Scores of current and former Royal Marines Commandos are set to take the Ministry of Defence to court after claiming they were exposed to asbestos during a set of training exercises in Latvia. Edward Hill, an ex-Marine engineer and vehicle mechanic now studying law at the Open University, is taking the Ministry of Defence to court for allegedly breaching his and 259 other soldiers’ human rights.
The 46-year-old claims their bosses breached their rights by making them sleep in a garage allegedly containing the banned substance that can lead to the fatal cancer mesothelioma – which itself can take over a decade to surface. And since returning from Latvia four and a half years ago, he claims he and his fellow troops have suffered persistent coughs and are more sensitive to irritants in the air such as smoke when cooking. He believes that the MoD should be held liable for exposing troops to asbestos in the same way that construction companies and other employers are prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive – but the HSE says it cannot examine incidents overseas.
As a result, he told MailOnline, senior commanding officers who allegedly ordered he and his comrades to sleep amongst asbestos are being let ‘off the hook’. He said: ‘It could be that we get an asbestos-related disease and die before we ever see a penny – what we’re trying to do is have that fight now rather than lying in a hospital bed 20 years from now. If this had been a civilian employer someone would have been held accountable.’ The case is being filed at the High Court by lawyers at Kingsley Napley with an expected legal bill of £2million, for which Mr Hill is crowdfunding.
It revolves around two training exercises called Baltic Protector 2019 (BP19) and Sabre Strike 2018 (SbS18), which were both conducted at the Skrunda-1 training area in Latvia, an ex-Soviet military base 95 miles from Riga. The base was abandoned in the late 1990s and later bought back by the Latvian government for use as a playground for war games – still bearing Soviet hallmarks such as murals of Vladimir Lenin. During BP19, which was drawn up to sharpen commandos’ skills of operating in close-knit urban environments and carrying out demolition, troops were accommodated inside buildings, and blew up a chimney in a controlled blast.
The Navy bragged about the nine-day exercise in the summer of 2019, posting an enthusiastic blog post about Marines ‘blasting their way through Latvia’, complete with pictures of gun-toting soldiers taking cover from an explosion. But Mr Hill, who took part in BP19, claims the MoD has been less keen to speak to soldiers about their belief that they were exposed to the hazardous substance, inhalation of which can lead to the cancer mesothelioma, which has a very poor prognosis.
A Ministry of Defence report confirmed that senior officers had been aware asbestos was still present in some parts of the site, with some areas of the base sealed off, but did not fully assess the risks associated with exposure. However, Mr Hill believes he and his colleagues were exposed to the hazardous substance – which is now banned in the UK – after they were ordered to sleep under cover in an abandoned garage they believe was still contaminated. The floor of the structure was coated in a layer of dust; while Latvian liaisons told officers it was safe, the Marines opted to place boards down and told soldiers not to sweep as a ‘belt and braces measure’ – raising troops’ suspicions things weren’t right. But their requests to sleep outside were denied, with senior officers citing thick brambles on the ground that meant vehicles needed the outdoor space in order to move around. The order left Mr Hill and his colleagues deeply uncomfortable.
He also believes the chimney blown up during the exercise may have contained asbestos – though the MoD report concluded that ‘no materials other than masonry’ were detected during a risk assessment prior to the explosion. Mr Hill claims that assault engineers in the Marines trained in the use of explosives were not required to undergo asbestos training – despite potentially operating in hazardous warzones where the material may still be present. He continued: ‘We weren’t in a position to challenge the order to sleep inside – I would’ve been prosecuted and sent to Colchester military prison for that. I’m an expert on asbestos now but I wasn’t then – I knew it was dangerous but that was it. We all had a chat amongst ourselves about it but we couldn’t Google to find out anything about it because our phones had to be on airplane mode. As we were about to leave, we had a Latvian soldier on a quad bike turn up and he said: “Don’t worry about the asbestos, it’s all being removed.” ‘And of course, as soon as someone says “don’t worry about the asbestos”, you start to worry about it. ‘We weren’t allowed to sweep the floor and we weren’t to worry about it?’
Suspicious, Mr Hill brought back a sample of debris from the garage, which was tested by Tony Mayne at Environmental Services, a firm that specialises in testing for asbestos. Mr Mayne confirmed that the dust contained chrysotile fibres, also known as white asbestos, which can become airborne on the slightest breeze. Mr Hill said: ‘It was like the Latvians had hacked at the asbestos with machetes, basically, and didn’t tidy up after themselves. They considered it removed.’ Mr Hill’s discovery prompted an MoD Service Inquiry, a report of which concluded there had been a number of factors that contributed to what it called the ‘suspected exposure of UK Defence personnel to asbestos’.
