HC Deb 25 June 1973 vol 858 cc1279-92

10.27 p.m.

Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the matter of the pollution of Maendy and Brofiskin quarries. My gratitude would be somewhat greater if someone from the Welsh Office had turned up to reply to the debate.

Mr. Mark Hughes (Durham)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order that my hon. Friend should be called upon to begin an Adjournment debate in the absence of the relevant Minister?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I did not see that the Minister was not here. The Chair must deprecate very strongly any hon. Member raising a matter on the Adjournment in the absence of the Minister. [Interruption.] I believe that the Minister has arrived.

Mr. John

I am obliged to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall recommence what I have to say in the light of the Minister's presence.

Since the categorical statement by the Secretary of State a fortnight ago on the subject of pollution at Maendy and Brofiskin quarries, the persistence of doubt and worry must be viewed in the light of the history of the case.

Although I had already become involved by then, the first public article in the Western Mail on 21st January 1972 stated that certain farmers at Maendy and Brofiskin had received ex gratia payments from the waste disposal firm concerned for matters which included the death of animals. That hardly suggests that there is no cause for concern.

When I read in tonight's South Wales Echo that traces of PCB have been found in the milk of animals grazing at Maendy quarries the alarm must be compounded. A number of journals such as last week's New Scientist have commented upon the way in which the Welsh Office has approached the matter.

During Question Time I have been accused of sensationalism by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Secretary of State for Wales. On the many occasions when I have raised these matters in debate, by Questions, and with the Welsh Office Ministers in private, I have avoided being alarmist, as witness the fact that there have been no headlines on this matter until recently. The Secretary of State's language, therefore, is curious.

The recent Welsh Office statements on pollution, such as the one on TOCP, are vindictive and an insult to those whom I represent. Worse, however, was the Secretary of State's use of parliamentary privilege to attack Mr. Douglas Gowan, one of the consultants in this matter, by suggesting that his involvement in litigation would somehow lead him to doctor his results. No expert in litigation does that, as the Secretary of State should know.

I have heard reports, too, of a Press conference in which one of the Welsh Office's civil servants launched another attack upon Mr. Gowan. The intervention of a civil servant in that way is deplorable. Mr. Gowan may be wrong but he is not——

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. David Gibson-Watt)

Will the hon. Gentleman be prepared to give me the details of that matter after the debate?

Mr. John

Mr. Gowan may be wrong but he is supported by Professor Clarke, who is an eminent veterinarian, Professor Platonow, who is a world expert on pollution, the ICI laboratories and the Sunday Times Insight team. Such work can be criticised, as the New Scientist criticised it last week, but such criticism should be met by facts and not by scurrility.

The fact is that there is still a conflict of results. The Welsh Office's refusal to consent to splitting samples and thus to bridge the conflict is regrettable. There is a refusal to consent because of litigation. It appears that the Welsh Office has not yet realised that both parties to the litigation should receive a split sample as that would mean that fairness is assured. Without that the conflict will remain.

I must ask the Minister some specific questions. First, from what spots were the samples of water taken? Were they taken from surface pools in the quarries or from rainwater? Were they taken from the Maendy Road or from the farmers' land? What analysing techniques have been used for both the water and the milk supplies? All who know the subject agree that analytical techniques are difficult. If Mr. Gowan's findings are to be criticised because he used chromolography unsupported by mass spectrometry, what about the tech- nique mentioned last Thursday by Anthony Tucker, the science correspondent of The Guardian, of continuous monitoring?

In the middle of such a dry spell of weather and with such difficult chemicals it may be that this is the only technique which is valuable for the detection of PCB and TOCP. Is this or any similar technique being used by the Welsh Office? The Welsh Office's inability to confirm to Mr. Tucker the techniques in use is unfortunate.

We have today received some startling news on the subject. When I asked a Question on 11th June 1973 I was assured by the Secretary of State for Wales that the Public Analyst's Department had reported that milk samples were free from PCB. That is one of the chief concerns because PCB is a toxic chemical. If it is in cows milk it can be transmitted. The Secretary of State was categoric in his denial that PCBs existed in milk.

Tonight we have the news reported in the South Wales Echo—because I am not favoured with Welsh Office statements these days—that negligible traces of PCB have now been found in milk samples but that they were not dangerous. There is all the difference in the world between saying that there are no PCBs present in milk and saying that they are present but not dangerous.

We are entitled therefore to know to what depth the original analysis went. Did it go below two parts per million, for example? If not, why not, because the effect of this is, to a community already confused by the plethora of different results, to question or to call into question all the results upon which the Welsh Office is now relying, because if they can be wrong on this crucial issue of PCBs in cows' milk, they can be wrong on other such issues.

The difficulty and technique of interpretation and the inexperience of many public analysts can only be met by, first of all, the splitting of the samples, secondly, by setting up an agreed point of sampling, and, thirdly, by the setting up of agreed analytical procedures. I hope that Purle and the farmers' representatives would agree to this. It is absolutely imperative in view of the latest evidence that the Welsh Office should agree to and initiate the setting up of such agreed procedures.

I understand that Mr. Gowan is willing to release to the Water Pollution Research Laboratory all the samples he has taken which are stored at the ICI laboratory. I hope that no amour proper or personal animus will prevent the Welsh Office from taking up this offer. One characteristic, besides persistence, of many of these chemicals is their ability to pollute ground, the roots of the grass and the grass itself. This clearly can have a harmful effect upon animal life which grows in that area.

