The chemical traffic- A legacy from the past

BY ROY MARTIN

ANOTHER KIND OF POLLUTION

 

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In 1968, I joined the Dudley Canal Trust and worked on the restoration of Dudley Old Tunnel and the abandoned dried out ParkHead lock flight at Peartree Lane, Holly Hall. Most weekends for more than three years, volunteers dug out the black sludge that had settled over the last one hundred and fifty years. When we asked someone who knew more than us what was in it we were told it was a cocktail of allsorts from past industries. It contained heavy metals such as cadmium and zinc and hydrocarbons of coal slack and oil plus other unknowns. It was nasty and we nicknamed it ‘The Dudley Treacle.’ On Sunday night my boiler suit went into a bucket to soak for two days before it even hit the washing machine. It gave off a definite gassy smell.

Eventually the canal reopened and like many other Black Country canals, as the heavy industry declined, the greenery returned and so did the wildlife and the fish. We know most of the treacle is still down there, but over the last forty years silt has run in from roads and small streams plus Autumn leaves have decayed and formed a “safe ” layer on top of it. As long as the boats only stir up the silt and not the nasty stuff below, in most places the status quo is maintained.

THE CHEMICAL TRAFFIC AND ‘THE WHITE STUFF’

In the early seventies with a couple of hire boat holidays under my belt and my new interest in all things canals, I went in search of what was left of the commercial traffic that had once been the life blood of the Birmingham Canal Navigations. Almost all that remained was Alan ‘Caggy’ Stevens with his rubbish boats and Matty’s boats used to transport chemicals out of Oldbury to The Rattlechain quarry near Dudley Port. Whilst passing over the Whimsey Bridge one morning with my camera, I was surprised to find the canal in front of me was like nothing I had seen before. It was milky white and sterile with no reeds, rushes or green algae and I was pretty certain, no fish. A pungent vapour was also coming from it.

There were no chemical boats that day, but on enquiring at the nearby boat yard, I was told that fumes emitted from the canal sometimes caught fire if someone passing threw in a cigarette or a match. It ignited like brandy on a Christmas pudding. I had never heard of a canal catching fire before, and I was also told that to put it out they wouldn’t call the local brigade but sent for the chemical work’s own specialist fire crew because they were trained for chemical fires. Boat ropes that had dropped into the water, were when dried likely to spontaneously combust, a known property of phosphorus, I have since found out. The milk bath stretched as far as Smethwick locks and some days dependent on the flow, the other way as far as Tipton.

I also asked, ‘if this white stuff, (as I called it), was taken away by narrow boat, how come the canal was in this state?’ I was told that there had been several chemical works in the vicinity over the years and that before the chemical run began, it had been pumped straight into the Old Mainline or was put down to accidental spillage! My observations were, that if it was the odd spillage into the canal, there was an awful lot of it; it was disgusting and there was no way that it would be allowed today.

A few days later, I was back over there again and I had timed it just right. Coming out of The Houghton arm and heading for the Brades was a battered old motorboat pulling an equally battered butty. I legged it sharply to the next bridge, (High Bridge),and it was from there that I took the first of my photographs. Back in my car, I next saw them at the brades about to descend the lock flight.

AW waste heading for Rattlechain, and at Brades Locks

I stood close by the lock as the boatman worked the butty through the chamber of number 1, and there right in front of me was the offending solution. I was advised not to stand too close. Two boats through the three locks, and they were soon away down the Gower Branch and into the distance. As I was officially at work, but between jobs, I didn’t make it down to the Rattlechain that day.

Within months, the boat traffic finished and the liquids went by road tanker. I never did find out exactly what was in them, as I heard different stories of lime waste and the dreaded phosphorus. Whatever it was it was pretty obnoxious. Eventually as rules about pollution became more important, abuse of the canal subsided and like my own local Dudley Canal, Brindley’s Old Mainline has recovered over the last forty years and returned to some form of normality. I say normality because like the Dudley treacle, the white stuff is still down there lurking under the silt. Evidence of this came around four years ago near the Whimsey Bridge, when the stub end of one of the old arms was filled in. As the hardcore went in, there was inevitably some disturbance and over the next few days, a white crusty layer appeared at water level on several boats moored on the main line. No prizes for guessing what that was!

THE RATTLECHAIN

Now to the Rattlechain quarry where all this horrid cargo finished up. I say ‘horrid’ becuase that’s what the boatmen said about the stuff that they transported over the years. It was certainly eye watering when I stood next to it at Lock no 1 at the Brades. If the diluted solution in the canal at the Whimsey Bridge could catch fire, what could this full strength boat load be capable of?

In a recent book about the lives of Midlands boatmen who worked on the B.C.N canals from before the Second World War to the end of commercial carrying, one who worked on the chemical run commented that it could have almost been the end for him and his workmate when they were overcome by fumes as they struggled to get their mechanical pump to work. This donkey engine emptied the contents of their boats over the edge and down the slope of the Rattlechain. Luckily a passerby revived them.

At this point I would like to state that I am not part of any wildlife group and have no hidden agenda against any company. I have been asked to make available on line my historic photographs of a trade now gone, my observations of that time and my comments now as a long time canal enthusiast.

And so to modern times. Living in Old Hill since around the late 60’s, our Dudley no.2 canal has recovered and become a wildlife gem. With good stocks of fish and all kinds of water birds and even a heron, it’s a pleasure to walk our dogs every day. I try not to think too much about what’s lurking down in the bottom.

The lagoon was active until just a few years ago and it hasn’t had the benefit of forty years of peaceful tranquility that the canals have had. It’s anybody’s guess how much went into there over all those years and the white stuff with the consistency of emulsion paint must be yards and yards deep. Looking at my first picture, the butty is loaded within about a foot of the gunwhales and this would equate to around twenty tons, and the motor would be carrying slightly less. In volume, I don’t know what that would be, but it’s certainly the equivalent to a lot of forty five gallon oil drums, and this went on for years and years by water and then road.

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My thoughts on what’s happened?

In certain parts, the lagoon’s beach like shallow edges haven’t had the depth for the chemicals to settle out much below the surface of the water and it’s probably this area that’s causing the problems to wildlife. I may not be up to speed with everything that’s going on, but the last company report I read said that the jury was still out regarding what was killing the wildlife. The water quality tested ok, but although I’m no chemist, it would wouldn’t it if the sediment drops out of it. Probably not drinkable but almost acceptable. Any birds landing in the centre of the pool would no doubt be ok just paddling about, but anything with a long neck or capable of dipping would in the margins be in trouble. With this geo textile layer and sand above, hopefully the company may be able to achieve a partial solution, but in the long term, a permanent fix for this legacy from the past will have to be achieved by generations to come.

Roy, canal man Old Hill September 2013.

 

2 Responses to The chemical traffic- A legacy from the past

  1. Ian says:

    We would like to thank Roy for his write-up and incredible pictures, which we believe are the first colour images of this trade to be published. We have added a couple of useful links to cover some of the background in his notes. It certainly brings home that this trade was an extremely dangerous practice. We would also add that Rhodia have never convincingly stated that they accept that white phosphorus was killing the wildfowl on the lake, rather it is something that they would like to bury in the hope that it prevents it. As Roy says however, this is going to be for another generation to clear up- but what will they be told about the history behind the toxic “legacy from the past?”

  2. Hugh Potter says:

    Roy

    I am compiling an article about this traffic for NarrowBoat magazine and would love to be able to use your photographs along with the others that I have. Any chance, please? Please drop me an email to hugh.potter@wwonline.co.uk

    Cheers

    Hugh Potter, Editor, NarrowBoat

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