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Rivers: Pollution

Volume 496: debated on Thursday 16 July 2009

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs at what locations (a) acid and (b) other discharge from (i) mines, (ii) landfill sites, (iii) radioactive waste storage sites and (iv) animal burial mounds have been identified as (A) exceeding permitted levels and (B) resulting in poor river quality in nearby river courses in each year since 1997; and what steps his Department takes when such sites are identified. (286465)

Details of locations where acid and other discharge from mines, landfill sites, radioactive waste storage sites and animal burial mounds have been identified as exceeding permitted levels and resulting in poor river quality are as follows:

(i) Working mines are subject to discharge controls under Water Resources Act consents or Environmental Permitting Regulations permits issued and enforced by the Environment Agency. Permits are set to ensure that, when complied with, relevant EU Directive standards are met. Where permits are not complied with it is for the Environment Agency to take appropriate action.

Since 1994, over 100 discharges from abandoned coal mines to rivers have been assessed and prioritised by the environment agencies in England and Wales and Scotland. The Coal Authority has built some 50 minewater treatment plants which have cleaned up or protected more than 400 km of rivers and protected drinking water supply aquifers. A prioritised programme to deal with remaining pollution from abandoned coal mines is in place.

Research commissioned recently by my Department and the Environment Agency has addressed the impacts of abandoned non-coal mines on watercourses. It identifies those posing the greatest risk to achievement of the aims of the Water Framework Directive by assessment of impacts on water quality, ecology, fish and groundwater. It is estimated that, out of a total of some 8,000 water bodies, 221 are impacted by non-coal minewater pollution related primarily to high concentrations of metals in discharges. As a first step, my Department is currently commissioning research to identify the most cost-effective passive treatment options from which to develop appropriate remedial measures within future river basin management planning cycles. This research will be published in due course.

Relevant annual data since 1997 are not held centrally and I will ask the Environment Agency to provide such information as is readily available to be placed in the Library of the House.

(ii) The regulation of landfills has changed significantly since 1997 when landfills were regulated by a waste management licence. Discharges of site drainage and treated leachate were controlled through a separate authorisation. Since the introduction of the Pollution Prevention and Control Act in 1999, permits have controlled both the landfill and discharges to surface water at operational sites.

The Environment Agency records inspections carried out at landfill and breaches of licence conditions. Since 2004 the Environment Agency has recorded data on breaches of licence conditions on a national system. Information prior to this is not held centrally.

The following table summarises the number of landfill non-compliances related to discharges to surface water, for each Environment Agency region.

Region

2004

2005

2006

2007

2008

200 9

Total

Anglian

230

401

73

15

13

6

738

Midlands

156

173

72

13

21

15

450

North East

286

362

147

53

19

1

868

North West

109

98

30

19

18

1

275

South West

62

33

29

13

19

156

Southern

266

253

106

8

26

1

660

Thames

49

121

108

6

5

9

298

Wales

26

31

24

14

29

7

131

Total

1,184

1,472

589

141

150

40

3,576

While the Environment Agency records details of the type of breach, it is unable to provide a summary of the breakdown of these incidents by substance.

(iii) Low level radioactive waste is disposed of at the Low Level Waste Repository near Drigg in Cumbria. The Environment Agency and the Food Standards Agency monitor the environment and food around this facility. Since 2002, the Environment Agency has published its environmental monitoring results annually in the Radioactivity in Food and Environment (RIFE) Report series; prior to that the results were published in the Agency’s Radioactivity in the Environment series of reports. Based on these monitoring results the Environment Agency assesses the radiation doses received by members of the public. The radiation dose to members of the public living near the Low Level Waste Repository is much less than the annual 1 millisievert (mSv) legal dose limit. The results of these dose assessments are also published in the RIFE report series.

Small quantities of low level radioactive waste are disposed of to some landfill sites. The Environment Agency monitors groundwater and leachate from a number of landfill sites and its assessments of radiation doses based on the monitoring results show that doses to members of the public are much lower than the annual 1 mSv legal dose limit. These results are also published in the RIFE report series.

The disposals of radioactive waste did not exceed permitted levels at the low level radioactive waste repository near Drigg or at landfill sites. Radioactive waste disposals did not result in poor river water quality.

(iv) The Environment Agency is not aware of any significant impact from animal burial mounds. The only significant burial of animals occurred during the 2001 Foot and Mouth emergency where there were 992 on-farm disposals of carcases in England and Wales. Due to the precautions taken at the time to identify suitable sites and the removal of material in some cases, very few residual risks were identified in the comprehensive review that was subsequently undertaken by DEFRA. Monitoring was found to be necessary at approximately 3 per cent. of the original burial sites. No unacceptable impact on the environment has been found.

Following the outbreak, DEFRA, in consultation with the Environment Agency, commissioned an independent review of each site using a source>pathway>receptor staged approach. The consultants concluded that none of the 992 sites posed an unacceptable risk to the environment but recommended that 32 of the sites be subject to ongoing water quality monitoring. Monitoring of these sites commenced in 2003 and is ongoing. The results are made available to the Environment Agency on a quarterly basis. This ongoing monitoring has identified that although there have been occasional exceedences of the precautionary threshold levels at a number of sites, they are often one-off spikes and are not consistent. These exceedences are considered to reflect the fact that samples are obtained from natural bodies of water in agricultural settings and reflect agricultural practice in the vicinity rather than results from the carcase disposal.

Since 2001, DEFRA has retained and managed four animal burial sites. Of these sites, only one (Watchtree, Cumbria) releases processed water into the watercourse. This is treated water from the burial cells finished using reed-bed technologies which is subject to a managed discharge consent issued by the Environment Agency. While there have been isolated instances of permitted levels being breached, these have almost been exclusively due to unseasonal rainfall which increases the suspended solids content, and none have resulted in poor river quality being reported. The three remaining sites (Tow Law, Co Durham, Ridgeway Ground, Worcestershire and Birkshaw Forest, Dumfries and Galloway) are closed sites with water products been stored and tanked to an appropriate location for treatment. Ground water run-off surrounding the sites is also monitored with the results shared with the Environment Agency, no recurring breaches have been reported and any isolated breaches have been actively resolved in conjunction with the appropriate regulatory agencies.