HC Deb 19 June 1958 vol 589 cc1466-76

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Hughes-Young.]

11.27 p.m.

Mr. Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

Yesterday I handed to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health a petition signed by over 5,800 residents of Canvey Island protesting against the continued pollution of the atmosphere by emanations from the Thames-side oil refineries. These signatories represented over half the adult population of the Canvey urban district, and the petition was remarkable in another sense, in that all the signatures had been collected as a result of the public-spirited activities of one woman, a Mrs. Allen. With the petition were copies of letters from a number of people, many of whom were invalids, alleging that the nuisance was distressing in the extreme and was aggravating their condition.

I have no desire to exaggerate this nuisance or to misrepresent the efforts of the oil companies to get it under control, but I think it should be said that up to a few years ago South-East Essex had a reputation of having almost the purest air in the United Kingdom. At any rate, large numbers of people suffering from chest and throat complaints made their homes there, and found that the place suited them. It is hard enough for healthy people to put up with the kind of nuisance our constituents have been experiencing, but it is extremely distressing for those who already suffer from ill-health.

Although the nuisance is intermittent, it is never far away. For example, in the period January-October last year, when a special record was kept by the very efficient public health inspector of Canvey Island, obnoxious fumes were detected on no fewer than thirty-nine days. On six of those days, the fumes were described as "overpowering," and on fifteen as being "strong." My hon. Friend will remember that I raised the matter with him in December. He very kindly wrote to me and informed me that, though the instances of complaint had been fewer last year than they were the year before, The number of very strong smells has risen. Unfortunately, since then the nuisance has not abated, and, judging from the volume of letters on the subject I have received and the number of signatories to the petition to which I have referred, the public certainly think that it is getting worse. What is more, it is spreading. Only yesterday, I received a letter from the Clerk to the Rayleigh Urban District Council saying that up to about three months ago the smells had been of a slight nature, of short duration, and infrequent; that during the past three months, however, the smells had become more frequent and more intense, though generally of short duration. Now Rayleigh is about 6¾ miles from the refineries, and in the northern part of the district, at Battles-bridge, about eight miles from the refineries, the nuisance has been detected in the last few months for the first time.

Of course, we all accept that we have to live with refineries. They are essential to the economic life of our country, and as industry expands, as we hope it will, the demand for energy resources will increase and the output of the refineries will grow in volume. One must recognise too that, even at the best of times, a refinery is an uneasy neighbour to live with. It dominates the landscape, and by the nature of its operations it has its own characteristic odour. But so has a gas works or a factory, or a fish and chip shop, and it is probably true that in normal conditions the characteristic odour of an oil refinery is not more and may be less offensive than that of certain other large industrial plants.

The problem which faces my constituency, however, is that we have to live with not one but three oil refineries, two of them on the north bank of the Thames at Coryton and Shell Haven to the west of Canvey Island and in the constituency of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Delargy). The third refinery is on the Isle of Grain situated opposite us on the Kent coast. These three plants have an annual throughput of at least 8 million tons of crude, and I am given to understand that in the next few years it is not unlikely that this figure will be doubled. Thus, we not only face on Thames-side a problem greater than that of any other community in the United Kingdom living near refineries, but the possibility also of the nuisance increasing in the years ahead.

It may be convenient here if I say something about the nature of the problem. Every now and again, when the atmospheric conditions are favourable, an extremely unpleasant odour sweeps over the whole of the coastline from Canvey Island and Benfleet to the west to Shoeburyness in the east, a densely populated area. Canvey and Benfleet seem to suffer the most. Sometimes the odour is barely noticeable; sometimes it is very bad, and people feel sick, and vomit, and suffer headaches, and have difficulty in sleeping.

It may be that there is no direct effect upon health as a result of this nuisance, but local medical opinion considers that there may be an indirect effect upon health in the sense that the nuisance causes loss of appetite, whilst people already suffering from ill health, and the elderly, may be experiencing an indirect effect which, in the words of the Public Health Act, 1936, could be described as "prejudicial to health."

What are the causes of the problem? I doubt whether even my hon. Friend's experts could be precise about this. I certainly cannot be, but there appear to be four main sources of trouble. First, there is the hazard arising from the large volume of gas produced in the cracking process; secondly, the hazard from a smaller volume of particularly evil smelling gas engendered during the distillation processes; thirdly, some of the compounds produced as by-products are themselves evil-smelling; and fourthly, there is risk of smell from the contaminated waters used in the various distillation processes, and for the purpose of raising steam.

