Exclusive: Nottingham hospital burning thousands of tonnes of coal, two years after promising to stop

An AirQualityNews investigation can reveal Nottingham City Hospital has spent almost £750,000 on over 3500 tonnes of coal, two years after promising residents that they had shut their almost 50-year-old coal boiler down for good.

In August 2017, after years of protests from local residents and Friends of the Earth, Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust (NUH), who runs the hospital, announced the 50-year-old coal boiler would be shut down permanently but would occasionally be used in ’emergencies’.

It appeared the residents’ battle against the toxic fumes and soot that regularly covered their homes was finally won.

However, we submitted a Freedom of Information Request to NUH which revealed the hospital is still using a significant amount of coal to heat its buildings.

In 2018, they burned 2435 tonnes of coal, spending £563.636.43.

In 2019, From January 1 until April 30, they burned 914.62 tonnes, spending £162,569.34.

Colin Wilson, who lives close to the site, spoke exclusively to AirQualityNews and says he feels lied to.

‘It’s absolutely astounding,’ he told us.

‘I wouldn’t be allowed to work in a mine or a quarry with this air pollution yet people who live in this area are still breathing it.’

‘They don’t care. They quite simply don’t care.’

Black carbon

Nottingham City Hospital. Photo Credit – David Hallam-Jones

We studied the most recent accounts of all 157 NHS Trusts in England, which includes information on how much and what type of energy is being used at every hospital in the country.

The 2017/18 accounts showed only Nottingham City and Goole and District Hospital in North Yorkshire were still burning coal, which was once common practice but has now been almost completely phased out, with many hospitals that we contacted saying they had not burnt coal for decades due to concerns over air pollution and the possible long term effects upon the local population.

Coal is one of the worst pollutants for humans, releasing black carbon and various heavy metals into the atmosphere which can lead to not just respiratory problems but a multitude of serious health conditions such as cancer, heart attacks and strokes.

This led Nottingham City Council to declare an Air Quality Management Area (AQMA) around City Hospital in 2001 because of dangerous sulphur dioxide emissions.

The AQMA ended in 2007 when output was reduced to legal levels but they continued to burn coal and residents spent the next decade petitioning the hospital to shut down the boiler, apparently succeeding in 2017.

Mr Wilson expressed alarm at the figures for 2018 and 2019 but said he’s seen it with his own eyes after leaving a facemask on his window ledge, which was coated with ash and grit after just two days.

He also stated that people at the council admitted to him that if similar levels of air pollution were found around a factory, they would shut it down.

‘Some of the photographs I took earlier this year of the chimney makes it looks like a Second World War battleship bellowing smoke in the sea.’

Passing the buck

The boiler’s chimney taken during 2018. Photo credit – Colin Wilson

NUH director of estates and facilities Andrew Chatten sent AirQualityNews a statement saying they have had to put their plans to upgrade the coil boiler on hold because of The Treasury’s Infrastructure Finance Review consultation, which said they will no longer help to fund infrastructure projects that have been financed by the private sector, as the NUH had originally planned.

For the long-suffering residents, it means it could be several years before anything is done about coal boiler.

‘These delays have an unavoidable knock-on impact on the timeline and until a solution to the current issue has been found, we are unable to confirm a revised timeline,’ added Mr Chatten.

Mr Wilson says he’s heard it before and has faced years of empty promises from NUH.

‘They’ve passed the buck for years and years and years.’

‘You go to these meetings [with NUH] and they sit there very smugly and say the problem is we can turn the boiler off and use the gas supply, but if that has a breakdown, will you be responsible to the 500 elderly people in here who have to be kept warm?’

Nigel Lee from Friends of the Earth Nottingham is also sceptical. He worked with residents to campaign to shut the boiler down in 2017 and has witnessed a consistent failure in leadership at NUH with nobody taking responsibility for the coal boiler.

From 2007 they’ve been saying it’s a priority, but it’s never actually happened.’

‘Their timetable for closing the boiler down has slipped and on past experience, it keeps getting pushed back indefinitely.’

Leadership

In January, the NHS published its Long Term Plan, which included an ambition to phase out the use of coal as a primary heating source at all their sites by 2028 and an NHS spokesperson told AirQualityNews that they are well on track to meet this goal.

However, Dr Suzanne Bartington, an air pollution expert from the University of Birmingham who also advises the NHS called our findings ‘shocking’, saying it speaks to a wider problem about sustainability and the NHS.

‘They should be leading by example,’ she said.

‘It gives all the wrong messages about leadership in healthcare and sustainability. The fact that people are vulnerable patients are in a place with poor air quality is not a good thing.

‘This hospital is meant to help people, but they are contributing so much to air pollution themselves.’

UPDATE: This story was picked up by BBC East Midlands and featured on the Late News edition of the BBC’s regional TV news programme East Midlands Today on Monday 1o June 2019. You can read the BBC’s coverage of our story or watch the TV news clip.