How Britain’s most polluted city is reconciling economic needs with human health

Port Talbot’s steelworks are the largest in the UK and one of the biggest in Europe as well.

Nestled among the rolling hills and lush greenery of southern Wales, industrial plants dot the landscape. Half an hour west of Cardiff, power plants, refineries and factories make up the last remnants of the UK’s engine room.

At the heart of this industrial engine lies a quiet town situated on the shore of Swansea Bay: Port Talbot. Once it was the mecca of British steel, producing 6.5m tonnes each year and employing more than one-third of the town.

Now, the steelworks produce 3.5m tonnes each year and employ less than a quarter of the town’s shrinking population. Despite these decreases in steel production, air pollution problems persist. The World Health Organisation (WHO) dubbed Port Talbot the UK’s most polluted urban area in 2016.

The town now finds itself at a crossroads. Former employees believe it is time for the works to be shut down in order to improve air quality. But houses that are covered in soot spewed out by the works are plastered with signs that read “save our steel”.

There is a balancing act between protecting the environment and enabling social mobility that has become increasingly unbalanced, according to Dr Dai Lloyd — a member of the Welsh Assembly and a Swansea GP.

“We’re quite used to the argument that it’s jobs first, environment second,” Lloyd said. “Unemployment brings about its own health problems, both mental and physical.”

The works, which are run by the Indian behemoth Tata Steel, remain the dwindling lifeblood of the town.

“Port Talbot as a town exists because of the steelworks,” said Neath Port Talbot (NPT) Councillor Anthony Taylor. “But we understand emissions from the steelworks are going to have an impact on the town.”

The steelworks directly employ 3,500 of the town’s 37,000 residents. An additional 8,000 to 9,000 are indirectly employed as independent contractors.

“Overall they have a huge economic impact on the town,” Taylor said. “Workers spend money at local businesses and cafes. Tata pays taxes into the local economy. The town remains hugely reliant on them.”

According to Tim Rutter, a spokesman for Tata, the works pay £2bn each year into the local economy.

The steelworks and town are intimately tied together. The works opened in 1903 and by the 1950s had transformed Port Talbot into a thriving city. “Port Talbot is flourishing,” wrote one observer in the Municipal Journal in 1957.

The steel industry was then at its zenith. More than 16,000 of the town’s 47,000 people were employed directly in the works. Another 19,000 worked in jobs indirectly created by the works. The average employee earned £12 to £14 each week; one-and-a-half times the average salary. Even the mayor worked for them.

Environmental regulations were nonexistent, but the damage caused by emissions to the town and its residents did not go unnoticed.

“One of the sacrifices that has to be made by everyone living in a booming steel town seems to be clean air,” GA Morgan, Port Talbot’s chief public health inspector, wrote at the time.

The UK was the world’s fifth largest steel producer with the Port Talbot steelworks producing 27 per cent of that output. Now the UK is the nineteenth largest producer and the works produce almost half of that. Increasing environmental concerns and foreign competition have since made steel less viable in the UK.

The shadow of air pollution has led to increasing regulations and scepticism from the community, government and environmental watchdogs.

“From an air pollution point of view the decrease in industrial activity is good. Not so much from a social mobility point of view,” Lloyd said. “Port Talbot has always been a bit of a black spot as regards air pollution.”

Last year, the WHO said that Port Talbot had the highest level of PM10 emissions and seventh highest level of PM2.5 emissions in the UK. These measures are valuable indicators of the overall state of air pollution.

Particulate matter is composed of soot, dust and microscopic emissions. New research links these airborne pollutants, some of which are small enough to infiltrate the deepest part of the lungs, to cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and heart disease.

The data collected from the WHO report comes from measurements taken in 2013. Data for the next survey began to be collected in January 2017 and will be publicly available in the autumn. The existing data may be more than three years old, but the problem has not improved much in the interim, according to NPT Councillor Sharon Freeguard.

Freeguard said that PM10 emission levels are up this year from the previous one. According to Air Quality Wales, which measures air pollution from dedicated monitoring sites, the first seven months of 2017 have been worse in Port Talbot than the same period in 2016. However, PM10 emissions have decreased in the past half-decade.

“In the last five years Tata have meant to be cleaning up their act,” Lloyd said. “But you still regularly see plumes of smoke coming from their smoke stacks.”

Rutter said that the picture of air pollution in Port Talbot is more complicated.

“Obviously the steelworks contribute some air pollution, but there are other factors as well,” he said.

The diesel combustion engines used by most vehicles in the UK produce PM10 and PM2.5 emissions. A 2016 study conducted by the Department for Transport found that 90,000 vehicles pass through Port Talbot on the M4 each day, nearly one-third of the number that pass through the UK’s busiest motorway. The A48 and A241 also run through the town, bringing additional traffic.

“The M4 motorway is without a doubt a source of particulate matter,” said Roy Harrison, a professor of environmental health at the University of Birmingham. “The effects of the motorway will be greatest close to the motorway as this is a ground-level source.”

