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Dust Pollution/Fly Infestation: Avonmouth

Volume 582: debated on Wednesday 18 June 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea.

First, I will provide details of an unacceptable state of affairs for my constituents in the village of Avonmouth, and then I shall outline my deep concern about procedural failures by the agencies involved to safeguard residents, with a view to gaining the Minister’s feedback on how we can ensure that such a situation never happens again, or that if it does—heaven forbid—how we ensure that action to help residents is urgent and effective. Residents living in Avonmouth village have had severe complaints about a number of pollution issues, including dust and noise. I shall cover those as well as the most recent incident: a vile infestation of flies throughout the community.

The problem arose about two months ago. Boomeco, a waste firm, had won the contract from local councils to ship refuse-derived fuel material—RDF—from Avonmouth docks to Scandinavia. Boomeco oversaw a sequence of failures involving the inadequate packaging of waste and inadequate overland transport of waste, which resulted in bags splitting open—with birds helping by pecking the bags open further—flies laying eggs in the waste, and a subsequent explosion of newly hatched flies as the weather became warm.

Residents began raising their alarm and concerns in early May, but despite action being taken to remove the source of the flies, no action was taken by any party to remove the flies that were already in the community until I, as the MP, realised that the normal mechanisms of gaining help were not working and sought, by exceptional means, emergency intervention from the elected mayor, George Ferguson. That resulted in Bristol city council’s environmental health department distributing fly spray and fly paper, and fumigating people’s properties, albeit some six to eight weeks after the problem first arose.

Residents’ main frustration has been the sluggishness of all agencies to respond to their urgent concerns about the health hazards posed by the infestation of flies in homes and local businesses. I was given repeated reassurances by the Environment Agency that the problem was either in hand or about to die out the next day, or indeed that there was no problem at all.

In terms of resolving the problem at its source, the Environment Agency revoked Boomeco’s licence to operate. I understand that, on 2 June, all cargo from Boomeco was removed from the port with the area cleansed, and that no other RDF will be placed there. I also understand that although the Environment Agency judged that the source of flies had been removed, the port of Bristol has required another RDF handler, Churngold, to remove its RDF cargo from the site, and that some of it was loaded on to a ship last week and Churngold has been required to clear the site of RDF by 21 June, if not sooner, after which the site will be cleansed. However, there has been sustained unwillingness from the Environment Agency and environmental health bodies in particular to acknowledge the difference between removing the source of the problem and removing the manifestation or residue of the problem: the infestation of flies that is still embedded in Avonmouth village.

I have raised questions with the Environment Agency about the adequacy and nature of its inspection systems for port tenants, and I am seeking information on the number of unannounced inspections that it is undertaking. I am also concerned by the agency’s inability to reflect the reality of a situation in its assessments. In providing evidence of my concerns, I will give examples of apparently inadequate assessment relating to dust and noise pollution.

After several weeks of trying to get action from the relevant bodies to solve the fly infestation problem, I was sent an e-mail from the Environment Agency on Friday 6 June stating:

“My team also called on a number of residents. Views about fly numbers were mixed, but there was a general view that the fly numbers were not at problematic levels.”

I am sorry to say this, but either that team was not in an Avonmouth anywhere near Bristol or did not speak to residents, or it was seriously misleading about what the residents said.

In my extensive conversations with many residents in the area on that day, there was not a single one who did not think the flies were a serious problem. It was because that concern was so high and the flies were such a problem, and after realising that formal routes were not working, that I directly requested that the elected mayor use emergency contingency funding, if necessary, to get fumigation, fly spray, fly paper and anything else that was needed by residents. I am astounded that the Environment Agency claimed that flies were not a problem, but that explains why action was not forthcoming—the myth was propagated that there was no problem to solve.

The Environment Agency assessors also appear to have been inadequate in their assessment of dust pollution in the area. Residents have raised concerns about the content of dust that is falling on their houses, and especially about the magnetic nature of some of that dust. Of course, it is inevitable that ports produce dust, but it is unacceptable if a port is responsible for there being illegally toxic or dangerous dust in communities. It is the Environment Agency’s job to establish if that is the case, but I am not confident that that job has been done properly.

I hope that you will forgive me, Dr McCrea, but I realise that I should have started my speech by drawing attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I hope that you will acknowledge that as if it was done at the start of the debate. I offer my apologies.

I am not confident that the job of assessing the dust has been done properly because, for example, when assessing the contents of a resident’s fish pond filter, the Environment Agency’s assessment—that there was no problem—was in direct conflict with the opinion of a fish expert who examined the filter and advised an immediate clean-out of the pond due to the toxic nature of its contents. Residents are worried that Environment Agency assessments of other dust samples have been incomplete and inadequate, and I understand that they have had to pay for sample assessments to get a more adequate breakdown of the dust’s contents.

