Skip to main content

Leigh Environmental Ltd

Volume 168: debated on Wednesday 28 February 1990

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

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

I cannot say that I was rudely interrupted. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) raised an important constituency matter that affects his constituents, just as my subject concerns my constituents.

Following the 1986 explosion, the Killamarsh residents action committee—KRAC—was formed. I attended some of its early meetings as the parliamentary candidate in the area at the time. The organisation campaigned for a public inquiry into the explosion. Dramatic pictures of the event showed the mass of smoke that was carried over the housing which I have described. Eventually, a deputation was organised, comprising representatives of the parish council and KRAC, and I represented the former Member of Parliament, Ray Ellis. We met the Minister with responsibility for small firms—the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier). Although we did not receive a definite response from him, part of his argument was that the responsibilities were not his but those of the Department of the Environment and that he would send a fairly favourable letter to the appropriate Minister. That occurred.

In the meantime a general election took place. Following the election, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen was given a job in the Department of the Environment so that the letter that he had sent landed on his own desk. When I first arrived in the House I attempted to ensure that a public inquiry took place and that the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen would respond to the letter. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful because he was operating in a different Department under a slightly different regime from the previous one.

The next serious incident was associated with the possible arrival in this country of the Karin B. It was due to arrive with a cargo of toxic waste in a bad condition during the August bank holiday period in 1989. The arrangements seemed to have been made involving the Italian Government and Leigh Environmental interests. I suspected that the arrangements also involved the Department of the Environment. The proposal was to bring the leaky cargo on a German ship into Britain. I have never been able to unearth that unholy alliance, but Leigh Environmental was very much to the fore of the arrival of the Karin B. It said that it was willing to handle the problem.

But for the activity of Friends of the Earth, which alerted us to the difficulty, some of that material could well have ended up in this country and could have been in transit at Killamarsh which is at the northern end of the constituency of Derbyshire, North-East. It is a highly populated area which in the north fits into the Sheffield and Rotherham conurbation. It is dangerous for that type of material to move through such an area.

At one stage Edward Wilkinson of Leigh Environmental admitted that there was a possibility that the material would arrive in Killamarsh, although it was later denied. Leigh Environmental seemed willing to accept popular criticism of the role that it was playing because it found distinct commercial advantages in showing that it had a market, could deal with the material and was in competition with other firms handling waste and toxic material. The firm was receiving free publicity that was bad in environmental terms but was good for it in commercial terms.

A third incident in 1988 involved solvent smells, which are a regular problem. There is difficulty in checking the smells because by the time that the environmental health officer arrives from North-East Derbyshire district council offices in Chesterfield, it is difficult to trace the smells. However, on 28 April 1988 the pollution inspector, Mr. Tomlinson, was in the area and could be contacted. He discovered what the smells were and attributed them to the firm. Although it was not in his area of responsibility—perhaps his area of responsibility is not sufficiently wide—he persuaded the firm to end its processes at that stage, even though the environmental health officers from the district council could not trace the smell.

In another recent incident, because of emissions in the area and the danger and smell from them, the headmaster of a junior school kept the children in the school until the area seemed clear. There was a further incident at the end of 1989 in which discharges into the sewers occurred on a wide scale. There was considerable distress among people in the area. The company claimed that the information from the Yorkshire water authority about the samples of the discharges was
"commercially confidential between ourselves and the Water Authority."
After being contacted by me, the company offered to supply me with that information confidentially. I refused because that information needs to be known within the community. I recognise that detective work could try to discover aspects of that information. Section 117 of the Water Act 1989 might be applied. If enforcement notices were served, the information would be available on a register under the 1988 legislation on the environment and safety information—or at least it could be. To protect the work force, the 1988 Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations might apply. There is not time to go into the details, but those are all problem areas. We should be able much more readily to understand what is happening.

The problems of ensuring that the site is well run seem to stem, first, from the fact that a variety of bodies are responsible for its inspection. They include the North-East Derbyshire district council environmental health officer; Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution; Derbyshire county council; the planning authority for the area, which is concerned with the operation of the incinerators that I have described, the Health and Safety Executive, the factory inspectors and, for the sewers, the Yorkshire water authority and, presumably, the National Rivers Authority. Therefore, there is a problem of co-ordination.

There is also a problem with the stretching of planning permission. Leigh Environmental Ltd. is a specialist at attempting to move into areas, taking over and extending former planning permission. That has happened with potential toxic waste disposal at Lumshill quarry near Matlock, which is just outside my constituency of Derbyshire, North-East, although Derbyshire county council has now been able to prevent toxic usage there.