Harrison was part of a research team that set out to measure air pollution in Port Talbot. He said that Tata would inevitably highlight the existence of other pollution sources.

“The measurements that we made within the town of Port Talbot suggest that the influence of the motorway on air pollution within the town is quite small,” he said. “Certainly small in comparison to the influence of the steelworks.”

It is difficult to measure exactly how many particulate matter pollutants the steelworks emit because Tata does not release these statistics for the public. Tata said in an annual sustainability report that they are in compliance with EU air quality standards for PM10 emissions.

Data collected by Air Quality Wales confirms that PM10 emissions in Port Talbot are within EU daily and annual limits. The EU stipulates that safe daily levels of PM10 emissions must be below 50 µg/m3. While these levels have been exceeded on 11 days in Port Talbot so far this year, EU regulations allow them to be exceeded 35 days each year.

However, research from the Danish Cancer Society found that short-term exposure to particulate matter emissions at lower levels than EU limits still lead to risks of lung cancer and other chronic respiratory diseases.

Air pollution campaigners believe that the way in which air quality standards are measured must be updated in order to reflect these new findings.

“We have conducted 10 tests of air quality over periods of two to three weeks,” said John Childs, a campaigner at the Swansea chapter of Friends of the Earth. “We found that nine of the 10 were above EU limits. However, the councils use annual average figures and therefore are able to claim they meet EU standards.”

However, the levels at which particulate matter is harmful are much higher over non-consecutive, short periods of time, according to Paul Monks, a professor of atmospheric chemistry at the University of Leicester.

“PM10 has differing peak and chronic threshold levels,” he said. “The EU guidelines take both of these into account when calculating their safe threshold levels.”

The EU legislates using annual and daily averages as opposed to single measurements because of these differing levels.

Monks was also a member of the research team that measured emissions in Port Talbot. He said that part of his role in the team was to advise the Welsh Assembly on the impacts of air pollution so they could legislate accordingly.

In June, the Welsh Assembly issued a set of policy guidances for local authorities to follow when implementing air pollution regulations. The guidances recommend that local authorities put air pollution at the forefront of policy making.

On the first Friday of every month a small group of Port Talbot councillors and Tata environmental officers sit down to discuss air pollution. These confidential meetings are an opportunity for councillors to ask how Tata are investing in cleaning up their emissions.

Since Tata acquired the steelworks from the Corus Group in 2007, they have been more transparent and proactive when dealing with the impact of their emissions, according to Taylor. Now the steelworks comply with ISO 14001, which means the works have measured their emissions and implemented plans to lower them.

“Communication is much better and Tata describes what has happened,” Taylor said. “Tata is more quick to resolve issues and more open about damage claims and to investigate the incident as well as future occurrences.”

This year has been particularly bad for isolated incidents of particulate matter emissions. The councillors brought this up at the most recent meeting.

“Sporadic releases of particulate matter still happen every so often. When these releases are visible, constituents come with problems and complaints,” Taylor said. “Quite often these incidents relate to valve openings and involuntary releases of gas.”

Rutter said that Tata have been investing in dust suppression and air filtration systems, in order to minimise the effects of involuntary emissions.

Tata has also set up an outsourced help line for local residents to call when emissions are particularly bad, which happens mostly during the summer months. As a result, NPT councillors have been receiving fewer complaints from constituents about pollution.

There is no available data for how many calls the independent help line receives.

Retired NPT Councillor John Rogers has used the help line before and said Tata has become slower to respond to complaints and settle damage claims than in the past.

Rogers lives a quarter mile away from the works. The two tallest smokestacks are visible from his backyard. He said Tata is not doing their best to invest in technology that would locate the source of their emissions.

“I don’t think they’re holding up their end of the bargain,” he said. “It is time for them to pinpoint where dust is coming from and eradicate the problem.”

In spite of these grievances, Rogers supports keeping the steel industry operating in the town.

“We can’t close the steelworks,” he said with a sigh. He also worries that Brexit will make the works less competitive.

BMW, Jaguar, Peugeot, Nissan and Vauxhall all buy steel from Tata for their car manufacturing plants in the UK. All of these firms have considered moving their plants to the continent in wake of Brexit.

Rogers said that losing customers, such as car manufacturers, will have catastrophic effects on the town.

However, former employees and environmental activists believe now is the time for the works to close. They think southern Wales and Port Talbot should transition from an industrial economy to a post-industrial one.

“Some call for it to be closed down,” Rogers said. “A lot of the older generation who already benefited from the works call for them to be shut down, but the younger generation need the jobs.”

Rogers has a grandson who recently completed his university course in business management. He is now applying for a job with Tata.

The steelworks have already been shedding jobs at a steady pace since the 1990s. As the number of people Tata employs dwindles, the effects are felt by other Port Talbot businesses as well.

According to the Office for National Statistics, a higher percentage of Port Talbot residents are unemployed than in the rest of Wales or Great Britain. Weekly wages are also lower in the town than in the rest of the country.

“It is the lifeblood of the place,” Rogers said. “Port Talbot would be a ghost town without them.”