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Storage Tanks (Petrol Leakage)

Volume 301: debated on Wednesday 19 November 1997

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1 pm

I am pleased to have secured time for this important matter. Although it might at first appear to be a typical Back-Bench debate, dealing with a specified area and of limited interest outside that area, it has universal application.

Within the past 12 months, my constituency has witnessed two serious pollution incidents as a result of petrol tank leakage. One incident occurred at Bontddu near Dolgellau, the other at Llanrwst. Broadly speaking, there are some stark lessons to be learned and conclusions to be drawn.

The person on the street might be forgiven for believing that the sale of petroleum is highly regulated. A considerable body of law applies to the sector. We have, for example, the Petroleum Spirit (Motor Vehicles etc.) Regulations 1929, the Petroleum (Mixtures) Order 1929, the Petroleum (Compressed Gases) Order 1930, the Petroleum (Liquid Methane) Order 1957, the Highly Flammable Liquids and Liquified Petroleum Gases Regulations 1972, the Petroleum (Regulation) Acts 1928, the Petroleum (Consolidation) Act 1928, the Petroleum Spirit (Plastic Containers) Regulations 1982 and many others. Despite that, after 13 months, the incident at Bontddu is still unresolved.

Details of a pollution incident were received by the Environment Agency locally on 19 September 1996. Some of the villagers at Bontddu had complained of petroleum odours to Gwynedd council's trading standards officers in the previous week. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that both are linked and that the discharge had begun several days before 19 September.

It was found that there had been leakage from underground tanks at Bontddu service station into a stream that flows into the Mawddach river, one of the most environmentally sensitive areas in the whole of Wales. The quality of the stream was severely impaired, and there were high fish mortalities. Some estuary invertebrates were also affected.

During the initial investigation, the Environment Agency ascertained that a volume in excess of 30,000 litres of petrol had leaked from the underground tanks and drained from the immediate vicinity of the site. A meeting was convened on 27 September 1996 between Environment Agency staff, the garage proprietor, Liquid Cargo Management—an oil recovery specialist—and officers of Gwynedd trading standards and environmental health departments. Certain remedial works were agreed—for example, booming off the river, excavation of the tank in question and flushing the contamination from the ground. By now, the leaked volume was estimated to be in excess of 60,000 litres—twice the original estimate.

Families were meantime evacuated because the concentrated petroleum smell was at times almost unbearable and routinely gave villagers severe headaches. There was also the obvious possibility of an explosive mixture being created at some point.

Things appeared to be proceeding slowly. The county council and the Environment Agency were involved, but there was no official involvement by the Health and Safety Executive. A public meeting that I chaired was arranged in November, calling together representatives of all agencies and the specialist firm that had been retained to rectify the pollution. At that meeting, an HSE representative said that that body would not become involved unless there was a risk to public safety.

With a spillage of 60,000 litres—13,000 gallons—of the most flammable products known to man, one would conclude that a danger would at some point arise. Not so, the experts told us—despite the pollution and the obvious health problems being caused, including headaches and worse. The public were safe, they said. Those who attended the public meeting were incredulous, but the experts said that there was no danger. Our arguments did not change their minds. The HSE said that it was perfectly okay and that there were no problems.

A few weeks later, not surprisingly, there was an explosion in one of the houses near the polluted site—a build-up of gases, and bang. It was safe to assume now that there was a danger to the public. Even the HSE took that view at that late stage.

The village school was evacuated. The children were bussed each day to Dolgellau to receive their education in a sports and leisure complex. That unhappy situation lasted until September. Homes continue to be evacuated. Several families have been moved from one address to another, in some cases from mobile home to mobile home. One family even camped out for a while. Incredibly, the remedial work has not been completed.

The explosion occurred in the early part of this year. Naturally, the villagers became increasingly concerned at the lack of progress and were alarmed at the fact that, despite asking several months previously for air and monitoring systems, these were not installed in the affected areas until spring 1997. Similarly, monitoring equipment was promised for the school building, so that an informed judgment could be made as to when it would be safe for pupils to return to it. That was supplied late as well.

