"Convincing evidence" that fuel plant processes could have caused workers' cancer, says High Court
The High Court has ruled in favour of former employees of a Welsh smokeless fuel plant whose work caused them to become gravely ill.
Workers making fuel at the now-closed Phurnacite plant, Abercwmboi, claimed they contracted cancer and other chronic diseases due to persistent exposure to emissions of hazardous fumes and dust.
The workers said that British Coal had failed to provide necessary protection. Of the 183 who brought the joint claim in the High Court, 4 won compensation of between £120,000 and £4,500.
Finding the plant in breach of its statutory duties towards its workforce, Mrs Justice Swift said the evidence that diseases such as lung cancer, COPD, emphysema and chronic bronchitis could be caused by the Phurnacite plant's processes was "convincing".
Noting serious concerns over the plant's atmospheric emissions, the judge said: "In the pitch bay where, until the late 1970s, solid pitch was broken up by hand, the conditions were described by a former member of management as 'pretty dreadful', an assessment with which I agree.
"The dust and fumes to which men were regularly exposed contained substances which were known to be harmful, indeed carcinogenic."
The plant made smokeless fuel briquettes for 50 years, at its peak producing more than 1 million a year.
Mrs Justice Swift said conditions in most areas of the plant remained "very poor" until its closure. "Some improvements were made over the years and I have no doubt that there were individual managers who did their best to effect changes to the working conditions at the plant.
"However, overall, I found that the attitude of the management to the safety of its workforce appears to have been reactive, rather than proactive."
Despite the judgement, the court found insufficient evidence that the processes caused bladder cancer and certain types of skin cancers.
Following the ruling, lawyers commented on the frequent challenges of legally proving culpability for cancer. "Carcinogens surround us all, and are often very difficult to immediately identify," said Simpson Millar LLP's Phillip Gower, an expert in industrial injury.
"This, combined with the time that can pass between exposure and diagnosis, can create great difficulties for cancer sufferers who believe their condition originated in the workplace due to the shortcomings of others."
Supporting the Phurnacite claimants, the mining deputies' union Nacods noted that local people had long been aware that the plant's processes were dangerous to health.
"This is the 7th and only successful attempt to hold British Coal who owned the plant to account," said the union's spokesperson Bleddyn Hancock. "Now many men and their families will be compensated for the devastating effects of respiratory disease and lung cancer."
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