Residents of a North Devon village dubbed 'Great Stinkington' because of the noxious smells emenating from a local meat rendering plant, have have been successful in their high court bid to force environment secretary John Gummer into taking action.
Mr Justice McCullough handed victory to the people of Great Torrington when he overturned Mr Gummer's decision to delete a licensing condition banning all 'offensive odours' from outside the boundary of the blood processing and meat rendering factory in the village which has been working flat out to meet the demands of the BSE cull.
The condition now looks certain to be reimposed on Peninsular Proteins Ltd, who face having to spend large sums on increasing the height of the factory's exhaust stack and installing the most up-to-date odour suppressing machinery.
Mr Justice McCullough said the rationality of Mr Gummer's decision to remove the condition banning all offensive odours outside the factory's boundary had never been explained and contiunued to escape him.
Both the district council and Peninsular Proteins had agreed that the condition should be imposed but Mr Gummer had deleted it from the company's licensing conditions without warning or adequate explanation.
Blood processing and meat rendering are 'proscribed' activities under environmental health legislation and the district council refused to issue a license in January 1994 saying that, in its view, Peninsular Proteins would never be able to meet the condition that 'all emissions to air should be free from offensive odours' outside the plant's boundaries.
The company appealed to an environment ministry inspector who disagreed after a public inquiry, saying the condition could be met by raising the height of the plant's exhaust stack and employing the most modern odour-suppressing methods.
He recommended the license be granted, but only subject to the stringent condition insisted upon by the council.
But, in his August 1996 decision letter, Mr Gummer said such a harsh condition could only be imposed in 'exceptional circumstances' where residential properties were extremely close the factory.
He deleted the more strict condition, saying that doing away with all unpleasant smells outside the plant's boundary should only be 'an aim' for Peninsular Proteins.
Mr Justice McCullough said Mr Gummer had done so despite the fact that even Peninsular Proteins had agreed at the public inquiry that the stricter condition should be imposed.
The judge told the court: 'The council's concern was, and is, that without this condition the inhabitants of its area may continue, as hitherto, to be subjected to offensive odours.
'Although the nearest residential properties to the company's premises are some 500 metres away, thepremises are at a lower level thatn the major part of the town and numerous complaints about the smell emenating from them have been received over the years.'
The judge said most of the smells were caused by exhaust fumes from a 'multi-stage scrubber' at the factory and the technical limits on the efficiency of the chemical system of odour suppression now employed at the plant.
The existing smoke stack is only 15 metres high which the inspector said did not 'provide appropriate levels of dispersion' and would have to be 'greatly increased'.
Mr Gummer accepted there had been a 'history of odour nuisance' from the factory, but said the problem had been greatly mitigated by improvements to the plant in 1992. He described the current level of nuisance as 'intermittent'.
He said that banning all unpleasant smells from outside the plant's boundary would be 'unenforceable and inappropriate.'
But Mr Justice McCullough said Mr Gummer had said nothing about the strict no smells condition being unnecessary.
'It would, in any event, be a little strange to treat as too harsh a condition to the imposition of which the company had agreed.'
The judge said the rationality of saying that such conditions would only be appropriate in exceptional circumstances was 'unexplained and escapes me.'
Mr Gummer's decision to strike out the condition was overturned by the judge and the environment ministry was ordered to pay the action's legal costs.
The minister will now have to reconsider the terms of Peninsular Protein's license.
David Elvin, for the ministry, said a decision had yet to be taken on whether to take the case to the court of appeal.