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Chloride Metals Limited, Thorpe

Volume 961: debated on Wednesday 24 January 1979

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. James Hamilton.]

12.16 a.m.

I would not say that my profundity on the subject of lead pollution is very great. There has been much comment and much has been published about the subject in the last few months. Since there is a lead smelting plant in my constituency, further alarm has been created in the area, and I have received many complaints over the past 15 years. Chloride Metals Limited has been working in my area for the last 30 years.

This is a topical subject. The question of air pollution has, of course, been raised before in the House. Indeed, I recall a Ten-Minute Bill which was accepted by Parliament without a dissentient note. Everyone by now, therefore, realises that this is a serious matter. In view of what has been said and published over the past few months, considerable concern has been created in the Thorpe area.

I have attended some of the public gatherings. Now there is general public clamour, brought to a head by the atmospheric pollution which is claimed by scientists to have an injurious effect upon young children. Civic societies have joined in the clamour—indeed, all kinds of organisations have joined in. But there is difficulty in trying to ventilate the problem in areas where there has been little recognition of how the people feel. In consquence, a lot of responsibility falls on the local Member of Parliament.

Chloride Metals Limited has made application to extend its plant. That has aggravated the situation tremendously. The West Yorkshire county council sent the application to the Department of the Environment, which has passed it back. The West Yorkshire planning committee allowed the public to be present at meetings, but the committee shows little interest in the subject. This has caused consternation in the district.

I have been prompted to raise this matter not by the publicity but because of the tremendous pressure about the subject from my constituents. I promised them that I would do whatever possible to seek further ventilation of the problem. Where do we go from here? We have had, as I have said, many public meetings, pressure has been brought to bear on the local authorities, and I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. It was quite a long time before I got a reply. He said that the Department would push the planning application back to the county authority. What concerns us is the granting of an extension when it is not known what the effects of atmospheric pollution will be from the present plant.

We have tried to bring this out into the open, but we have been denied the facts. We are not dogmatic about the situation. All that we are concerned about is getting the facts. We, contend that the present plans are not acceptable to possible new residents. That is also the opinion of the Leeds city council, which will not allow any more houses to be built within half a mile of the plant. Yet it appears that the extension is being allowed to proceed.

Most people have a general concern for the welfare of young children. Within half a mile of the plant are two schools. It is argued by scientists that lead pollution affects young children more than adults. It affects their intelligence, mentality and general brightness. One can understand that parents who live in close proximity to the plant want the Department of the Environment to do its job. It is there for the environmental purposes of the nation and should ensure that the public get the facts. That is why I am has failed to do so. That is why I am here tonight. I want to raise this matter as publicly as I can.

If the Leeds city council now says "No more building within half a mile", why on earth is it allowing the plant to be extended? What about those children who are attending the two schools? That is why there has been such public indignation and protestation from many societies, which seem to have been ignored completely. It appears to us that something has been kept behind the scenes.

I was rather disturbed by what I read in the Yorkshire Post, which the other day ran the following story:
"Close observers of the lead debate in Britain are also despondent about what they feel are other forces at work, for whatever reason, to slow things down. A curious series of events have involved most of those people intimately involved in the subject.
Prof. Derek Bryce-Smith, noted critic of leaded petrol, a lecturer at Reading University, is convinced his telephone was tapped. Someone telephoned a contact of his, he said, pretending to be Prof. Derek Bryce-Smith and using information which could only have been obtained by listening in on an early telephone call he made.
The other prominent independent expert on, lead pollution in Britain, Dr. Robert Stephens of the chemistry department at Birmingham University, had his study gutted by fire at the end of 1977. Police established arson as the cause but never traced the culprit."
It is not for me to start quoting from papers that have been written by scientists. Nevertheless, I have a folder full of them. The trouble is that we cannot get to the bottom of this problem. I want to make it clear that I am not taking sides. All that I am doing is openly stating why the people of my constituency want the facts. Up to now they have failed to get them.

The letter that I received from the Department of the Environment said that the extension would go on, that the Department would monitor events, and that the Alkali Inspectorate would be involved. With all due respect to the Alkali Inspectorate, it is probably not quite up to it.

We must prove that there will be no harmful effects to children or adults it the plant is extended. That is the crux of the matter, and I am at a loss to understand why to some extent we have been ignored by the Ministry.

