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Tomato Growers (Essex)

Volume 897: debated on Monday 4 August 1975

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11.10 p.m.

After the matters of high drama and principle which we have recently debated, I wish to refer to matters in the calmer waters of tomato growing in Essex.

I am most grateful for the opportunity to raise a matter which is of vital importance to several of my constituents and which may be of much wider importance nationally. I refer to the damage caused to commercial tomato crops by the pollution of the public water supply and the apparent residual effects of pollution which occurred some two years ago. Not only is it causing a number of my constituents to face bankruptcy, but this problem lends wider emphasis to what the Minister of State, Department of the Environment recently called one of the great dilemmas of our time. I refer to the matter of water quality control.

It is clear that without more precise control of the chemicals that daily find their way into the water supply which we drink and use in our gardens, and which we use in industry and horticulture, we shall soon face a situation which increasingly will detrimentally affect not only the food chain but also the existence of the human population in this country. I say this well knowing that this is a time of tremendous pressure on public resources and public spending, but nevertheless I think that it is a matter of great importance.

The problem affecting my constituents first became apparent in March 1973 when unusual symptoms began to appear in the leaves of young tomato plants. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was called in, together with the Essex River Authority, the National Farmers' Union and a firm of consultants, Douglas Gowan & Partners. Eventually it was determined that although other pollutants such as 2–4–D were also present in the water supply, the chemical known as TBA was responsible for the damage.

This chemical, a deep root weed killer, is manufactured by a well-known firm at Harston near Cambridge. Manufacturing residues were discharged under consent into the river system, and this level of TBA was added to by site seepage. The water from the receiving river was pumped down into Essex and distributed to the nurseries, and eventually damage was suffered on 52 horticultural holdings, the total damage being estimated in the region of £150,000. In addition to this the growers have suffered considerable additional expense in analytical investigation and in payment to professional advisers.

In April 1974 it was suggested that a relief fund should be established. As a result of that suggestion a fund was set up, and it was recently announced in the Press that the sum contributed by the authorities involved was £80,000 plus interest to the date of final distribution. It is a condition of payment from the fund that the grower concerned shall waive all legal rights to recovery of his losses by any other means. Although the fund is not in accord with the estimated actual losses, it is none the less clearly the objective of the contributing authorities to provide some substantial measure of relief. Although it is disappointing to learn that payment is not expected for some time, one must be grateful for the response so far shown. It is, however, disappointing that the fund is considered to be final.

In the early part of this year a number of growers were alarmed to see what was considered to be a recurrence of the symptoms suffered in 1973. Initial analysis has indicated that levels of TBA are present on at least four nurseries which have suffered damage. Two of those growers are currently facing the prospect of bankruptcy. The losses suffered this year by the four nurseries are currently estimated to be about £25,000.

When advised of the further outbreak, the authorities began to carry out investigations. On 10th June the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food advised one of my constituents in Latchingdon that there was sufficient TBA in his soil to cause distortion in tomato plants. Subsequently, lower but nevertheless material levels of TBA were found in the soils of other nurseries.

As a result of these findings, representations were made to the authorities as to the possibility of helping out growers who were in a desperate financial situation not only in terms of compensation but also in respect of specific advice as to what future they had, if any, in growing commercial crops on contaminated soil. The initial response from the authorities was extremely helpful, but on 15th June the firm concerned stated that it did not consider that the levels of TBA present in the soil correlated with the observed damage. It also suggested that various husbandry practices might have had an influence and that another chemical was present in the soil. One might find it surprising, if another chemical was present, that the firm did not indicate its name to the grower concerned.

On 29th July the Anglian Water Authority advised that the chemical concerned was Picloram, which is another herbicide used as a weed killer. Investigations have shown that that herbicide has never been used at any of the nurseries involved and that it is used in conjunction with 2–4–D, yet another of the herbicides used in daily life. It is interesting to note that 2–4–D was found at one of the affected nurseries in 1973, and at that time TBA was thought to be totally responsible for the damage suffered.

Some chemists also advise that Picloram would potentiate with TBA, or vice versa. Whatever the precise cause, the fact remains that it would appear that waterborne contaminants caused damage in 1973 and that effects were left—which may have been exacerbated since—which have produced further damage and taken good, honest, industrious growers to the point of bankruptcy.

