Update 1st October: Thames Water and the Drinking Water Inspectorate are now investigating.
Community group and Southwark Burial Strategy Stakeholder Group member Save Southwark Woods (SSW) has today written to Thames Water Ltd and the Drinking Water Inspectorate to alert them to potential existing and future surface water pollution from Southwark cemeteries.
Camberwell Old Cemetery floods regularly. Last week, heavy rains resulted in waterlogged old and new graves, with waste water running off from graves onto cemetery paths, onto local streets and into Thames Water’s drainage systems (see photos).
Southwark plans to add a further 4,500 new burials to Camberwell Old and New Cemeteries. Save Southwark Woods is unaware of any communication by Southwark with Thames Water about existing issues, let alone potential future impacts of 4,500 new burials on these sites.
The cemeteries are owned and managed by Southwark Council, who are responsible for run-off and any potential water pollution from the cemeteries.
Grey waste water from cemetery run-off can present a potential public health risk, and usually has to be managed under very strict controls. SSW believes Southwark council may not be taking proper precautions to avoid risks to public health today, and are concerned they plan 4,500 new burials.
After years of developing their plans, Southwark only contacted the Environment Agency two weeks ago, downplaying the extent of plans and potential impacts on flood risk, health and biodiversity (describing one application preparing for new burial as “for a fence”.)
“The Camberwell Cemeteries are metres from Thames Water’s Honor Oak Reservoir. They are unsuitable for new burials even if they were managed properly and we believe they are not,” said Blanche Cameron, spokesperson for Save Southwark Woods.
Thames Water carries out strict water quality testing, which is regulated by the Drinking Water Inspectorate, within Defra. Save Southwark Woods is urging Thames Water to carry out water quality testing of run-off at the Camberwell Cemeteries.
“We believe Southwark may be putting the public at risk and we urge Thames Water to carry out water quality tests and question Southwark on the detail of their plans, from existing and potential water quality issues. Southwark Council should be held to the same standards as religious and privately owned cemeteries.”
“We aren’t experts but surely you can’t just let recently buried bodies lie in standing water and then let that water flow onto paths and roads where our children and pets walk and play and then into street drains? Burials must be halted while potential pollution and health risks are investigated.”
Almost 10,000 people are now calling for these cemeteries and woods to be left to grow as nature reserves, with benefits for generations to come.
The letter to Thames Water, copied to the Drinking Water Inspectorate, is below.
Dear Mr Gosden,
URGENT REQUEST FOR WATER QUALITY TESTING AT CAMBERWELL CEMETERIES, HONOR OAK
We are writing to alert you and Thames Water to potential water pollution issues from Camberwell Old Cemetery in Honor Oak, Southwark, south London and to urgently request water quality tests.
As a local community group and member of Southwark’s Burial Stakeholder Group, we are extremely concerned about the current waste water situation in Camberwell Old and New Cemeteries, owned and operated by Southwark Council.
This is for the following reasons:
- We believe that recent burials are standing waterlogged (see photos), which we understand may be illegal.
- In February during heavy rains, the owner dug channels from fresh graves to the streets where the wastewater flows (see attached photos).
- We understand that this emergency drainage did not resolve any issues. Two weeks ago, during further heavy rains, graves were again waterlogged with waste water flowing across cemetery paths, out onto local streets and into Thames Water’s drainage system
- The thick layer of clay close to the surface in the shallow trenches is easily visible in photos, causing waterlogging and preventing on-site drainage via soakaways
Southwark now has applied to create more than 800 new burials at the Camberwell Cemeteries, Honor Oak, with 4,500 new plots in total, as well as reusing thousands of the old graves.
We are concerned Southwark may not have contacted Thames Water, and may not be making adequate provision to deal with existing or future grey waste water safely.
These cemeteries are currently accessed every day by the public. We are concerned that run-off from waterlogged graves may already be creating health risks to both cemetery workers and the public, as well as polluting Thames Water systems.
We understand Thames Water conducts strict water quality testing to ensure water quality and highlight potential issues of source pollution. We urge Thames Water to assess existing and potential water pollution from Southwark’s current burials and future burial plans.
For new burials plans, we understand Southwark has not carried out Tier 2 or Tier 3 assessments for either cemetery. Both these cemeteries are SPZs and metres away from Thames Water’s Honor Oak Reservoir.
Southwark has provided some information to the Environment Agency. Our information has also now been forwarded to their technical teams.
We are asking that Thames Water also to investigate these potential water pollution issues highlighted with Southwark Council.
Save Southwark Woods – Southwark Burial Stakeholder Group
To: Lawrence Gosden, Managing Director, Wastewater
Nick Fincham, Strategy and Regulation Director
Ashley Jonas, Microbiology Manager at Thames Water
Water Regulations Thames Water
Samantha Vince, Principal Inspector (Operations) Drinking Water Inspectorate, DEFRA
Dr Ruth Wallis, Director of Public Health, Southwark Council
Director of Operations South East, Howard Davidson
Area Manager, Andrew Pearce
Deputy Director Water Quality, Paul Hickey
ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ABOUT NEW BURIAL PLANS
LACK OF CONSULTATION OR AGREEMENT WITH ENVIRONMENT AGENCY
Southwark council has not communicated with the Environment Agency about their overall plans for over 4,500 new burials in these cemeteries. These applications for 800+ are just Phase 1.
AREA Z, Camberwell Old Cemetery
Southwark’s applications 15/AP/3184 and 15/AP/3185 for 740 new burials on Area Z would remove hundreds of trees (not shown on plans – see photos) that help to manage the risks mentioned above.
Area Z is an SPZ and lies at the bottom of a long slope from the 100m steep narrow ridge that runs along this part of south London, from Upper Norwood along Sydenham Hill to Westwood Park, which feed the Rivers Peck, Effra and Herne.
Even with the existing Green Infrastructure, the houses below Area Z experience regular flooding as does the entire cemetery
There is a layer of London clay, but this is very close to the surface (see diagram below and photos attached). New burials are cut into the clay, water seeps into the grave and the bodies lie in standing water, and flood when it rains.
The council propose a soakaway as the means of surface water drainage for 800 new burials over the next 3 years.
AREA D1, Camberwell New Cemetery
Area D1 is a virgin wooded hillside, rare landscape character feature for London, adjacent to One Tree Hill Nature Reserve (Great North Wood), and an SPZ. The trees and woodland undergrowth currently help manage rainfall and flood risk.
Southwark’s application 15/AP/3190 for over 100 new burials on this rare virgin wooded hillside proposes removal of these trees and woodland, Green Infrastructure, which will increase these risks.