As he strides along the bank of Polmadie Burn, Gavin Cabrey waves at a spot where a bough stretches over some neon green water.

“That is where the kids threw a rope over a branch and made a swing,” he says, and then gives a little shudder.
The 38-year-old has reason to worry. That is because Mr Cabrey knows why the usually grey river has changed colour: it is laced with chromium-VI. 

This is the cancer-causing chemical best-known because of Julia Roberts’ biopic blockbuster, Erin Brockovich, from 2000. And the stuff is in the burn.

As he walks, Mr Cabrey scrolls through pictures on his phone. He holds up his cracked screen and shows a blurry image of two children, almost transfixed, standing in the middle of the stream.

“I reported the burn to Sepa on Friday, February 8,” Mr Cabrey explains, referring to Scotland’s main environmental watchdog. 

“That photograph was taken on Tuesday, the 12th, a couple of hours after I received the Sepa report confirming the contamination.”

Read more: Tens of millions needed to clean up 'Brockovich' disaster

Mr Cabrey had been walking his dog and had spotted the youngsters in the distance. 

Flanked by broad-leaf trees and rarely very deep, Polmadie Burn has always lured youngsters. How safe have they been? 

HeraldScotland:

“My mum played in that burn,” said Mr Cabrey. So, too, have generations of locals, from the Oatlands neighbourhood to the river’s west. The pollution, residents insist, is not new. Sepa, for example, has red-flagged the burn as “bad” for some time. A video has appeared on YouTube, taken last year, showing the same green tinge as now.

It is only last month, however, thatGlasgow City Council put up temporary Heras fences to keep children and dog-walkers off the burn’s banks. Warning signs, suggest officials, will soon follow.

Oatlands is changing. The old local authority scheme is long bulldozed. In its place has appeared a new mixed housing development for tenants and owner-occupiers. It is so new, it is not on satnavs or digital maps. Even taxi drivers get lost.

Some of those who have bought in to the project, being put up by house-builder Avant Homes, are worried. And not just about their health. There are whispered concerns about property prices as publicity rises about their green burn.

Residents have some good news. The poison does not come from Oatlands. It is being flushed into the neighbourhood from just across the local council border, from the site of a chemical works in Rutherglen that closed just over half a century ago.

That means authorities can do some work to stop the flow – efforts are already under way on a new culvert. Officials hope they can make the stream safe.

But there is bad news too: nobody has the money needed to complete the clean-up of the old factory, which was called J&J White Chemicals. And that means poison will continue to seep into the wider region’s water table.
White’s management for decades dumped waste from processed chromium ore in pits, quarries and mines all across the east end of Glasgow and Rutherglen. 

J&J White churned out chemicals from the 1820s to the 1960s. Its toxicity was well-known. By the late 19th-century doctors were concerned. The factory’s workers were developing lung cancer and lesions in their flesh dubbed “chrome holes”. Scottish socialist pioneer Keir Hardie took up the case for employees, who he called “White Slaves”. 

The firm, he said, flouted new health and safety rules introduced in 1893. 

That same year, its owner, John White III, was given a peerage. As Lord Overtoun, he was feted as a philanthropist, giving his name to Rutherglen’s Overtoun Park. Today he would be considered a dangerous environmental criminal, a polluter who does not pay.

Rutherglen MP Ged Killen suggests the local council should rename the park after White’s nemesis, Mr Hardie. Visiting Oatlands, which is just outside his constituency, he said: “If we had a company we could recoup this money. But White’s is long gone and there is nobody to chase down. So we need public funds, ultimately from the Scottish Government, to pay for the clean-up.”

Scientists believe there are real hotspots at the actual factory site, which is near the Shawfield dog track. A regeneration agency that straddles the Glasgow-South Lanarkshire border, Clyde Gateway, has been decontaminating land and readying it for redevelopment. With the help of local, Scottish and European Union funding it has cleaned up one patch of Shawfield, now an office development called Magenta.

It has plans to regenerate another section, 30 hectares wedged between Glasgow Road, Rutherglen, and the M74, just upstream of Oatlands. Sources are concerned. Contamination, they say, is much worse than they feared. Clyde Gateway now owns 2.5 hectares of what was once J&J White’s, the site of a former Greggs bakery. 

In May, contractors will start injecting chemicals into the ground that will turn chromium-VI – sometimes called hexavalent chromium – into safe chromium-III. The bill for that will be £5m. Similar work across the whole 30 hectares would cost in the ballpark of £60m. 

Officials at Clyde Gateway are not speculating about a final price tag. They merely say they lack “tens of millions” needed to finish the job, and that EU funding, thanks to Brexit, is no longer available. The agency and its partners stress they have already done a lot to detoxify Glasgow and Lanarkshire. 

However, the poisonous legacy at Shawfield was known decades before Clyde Gateway was created in the heady positive years before the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

Back in the 1990s, Mr Killen’s predecessor as MP for Rutherglen, Tommy McAvoy, tried to chase the former factory to foot the bill for cleaning up its mess. He failed. Lawyers told him it was too late. 

Citing cancer “blips”, which were never specifically linked to chromium, Mr McAvoy, now, like Lord Overtoun, a baron, also chased public money. As now, it was not available. Speaking in the House of Commons in 1995, the MP said: “I have pursued this environmental disaster with the Glasgow Development Agency and Scottish Enterprise, to which I had been referred by Scottish Office ministers. 

“The local enterprise councils made the point that they had no funding to take care of the sites.”

Chromium was no secret for Mr McAvoy. Almost His grandfather, four of his uncles, numerous cousins and brother - had worked at J&J White.  In his speech, he explained that he –like children today–had messed about in the toxic tributaries of the Clyde. “I was born and brought up just a couple of hundred yards from that factory,” he told the Commons, “and used to play in the streams and the burns adjacent to it, despite the fact that the burn ran all sorts of colours as a result of the chemicals dumped in it”. 

He added: “One did not realise the dangers at the time. It was only in later years that one realised the environmental mess that the place was in.”

Back at Polmadie Burn, Mr McAvoy’s successor, Labour’s Mr Killen, was joined by Alison Thewliss, the SNP MP 
for Glasgow Central. There they were buttonholed by Mr Cabrey. “Please don’t play politics with this,” the resident tells the MPs. The two opponents shake their heads in agreement. Poison is bigger than politics.

Mr Cabrey says residents have waited too long. “They cannot put a figure on public health,” he says of politicians. 
“Whoever is responsible, whether it is the UK or Scottish or local governments, they need to find that money and they need to find it quick. 

“This has been going on for more than 60 years. It has to be dealt with now."

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