To bring some pressure to bear, a further public meeting, which I chaired, took place in April. By now, it was a question of trying to ascertain who was responsible for clearing up the pollution and bringing Bontddu back to normality. Incidentally, the village has many times won the title of the prettiest village in Meirionnydd. That is some honour when one looks at the constituency that I am privileged to represent.

It was hoped that this would not become a buck-passing exercise. In the event, assurances were given at the meeting about monitoring equipment and so on. One of the villagers' greatest concerns was the closure of the village school. Naturally, as parents, they wanted the school to thrive and to continue providing first-class education. Their fear was that children might be placed in other schools and their previous one closed permanently. In the event, I am pleased to say that the children returned to school in September.

Somewhat incredibly, the pollution incident has yet to be dealt with. Homes remain evacuated. Naturally, there is considerable anger and resentment about the way in which this intolerable situation has been allowed to drift on and on, almost aimlessly.

Let us consider the main players. We have the loss adjusters, who act for the garage proprietor. They engaged two specialist clearing-up firms, one of which caused an explosion, although the other fortunately did not. The Environment Agency, which was in at the beginning, has done nothing about the fish kill. The HSE, in its infinite wisdom, declined to act because there was no perceived risk to public safety. Needless to say, the explosion changed that. Those incidents should be the subject of a full public inquiry. I am adamant that lessons can be learned from our experiences.

Many serious questions need to be answered. Why was it that the spillage was assessed at 30,000 litres for some time, but then that assessment was varied to 60,000 litres? How long will it take to clear the petrol from the ground and the atmosphere? Why were read-out machines placed so far away as to be of no evidential use? Why was the school closed but the garage allowed to continue trading? Why did it take so long to install benzene tubes in the houses most affected? What about the dozens of other houses in the area that were not supplied with them?

Why, when it was patently obvious that there was a safety risk, did the HSE, although knowing all the facts in October 1996, decline to become involved until March 1997, after the explosion—some might say, the expected explosion. Why are four families still evacuated from their homes almost 14 months after the incident? Why did it take six months to issue an improvement notice on the garage proprietor? Who is in overall charge of the operation, and therefore, who should be charged with answering those important questions and more?

This morning, I spoke to a responsible officer of Conwy borough council, who took charge of another incident at Llanrwst. He was this morning taking part in a debriefing exercise with representatives of all north Wales unitary authorities to compare the Bontddu incident with the one at Llanrwst and to see what lessons might be learnt. I welcome that. Unfortunately, I believe that such incidents will occur with increasing frequency over the next months and years.

In Bontddu, the situation was muddled when one authority passed the ball to another and no one wished to run with the ball or to accept ultimate responsibility. It is an absolute and unmitigated nightmare for many of my constituents. Surely a public inquiry is necessary. We cannot allow matters to be left without proper expert examination and analysis.

I have asked 10 basic questions which remain unanswered. I am sure that there are another 10 or 20 that should be asked. A public inquiry is the only vehicle for doing that. It is the only way that we can ensure that such incidents do not happen again.

In a written answer that I received yesterday from the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, I was told:
"In the period since January 1995 the Environment Agency recorded 55 incidents of water pollution from underground petrol storage at filling stations in England and six such incidents in Wales." — [Official Report, 18 November 1997; Vol. 301, c. 125.]
By contrast, in a recent article in The Guardian, the London Fire Brigade said that it registers 70 to 80 seepages a year. Three years ago, Shell UK suggested that up to one third of all underground tanks—as many as 10,000—may be faulty. Perhaps we are seeing the tip of a very nasty iceberg.

There are 900 service stations in Wales, about half of which are independently operated. I do not want to place additional burdens on retailers because we have already lost dozens of them over the years. Rural areas, such as the area in which I live, depend on them, so it is not a part of my brief to place financial commitments on retailers. However, an answer must somehow be found. Compulsory insurance for retailers is probably the most obvious and will have to come in.

