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Toxic Waste (Gwent)

Volume 82: debated on Tuesday 2 July 1985

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

11.53 pm

Yet again, I plead on behalf of my anxious and discomfited constituents for a public inquiry into the disposal of toxic waste in Gwent. It is a demand that has come repeatedly from Torfaen council and Gwent county council — which have been discourteously refused an interview with the Secretary of State for Wales—and from many environmental groups in the constituencies.

The concern expressed is not confined to my constituency. Although the Minister of State and the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Robinson) have received representations and invitations to meetings from their constituents, it is not to their credit that their only comments have been to support the Secretary of State for Wales in his characteristically insensitive and stubborn refusal to grant the public inquiry at which the frustrations, the fears and the facts could be formally ventilated.

I advise the Minister of State to take care. The Brecon candidate is on the point of discovering that he will be found guilty by association as one who is working for the unloved Secretary of State for Wales. If the Minister of State obsequiously persists in his condonation of the refusal by the Secretary of State, he will find that those of his constituents who are lamentably affected by the activities of ReChem International will be equally unforgiving. I understand that Torfaen is requesting the Minister's attendance—it is his council as well as mine — to explain his attitude. I hope that he will display more tact and understanding than his boss and will make haste to attend.

The problems stem from the profound mistrust that my constituents have for ReChem International and its claims. It is not surprising that the firm is mistrusted. It came into my constituency by trickery. Backed by the huge resources of the British parent company — The British Traction Company — ReChem must have known, if it had a scintilla of the technical accomplishments that it claims, that inevitably noxious fumes, smoke and smells would regurgitate, as they now do, out of the stack, sometimes by day but usually by night. Nevertheless, the company gave assurances to the small local authorities then in existence, which were hungry for employment, that there would be no nuisance and no impingement upon a desirable residential area and nearby valuable farming and pastoral land. It duped the local authorities.

From the company's first days of arrival, there have been never-ending and justifiable complaints. Each surgery that I hold in my constituency brings fresh complaints. At my last surgery, I was seen by a lady who went into her garden in March, when suddenly a plume of smoke came from the factory and blew into her face. Her eyes immediately started to burn and, after notifying the factory straight away, her condition deteriorated and she was admitted to St. Woolos hospital. Now she has been told that she is likely to lose the sight of one eye. I do not know whether the plume of smoke acted as the catalyst or the cause of her condition, but I am still awaiting ReChem's comments on the matter. I hope that the Secretary of State for Wales who, parrot-like, always defends this company by saying that there is no evidence to justify the holding of any public inquiry, will give the assurance that he will make immediate inquiries into this lamentable incident.

The precipitating causes of my requesting this debate are threefold. First, there is the discovery by the BBC's investigating team of the deadly poison PCB in a capacitator on the Tirpentwys site used regularly by ReChem for dumping. Secondly, there is the evidence which has become available in recent days from the Government Chemist which reveals that the ReChem claim—that it does not emit the dangerous chemicals of dioxins or furans—is false and that the incinerator ash taken to the landfilling site includes measurable quantities of both deadly chemicals in the most dangerous isomer group, the Tetra group. Thirdly, the contents of the June reports of the hazardous waste inspectorate have revealed the appalling manner in which hazardous waste is nationally managed and the consequences that flow from this in Gwent.

On each of those three points I put these questions to the Under-Secretary of State: why does the Secretary of State, in his desperate efforts always to protect ReChem, so strenuously seek to suggest that the discovered capacitator did not come from ReChem? That point was disbelieved by my council, my constituents and me. Is this not the far more likely hypothesis—that the system of control at ReChem allowed the capacitator to be brought in to the works and to pass out without having been dealt with at all, or after having been inadequately dealt with by incineration? What interest always prompts the Secretary of State to find excuses for ReChem?

Why, while taunting the Torfaen council that it has shown insufficient cause to hold a public inquiry, does the Secretary of State thwart the council's efforts to have thorough environmental investigations by persistently refusing to assist the funding of the needed investigation by refusing to disregard the extra expenditure of the target expenditure permitted by this Government to Torfaen council?