As for the suggestions of bad husbandry, these could be answered in specific terms. It is alleged that one grower in particular used a tomset and that its improper use led to plant damage. It is quite clear that damage to three trusses on the damaged plants existed before the Ministry of Agriculture advised the grower concerned to use tomset, and in any event that advice was not followed.

One can have only the greatest sympathy with the attempts of manufacturing industry to control minute amounts of chemicals escaping into watercourses. One can have only the greatest sympathy with water authorities which have to control chemical substances capable of detection only by the most sophisticated methods. Notwithstanding that, my constituents have suffered grave damage and appear to be suffering further damage. It seems vital that some action to help the growers should be mounted immediately.

That action can be best defined under three headings: first, the setting up of a properly-integrated programme of research leading to the provision of good advice to growers; second, the provision of adequate compensation to the growers not only for the loss of revenue but also for the very heavy costs they have to bear; and third, the setting up of control procedures which will ensure the impossibility of a like event happening again. This must be coupled with an overall improvement of the water quality in Essex, which has been the subject of considerable criticism in past years.

I hope that the Government will consider most sympathetically the position of these growers, all of whom operate on a relatively small scale, and will be able to express that sympathy in some positive form.

11.21 p.m.

I open by expressing appreciation to the hon. Member for Maldon (Mr. Wakeham) not only for raising this matter on behalf of his constituents but for the reasonable and constructive way in which he has done so and for giving me adequate notice of the various points he wished to raise. I am sure he will appreciate that all these matters arose from happenings in 1973, which was not only before the present Government took office but also before the water service of the country was reorganised.

I am glad the hon. Gentleman is in agreement. Nevertheless, I have tremendous sympathy with the plight of his constituents, although I must confess that I have had great difficulty in finding where ministerial responsibility lies. But I have done my best, and will continue to do so, to help the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman has said rightly, that the damage was attributed to the presence of a chemical known as TBA in the water supply. This is used in the manufacture of herbicide, and a quantity entered the river system from the factory and found its way into the water supply.

I emphasise that there was no medical risk from the concentrations found in the water; there was no risk to human beings, animals or fish. No other crop was affected. But tomato plants are peculiarly sensitive to this chemical, even in concentrations as low as one part in very many millions. That is the extraordinary set of circumstances which has led to these difficulties. Special measures were taken to arrest the discharge of this pollutant immediately it was discovered. Special measures have continued since to protect growers from any recurrence from this source.

I understand from the Anglian Water Authority that last October it and others concerned decided to set up the fund to which the hon. Gentleman has referred as a gesture of sympathy to the growers and to provide some measure of relief. The authority tells me that it has consulted and agreed with growers' representatives about terms for distributing the total sum of money contributed. The NFU has asked the growers whether they want to participate in the scheme, and some of their replies are still awaited.

It occurred to me that the hon. Gentleman, who has been so reasonable and constructive, could well have criticised the delay in the distribution of the fund and had he done so I would at first glance have had considerable sympathy with him. However, I am advised that not all the growers have stated yet whether they wish to participate in the scheme.

The hon. Gentleman will understand that my Department has no responsibility for the fund or for the arrangements made for distributing it, and I cannot therefore comment on particular points which might occur out of what is really the distribution of ex gratia payments.

Steps were taken to prevent a recurrence of the 1973 trouble. Effluent from the TBA manufacturing plant at the factory concerned has not been discharged into the river system since but has been tankered away for safe disposal. Daily samples of the remaining effluent from the factory are analysed for TBA. The water authority regularly monitors a number of different points in the river system for TBA. These are in the River Cam system, the Ely-Ouse system at Denver and at Black Dyke Farm. It has also completed a special sampling programme on Abberton and Hanningfield reservoirs. These special tests for TBA are in addition to the normal monitoring programme which tests for up to 45 different substances in the water.

This programme goes on throughout the whole of the water authority's area. As an example, the routine programme in Essex includes 14 separate sampling points on the River Stour downstream of the point where Ely-Ouse water enters it, and nine points on the River Pant and the non-tidal Blackwater below the Ely-Ouse entry.

This will give the House an indication of the constant and careful check maintained by water authorities on river water quality. Of course, numerous further checks are made as the water goes from river to treatment works and through the various processes before it is considered fit to enter the mains supply. The ultimate and continuous test is that the water should be safe and wholesome for domestic use.