However, it admits that investigators ‘did not seek to confirm the veracity’ of Mr Hill’s claims that the sample he brought back from Latvia contained asbestos. But while the paper found glaring errors in how the risk of exposure to environmental hazards had been assessed, it stopped short of confirming that Marines had been exposed to the substance and contains no admission of liability from senior officers. The inquiry panel heard that ahead of the 2019 exercise officers on reconnaissance trips had been given maps of the Skrunda-1 base with buildings marked in red or green on a map to indicate whether they were safe to enter. Latvian liaisons said that asbestos had been removed from buildings marked green. However, the inquiry found that no efforts were made to confirm this by British squad leaders on the ground.
The MoD investigation later identified this as a ‘contributory factor’ to potential asbestos exposure. A later pre-exercise medical risk assessment later determined ‘exposure to…environment industrial hazards’ was ‘low risk’, while the health risks of asbestos exposure were not included despite the fact its presence had been acknowledged. A senior medical officer could not explain to the inquiry why the substance had not formed a larger part of pre-exercise risk assessments – but the MoD later concluded that this oversight was a ‘causal’ factor in potential asbestos exposure. And a ‘Tier 1’ assessment, meant to be filled out for all locations occupied for more than 48 hours, was not completed beforehand, instead being performed retrospectively – even though the exercise was nine days long and it should have been completed ahead of time. Following the 2018 and 2019 exercises, Marine chiefs had hatched a plan to use Skrunda-1 again in a new exercise, NAMEJS, 2021 – even after Mr Hill had flagged the potential presence of asbestos to his superiors.
This was later cancelled – but Mr Hill claims this only happened after he told the Service Inquiry, which contacted those in charge of the training op after his own attempts to plead with them to rethink returning to Latvia fell on deaf ears. Independently, Canadian armed forces bioscience officer Major Gary Johnston also discovered asbestos at Skrunda-1 , both in building materials and ‘settled dust’. His independent discovery led to a recommendation to Canadian forces not to use the site until asbestos had been properly removed. Since returning from Latvia, Mr Hill says he and others have a persistent cough and irritation to their lungs – and that they all now live with the anxiety of not knowing whether a worsening cough is simply a passing cold – or something more serious.
‘When we got back we all had a cough that just wouldn’t go away,’ he continued. ‘I was hypersensitive to cooking fats and that. Before going to Latvia I would be able to stand in a smoky kitchen cooking bacon or whatever but now, even before I see the smoke, I’m coughing. That’s only since I came back. ‘I feel a lot less fit. You feel it when you’re running or something – when you breathe in as much as you can it feels as though your lungs aren’t filling up completely. Your physical presence is diminished. Every time I get a cough or something I do think to myself, is this something to do with what happened at the time? I’m anxious. We all are. We didn’t know then but we now know asbestos has a latency period of anything from 15 to 40 years and we’re five years in. And there’s a good chance that four months after being diagnosed with something like mesothelioma we’d be dead. I’m sure there are still other Marines who were there that don’t know they’ve been exposed to asbestos and 20 years from now could be diagnosed with something and thinking: “How have I got this?”‘
Mr Hill’s efforts to have the issue investigated have been frustrated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which says it cannot investigate the incident because it happened overseas. Mr Hill has launched a petition seeking a change in the law, so soldiers following the orders of their British commanders are covered by UK health and safety laws. If it is signed by 100,000 people, it can be debated in Parliament. He has secured the backing of his local MP, Ben Bradshaw, who has written to defence secretary Grant Shapps and veterans’ minister Johnny Mercer asking for details on what the MoD is doing to minimise the risk of repeat incidents. Mr Bradshaw told the Local Democracy Reporting Service in December: ‘Mr Hill’s case is very concerning. The armed forces have a duty of care to their personnel, but it seems allowed hundreds of marines to be exposed to asbestos for days at a time. The service inquiry into the incident found that the risk of asbestos in Skrunda-1 was known but was not fully assessed to establish its presence, state and likely impact. ‘Consequently, subsequent mitigations employed did not fully address the risk.’
The case was also raised in parliament by Scottish MP Christine Jardine, whose mother Nessie died of an asbestos-related disease. She asked Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt for a debate on the issue on December 7. Ms Mordaunt said the MoD had been ‘looking at how it can mitigate things that happen…on training exercises’, adding: ‘The issue that she (Ms Jardine) raises would be of most interest to the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs. I will make sure that he has heard what she has said, and I think the topic would be an excellent one for an Adjournment or Westminster Hall debate.’ Mr Hill says the issue of asbestos is not a veterans’ matter, however, but a ‘current armed forces issue’ – one he intends to fight the MoD on in the courts. He concluded: ‘Until people start getting ill years down the line, it’s not a veterans’ issue. It’s one for people still serving in the armed forces. If you want to kill a snake, you have to cut its head off.’
A Ministry of Defence spokesperson told MailOnline: ‘The Ministry of Defence takes the potential exposure of personnel to asbestos very seriously, which is why a Service Inquiry was commissioned to prevent a recurrence. We cannot comment on specific allegations which are the subject of legal claims.’
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