In reply to a recent written question, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Security said:
"My Department is currently sponsoring, or has sponsored in the last few years, the following studies relevant to the health consequences of lead in the air: …
Relationship between blood lead levels, general intelligence, reading ability and behaviour disorders in children under 17 years of age in an area of London exposed to undue amounts of lead from a smelter."—[Official Report, 3 August 1978; Vol 955, c. 694.]
It is apparent that some investigation is going on. All that I am asking is whether it is possible to stop the extension of the smelting plant until the investigations have been carried out.

It the Department is prepared to tell the people of my constituency "You can rest assured that there will be no harmful effects upon your children or adults" that may alter the position entirely.

So far such assurances have not been forthcoming. That is why I asked for this debate. There was a public meeting only two or three weeks ago which I attended. It was decided that an injunction be sought. The people are writing to the Ombudsman and they asked me whether I would raise the matter on the Adjournment. They are asking only for clarification of the position. They are not being dogmatic. We simply want to know the facts, and so far we have not had them.

I should like the Department to have more power than it has now. I last initiated an Adjournment debate at about five o'clock one morning about opencast operations. I believe that all opencast inquiries should be dealt with by the Department of the Environment, but they are dealt with by the Department of Energy. That is entirely wrong. When the Department of the Environment now tells me "Let the extension go on, and we shall see what happens", it is putting the cart before the horse.

I hope that my hon. Friend will make representations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we want the facts. I should like scientists to be brought in. We know that scientists at Birmingham university and Reading are keenly interested in the matter. If we can have assurances, at least it will prove that the Department is really interested.

The matter has been debated many times in the past two or three weeks. A Ten-Minute Bill was introduced only yesterday. There is general public concern. There is no dissentient voice.

I am concerned about the people who live in Thorpe and round about. I live only about three miles away.

It is all right talking about raising a chimney, but not all the fumes go up the chimney. If the chimney is raised, the dispersal is further and thinner. But it will affect other areas.

I hope that my hon. Friend will take cognisance of what has been said. There is general alarm in the area. It is his duty. He is their Minister. The Department exists for the public's benefit. To satisfy the public he should say "Let us have all the facts. We shall have all the best brains, all the people who are knowledgeable about the subject. Let us discuss the issue." The Department should be more concerned. It has never made any statement about location and dispersal of the plants. How big should a plant be, and should it be allowed to expand? Location is very important, as is the size of plants, and this is an issue about which I hope that my hon. Friend will see whether anything can be done.

There is planning permission to extend the works, and it may be that in three or four years the company will make another application. Where is it to stop? This is why I have brought this matter to my hon. Friend's notice, and I hope that he can give me some information tonight which will allay the fears of my constituents.

12.30 a.m.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Normanton (Mr. Roberts) for providing this opportunity for a debate on Chloride Metals Limited. I congratulate him on the comparatively early hour of this Adjournment debate. When I last replied to a debate initiated by him, as he said, it was at five o'clock in the morning.

I know that people in the area are rightly concerned about the process of lead smelting, as are the Government, and I emphasise that there has been great Government concern for a long time. This Government and previous Governments, too, have been concerned, and Government publications on lead in the environment and its significance to man and on lead pollution in Birmingham were published by this Government long before there was any controversy in the House.

The Ten-Minute Bill yesterday was not given approval by this House. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Mr. Hamilton) was given permission to bring in a Bill to reduce lead in petrol from 0·40 grams to 0·15 grams per cubic litre by 1982. That Bill has still to be debated by this House.

At the moment, West Yorkshire metropolitan county council is considering a planning application for an extension to the works. It has not been granted. It still has to go before the county council, and it is the subject of much local controversy. I accept that that is so. I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand that I cannot comment on the merits of this or any other planning application at this stage. I cannot discount the possibility that the county council will reject the application, in which case the firm could appeal. If that happened, the appeal would come to my right hon. Friend in his quasi-judicial capacity. So that makes some difficulties for me.

May I comment on these recurring demands for the call-in of almost every town planning application that is made? My hon. Friend has talked about my Department having more power. Dozens of district councils are demanding that we call in various projects, whether they be for waste disposal tips or anything else. The general argument is that Whitehall does not know best and that it is the people on the spot who know best. I am sure that our decision to leave this matter to the county council is the right one.