The collapse of the Killamarsh-Polymeric liaison committee in late 1987 also created difficulties. I understand that the committee was re-established last month. However, that shows the great problems about seeking to gain consultation involving the residents' organised body, KRAC, the parish council and others who represent the area. That was always an avenue of considerable tension in the days when the committee was chaired by the pollution inspector. Later, when the previous pollution inspector no longer fulfilled that function, there was a problem about who would chair the body. That problem has finally been resolved by a joint chairmanship agreement.

Leigh Environmental Ltd.'s reputation in areas such as Lumshill and Doncaster, where there are incinerator problems, means that people are bound to be concerned about the company's activities.

Therefore, what can be done? First, we need freedom of information legislation to ensure that information such as that collected about the sewers is readily available. We need to ensure that air pollution is closely monitored and understood within the community. There should also be research into the health of the residents of the area to ascertain whether they have been affected in any way by the operations. Are the fears of those in the area well founded or is it said that in some way the smells are "merely" an inconvenience? They are a massive inconvenience and disturbance to those concerned. It is likely that smells from modern chemical disposal plants will cause serious concern in built-up areas.

There should be improved inspection co-ordination to provide better control of processes. It may be that, under environmental protection provisions, there are opportunities to extend co-operation. The combined findings of the various inspectorates that look into these matters should be readily available to the public, and environmental protection legislation should make it impossible for any undertaking to take over existing planning permission. Such an undertaking should have to start from scratch.

Above all, it seems to me, better consultation with parish councils and with residents' organisations requires the force of law. I mentioned earlier a case in which I had been involved. It concerned the construction of a road. Under the terms of the operation, there was an obligation to consult the local population. There was a great outcry about the development, and public meetings were held. Exactly the type of arrangement about which I am talking was brought into operation. In respect of environmental issues, that kind of arrangement is necessary on a more substantial and more regular basis.

It is held by many that nothing is more important than environmental issues. If we all now have something of a green tint, I hope that the Government will take on board some of the matters that I have raised. I hope also that those in the Leigh company who are concerned with environmental issues are listening and that they will respond to the feelings that I have expressed on behalf of the community.

10.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) on securing this debate and on the way in which he has presented the concerns and anxieties of his constituents, particularly those who live in the vicinity of the Killamarsh plant. The situation is indeed complex, and, like the hon. Gentleman, I shall begin my response by setting out a little of the history of the site over the past decade or so.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the site, until 1979, had operated as a tar works. In those days there were a few complaints, primarily about odours. The site was then bought by Polymeric Treatments Ltd. and was operated as a separation and distillation plant for tar and oil-contaminated waste waters, for which it was registered with Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution, and for other processes involving heating and distillation, the storage and sorting of wastes, the neutralisation of acid pickling liquors, and the use of boilers for raising steam.

The inspectorate received a few complaints about odours from materials handled and stored on the site. One of the major offenders was a waste water lagoon used to separate oil and tar contamination from waste water. This process had been going on for almost a century, and continued until 1982.

In 1980 the boiler plant was converted to the burning of contaminated waste solvents. A plant was installed for the recovery of waste paint solvents in 1983. In 1985, the waste disposal licence was extended, and the company was permitted to remove PCBs and to decontaminate transformers and capacitors. All PCBs from this work were removed from the site for incineration elsewhere. Decontaminated steel casings were recycled by the steel industry. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, this work ceased in 1986, and permission was rescinded. An aerosol can destruction plant was also located on the site. In 1986 a fire occurred. The company was prosecuted by Her Majesty's factory and agricultural inspectorate, and the processes and the associated plant are no longer in operation.

A new chemical incineration plant for slightly contaminated solvents was proposed in 1987 and included waste-heat recovery via steam generation. I should explain that high standards of purity are required for many solvents and those that cannot be recovered economically must be disposed of safely. Estimates of the quantity of waste solvent produced each year in the United Kingdom are as high as 50 million litres. In fact, the history of this site must be set against the need for the country to dispose of the waste that it produces. The regulatory framework ensures that there is effective control over the disposal of all wastes.

It may help if I summarise the current processes on the site and their regulation. The lagoons are no longer in use and may only be filled with inert material. The neutralisation of acids and the sorting and storage of wastes, other than those that are scheduled processes, are regulated by Derbyshire county council. Solid wastes resulting from acid neutralisation are disposed of on another site. The remaining two processes are more difficult in that they can both give rise to odours. They are solvent recovery and incineration.

Organic solvent recovery is regulated by North-East Derbyshire district council. This will change under the present proposals in the Environmental Protection Bill and solvent recovery by distillation will be a scheduled process to be regulated by HMIP. The schedule for chemical incineration works was amended in 1983 and the regulation of waste paint solvent incineration was then transferred to HMIP. At that time, improvements were requested for the old plant, but there was little business and the company decided not to use the plant any longer.