As the hon. Member for Thurrock will agree, it is a fallacy to believe, as many of our constituents do, that refinery operations require vast quantities of waste gas to be released into the atmosphere. There is no truth in that. People believe, quite wrongly, that the problem could be solved if instead of burning up the gas at the top of the flare it could be piped away for other purposes. No one disputes the fact that refineries are among the most efficiently run plants in the world, and ours are no exception. Hardly any of the gases engendered by these processes are sent voluntarily into the atmosphere. The bulk are used for heating oil or for raising steam. In the case of the Shell Haven refineries, I understand that only one-twelfth of 1 per cent. of the total crude intake finds its way from the flare stack out into the atmosphere.

Moreover, the flare stack is a safety valve and the public should be told that this is not merely a means of burning waste gas. Indeed, it is an ideal form of safety valve, for if there should arise a sudden need to release a quantity of gas because of a defect or a leak in some part of the plant, this is an ideal method of doing so because, as the flame shoots up into the sky from the stack, everyone working in the plant can see that something has gone wrong.

Sometimes it happens that when an excessive amount of gas is released through the flare stack incomplete combustion occurs and unburnt gas or heavy black smoke is released into the atmosphere. If there are also atmospheric conditions where there is a layer of warm air above the stack which does not allow this emission to escape upwards into the atmosphere where it could disperse harmlessly and forces it to spread laterally, and if the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, then my poor constituents get the full benefit.

Mr. Richard Body (Billericay)

And mine.

Mr. Braine

No doubt the constituents of my hon. Friend suffer too.

The nuisance seems to come not from one but from a variety and a combination of causes, which it is difficult for the expert, let alone a complete layman like myself, to separate and to assess. This seems to be borne out by the observations of my constituents that the smells vary; sometimes they are of a pungent onion nature, sometimes they smell like burnt oil and sometimes like gasoline. My hon. Friend will remember that the Alkali Inspectorate Report of 1955 made plain that … the complicated operations of the temperatures and pressures at which some are conducted, render the avoidance of emissions on the wrong side of the combustion system a matter of considerable difficulty. I have a copy of the minutes of a meeting held by the Essex Borough and District Councils Association on 5th June to discuss this subject at which the Deputy Chief Alkali Inspector was present. He is reported to have said … that all known methods were being adopted to eliminate the smells but when they occurred it was probably due to accidents in the refineries. Now this was in line with what my hon. Friend told me last December. It implies, of course, that the problem could be solved by careful and painstaking efforts to prevent accidents, and that therefore we shall not always have to live with this unpleasantness, as some people have suggested. Were this true, it would give us great hope and encouragement.

After all, the refineries are run by highly experienced companies commanding considerable financial resources and some of the best technical brains in the country. Therefore, if the cause is purely accidental, then the matter would seem capable of early solution. I wonder if this is true. Certainly the oil companies are not running away from the problem. My inquiries over a wide field have revealed that they are spending a great deal of money in efforts to solve it.

I am told that at Fawley, for example, the Esso Company is spending £100,000 a year solely to minimise the effects of pollution, and I have no reason to believe that the Shell Company is lagging behind in this respect. Indeed, I get the impression that our local refinery managers are most keen to solve the problem and to appear as good neighbours.

Can my hon. Friend say whether the alkali inspectors are correct in assuming that the problem is solely or mainly due to accidents in the refineries? This leads me to ask some further questions. Is my hon. Friend really satisfied that the alkali inspectors are equipped to exercise effective supervision in defence of the public interest. I have met some of them, and know that they bring great skill and diligence to their tasks. But are there enough of them? It is true that the relations between the inspectors and the oil companies and local authorities are cordial. That is not the point. Are those relations effective?

Is my hon. Friend really satisfied that adequate technical research is being conducted into the causes of this nuisance and, if so, can we be assured that the results of such research are properly co-ordinated? We all know that oil companies are highly competitive organisations. Their very processes are competitive. Are they exchanging enough information on the subject? If adequate research is not being undertaken, can some steps be taken by my hon. Friend's Department to ensure that it is? Can my hon. Friend also say how many local authorities in the area affected, including those on the Kent coast, apart from the Canvey Council, are keeping detailed records? Is he sure that effective liaison exists between the local authorities and the refineries in order that the incidence of the nuisance can be pinned down to particular times and to particular refineries?

