Thursday, 4 July 2013

Liability for Historic Contamination - Information Management

It is clear that the MOD is doing all it can to deny all liability for sites that it has sold off or returned to owners prior to the beginning of the Land Quality Assessment (LQA) programme that began in the late 1980s.

The prime example among hundreds of sites is Dalgety Bay where extensive radioactive contamination has been found on the beach and foreshore. This was due in all probability to work involving radium used to illuminate dials etc on aircraft.

Another site which has many of the same indicators for radium contamination as Dalgety Bay is Wig Bay in south west Scotland. At RAF Pulham the presence radium contamination has been confirmed by the local council. 

In 2000 the Governments independent advisory committee on the management of radioactive waste gave advice to MOD ministers on contaminated land which included the need to preserve historic information and enabling access to that information.

"Discussion and findings

6.1 It is clear that many MoD sites will have been contaminated with radioactivity as a result of past defence activities. RWMAC therefore welcomes the LQA programme that has been set up by MoD to identify contamination, including that arising from radioactivity, within the current defence estate.

6.2 However, the search for radioactively contaminated sites as part of this programme has been substantially hampered by the lack of historical records. While the close-knit military community seems to exhibit a good "folk-memory" of likely sources of contamination, it is unlikely that this can compensate for the lack of written records. Even on the sites where radioactive contamination is known to have occurred, there is a need to identify precisely where it is located across what is usually an extensive area.

6.3 The current LQA programme focuses on the current defence estate, notably the sites which MoD wishes to divest. However, there have been disposals of substantial numbers of sites in the past of which MoD has stated it has no comprehensive record. In RWMAC's view, it is nearly inevitable that some of this former MoD land will have been contaminated by luminising activities and/or luminised materials. None of the key individuals spoken to during the course of RWMAC's work questioned this view.

6.4 The most likely form of contamination that might have existed on such sites is buried radium-226 either as materials used to produce luminising paint or the paint itself, or products that have been painted. The latter could have been burned before burial. MoD has stated to RWMAC that these disposal practices are unlikely to have caused a wider problem because radium is insoluble and therefore essentially immobile. However, when questioned by RWMAC, the Ministry had relatively little evidence (other than a few early laboratory solubility tests) to substantiate this view. RWMAC believes that significantly more work is needed before MoD's assertion that buried radium is immobile in all soil and groundwater conditions can be reliably proven.

6.5 RWMAC was not made aware of any MoD exercise to identify land disposed of before the LQA system was introduced. Because of the possibility of contamination on at least some of these sites, RWMAC believes that MoD should consider the feasibility of compiling a list of historical disposals, with consideration being given to earmarking those with the highest probability of radioactive contamination."

In the context of alienated, sites It clear that the advice on the preservation of records and the need to retain knowledge of subject matter experts and those with personal experience at sites has been ignored. In fact it appears there has been postive action taken to place key information in the national archive.  This effectively removes the information from the FOI regime since MOD can say they no longer hold the information.  Regarding information the MOD may still hold either in office or archived file lists are needed to access this information but it is clear from the MOD response to a FOI  

File lists - key to accessing corporate memory

However, we have to advise you that we will not be able to answer your request without  exceeding the appropriate limit. This is because to the only official record of registered files  is the MOD Form 262 of which there is one form for each file and part of a file opened.  There are many thousands of MOD Form 262s which make up the official file record for D Def H&S and D SEF Pol and to locate, retrieve, and extract information in scope of your request would involve some 7 man days of effort"

The answer implies that there are significant difficulties in locating files in order to inform policy and questions about issues, some only a few years old.  D Sef pol, D Def H&S and DS&C  were in turn all Directorates of MOD Head Office concerned with health, safety and the environment.  The difficulty in accessing  files means that it is very difficult to look back and learn from  previous accidents and polluting events.  So, such unfortunate incidents are likely to reoccur

MOD as modern forward looking organisation has moved away from paper based document system to an electronic documents records management system (EDRM)

This report explains the advantages of the EDRM system

"Easy location and retrieval of information The ability to find information from document libraries, as well as many other portals and intranets, has fundamentally changed the way the MoD works

Questions answered The infrastructure facilitated the development of a 'Freedom of Information' toolkit, which enables the MoD to fulfill its commitments to Central Government and the public in this area.

The new system enables the MOD to meet UK Government requirements for compliance and records management."

From difficulties the MOD has in providing answers to FOIs it appears the EDRM does not include references to old paper files held in archive and is essentially based around information to hand at the date the EDRM was implemented.

So far as historic information is concerned it appears that the MOD suffered a "corporate lobotomy" .

It is also now clear that the expensive subject matter experts who held  significant parts of the corporate memory in their heads have now left the MOD through retirement or staff cuts.

The report Information Management Assessment Ministry of Defence  March 2009 stated that

"Information is recognised as the key asset for running the business of The Ministry 
of Defence and is used to support effective data and information sharing and knowledge creation".

The examples high-lighted above and else where in this blog suggest there are significant failures in meeting recommendations in the report  Information Management Assessment Ministry of Defence  March 2009

The potential liability

This report provides an excellent overview of the scale of the problem for both the existing and alienated estate :-

Land Contamination: Technical Guidance on Special SitesMoD Land 
R&D Technical Report P5-042/TR/01  Dr G Bulloch, J E Steeds, K Green, M G Sainsbury, J S Brockwell, N J Slade Research Contractor:  WS Atkins Consultants Limited In association with: BAE SYSTEMS Environmental Services.


  • The MOD liabilities for the alienated estate may run  to hundreds of millions pounds of taxpayers money.
  • MOD has failed to preserve records that would help identify these liabilities.
  • There may have been and may continue to be  a conscious policy within the MOD of  doing everything possible to reject claims relating to the alienated estate and positively obstruct such claims by neglecting to preserve evidence of polluting processes etc; despite advice to preserve such information.
  • The MOD policy is to challenge independent assessments of the risks from pollutants and/or  MODs' liability, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
  • Communities and the environment continue to suffer blight because of the MODs', failure to take responsibility for the legacy of past activities and the consequent pollution the MOD caused.
  • MOD is behaving like an ostrich and just hoping the issue will go away

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