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Incinerators (Toxic Emissions)

Volume 113: debated on Friday 3 April 1987

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

Order. I have proposed the Question. The hon. Gentleman is now taking time out of the Adjournment, which I am sure he does not intend to do.

3.2 pm

My interest in the subject was prompted by a proposal by Urban Waste and Power Ltd to construct a power generation and resource recovery unit on a site in Stonebridge lane in Liverpool, adjacent to the Kirkby part of my constituency. Initially, local residents with my support and with that of the local authority, Knowsley borough council, raised objections. However, in the event, Liverpool city council granted planning permission.

Although I have no reason to belive that anything irregular has taken place in the procedures, I am concerned that a letter of 10 December 1986 from the chief environmental officer of Liverpool was not given weight in the procedure. He said:
"I am somewhat doubtful that my officers, or those of HM's Industrial Air Pollution Inspectorate could enforce adequate and effective control of the emissions by plant management. The use of limestone and fluidised bed is mentioned. However, I assume that this may place an additional operating cost against the process, and emission control may be allowed to fall below the appropriate level, thus enhancing the profitability aspect of the operation at the expense of the Merseyside's environment."
Because we were concerned about the precise details of the proposals, residents in the Field lane area of Kirkby and I started to research what was involved in the plant. In the United Kingdom, there are several examples of such plants, although I cannot say with any certainty that the proposal will have the same effect. They are causing serious problems locally. One is in the Rhondda in south Wales and the other is in Runcorn, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Mr. Oakes).

On the excellent BBC Radio 4 programme "Face the Facts" on 21 January 1987, a Runcorn resident, Mr. Prince, made the following point, which my constituents and I are worried about. He said:
"I was being woken up in the early hours of the morning feeling nauseous. My daughter was physically sick on two occasions, and my wife and I were constantly complaining of things like headaches, running noses, running eyes, sore throats, etc.".
Although the Runcorn plant is currently closed down, I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Halton is concerned about the effect that it has had on his constituents. I understand also that the Rhondda plant is currently closed down.

The cause of concern, particularly for my constituents in the Field lane area of Kirkby, arises from their fear that the plant might have a harmful effect on their health. The problem arises from the possible emission of dioxins, which can be produced when household rubbish containing PVC is burned. That process can produce, when attached to cholorine or bromine, chlorinated dibenzofurans, which can be harmful to people's health. The only way in which PVC can be removed or rendered harmless is by having a sufficient and consistently high burning temperature or by thorough and exhaustive sorting of the rubbish.

One of the foremost experts on the subject, Dr. Alistair Hay of Leeds university, has estimated that a burning temperature of 1,300 deg C. should be high enough, but even in plants that can operate at that temperature, it is difficult, in operation, to ensure that such a temperature is consistently mantained. To sort such waste properly would probably render the process uneconomic as it would require either a large increase in the initial capital costs or a painstaking and costly manual process.

In New York state and in Sweden steps have been taken, because of the alarm at the consequences of dioxin emissions, to control those plants. In Sweden, stringent safety limits have been applied following a 12-month halt in the construction of those plants. In America, unacceptably high levels of dioxin have been found in nursing mothers' milk, because toxic emissions are not just breathed in—they can be ingested through the food that we eat. In New York state equally stringent controls have been applied.

Speaking on the "Face the Facts" programme, the eminent scientist Paul Connett made the following point:
"If you calculate what level of dose you would get from a quart of milk from a cow grazing on grass at the same point that you were breathing, you would get several hundred times as much dioxin exposure from that quart of milk than from breathing the air for a whole day. Put it another way, one quart of milk is equivalent to about eight months of breathing at the same point that the cow is grazing. Now that's a very important point because in the United States when they do a health risk analysis when they're proposing to build a plant, they will base it on what people breathe, and they very seldom calculate what people will be exposed to via the food chains."

I do not believe that anybody in authority could put his hand on his heart and assure my constituents or other interested parties that those processes are safe. Indeed, my constituents are now so concerned that yesterday they picketed and prevented the opening ceremony taking place at the incinerator site.

The Liverpool Echo, which is a responsible journal and covers my area, stated yesterday in covering the issue:
"Dioxins have been linked with deformities in babies and cancer and were used in the Vietnam War under the codename Agent Orange to destroy vegetation."

Dr. Alistair Hay tends to support that view, when he concluded:
"People are right to be concerned, and I think governments are getting in on the act rather late in the day. In the meantime we should make sure that we don't generate more dioxin, and all incinerators ought to be thoroughly monitored to ensure that we're not creating a problem for the future."
Ideally, I want all new plants under construction to be stopped, unless and until the public can be assured about the health concerns, which I find most worrying. However, if the Government are unwilling to do that, I ask them to consider some of the following points.

I want the Government to call in all planning consents, including the one that applies to the plant that is adjacent to my constituency, until they can give proper assurances. Failing that, I should like a public inquiry into the proposal, so that the issues can be fully explored and the evidence of experts heard. I want the Minister to introduce a new monitoring and control procedure for the plants, which would set ambient air quality standards, lay down a proper standard for dioxin emissions and monitor stack plume emissions.

My concern, and that of my constituents, is to ensure that the local population, and particularly nursing mothers, are not subjected to any additional health hazards by the unhappy coincidence of living near such plants.

