is (and not any other way), because of incidents and lessons learnt elsewhere, events distant in space and time but connected via regulatory, ownership, engineering and other immaterial frameworks to the daily conduct of tipping at this place and to the undulating to and fro motion of this compactor, this driver, this flashing red light on the hillside across the valley from my home.
Beck, E.C. (1979) ‘The Love Canal Tragedy’ EPA Journal, US Environmental Protection Agency, January (at: http://www.epa.gov/history/topics/lovecanal/01.html)
McLean, I & Johnes, M. (2005) The Aberfan Disaster: www.nuff.ox.ac.uk/politics/aberfan/home2.htm (The Aberfan image is from this site)
Milne, R. (1988) ‘Methane menace seeps to the surface’ The New Scientist, 25 February, 27
Williams, G.M. & Aitkenhead, N. (1991) ‘Lessons from Loscoe: the uncontrolled migration of landfill gas’ Quarterly Journal of Engineering, Geology & Hydrogeology 24 191-207
Photograph: Aberfan after the 1966 tip collapse, from Mclean & Johnes (2005)