In 1987, detailed proposals were submitted to HMIP for burning slightly contaminated solvents on the site in newly purchased incinerators. The site was registered early in 1988 in accordance with the Alkali, etc., Works Regulation Act 1906. Three incineration units are on the site. "Best practicable means" were prescribed by HMIP in accordance with the requirements of section 5 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. The "means" relate to the operation of plant and limit the emissions from the plant. In addition, HMIP is given details of the analysis of feed materials before incineration of each batch.

The company has been prosecuted under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act. 1974 following the fire on the aerosol plant and also, in 1982, under the Clean Air Act 1968 for smoke emissions from the boiler plant. However, it has been the nuisance from odours that has caused the local residents most concern and has given rise to the largest number of complaints. There has been a steady improvement in performance of the plant, and North-East Derbyshire district council stated in 1989 that there had been a reduction in complaints about the plant in recent weeks by local residents. Odour nuisances are generally of a transitory nature. The main source of odours has now been traced to the solvent recovery plant and the associated drum-crushing plant. Advice was given by HMIP to the district council on possible improvements. The implementation of the improvements required careful safety evaluation, but I understand they will be completed during April of this year.

The continued improvement to the site roads and the hard standing will allow housekeeping to be improved, and thereby reduce odours from storage and movement. The infilling of the lagoon for which approval was given in 1987 after a public inquiry will eliminate periodic odour from this source. Yorkshire Water is content that water from the works no longer gives regular odour problems. In reply to the hon. Gentleman, I am assured that the smells which were associated with the public sewage system last December were due to animal products and not to the works.

Inspectors from HMIP have been closely involved both in the regulation of this site and in liaising very closely with other regulatory authorities. In 1988 a total of 55 visits were made and in 1989 a total of 36 visits, including visits to observe reported emissions of smoke or fume. Two complaints have been received in the past few months from the junior school at Killamarsh, when visible white emissions caused by alkali fume from the materials burned were noted. The letter to the district council environmental health department was sent to HMIP for comment and reply, and I am glad that inspectors were able to respond in detail.

I do not wish to diminish or minimise the concerns expressed by local residents and the school. The matter has received close attention from the regulatory authorities. They are vigilant to ensure that the emissions comply with the licence conditions. In fact, although several enforcement authorities are involved in the site, liaison has been very effective.

A liaison committee was formed in 1982 with representatives from HMIP and local authorities. Yorkshire water authority was also included as well as the fire services and the Health and Safety Executive. They were all invited to attend meetings, as necessary, for particular items. Meetings were held quarterly until registrable processes ceased in 1987. At that point the HMIP chairman resigned from the committee. However, the committee has recently been reconvened under a chairman from Derbyshire county council, with HMIP again participating. The first meeting has been held, and I understand that another is due in May.

In October 1989 and January 1990, officials from the county council, the district council and HMIP made joint inspection visits to ensure that enforcement was effective and that there was no undue overlap. Current opinion of all three enforcement bodies is that odours and visible emissions are much reduced and usually are of very short duration. Work is in hand on some outstanding items that will yield further improvements.

I am pleased to be able to conclude by stating that HMIP has taken a lead in ensuring effective liasion and in giving direction as well as in enforcing regulations.

I thank the Minister for his contribution. His main argument is that the processes have to take place somewhere and that they are valuable. I do not deny that. The question is whether the whole range of processes should take place in such a plant, given the worries of the surrounding residents. I do not deny that the plant should operate in that area, but because of the problems created by the incinerator and solvent smells, some of the activities should be stopped. Given that the plant is in a built-up, residential area, there should be greater control to ensure that it operates well.

The point that I made earlier is that any industrialised country produces waste of various sorts and that it has to be disposed of. Who disposes of the waste is not my concern, but it is my concern to ensure that high standards control the disposal and that consent conditions are adhered to.

I can give the hon. Gentleman one reassurance. The provisions of the Environmental Protection Bill, which is before the House, will strengthen the control of operations on this site in particular, and of waste management and disposal in general. I mention that because, although concerns and anxieties exist, we are determined that waste disposal comes within a strict and enforced regulatory framework to protect the public and workers alike.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the transfer of the solvent recovery plant to HMIP control will be a further strengthening of the control over the plant in question. We will be vigilant to ensure that such plants in his constituency live up to the consents granted under the appropriate legislation. If the hon. Gentleman takes that information back to his constituents and reassures them along those lines, something positive will have come out of the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Ten o'clock.