Lastly, can my hon. Friend give the House a categoric assurance that the nuisance is not detrimental to health? If, as I suspect, he cannot give such an assurance, is he prepared to urge that an appropriate inquiry be carried out?

There is the problem, there is the grievance, and there are the difficulties. I see no easy solution, but I look with confidence to my hon. Friend to tell us that his Department will at any rate not flag in its efforts to find one.

11.43 p.m.

Mr. Hugh Delargy (Thurrock)

Two of these offending refineries, as the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) has reminded us, are situated in my constituency at the extreme eastern end of the Thurrock Urban District at Shell Haven and Coryton. In Thurrock itself, nevertheless, there seems to be little complaint about this nuisance from the oil refineries. At all events, the local council has not received any official complaints during the last few years.

It would appear from the evidence submitted to the special meeting of the Essex and Borough District Councils held on 5th June that it is those areas to the east of the oil refineries and, therefore, in the direction of the prevailing wind that have the chief cause for complaint. Not that we in Thurrock are without complaints. We suffer from another nuisance, another form of domestic pollution—from the plague of cement dust in West Thurrock. Houses, hedges and domestic laundries are often enveloped in a thick blanket of grey dust. Of course, the people inhale it. Complaints have been made to successive Ministers, but so far precious little has been done.

I hope that the Minister of Housing and Local Government, together with his Alkali Inspectorate, will examine this problem again. It is causing acute distress. Perhaps this is not the most opportune moment to raise it, but I feel that any time is good enough to refer to this particular grievance. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary is a conscientious Minister, much given to research. I assure him that, if he wants any information about this particular nuisance, the files at his Ministry are full of it, including a few letters from me.

However, I must not take up too much time airing my own grievances at the expense of others. In Thurrock, we have every sympathy with our neighbours who are subjected to these appalling stinks from the oil refineries, and we shall certainly do our best to help them to abate the nuisance. A special subcommittee has already been appointed to examine the problem, composed of representatives from Basildon, Benfleet, Canvey Island, Rayleigh, and Thurrock. The Thurrock representative on this committee and the civic officers can be relied upon to give every assistance possible to rid our neighbours of the nuisance, and I hope that, in return, our neighbours and all the neighbouring authorities will give us their assistance in our endeavours to rid ourselves of our particular local nuisance of cement dust.

11.46 p.m.

Mr. John M. Temple (City of Chester)

Representing a constituency with a boundary common with the great Stanlow oil refineries in Cheshire, I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine). I have no wish to exaggerate the problem, but there is no doubt that it exists. There is one point I should like to add to what my hon. Friend said.

Will my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary take note of the fact that there is a doubt about whether these odours are affecting crops and foliage? When he is carrying out this survey, through his Alkali Inspectorate, I should like him to bring this point to the attention of his inspectors.

11.48 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. J. R. Bevins)

I am sorry that we have no: a great deal of time in which to conclude this debate tonight, but I want to say that I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) and to other hon. Members who have spoken. If I fail to deal with all the points which have been raised, it will not be due to any desire to be discourteous. Everything which has been said will be studied by my right hon. Friend.

As the House knows, the oil refining industry is, of course, of tremendous importance to our economy and to each one of us. We cannot do without its products, its motor spirit, its paraffin, and all the rest. But we could, of course, very profitably do without some of the fumes and smells which issue from the oil refining plants from time to time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East raised the question of the effect of these smells on the health of the community. I want to say quite categorically that there is no evidence at all at present that these smells are in any sense injurious to health. Indeed, the consistently high standard of health enjoyed by the workers at the refineries themselves appears to corroborate this. Nevertheless, I sympathise with the constituents of hon. Members who have spoken when they are assailed by these odours. I agree that it is poor consolation to tell them that these things are not injurious to their state of health.

Our aim, which is, I believe the aim of the oil companies as well—I emphasise that—is to see that everything possible is done to remove the sources of these complaints in two ways: first of all, by the more rigorous supervision of the plants and, secondly, by a readiness to deal quickly with any source of smell which may be detected by the local residents.

As my hon. Friend said, the responsibility for controlling pollution by noxious and offensive gases rests with our Alkali Inspectorate. I should like to pay my modest tribute to the members of that Inspectorate, who do an excellent job of work not only in this but in other spheres also. I have been asked whether the Inspectorate is sufficiently equipped and strong enough in numbers. I want to assure hon. Members that it is. We have recently expanded its strength from ten to twenty—it has been doubled—and we hope shortly to recruit another eight members to the force. Our inspectors are very much alive to their responsibilities here.