I hope that I can provide some reply to the matters raised by my hon. Friend. This lead works at Thorpe has been in operation for about 20 years. It is engaged in the production of lead from scrap. Waste lead, including old batteries, is melted in a special furnace and converted into ingots. Some of the lead is also melted with flux to produce refined lead. At present, there are two smelting furnaces, one with a 219 ft. chimney and the other with a 110 ft. chimney. The works processes some 35,000 tons of scrap a year and operates on a continuous basis—24 hours a day and 365 days a year.

The smelting of lead is a scheduled process under the Alkali Act 1906, and the works is therefore registered with Her Majesty's Clean Air and Alkali Inspectorate. The firm, Chloride Metals, is required by the Alkali Act to use the best practicable means of preventing the discharge of noxious gases into the atmosphere and for rendering such gases, where discharged, harmless and inoffensive. If the Alkali Inspectorate is not satisfied that the best practicable means are being operated, it takes proceedings against the firm.

I suggest that this approach to pollution control of the best practicable means, endorsed by the Royal Commission on environmental pollution in its fifth report, is especially appropriate in such cases as this. It is flexible and it is a dynamic system which enables the electorate to update the requirements in the light of any new knowledge on the effects of atmospheric lead and in the light of any new technology by which emissions might be controlled more effectively.

Thus, the legal and administrative framework is sound. My understanding is that control is being effectively applied in practice also. Chloride Metals has liaised well with the Alkali Inspectorate on the implementation of emission controls at the existing works. It has a health and safety committee and it has a full-time health and safety representative. The company is, of course, concerned for the safety of the work force as well as that of local inhabitants.

Emissions from the chimneys are regularly monitored by the inspectorate, which is satisfied that concentrations of lead in the flue gases are well within its recommendations. I understand also from the inspectorate that the level of what I might call housekeeping by Chloride Metals is good. This can be as important as controlling emissions from the chimneys. For instance, it is important to spray gas to prevent it from being blown by the wind and to wash the wheels of vehicles leaving the site. This housekeeping is overseen not only by the Alkali Inspectorate but also by the factory inspectors of the Health and Safety Executive.

My hon. Friend is quite right to say that not all lead pollution comes out of the chimneys. There is leakage at some of the older factories in particular, and there is some lead pollution in the soil as a result. I shall come to that in a moment.

However, strict controls and good housekeeping do not in themselves mean that there is no pollution problem. Much depends, for example, on the extent to which airborne lead disperses in the local atmosphere, for its effects become insignificant if concentrations are sufficiently low where actual exposure occurs. I understand from the environmental health department of Leeds district council that it has carried out a number of surveys on the effects of lead in the local environment. These surveys started with a check on blood levels in children in 1972 and have included monitoring of levels in soil and crops, as well as airborne concentrations. As I understand it, the results show that the concentrations of airborne lead are not above those typical of streets in all cities.

Soil concentrations are high in the immediate vicinity of the works, or any other lead works, but fall off rapidly as the distance increases. I understand that a possible danger might arise from grazing on the reclaimed land on the nearby Robin Hood colliery tip site, and the council is considering whether this should be stopped. I am sure that the county council will bear all this in mind when considering whether an extension should be built.

I think it desirable that further monitoring should be carried out in the vicinity of the works, as the results of the surveys to date have not been conclusive.

What would my hon. Friend say about the houses within, say, 200 yards of the plant? People there grow their vegetables and fruit. Would he say that they should not eat those vegetables or fruit?

I am not prepared to say that at the moment, but I must remind my hon. Friend that there are many other examples of soil pollution. We have had an example recently in Somerset of pollution of the soil from works operating as long as 200 years ago. In that case, of course, the Department is being accused of being scare mongering and too fussy. But we look very carefully indeed at these matters.

Thorpe has been selected as one of the sites for an EEC survey on blood levels. Part of this EEC work involves sites where people may be exposed to significant sources of lead in their local environment. My Department, in agreement with the local authority, chose Thorpe as a site for further investigation, and the survey is to be carried out this spring in the area of the Chloride Metals works at Thorpe. At the present time, it is hoped that blood samples will be taken from at least 300 children under 12, plus all lead workers' children, and it is possible that this survey may be extended to include a larger number of children. Most of the blood samples will come from people within 1,000 yards of the lead works, but surveys will also be carried out on a comparable group of children in the Tingley area.

At the same time as the blood lead survey, my Department has arranged with Warren Spring laboratory to carry out air lead sampling in the same vicinity. Four sites will be used. It is also proposed that selective dust samples in houses will also be taken.

I agree with my hon. Friend that this is a problem. It affects the children of lead workers in particular, and lead in dust is a problem that we have to look at.

