Disinfectant disaster fear for caverns

LIMESTONE formations in one of Yorkshire’s best known show caves may be facing an environmental disaster from chemicals used to disinfect after foot and mouth, it was claimed yesterday.

Stump Cross Caverns – a protected Site of Special Scientific Interest containing rare versions of stalagmites and stalactites which have taken more than 250,000 years to form – is within a mile of farms between Grassington and Pateley Bridge where animals are being killed after an outbreak at Dibbles Bridge Farm at Hebden.

The owner, Gordon Hanley, who has watched the slaughter teams working towards the show cave, which is part of an underground system known to extend five miles, is worried that if hundreds of sheep on the surrounding moor have to be killed, disinfectant could cause untold pollution underground.

Work being carried out by Newcastle University means that Stump Cross is one of the most carefully-monitored cave systems in the world.

Andy Baker, a lecturer in physical geography, has spent three years studying the percolation of surface water and its effect on the growth of stalagmites and stalactites. He quickly established that when it rains heavily, surface water can penetrate more than 50ft underground within 15 to 30 minutes.

“When the highways authority spreads road salt and grit we know that it comes off the surface and we can pick up traces,” he said.

“What we don’t know is how mobile these chemicals are. Some will stick in the soil. But if they are mobile they will appear underground. Everyone, including English Nature, has been banned from the countryside, so no one has been able to get out and monitor what these chemicals are doing.”

Stump Cross Caverns remain open to the thousands of annual visitors, who can walk underground in a series of passages which began being formed by an underground stream 500,000 years ago. They include the spectacular Reindeer Cave, discovered in 1955, but only opened to the public last year.

Mr Hanley, who is only allowed to use clean water with no detergents or other chemicals if he needs to clean inside the cave, is so worried about the damage that disinfectant could cause to some of the delicate calcite formations that he contacted English Nature, which regulates all his activities in the SSSI.

When he asked if English Nature could prevent the use of chemicals on the surface around the show cave, Mr Hanley was appalled by the response.

“They said that if I could give them the name of the person in charge of the slaughter they would speak to them, but they said it was a national crisis and there was not much they could do.”

English Nature spokes-man Stuart Burgess said the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had been sent details of SSSIs and a list of preferred disinfectants.

“No disinfectant is going to be completely harmless, but we have some which are more benign. The priority is clearing up foot and mouth disease, but we aim to limit any damage that may arise,” he said.

“We are working closely with the Environment Agency who have an interest in anything getting into ground water. Hopefully, the people dealing with this know that there is an SSSI and there should be consultations with us and the Environment Agency.”