It was a shameless shifting of responsibility to Torfaen ratepayers for the Welsh Office to write to the council on 11 February this year saying that the Secretary of State for Wales
"does not consider that, in this instance, a case exists for a disregard. He is aware of the background to your application and appreciates that the proposed expenditure could well make a valuable contribution to a wider understanding of emissions in the area. He strongly believes, however, that if your Council feels that the monitoring is essential to meet its public health responsibilities, it must absorb the additional spending involved within its target level of expenditure."
Why should the ratepayers of Torfaen be required to pay to investigate the havoc wrought by ReChem because that company, avaricious for profits, is allowed by the Government to import for incineration thousands of tons of hazardous waste through Newport from Holland and Ireland?

Perhaps my most important question to the Minister is this. Last week the Government Chemist certified that the incinerated ash at ReChem set to the Government Chemist by my local authority showed the presence in it of deadly dioxins and furans in the most deadly isomer group. What action are the Government taking in the light of that new evidence? The matter cannot be delayed. Given the well publicised and acknowledged deficiency in ReChem's flue gas cleaning system, from this week on my constituents can look at the emissions coming from ReChem's chimneys and believe as reasonable men and women that deadly dioxins and furans may be falling on them and their children. What reassurance, can the Minister give my constituents today?

What is the Government's reaction to the ominous statement released yesterday by the Welsh water authority that ReChem is discharging PCBs into the sewers? The statement makes it clear that those fearsome chemicals have now entered the Ponthin treatment works and the water authority feels compelled to extend investigations to cover all sewerage works in its south-east division. That bare and taciturn statement will of itself send a chill throughout Gwent. Will the Minister now explain the significance of that statement? Can he genuinely and with conviction put a reassuring gloss on it to relieve the anxieties that are now bound to arise?

Does the Minister accept the validity of the recent request by the industrial air pollution inspectorate to Torfaen council saying that the inspectorate must be consulted on virtually all types of proposed new development within a 1¼ mile radius of ReChem? If the Secretary of State for Wales is so confident that our complaints are groundless, is the Minister prepared to tell the council that that request should be ignored? If he supports the request, why does he do so? Does he realise that if he supports the inspectorate we are justified in describing ReChem as a curse upon our valley, sterilising an area of prime industrial and residential land, engendering doubt and unease among all the industries and inhabitants in the area, inevitably depressing house prices and thus robbing the many proud home owners in Panteg? Is it any wonder that all of us in Torfaen want ReChem to quit our valley?

My next question concerns the tip at Tirpentwys. All the problems there arise primarily because ReChem and its associates disgorge their waste there. Not surprisingly, there is deep feeling in the area that in the battle of priorities for the limited funds at the council's disposal as a result of the Government's squeeze serious security and supervisory deficiencies have arisen. I am sure that the council will now remedy that, whatever the cost, and it must be done speedily. But why should my ratepayers be called upon to pay for this absolutely necessary work and supervision? Why should they have to pay to contain the industrial waste, not only of areas outside my constituency in Britain, but of the Dutch and the Irish, to swell ReChem's profits? It is high time that the Government banned the importation of toxic waste, even as they now intend to ban the importation of asbestos waste.

My final question relates to the hazardous waste inspectorate's recent revelation that, although a high proportion of the 5,000 tonnes imported into Britain comes through Newport, the contracting importer—presumably ReChem — has failed to appoint a port agent and, therefore, defeats the main purpose of the Control of Pollution Regulations. What is the Secretary of State doing to remedy what the inspectorate last month called "this unsatisfactory situation"?

I could ask many more questions, but I am aware that the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin) wishes to speak, and I am deeply anxious to have replies, at least to my third and fourth questions.

I hope that the Minister realises that in 1972 the Royal Commission on environmental pollution said that the public should be entitled to
"the fullest possible amount of information on all forms of environmental pollution, with the onus placed on the polluter to substantiate claims for exceptional treatment."
The Royal Commission made the overriding recommendation that
"a guiding principle behind all legislative and administrative controls relating to environmental pollution should be a presumption in favour of unrestricted access for the public to information which the pollution control authorities obtain or receive by virtue of their statutory powers, with provision for secrecy only in those circumstances where a genuine case for it can be substantiated."
Those principles, which the Government are supposed to have accepted, can be implemented only if the Government reconsider their position and permit us to have a proper and exhaustive public inquiry. I am sure that, when all the evidence has been tested, the result will reveal overwhelmingly the need for ReChem to be moved from my constituency.

12.6 am

I thank the hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Abse) and the Minister for giving me a minute to make a short intervention.