I cannot believe that, as matters stand, such assurances can honestly be given. It is therefore urgent that adequate steps be taken to monitor and control the plant. The health and welfare of my constituents is no less important than those of the people of New York state or of Sweden.

I asked for this debate not out of a wish to generate alarm or to score a party political point, but from a genuine desire to have the subject discussed and action taken to protect my constituents. I hope that the Minister will pursue the matter in the same spirit as that in which I have raised it.

3.12 pm

I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) for allowing me to intervene in his Adjournment debate, because the proposed resource recovery and power generation plant that is to be built at Gillmoss is sited in my constituency, although most of the houses in the immediate vicinity happen to be in that of my hon. Friend. Croxteth housing estate in my constituency is, however, only about one mile away and there is much concern in that area.

My information is that the plant will not be so much an incinerator as a high technology boiler, the main aim of which will be to provide sufficient steam to generate electricity. The purpose of the incinerator is to recycle waste into electricity. I believe that the chimney stack is to be 92m high and not, as originally planned, 60m. That was a result of a recommendation of the Health and Safety Executive. The emissions will be monitored, and I understand that permanent apparatus is to be installed. The emissions will be within the current EEC standards, which are higher than those that currently apply in the United Kingdom.

Nevertheless, there is deep disquiet and great public concern in my constituency. My constituents expect some action to be taken to give them the necessary reassurances. Such concern is to be expected in the post-Chernobyl period. Given the amount of misinformation and the many misconceptions about the plant, my constituents need convincing reassurances.

There should be a full public inquiry or, failing that, perhaps the Minister would instigate a departmental inquiry, call in the planning application, examine it fully and make a full statement on the matter.

3.14 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. Christopher Chope)

In the time that is available it is not possible to go fully into the detail of this issue, which is of importance locally and internationally. The new plants are being constructed to higher standards, for the most part, than the existing ones.

We must not lose sight of the fact that incineration of waste is not new. In 1914, the United Kingdom operated 300 incineration plants. While many incorporated some form of energy recovery, their primary objective was to reduce bulk and to make waste hygienic to handle arid dispose of. Typically, in the United Kingdom incineration reduces the volume of waste by 85 per cent., destroying putrescible matter and leaving a largely inert ash. We incinerate 10 per cent. of municipal waste arising in 36 incinerators. Luxembourg incinerates more than 75 per cent. in one incinerator, France 40 per cent. in 200, Denmark 66 per cent. in 48 and Sweden 60 per cent. in 25 incinerators. The practice of waste incineration is widespread but it is less practised in this country than in many others. Obviously, environmental benefits flow from it, although people in the constituencies represented by the hon. Members for Knowsley, North (Mr. Howarth) and for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) are anxious about the matter.

The facts about this application are that a planned new privately owned power station burning domestic refuse is to be built by Urban Waste and Power Ltd. in Liverpool, close to the constituency of the hon. Member for Knowsley, North and in the constituency of the hon. Member for West Derby. This is a matter for local decision although under our new proposals this type of plant is of a size to come under the control of Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution. I understand that Liverpool city council has accepted a recommendation from Her Majesty's district inspector of pollution that the proposed chimney height should be raised to 92m to take account of nearby high-rise flats. I understand that it was the district inspector who made the recommendation and not the Health and Safety Executive.

On the basis of the information provided by the company, the plant appears to offer good combustion control. My technical advisers at the Department of Trade and Industry's Warren Spring laboratory, working under contract to the Department of the Environment, will want to monitor progress carefully. I understand that the Liverpool plant will be fitted with an electrostatic precipitator which, if it is of the right design, ought to offer very high particulate arrestment.

The Government are concerned about incinerators and that is why we have discussed in a consultation paper a proposed new control system. The consultation paper was issued in December and I think that submissions had to be in by March. We hope that the proposals in that paper can be implemented at an early opportunity in the form of legislation or regulations, whichever may be appropriate. An inter-departmental committee is looking at the pollution potential from the combustion of waste and is reviewing the information available on emissions as a first step towards the production of further guidance on incineration.

We began in 1984 a major programme of tests to measure emissions, particularly of dioxins, from municipal incinerators. We are awaiting expert assessment of the significance of dioxins from the DHSS committee on toxicity, a committee consisting of independent experts in the fields of medicines and toxology. Research is also being carried out to establish background levels of dioxins in soils and foliage on a 50 km grid to calculate the contribution of suspected sources. We are awaiting the outcome of our test programmes and of DHSS consideration before setting new regulations.

Results of the tests on 11 incinerators are available and a further three are under test. We intend to take more detailed measurements from three of the well-run incinerators with different gas cooling systems to assess the effects on dioxin production of time turbulence and temperature within the incinerator. We are anxious to keep operators informed of findings to date. Last October officials from the Department of the Environment held a large seminar for all municipal incinerator operators to inform them of the importance of correct maintenance and operation. A further seminar is planned when more is known about the effects of dioxins and how they may be formed.

This is a technical subject but I hope that in the short time available I have been able to demonstrate to the hon. Gentlemen that the Government are taking this seriously and have set up many inquiries into it. The people in the vicinity should not be greatly concerned, because of the care that we take about this and because of the careful monitoring that will be carried out. If the hon. Member for Knowsley, North wishes to discuss this further with technical advisers in my Department, I shall be delighted to facilitate him.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Three o'clock.