I am aware of the new draft regulations that have been formulated by the HSE, but I do not think that they will greatly assist matters. They will codify the myriad pieces of legislation—a move that I welcome. They will place on local authorities virtually all the responsibility for licensing—as is the case now—but also risk assessment and enforcement. That is fine if local authorities are given the resources to train staff and to obtain expensive equipment. They need those resources if they are effectively to undertake risk assessments. If they do not get them, the regulations will contain only empty words. They will do nothing to address the problem.

I urge the Minister to undertake a Welsh Office inquiry into the prevalence of older tanks, which we are virtually waiting to see burst. Secondly, will he ensure that there is a full public inquiry into the continuing nightmare at Bontddu near Dolgellau? Thirdly, will he ensure that there is effective co-ordination between the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and the public protection units of unitary authorities? Fourthly, I urge upon him the need for the automatic adoption by the HSE of a lead role in dealing with those crises.

I hope that the Minister will respond in detail to my points. My constituents at Bontddu and Llanwrst—but especially those at Bontddu, who remain homeless—deserve nothing less.

1.15 pm

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) for bringing this important issue of public safety before the House. I sympathise with the plight of his constituents, who have had to cope with the disruption and anxiety caused by the events at Bontddu during the past year.

In the time available, I shall try to deal with the areas of concern identified by the hon. Gentleman. If I do not deal with all of them, I will be happy to meet him and to correspond with him on the subject—although I am sure that he will understand that a number of the issues are outside my Department's direct responsibility.

There are about 15,000 retail petrol stations in Great Britain. In general, their safety record is very good. Every day, millions of people visit petrol stations to refuel their vehicles, usually in complete safety. We all tend to take that convenience for granted. However, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, petrol is a potentially dangerous material, so it is essential that all the necessary safety controls are put in place and properly maintained.

Fortunately, injuries to members of the public following the leakage of petrol from underground tanks and pipes is rare. Nevertheless, although the recent series of incidents in Wales has resulted in only one slight injury, that is still one too many.

The hon. Gentleman has reminded us of the history of the Bontddu incident. In September last year, it was discovered that a substantial quantity of petrol had leaked into the ground and into a nearby river from an underground storage tank. Various agencies have been involved in the response to that. Following an explosion last April, a number of homes were evacuated, as was the school—although, thankfully, the school has since reopened. From last November, the Health and Safety Executive has assisted the local authority in investigating the incident.

I am aware that the local HSE office at Wrexham has recently written to the hon. Gentleman informing him of the continuing progress of the clean-up operation. I am pleased to be able to report that a clean-up plan has been prepared by the contractors. The HSE received a copy on 12 November and has now commented on it. I expect that the contractors will start work shortly, in close consultation with local residents.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. Does he agree that 12 months is a long time in which to prepare a clean-up plan? It is a fact that the HSE did not officially become involved until March of this year, after the explosion.

It is unfortunate that the matter has taken a year to come to a conclusion. Perhaps that is a lesson that we need to learn from the way that the incident has been handled. We may need to reflect on whether the HSE should become involved at an earlier stage in such incidents. We need to look at those matters.

Gwynedd county council has issued formal cautions for breaches of the petroleum licence, and other aspects of the case may result in legal proceedings. I share the concern expressed by the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy about the length of time that the incident has been allowed to continue, especially because of the impact on the local community. In recent months, there have been several similar incidents in Wales, and that highlights the importance of the issue raised today by the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that we are approaching a transition in safety law for petrol stations. Current legislation dates back to 1928 and requires anyone storing petrol to hold a licence from the local petrol licensing authority. In Wales, the authority was either the trading standards or the environmental health department of the local authority. The authority uses licence conditions to achieve the safety measures that it feels are necessary at particular sites. Local authority inspectors are able to visit sites to ensure that the licensee is complying with the licence conditions. They have the power also to take enforcement action when non-compliance is discovered.

The Government accept that current legislation is not completely satisfactory—which may be a bit of an understatement. The hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy has certainly briefly highlighted the complexity of current legislation. As licensing authorities have a free hand in determining which conditions should apply, there are variations in controls imposed by authorities for similar petrol stations across Wales, Scotland and England. Those and other points emerged in the Health and Safety Commission's "Review of Regulation" report. As he will be aware, the commission advised the Government on safety matters and the need for changes to safety legislation.