I have listened with interest to what the hon. Gentleman said, and I support him because my constituency is now the only other one with a ReChem plant. I thank his constituents in Gwent for their advice and help regarding public anxiety about ReChem's operations. I congratulate the Government, local authorities, the various inspectorates and the company on the way in which they have responded to public anxiety about hazardous waste disposal.

ReChem International's plants at Hythe, which does not at present dispose of PCBs, and, no doubt, in Gwent must now be the most monitored and inspected plants in the country. I have one question, which corresponds with one of the hon. Gentleman's questions. It is all very well for the company's operations to be safe and monitored, but they must be seen by the public to be safe. Therefore, I ask the Government to give the green light to the Environmental Pollution Information Bill, which my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman) introduced last week. It would implement paragraph 21 of the Government's response to the 10th report of the Royal Commission on environmental pollution, and would give our citizens the right to see information on monitoring and hazardous assessments, without which fears about ReChem are bound to persist.

Most of us fear the unknown. Freedom of information is what we require.

12.10 am

The hon. Member for Torfaen (Mr. Abse) has expressed his concern and reflected local anxiety about the alleged effect on human health of the processes undertaken by the ReChem plant at Pontypool. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Welsh Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Robinson) and I have also taken these anxieties extremely seriously. I can assure the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that we shall not shrink from taking whatever action is open to us if the evidence suggests that there is a threat to the health of the local population. That has been our position from the outset and so it remains.

Our clear duty, and one which we have pursued vigorously from the start, is to obtain and examine evidence that might indicate whether such a threat exists. A considerable effort has been put into that by the Department and so far it has not confirmed the allegations.

The hon. Member for Torfaen referred to a lady who is suffering from some eye trouble. I am aware of that case through the industrial air pollution inspectorate, which examined the circumstances. My officials will be raising the matter with Gwent district health authority. The hon. Gentleman has called for a public inquiry and so have Gwent county council and Torfaen council. I believe that a petition is being prepared. We have said repeatedly in answer to representations that no link has been found between the activity at the ReChem incinerator and animal or human health in the area.

The considerable amount of work that we have done, the inquiry of Professor Lenihan in Scotland and other work that has been commissioned privately all points the same way. There is nothing unusual about the general health of the people in the vicinity of the ReChem plant. Animal morbidity appears to be related to well recognised causes and the levels of PCBs, dioxins and other possible environmental contaminants are not different significantly from those that might be found elsewhere.

Responsibility for monitoring the operation of the ReChem incinerator plant rests primarily with Her Majesty's industrial air pollution inspectorate. If the ReChem company were to fail to meet criteria which the inspectorate has set, or may set in future, or if the inspectorate considered that there was a danger to public health, it has the power to close the incinerator. The inspectorate has assured me that the plant has met the best practicable means standards that have been set. The plant is 10 years old and the technology of incineration has advanced. There have been considerable improvements by way of modifications over the years of the plant's operation. I look to the inspectorate to decide when further improvement or replacement is necessary and to require that work to be carried out within a reasonable time scale.

We have no evidence that would justify holding an inquiry, but we have said throughout that despite the absence of any evidence we are continuing to keep an open mind on the subject and will continue to consider carefully any real evidence that might suggest a need for further work in the vicinity of the plant. If we consider that such work is justified, we shall ensure that it is carried out. If we judge that there is a need for an inquiry, that, too, will be undertaken.

The hon. Member for Torfaen mentioned the report of the hazardous waste inspectorate, which was published last month. The report refers to the pressures focused on the plant at Pontypool and the calls for an inquiry. The report acknowledges that high temperature incineration is the best practicable environmental option for the disposal of a significant proportion of the more hazardous wastes arising in the United Kingdom. We must not underestimate the importance of the plant. Without it, wastes in the United Kingdom would not be properly disposed of. I understand that imports amounted to 1,500 tonnes in 1984.

The hazardous waste inspectorate has clearly stated that further closures of merchant incinerators, as they are called, will result in the best practicable environmental option for disposal being unavailable for some of the more hazardous wastes. The hon. Gentleman has read the report, and I am sure that he has seen that section. The inspectorate finds the results of the medical and statistical work undertaken to be reassuring and in its view it reinforces the repeated statements by the regulatory authority and the plant operator that the facilities are operated safely and efficiently.