The hon. Gentleman will realise that problems such as that which arose in Essex in 1973 are very difficult to anticipate. This happens because of the complex chemical nature of many effluents discharged to river systems, the very diverse uses to which water is put and the exceptionally low concentrations at which some substances can produce undesirable effects. For example the concentration of TBA, about which the hon. Gentleman is concerned, in water sufficient to damage young tomato plants is close to the extreme limits of detection even with the most sophisticated methods of analysis.

The hon. Gentleman has raised the question of the level of spending by water authorities in connection with water quality control. This, as with other spending, must be a matter for them to decide within available capital investment and the need to contain increases in charges in the interests of consumers. But am satisfied that water authorities are very well aware of their responsibilities for water quality which is central to their functions. They give full priority to the protection of water put into public supply.

I should like to comment on damage to tomato plants this year. The Anglian Water Authority has had two cases reported to it. The natural reaction was that the damage might have been caused by residual effects following the problems of 1973. The water authority immediately mounted a thorough programme to analyse soil samples from a number of nurseries in the area. I am glad to report that this is continuing. The results indicate that TBA is not the primary cause. I understand that the Ministry of Agriculture advisory service, which has conducted its own tests has now modified its original view that TBA could, I think I am right in saying, have caused the difficulties. The information which the hon. Gentleman quoted about individual cases has now been revised by them in the light of further tests.

I can imagine that following the events of 1973 people in Essex have asked why they have to use water transferred to their area by the Ely-Essex Ouse system. The answer is that without the extra water from that source, the growing demand in Essex would exceed natural supplies. The major Ely-Essex Ouse scheme was undertaken to augment water in the Stour and Blackwater rivers and to enable increasing demand in Essex to be met until the mid-1980s.

Natural supplies of water are not, unfortunately for the water industry, distributed evenly throughout the country. The general tendency is obviously for heavy rainfall to take place in the West and to be much more plentiful there than in, say, Essex. It makes sense, therefore, to try to balance these resources. Water is transferred from one river basin to another. On a smaller scale, transfers of water from the lower reaches of one river to the upper reaches of another as in the Ely-Essex Ouse scheme also make the maximum use of existing resources. If water which is running to waste can be transferred by river to an area of comparative shortage, the need for water storage can be reduced. Nobody wishes to use valuable land to build reservoirs if this can be avoided.

Increasingly in this country these processes of recycling and reusing water several times over in the river system and in transferring water from one part of the country where there is an area of plenty to an area where there is great shortage are likely to create difficulties to which the hon. Member has drawn our attention. The Department and the industry are paying close attention to them.

When dealing with chemicals where very minute quantities can adversely affect horticulture, as in this case, we must be continually on our guard to protect what is a legitimate industrial, farming or horticultural interest. It demands increased vigilance as we use and transfer water in this way.

The Government and the water authorities are fully apprised of the need for increased vigilance. I am glad to say that a good deal of research is going on into all aspects of water transfers. The Water Research Centre which carries out collective research for the industry is dealing with the problem of continuous monitoring to detect relatively large increases in organic pollutants. The centre is also carrying out research and development into ways of removing such substances. The Central Water Planning Unit has a major research programme on the water quality problems associated with transfers of water between river basins. In short, on the water authority front control has been tightened and research into problems such as these continues. On the horticultural front, the Ministry of Agriculture's advisory service is willing to provide advice. I understand that its staff has visited more than half the growers affected in 1973 in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and has found no evidence of damage except in the cases already referred to.

Tomato plants are particularly susceptible. I understand that the staff of the advisory service are continuing to visit the tomato growers who have been affected. I have no doubt that if the hon. Gentleman wishes to consult them, or if any of his constituents wishes to consult them, the staff will be readily available to make their expertise available to his constituents and also to undertake consultations regularly with the water authorities about the continuing problem which affects us all.

I am sorry that I cannot add much more this evening to that rather official reply about what the two Departments are doing, beyond expressing our considerable sympathy and assuring the hon. Gentleman that since the Water Act came into operation we have been doing all we can to tighten procedures and to give every assistance to his constituents. I greatly hope that if he has any problems he will continue to be in touch with my Department, on behalf of his constituents.

For our part we shall be very anxious, because we have so much sympathy with them, to give all the assistance we can. We hope that there will not be any further recurrence of these difficulties. Further tests hold out hope for the belief that this year's difficulties do not come from the cause which was originally thought to be the case. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept my assurance of our continuing concern for his constituents and our continuing desire to do what we can to assist them in the great difficulties they have undoubtedly encountered.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Twelve o'clock.