It has also been reported to me that an Environment Agency officer’s assessment of the noise levels of a tenant of the port was lacking in several key respects. Given the quality of other information that the agency has provided, I am afraid that I do not find that hard to believe.

I have also been disappointed by Bristol city council’s attitude on the legal viability of serving abatement notices on firms that break legal noise levels. I have urged the council to seek a second legal opinion from a non-council lawyer and reconsider its legal options. By being slow in serving abatement notices for any illegally high noise levels, the council is setting a precedent that even though activities may involve illegal noise levels, they are acceptable, which may have implications for licensing. That is of grave concern.

Let me return to the most recent pollution incident: the flies. A large number of bodies are involved in this case—North Somerset council and Bristol city council, whose refuse was being shipped; Boomeco, which was responsible for shipping it; the port, which is the landlord of Boomeco, the tenant; the Environment Agency; and Bristol city council again, as it has environment health responsibility for the area—so the onus of responsibility for the ongoing incident is complex. However, I am concerned that there is no plan in place to ensure that in such an emergency situation—anyone living in the area will say that it is an emergency—action comes first, with ascertaining responsibility for who picks up the bill coming second.

Will the Minister please make it clear what responsibilities those different bodies have for ensuring that residents are kept safe from such health hazards? What responsibility do they have to ensure that an emergency plan is ready, and what actions can the Government take to ensure that they have such a plan so that residents are protected?

I understand that, according to Government requirements, the port of Bristol does not have any choice about handling RDF cargo. Will the Government reassess the suitability of ports that are in such proximity to communities handling that waste? Will the Minister examine whether the Environment Agency’s assessment mechanisms are fit for purpose? The agency has lost the trust of local taxpayers, and I am deeply concerned by its ability to assess not only the fly situation accurately, but the dust and noise pollution. I have asked the EA locally to undertake a review of why its assessments appear to have been so inaccurate.

Finally, can the Minister give any reassurance to residents that the Government will look closely at why such incidents occur and put all measures in place to ensure that they do not? Will the Government do all that they can to urge Bristol city council, the Environment Agency and all other bodies involved to do their utmost strenuously to tackle this ongoing problem? There is still a plague of flies even as I speak—it has not subsided. If, by any diabolical combination of circumstance, a pollution incident does occur, will the Government work with local bodies to ensure that residents are at the top of the priority list for help, rather than being treated like second-class citizens in a third-world country, as many people in Avonmouth currently feel is the case?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Dr McCrea. I congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol North West (Charlotte Leslie) on securing this debate, which is important for her constituents who have experienced issues that have caused them great disquiet and inconvenience. I thank her for bringing those issues to our attention, so that we can, I hope, address some of the potential underlying causes as well as the symptoms, which are hopefully being dealt with as we speak.

The Environment Agency will carry out a joint air quality monitoring exercise with Bristol city council and Public Health England at the port, during which they will sample airborne dust and establish the prevailing direction from which the dust arises, allowing the agency to characterise its nature. This exercise will start shortly, but may need to continue for some time if we are to trace the source or sources of the dust accurately. A range of activities are potential sources of dust. For example, there is a stockpile of coal at the docks. If the dust is attributable to any of the operations subject to an environmental permit granted by the Environment Agency, it will work with the operator to minimise those emissions.

In respect of the fly infestation, I understand from the Environment Agency that one company was responsible for storing household-type waste destined to be used as refuse-derived fuel or RDF. This black-bag waste is sorted and baled at a waste management site a couple of miles away from the docks and sent to the docks for storage prior to export. The Environment Agency had allowed the company to operate under a regulatory position that allowed the temporary storage of this material without an environmental permit, provided that the operator met specific environmental controls.

Following complaints raised in May, the Environment Agency withdrew the regulatory position and asked the operator to remove the stored waste. The Environment Agency has confirmed that all the RDF waste had been removed from the site by 3 June. The area has been cleaned and has remained clear since then. A second company—the hon. Lady mentioned it—is carrying out a similar waste operation, but is not thought to have contributed to the recent fly infestation. As she also mentioned, that company, too, has now been asked to cease its activities by the port authorities.

I am assured that the Environment Agency has been engaging with the hon. Lady and will continue to do so. She has clearly expressed her dissatisfaction with some actions taken by the agency. I know that she met the agency recently to explore—

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming

I offer my commiserations to my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol North West, but congratulate her on an energetic campaign for the chairmanship of the Select Committee on Health.