We accept that more information is needed on dioxins in the environment, as they are known to be a by-product of many forms of low temperature combustion. We are taking steps to find out more about them. We know that dioxins exist in the environment nationwide. We accept that there is a need for the subject to be researched further, but if the presence of dioxin is a problem, it is national and not local. We have discussed the practicalities of further research with other Government colleagues, and a contract has now been let to determine the level of polychlorinated dibenzo dioxins, and polychlorinated dibenzofurans in the soils, with the aim of adding to our knowledge of what is normal, what is safe and what might be a cause for concern.

I take note of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin), but the industrial air pollution inspectorate gives as much information to the public as is practicable within the restrictions of confidentiality imposed by statute. The inspectorate also encourages individual works to be as open as possible with the release of atmospheric emission data. The inspectorate publishes reports by the chief inspector and by individual district inspectors, and these reports are available to the public. The hazardous waste inspectorate operates on similar lines, as my hon. Friend knows from his recent contacts with that body.

The hon. Member for Torfaen referred to the BBC "Newsnight" programme. Following media reports about the finding of a partially burnt capacitor at the Tirpentwys landfill site and the allegation that it had come from ReChem, we have made inquiries, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to the hon. Member recently about this aspect. In his letter, my right hon. Friend explained that, as the capacitor taken for analysis had not undergone complete thermal degradation, it was not surprising that it contained a significant quantity of PCBs. Although it was alleged that the partially burnt capacitor had come from ReChem, this has not been substantiated.

The hon. Gentleman does not attach much weight to that point, but my information is that no PCBs were found in any of the samples taken by the "Newsnight" team, other than the one partially burnt capacitor winding featured in the programme. Others had been completely incinerated and appeared on analysis to be typical of what might be expected in the incinerator ash. The level of PCB contamination in the exception, and its general condition when found, suggest that it has been drained before being dumped, and I am told that that is not what normally happens at ReChem. Therefore, it is unlikely to have come from that company.

The hon. Gentleman has said that the local authority has recently begun sampling chemical wastes from the plant, which is waste deposited at Tirpentwys. I understand that the PCB content has been much lower than might be expected in ordinary domestic refuse, but the hon. Gentleman suggests otherwise. I shall look into what he said about the local authority's monitoring. The Welsh water authority has carried out tests on the leachates from the site, and no PCBs have been found within its limits of detection. The hon. Gentleman mentioned that, and I understand that there is a range of figures of PCB contamination of effluents from ReChem, the lower end of which is no more than one would expect to find as a background level in water and the higher of which is, on the face of it, worthy of further investigation although it is within the levels found in polluted lake waters. Again, we shall pursue the matter.

The "Newsnight" team's finding has highlighted the conditions at the Tirpentwys landfill site and the serious security and supervisory deficiencies there which left it open to casual and unauthorised tipping. The hazardous waste inspectorate has visited the site four times recently and it has been in correspondence with Torfaen borough council about its condition. The council has given assurances that site security will be improved but, as recently as last week, fly tipping and unauthorised entry were still taking place. This is very serious but, regrettably, it is not untypical of waste disposal sites. The hazardous waste inspectorate's first report makes that only too clear.

There is no doubt that the proper handling of special/hazardous wastes calls for considerable expertise. Professional knowledge and experience are extremely important and are becoming more so. Torfaen borough council has a large responsibility in relation to the complex subject of hazardous waste disposal. It has responsibilities as the licensing authority for the incinerator plant and the Tirpentwys landfill site and it is responsible for seeing that its licensing conditions are met.

The council has asked for extra resources to undertake a programme of environmental monitoring, but it is part of a local authority's responsibility to undertake whatever monitoring it judges to be necessary. I understand that a meeting was recently convened by the industrial air pollution inspectorate with Torfaen borough council and ReChem to discuss the formation and operation of a local liaison committee as quickly as possible. I hope that this committee will soon be meeting and that, fully supported by community interests, it will be a useful forum for a rational interchange of information.

There are few waste disposal sites in Wales which are formally designated as suitable for hazardous wastes. Tirpentwys is one of them in a limited way, and it is imperative that those few should be operated to proper and acceptable standards. I have emphasised that to waste disposal authorities in Wales and I am anxious that the should perform all aspects of waste management properly.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o' clock on Tuesday 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 twenty three minutes past Twelve o'clock.