Additionally, the environmental health department of Leeds council is planning to embark on its own programme of local environmental monitoring in the vicinity. The council has yet to approve the funding of this programme, but I hope that the approval will be forthcoming. The monitoring of blood and environmental lead levels should provide a much clearer picture of any possible health hazard before any extension of the works goes ahead.

I turn now to the planning application by Chloride Metals Limited. This application was originally made to Leeds metropolitan district council. That council referred it to West Yorkshire metropolitan county council for decision as it would—if approved—have constituted a departure from the development plan for the area.

Again, because a departure from the plan was involved, the application was referred to the Secretary of State for him to consider whether he should call it in for his own decision. He decided earlier this month that it would not be appropriate to do so, and I understand that my hon. Friend received a letter on 4 January explaining the reasons. In brief, the application—I accept that it is of great local importance—does not raise issues of wider national importance of a nature which cannot be satisfactorily dealt with by a county council of the power and quality of South Yorkshire county council. I am sure it would not be welcomed if the Department were to intervene in what are essentially local decisions.

The decision, therefore, is for the county council. It has still not been taken. I am confident that the council will take full account of all the representations that have been made to it and give proper weight to all the various planning considerations—including the existence of other land uses in the area. But whatever decision the council arrives at will not relate to detailed air pollution controls. These remain a matter for the Alkali Inspectorate, which will continue to require the use of "the best practical means". If approval is given, the inspectorate will examine before the building and during the building and when it is completed. For instance, the proposed new extension includes a considerably higher chimney—450 ft. There will be scope for channelling, existing, as well as new, gases through the new chimney, so that it may well achieve a better dispersion of the total from the factory.

It should not, therefore, he assumed that an increase in the capacity of the works means an increase in any local hazard to health. The Alkali Inspectorate, in setting its requirements, will be able to take account of the results of the monitoring that is now going forward.

Perhaps I might now set all this in the broader context of the Government's policy on lead. I do not want to go into too much detail because the matter was debated at great length on 12 December when my right hon. Friend the Minister of State gave a full account of the Government's position. But it would be wrong to discuss one particular source of lead in isolation, especially as atmospheric lead makes a relatively minor contribution to lead in blood levels.

We take in lead not only from the air but also, and generally to a much greater degree, from food and from water. For most people, about 10 per cent. of blood lead comes from airborne lead inhaled. Diet contributes about two-thirds. For this reason, successive Governments have made a concerted effort to deal with the problem across the board.

The Government published in 1974 a comprehensive review of lead in the environment, in the foreword to which Anthony Crosland set out the guiding principles. He stated that the Government's objective was to ensure that, while the proper use of lead was not unnecessarily curtailed, the health of all sections of the community should not be put at risk and that every practicable measure should be taken to reduce exposure.

That remains Government policy. Action has already been taken to limit the lead content of foods, with special attention given to baby foods, of toys, of paint—once a major source of hazard to young children—of pottery glazes and of cosmetics, and the limit to the lead content of petrol has been progressively reduced so that total emissions from vehicles are no higher than they were several years ago, despite the increase in the number of vehicles.

The Government are preparing fresh regulations to reduce the limits on lead in a whole range of foods and also on lead in the workplace. We have well in hand a major exercise to identify areas where levels of lead in tap water are high and to deal with the problem by treating the water. If necessary, lead piping will be replaced. The latest in the series of regulations aimed at reducing the limit of lead in petrol to 0·40 g per litre on 1 January 1981 was laid before the House only this month.

In addition, the Government have a programme of research into lead pollution. A report on work at Harwell into lead pollution from vehicles which received much recent publicity formed part of the programme. The Harwell work is important because it suggests that people may absorb into their bodies more of the lead present in the air than had previously been thought. People exposed to very exceptional levels of lead in the air may even take up a similar amount from that source to that which they take in from food. None the less, it is also important to notice that the report says that for the great majority of people airborne lead contributes only about 10 per cent. of their total intake.

What we know of levels of lead pollution in this country suggests that, generally, levels in people's blood are within, and usually well within, the level regarded by the World Health Organisation as the normal upper limit. Recent studies published in the United States and Germany suggest that lower levels in children's blood may affect the level of learning and behavioural development. The Government take these suggestions very seriously indeed. The fact is, however, that they are by no means unreservedly accepted by scientists as a whole, and in some cases—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at fourteen minutes to One o'clock.