For the residents of Cardiff's eastern neighborhood, a mysterious dust seems to be settling in more than just their homes - it is also coating cars and windows with an ashy residue. Many have complained of persistent coughing and difficulty breathing since moving into this area, leading some to suspect that something could harmfully lurk within the air they breathe every day.
Residents of Willows Avenue and the surrounding areas feel like their cars have become a lost cause. With an ever-present fine layer of dust, they've given up on keeping them clean; some even go so far as to keep their windows closed in order to avoid letting any more dirt inside. The community is desperate for information about why this never-ending shower of grime has been coming down on them, as well as if it poses a risk to their health.
Most residents we spoke to claim that the dust comes from the Celsa Steel UK plant, just off neighbouring Seawall Road, which produces 1.2 million tonnes of steel a year. It hasn't been proven that the dust people are seeing comes directly from the plant, though residents say they look at the clouds billowing from the main building and can't help but worry.
Natural Resources Wales says it received "a very limited number of dust complaints" linked to Celsa during 2022 and that these were investigated. It says Celsa recently completed repairs and that "dust emissions had returned to normal late in 2021". It also said Celsa made improvements to its live dust-monitoring arrangements to enable it to react more quickly to problems that might result in higher dust emissions and that "based on our current assessment of emissions, data remained within permit limits throughout 2022".
NRW had found a minor fault in the steelworks in 2021 that contributed to an increase in dust emissions. But residents have been dealing with the dust for years before and after this, and many now want a sample of the dust tested to confirm where it comes from, how much is being emitted, and whether it causes any health problems
Several residents spoke to WalesOnline about the dust, but many didn't want to go by their real names to avoid harming their attempts to communicate with NRW and Celsa to solve the problem (so some of their names have been changed here). One resident, Ann, moved to Willows Avenue with her son a few years ago.
Ann and her son say they have both suffered with breathing problems since moving in and notice the dust coming in to their house even when the windows are shut. Ann said: "If I had known how bad this house would’ve been with all the ash and everything, I would never have moved here. I wasn’t aware of it at all before moving here. I love my neighbours and if I could pick them all up and live together on another street, that would be amazing.
"We are constantly ill, all the time. It’s not fair really. You try and do the best you can, but you’re just ill. I’ve had a really red sore throat that on bad days would come right up to the roof of my mouth. I’ve been to the doctor’s with it. I feel confined to the house, I don’t want to open the door or the windows. Of course because of that, I can’t ventilate the house properly and get terrible mould. I can’t keep my tablets upstairs because in the tablet box, they are covered in mould. I’m in my 40s and I’m worried to death what’s going to happen."
A spokesperson for NRW confirmed that the regulator had verified that Celsa completed repairs to the filter house and that "dust emissions had returned to normal late in 2021".
The spokesperson continued: "Celsa also made improvements to their live dust monitoring arrangements to enable them to react more quickly to operational problems that might result in higher dust emissions. This filter house failure was a specific short duration event and has not been repeated to our knowledge. Based on our current assessment of emissions, data remained within permit limits throughout 2022. A full compliance assessment exercise for 2022 will be completed in Q1 of 2023 after all reporting has been submitted by Celsa by 30 January 2023.
"NRW received a very limited number of dust complaints linked to Celsa operations during 2022. These were investigated to ensure that Celsa is taking appropriate measures to minimise dust emissions from stock piles and minerals processing."
The spokesperson added: "The scale of the operation means that elimination of all dust releases is not possible" but that "monitoring of air quality around the steelworks continues to show that Air Quality Objectives for fine particles (respirable dust) are being met and our assessments show that emissions from Celsa steelworks will not cause significant environmental impacts."
Another resident, Susan, has lived in the area for 42 years and said: "You get a bad day and whatever it is burns your throat. When my window cleaner cleans, he says ‘oh my god, what’s on these windows?’ You can’t get it off."
Susan said she wanted the dust to be "independently" tested. The steelworks, though, has never been found to be releasing a level of dust above NRW's safe limits. In 2021, some residents claimed that the nearby Viridor Energy Recovery Facility near Splott Beach could be a contributing factor, but a spokesperson told the Cardiffian that Viridor had demonstrated compliance with the parameters of the permit given to them by NRW.
Huw Thomas, leader of Cardiff Council but speaking here as the local ward councillor, said: "The communities of Splott and Tremorfa have been a hive of industrial activity throughout their existence, but that shouldn't mean having to put up with unsafe levels of pollution and dust. I would urge residents to report any examples of dust or ash deposits to NRW as soon as it's noticed, so that they can be fully investigated."