Before the Division, I was discussing the Environment Agency’s approach to engaging with my hon. Friend and residents. While she mentioned previous failures in communication, I hope that we have now moved on and that the agency is keeping her fully briefed. I will respond to my hon. Friend’s questions, but I will first continue to cover the issues raised with me by the Environment Agency in preparation for the debate.

The necessary legislative safeguards are in place to ensure that the risk to the environment and human health from waste management is minimised through the environment permitting system. I have made it clear to the Environment Agency that it has my full support in taking a tougher approach against those who, by their actions or omissions, demonstrate a deliberate and often repeated disregard for the law and the environment. In December last year, I wrote to the chairman of the Environment Agency, Lord Smith, and outlined areas for action, including greater scrutiny of prospective operators, such as of their financial resources, and increasing the inspection of poorly performing sites.

It has been estimated that the cost of waste crime to the UK economy is between a staggering £300 million and £800 million a year. That figure could of course be substantially higher as the full nature of waste crime means it is difficult to estimate the true cost, including tax evasion. Good progress in tackling waste crime has been made in some areas, however. For example, the number of active illegal waste sites is at its lowest for four years. In the year ending 31 March 2013, the Environment Agency’s task force closed down nearly 1,300 illegal waste sites, which is more than in any previous year. Reported fly-tipping incidents have also fallen year on year. The National Fly-tipping Prevention Group has also published its fly-tipping framework, which includes best practice on prevention, reporting, investigation and clearance of fly-tipping. The Sentencing Council guidelines to the courts on environmental offences will come into effect next month, meaning that the courts can hand down penalties that will act as a greater deterrent to offending. Despite the tough constraints on public finances, we secured an extra £5 million in the 2014 Budget specifically for tackling waste crime. We are committed to using the funding to target effort and resources on those areas where it will make the biggest difference.

The Environment Agency established a waste fires task and finish group in July 2013. Several hon. Members have raised waste fires as a potential problem, so I passed on those concerns to the agency to ensure that we get the processes right and that intervention is early when things are going wrong. My hon. Friend contended that matters that have been raised with the agency at an early stage have not been followed up quickly enough, so I will feed that into my discussions with the chief executive. Much more needs to be done, however. Earlier today I was speaking at the waste industry and profession’s annual conference, where I outlined the work that DEFRA and the Environment Agency are doing to tackle waste crime and poor or sub-standard operations. I will be writing to the key stakeholders about that shortly.

My hon. Friend mentioned refuse-derived fuel, which is produced both for the domestic market and for export and is limited to material that cannot be effectively recycled. The combination of fuel and technology is sufficient to deliver clear environmental benefits. That is why we issued a call in March for evidence to businesses, councils and stakeholders involved in the RDF industry. The aim of the call was to gain a greater understanding of the RDF market in England, and of any issues associated with the market, some of which my hon. Friend has outlined here, and how they might best be addressed. The call closed on 9 May and we are currently analysing the responses.

My hon. Friend asked who had responsibility for different aspects of regulation and enforcement. To clarify, the Environment Agency has responsibility for measures to prevent harm to the environment and to prevent harm and nuisance at the sites that it regulates. It has been said that the sites in question were not permitted, which is something that we will discuss with the agency. The local authority is responsible for the temporary storage of waste that is in transit. Public Health England is responsible for offering advice to ensure that the local community is protected if there are health concerns. Many of the issues about material in transit through the port will be the responsibility of the local authority. I will reflect on the issues my hon. Friend has raised and will write to her to examine how the responsibilities should apply in this particular case, so that the residents of Avonmouth can be reassured that they are properly protected from harm and nuisance.

Regarding the suitability of the docks and their proximity to the residents whom my hon. Friend represents, the Environment Agency has powers to take action against any harm or pollution caused by waste. Where a site operates on a permanent basis, the EA imposes conditions in an environmental permit to mitigate any risk from a particular site, which brings us back to whether the site in question was permanent and whether it should have been operating under a formal permit, which would have allowed more conditions to be imposed. I have set out that the EA will be monitoring dust levels, which I hope will be of some reassurance to my hon. Friend, so that we have proper evidence to trace back any potential causes of dust nuisance for her residents, which can then be dealt with.

My hon. Friend asked whether I think that the Environment Agency is fit for purpose. Yes, I do. I have worked with many people from the agency throughout the recent extreme weather events and on tackling waste crime. The agency’s structure and professionalism are of a high standard. That is not to say that we cannot improve in everything that we do. If anyone from the Government stood here and said that every agency was perfect, they would soon get short shrift. I will reflect on the issues that my hon. Friend has brought here on the behalf of her residents. Perhaps we can correspond in writing regarding any further concerns, in particular about dust monitoring. I thank her for bringing the subject to the attention of the Department and of the Chamber.