I recognise that oil refineries are always a potential source of air pollution and particularly of unpleasant odours. They are capable of producing smells over relatively large areas. My hon. Friend the Member for the City of Chester (Mr. Temple) has spoken of the Stanlow refinery. I sympathise with him in what he said, because I am familiar with some odours, which are not exactly pleasant, which sometimes drift across the River Mersey when a south-westerly wind is blowing. There have, however, been no serious complaints about Stanlow during the last two years.

Certainly, my right hon. Friend is under no illusions, especially after receiving from my hon. Friend a petition signed by nearly 6,000 people living on Canvey Island. There is, however, a good deal of public disquiet in certain parts of the County of Essex. I admit that it is a difficult problem, partly because of the large scale of the operations carried out at these refineries and partly because of the highly polluting nature of the gases involved in the various processes.

The policy of our Inspectorate is that all these processed gases should be collected and sulphur compounds removed wherever it is feasible to get rid of them. The gases should then be burned completely and the final waste discharged without smell at a high level. That is important, as my hon. Friend said. The flares which can be seen at the top of the stacks of the refineries are part of this process. They are, in effect, safety valves which ensure that any waste gases are burned and, therefore, made harmless. In this way, we have control over all the major emissions of gases. Having said that, however, I entirely agree that that in itself is not sufficient.

The refining processes require very high temperatures of up to 600 deg. C. and very wide ranges of pressure. In these conditions, there is always a risk of small leakages at different points—for example, a gland leakage or one resulting from some quite unexpected failure in the equipment. This is where the nature of the gases comes into the picture. The most offensive of them is hydrogen sulphide, which is well known to some of us from our younger days, and what are known as mercaptans, which at certain times have, I believe, a garlicy smell.

The trouble is that hydrogen sulphide is noticeable in the atmosphere in concentrations as low as one part per million. Mercaptans are even worse, only a few parts per hundred million being sufficient to assail one's nasal susceptibilities. Therefore, it happens that a most minute escape, lasting perhaps for only a few minutes, may be detected a long way away.

There are innumerable points at which quite small leakages are possible. Even with the best system of testing and maintenance, it is not always possible to detect leakages until they have occurred. By the time a leak has been stopped, however quickly it is stopped, the chances are that people have been complaining. This is the real difficulty, as, I suspect, my hon. Friends know.

What we are trying to do is to insist on the highest possible standard of maintenance and of good housekeeping at the refineries. We are seeing that the various parts of equipment are taken down regularly for inspection and overhaul and we are also insisting on constant vigilance against chance escapes. We are also giving a good deal of our attention to the prevention of escapes from the ancillary operations, such as the unloading of tankers and the discharge of aqueous effluents and oil storage.

I am very glad that my hon. Friend expressed his appreciation of the co-operation of the oil companies. I am sure that they are alive to this problem and to their responsibilities. I hasten to say that I know that not only are they spending very large sums of money on research into the chemical engineering problems involved but they already have a joint committee for the mutual exchange of information on this aspect. Our inspectors keep themselves abreast of all the new developments which come to light, and the oil companies have certainly been most co-operative with the inspectorate.

I would add that our Inspectorate is working very closely not only with the oil companies but with the local authorities in Essex and elsewhere. Our deputy chief inspector and the district inspector attended a meeting only a few weeks ago with representatives of the oil companies and the Essex local authorities. It was arranged at that meeting that the authorities should keep records of outbreaks and report them to the companies so that they could be investigated at once. We certainly propose to continue that kind of collaboration and generally do all we can to help reduce the dimensions of the problem on the lines I have indicated.

I apologise to hon. Members if I have not answered all their detailed points, but I assure them that all that has been said tonight will be studied and that my right hon. Friend, with his advisers in the Alkali Inspectorate, will do all that is humanly possible to lessen the dimensions of the problem.

Mr. Delargy

Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind what I have previously said about cement dust?

Mr. Bevins

That is a slightly different question, but I shall be very happy to review it again and get in touch with the hon. Gentleman.

Commander C. E. M. Donaldson (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

There have been two hon. Members present on the opposite side of the House and seven on this side and five officials in support of the Minister, and I think, supporting my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) in what he has had to say, that the debate has been well worth while from the point of view of health. Both you, Mr. Speaker, and I come from Scotland—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at three minutes to Twelve o'clock.