A group of former Phurnacite workers and their families have won their High Court damages action over illnesses caused by exposure to toxic fumes and dust. A judge upheld pleas that working conditions at the Abercwmboi Phurnacite Works in Aberaman, Cynon Valley, South Wales, which closed in 1990, led to respiratory diseases and cancers.
Mrs Justice Swift ruled that eight ‘lead’ cases, representing a group of 183 claimants, had succeeded in establishing liability against the Department of Energy and Climate Change, which inherited the liabilities of the British Coal Corporation and its subsidiary, Coal Products Limited.
Out of the eight lead claimants, four proved medical causation and will receive agreed compensation ranging from £119,310 to £4,500, while the claims of 166 others from the group will now have their damages assessed.
The judge said she had heard a huge amount of evidence, covering a period of almost 50 years, including a good deal of highly technical material. She found that, from the very early years of the plant’s operation, there were serious concerns about the dust and fumes produced by the Phurnacite manufacturing process and emitted from the plant into the surrounding atmosphere.
She added: ‘I have described in my judgment the large quantities of dust that were constantly in the atmosphere of the briquetting buildings - where the Phurnacite ovoids were formed and pressed - and the hot and fume-laden conditions experienced by men working around the ovens, where the ovoids were carbonised.
‘Conditions in those and other areas of the plant were very unpleasant. 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. Conditions in most parts of the Phurnacite plant remained very poor right up to the time of its closure in 1990.
‘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.
‘I decided that the operators of the plant were in breach of statutory duties owed to their employees throughout the period of its operation. There were many measures that they could have taken to minimise or eliminate altogether the risks to their workforce had they chosen to do so. Thus, I found that the claimants had succeeded in establishing liability on the part of the defendants.’
After examining epidemiological and other medical expert evidence, the judge found that those claimants who have suffered lung cancer, chronic bronchitis or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease had established a sufficient causative link between their illnesses and working conditions at the plant. However, the same did not apply to those who have suffered bladder cancer and basal cell skin cancer.