Historical Contamination

The Coalite Plant on Buttermilk Lane Bolsover produced hydrocarbons and cresylic acid-based products from coal / oil feedstocks as well as biocides and chlorinated intermediates. The company produced a range of wood preservatives from creosote to 2,4,6-trichlorophenol and water-soluble products based on orthophenylphenol.


The plant was also responsible for the manufacture of thousands of tons of toxic chemicals derived from coal tar heat treatment and refinery in the form of polychlorinated organocides a typical defoliant “Agent Orange” used in Vietnam”, TCP (tetrachlorphenol), TCDD (technically known as 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin), PCBs and Furans for over 70 years. Dioxins to this extent have an unknown half-life – in circumstances with no possible means of degradation, it is transferred from one path to another, accumulation in sediments (forming a sink for future contamination) and bioaccumulation in organisms from a worm in the soil to predators through the food chain, they are persistent, multi-systemic substances.


There were said to be 210 types of dioxin born within the works at Coalite Chemicals alone.

With priority pollutants, persistent in the environment such as Polychlorinatedbiphenols known as one of the “dirty dozen” widespread on site.

Following the explosion in 1968, 390 kg of dioxin contamination claimed the immediate environment. Bearing in mind that 0.6 – 2 micrograms (not milligrams!) per Kg of body weight of dioxin is said to be lethal enough to kill a rat (hypothesis that as little as 60 micrograms per Kg of body weight could kill a person) – that’s a lot of substance ubiquitous in our community.


In 1989, a survey of dioxin levels in milk was compiled by Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food. It found that two farms near Bolsover had levels of dioxins equating to 1.21 and 0.85 ng/kg of whole milk, compared with a guideline ‘action level’ of 0.7ng/kg. These farms were told to stop supplying milk for human consumption. Later, a third farm which planned to feed milk from suckler cows to calves and not for human consumption, was found to have dioxin levels of 3.4ng/kg of whole milk. The farm was advised not to sell the calves to the meat market.

The incinerator was built in 1976. The process resulting in the famous “smokeless fuels” product and bi-products (organic liquor) for further treatment into the chlorinated products. Fifteen carbonising batteries ran the system. Consisting of 2 heater stacks 36M in height and then 3 smaller stacks for discharge into the atmosphere once “cleaned”. During certain times of the day the Knock out Box would be activated. This discharged the incinerator flu gas mixed with air into the atmosphere. It was evident that stronger concentrations were released on the night shift.

Sporadic fires occurred frequently in the 1980s and there was a major fire in the new incinerator 1986. Ongoing leaks into atmosphere, containment issues and unlawful contamination was also a hazard to human health and the environment.


The HMIP (Her majesties inspectorate of Pollution) commissioned a report – The Environment Agency following the MAFF report on high levels of dioxins found in dairy products. Coalite being a “proven” source.

The testing involved stack monitoring / Flu gas, incinerator feedstock sampling and analysis and testing on scrubber and quench liquors upon discharge.

Some Environment Agency results:

During the investigation, in 1991, a battery heater stack was sampled by the EA (No. 10) between 2 – 5 pm. 5.63 ng / m   of TCDD was released into atmosphere.

Toxic waste (liquor) was sampled and tested between 3:30 and 6:30pm. 34.8 ng / kg of TCDD was found in the discharge.

Other misc. samples were taken for analysis. Inside the incinerator fan (stub end) dust was found to contain 9605000 ng / kg, that’s equivalent to 9.6 mg / kg of TCDD. DEADLY.

Further duct work samples were collected years later – 1993, 1994 and 1996. Following the shutdown and repair work to the incinerator in Nov 1991. Results, some were published. Some not.

In the late 1980s into 1990s, The Doe Lea had the world’s highest levels of dioxins, 27 times greater than the next most polluted watercourse.

Discharged from an outlet of a wet scrubber from the incinerator exhaust gases. This was meant to reduce the formation of dioxins and remove pollutants. Although this water was then “treated”, some of the chemicals appear to have flowed down a discharge pipe into the river.

The National Rivers Authority identified that the highly toxic and persistent contamination in the river Doe Lea originated from the nearby Coalite plant at Bolsover. The dioxin pollution was thought to extend at least 13 miles downstream into the river Rother and then on into the Don. The dioxins were also likely to flow eventually down the Ouse and the Humber into the sea, at much lower concentrations. Even into the North Sea.

Laboratory tests on animals showed that dioxins could cause skin and liver damage, tumours, and affect the immune system and fertility – all at extremely low concentrations. Scientists found that the livers of the fish kept in tanks with polluted sediment from the Doe Lea became enlarged after several months

The high dioxin levels jeopardise the chances of rivers that have been polluted for decades by industry and sewage ever making a reasonable recovery.

Upstream of Coalite Chemicals’ outfall into the Doe Lea, where the river is about 12 feet wide, dioxin levels in the sediments are at two parts per million (ppm). Just below it the authority says they are 10,000 times higher, at 20,269 ppm.

Thirteen miles downstream of Coalite’ s outfall, in the Don in Rotherham, dioxin levels were still at 300 ppm.

The NRA was planning legal action against the company, outcome of this is unsure.

The former Coalite works had a certain connection between nearby landfill sites and colliery sites, pit tips (Seymour, Oxcroft for example) and other “sensitive” locations such as Carr vale tip, Morton and the old (1 mile) Bolsover Tunnel. The Bolsover Tunnel was bricked up in 1967 / 1968.  There was certainly known “colliery waste” from Arkwright and Markham being buried there.

An account from a former Coalite worker:

“Much of the chemical waste in the past which didn’t go into the tank farm was canned and deposited into the north and south waste tips through lagoons sited on the tip tops. Many barrels of agent orange (TCDD) were also buried in the tips. That now are greened over – A time bomb”.

Finally, the Coalite plant was closed in the early 2000s and was abandoned, like a nuclear war zone. Left for more than ten years before some type of cleanup work got underway at sporadic intervals, until just recently.


The Coalite Regeneration and cleanup project went underway in 2016, thanks to Marcol Industrial ltd and Bolsover Land. The cost of remediation far exceeding the predicted expenditure. Stanfree Valley Preservation Group follow the site cleanup, giving the local community an insight into the scale and efforts of the project.


So many details and information here and there.

Articles (G May and many more) and other publications found (lancet journals etc.).

LIPID Profiles in dioxin-exposed workers, The Lancet, 24th Feb, 1979 – Dr J Martin (an interesting read).

Other books of interest:

  • THE DIOXINE WAR – R Allen.
  • THE CHEMICAL SCYTHE – (Alastair Hays Leeds University, not published in the UK) Ex Library Book Nutley N Jersey.
  • WASTE NOT WANT NOT – FOE / Greenpeace.
  • IARC monographs on the Evaluation of the Carcinogenic Risk of chemicals to Man
  • (Some fumigants, the herbicides 2,4-D and 2, 4, 5-T chlorinated Dibenzodioxines and industrial Chemicals). 1977.
  • The Environmental Consequences of War: Legal, Economic, and Scientific Perspectives. 2000. Jay E. Austin and Carl E. Bruch.
  • Major Accidents to the Environment: A Practical Guide to the Seveso II-Directive and COMAH Regulations 2007 by Ivan Vince.
  • Investigations into the Emissions of Dioxins and Furans from the Coalite Works Near Bolsover Derbyshire) Environment Agency report.
  • Dioxin Hazards to Fish, Wildlife, and Invertebrates: A Synoptic Review 2016 by Ronald Eisler.
  • Safety in the Chemical Industry: Lessons from Major Disasters. 1988. O.P. Kharabanda. E.A. Stallworthy.