In 1996, the Health and Safety Commission asked the Health and Safety Executive to develop modern legislation that addressed today's safety concerns at petrol stations. On 1 September 1997, the commission published a consultative document on its proposals. The closing date for comments is 1 December 1997.

The commission's principal considerations are to ensure that there is confidence that the law will apply equally to all petrol stations across the land, that the law reflects risks from petrol—especially leaks from sites—and that enforcers have effective and flexible enforcement tools when those are necessary.

I shall explain the key proposals affecting petrol storage. For the first time, the local enforcement authority's consent would be needed before the building or major alteration of a petrol situation could begin. A site developer would have to provide technical information, including details of proposed underground tanks and pipework. Consent would be based upon risk assessment of the site, which would have to take particular account of risks to the public who live in the vicinity. If the local enforcing authority is not satisfied on safety grounds, it will be able to require changes to the plans.

A new duty will be placed on site operators to ensure that petrol is stored safely. Such a duty is of particular relevance to the incident that occurred in the constituency of the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy, because it will require that a system is in place to detect rapidly leaks from underground tanks and pipes. There will be a requirement also to ensure that equipment is maintained in a safe condition. Those requirements will apply not only to new sites but to all sites. There will be a requirement also to make safe tanks and pipes that are no longer used. The Government plan to lay the new regulations—supported by new guidance—before the House towards the middle of 1998.

The Government realise the environmental damage caused by petrol leakage from underground tanks and are working on tackling the problem. As the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said so forcefully in his speech, water pollution is the main environmental threat posed by such leaks. Under the Water Resources Act 1991, the Environment Agency is responsible for protecting controlled waters—which include inland, coastal and ground waters. As my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Transport and the Regions told the hon. Gentleman yesterday, in response to his parliamentary question, in the past two years, the Environment Agency recorded six water pollution incidents in Wales from underground storage tanks.

I should stress that, under the Water Resources Act 1991, it is a criminal offence to cause the pollution of controlled waters, whether the pollution is caused deliberately or accidentally. The Environment Agency has made it clear that, when serious pollution is caused and the agency has adequate evidence to support a case, it will prosecute polluters.

The Government intend to strengthen further powers available to the agency. We plan soon, for example, to bring into force provisions under the 1991 Act enabling the agency to require anti-pollution works to be done. The powers should allow the agency to be more proactive in preventing water pollution from petrol filling stations.

It is vital that all Government agencies involved with petrol should work together effectively. I know that the Government and our relevant agencies—such as the Health and Safety Agency and the Environment Agency—are already considering the necessary arrangements.

As I said, the Government's plans to strengthen petrol safety controls and environmental protection are already well advanced. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy—or the hon. Gentleman, as he is not quite yet an hon. Friend in the technical, House sense; outside the House, of course he is a friend—will be reassured by that.

I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. I know that it will be difficult for him to say anything today about my call for a public inquiry, but will he consider that request further? I am not trying to put him on the spot, and I realise that he cannot comment on it today. Nevertheless, now that he has heard more about the incident—I also propose to write further to him on it—will he please keep the possibility open?

I had planned to deal with that point, although I can well understand why the hon. Gentleman should be concerned about it, as we have reached the end of the debate and it has not yet been mentioned. I shall convey to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister—to whom the Health and Safety Commission is responsible—the concerns expressed today by him, especially his wish that lessons should be learned from the recent events and that new controls should be introduced as speedily as possible.

I have asked that a full report be prepared of the way in which the incident has been handled, and I will arrange for it to be placed in the Library. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, it is a very serious matter and—based on the evidence provided and the story recounted by him—I am not in a position to decide whether there should be a public inquiry. I hope that my assurance that a full history of the incident will be put on paper and placed in the Library is adequate. I will ensure also that he personally receives a copy of the report.

If the hon. Gentleman feels that the report does not cover everything, we shall look again at anything that may concern him. Once again I thank him for introducing a debate on a very important issue. It has given the Government the opportunity to put clearly in the public domain our concern and the measures that we intend to take to ensure that such incidents do not recur.