The American environmental pollution agencies and ICI have analysed some soil from the area and the results are disturbing. What are the results of the analysis of the soil taken by the Government? Are they yet available, and, if so, what concentration of PCB do they show in the soil at the moment?

Since the Government place great reliance upon their own experts, including the Glamorgan county analyst, can they explain themselves in the context of the statement in his report of 13th June 1972 that the effluents coming out of the quarries should undergo a system of purification?

Why is it that the Welsh Office has not intervened in the talks between the local authorities and the waste disposal firm to accelerate such a process of agreement on the purification of these effluents? Why has a year dragged by since the report was made without any purification system having been installed at the quarries? Why has six months dragged by since I raised the matter in the debate on Welsh affairs on 19th December 1972 without any action?

That is a worrying feature, but I re-emphasise that the most worrying feature of all is that in the space of a fortnight assurances which were given by the Secretary State in the most categorical terms have had to be revised. Therefore the alarm and concern felt by the county——

Mr. Gibson-Watt

indicated dissent.

Mr. John

The Minister of State shakes his head. I repeat, in case he is unable to take the point I made last time, there is all the difference in the world between saying that there is no PCB in cows' milk and saying that there is PCB but there are negligible quantities present at the moment. I will say why. PCBs are truly cumulative and those PCBs within the cow will never be got rid of. They will only be added to in subsequent drinking and grazing at these polluted quarries.

I believe that the general public in the area wants first of all temporary measures designed to make the quarry safe in the short term. It wants the erection of warning notices and fences to prevent animals and humans contacting the polluted areas either by accident or by carelessness. The Secretary of State agreed in an answer to a Written Question of mine last week that he would hold talks with the local authorities to see whether agreement could be reached as to the erection of these notices and fences. I hope that these talks will be brought to a rapid and fruitful conclusion. I hope that the Welsh Office and local authorities will agree between them to the erection of these signs and fences as soon as possible.

More important, since PCB traces are to be found in milk, it is now imperative to ban the supply of milk from these farms. I realise that this is a serious step for the farmers and would obviously have to be the subject of compensation. When PCB, a known toxic agent, has been proved to be present in milk, in however small a quantity, we cannot gamble with the health of people. It is, therefore, imperative that milk supplies from these farms be banned forthwith. I hope that the Minister of State, who was reported in tonight's newspaper to be giving a negative reply to this debate, will give an assurance on this point.

The second thing which the public wants is a thorough, speedy and co-ordinated investigation of these quarries. For example, are Maendy and Brofiskin to be two of the quarries to be included in the study of quarries and toxic waste dumps now being undertaken by the Department of the Environment?

Mr. Gibson-Watt

indicated assent.

Mr. John

I accept the Minister's assurance with gratitude. It would be monstrous had they been excluded. In the same article in the Western Mail last week the Department of the Environment was unable to confirm that Maendy quarry was so included.

The belief is growing that we have been suffering in the area from a demarcation dispute between the Department of the Environment and the Welsh Office, with the former taking a much more serious view of the situation than the latter. Be that as it may, what I demand is an end to the present fragmentation of investigation, with its plethora of Departments involved and its lack of first-class analytical techniques. Instead I demand a joint departmental attack by the Department of the Environment and the Welsh Office on the problem, using the best people and the best techniques available, including all those who may be of help in tracing and dealing with these chemicals. So complex is this area of new chemicals and techniques that nothing else will do.

The third matter upon which we want an assurance is that whatever is necessary to be done will be done by the Welsh Office. If investigations reveal a serious problem we want it to be put right quickly. It is for experts to decide how it should be done, but I believe that sealing the quarry is necessary now in view of these undoubtedly toxic chemicals in the dump. The removal of the tip would leave toxicity behind and, therefore, sealing of the tip is necessary.

Also I want the assurance that Welsh Office finance will enable any necessary action to be taken without delay. I know that it is popular to say that whoever is responsible for the pollution should pay to clear it. That is a fine concept but it ignores the fact that in this case a squabble over paying may drag on for months, even years. In so urgent a case of pollution we cannot hold back the making safe of these quarries while such a squabble about responsibility goes on.

These are just a few of the problems still to be resolved. I emphasise that the Minister of State is responsible both for public health in certain aspects in Wales and for the environment. Vital as is public health, the undoubted fact is that the presence of these toxic dumps in the constituency is a gross pollution of these areas. The Welsh Office lays stress upon the public health aspect, and I think it right to do so. It is that emphasis which compels me to seek answers to the questions I have raised. But how it deals with the environmental aspect will pro- vide a better test of its determination to preserve Wales from future environmental rape. It still has time to make a better start than it has done so far. I hope that the Minister will announce tonight steps which will enable it to recover from this bad start and provide action which will be satisfactory to the Welsh Office and the authorities and reassuring to the people of the localities concerned.

10.45 p.m.

The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Mr. David Gibson-Waft)

I am sure the House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) for raising this important subject and will sympathise with him in the fact that between 1965 and 1970 a very large amount of chemical waste was dumped in quarries in his constituency. It is left to me and the Welsh Office and others concerned to clear up the matter.

I intend first to answer some of the questions which the hon. Gentleman asked. As I have only 13 minutes in which to reply, I am sure he will forgive me if I do not answer all his questions. If he is in any doubt at all about what is happening in the Welsh Office or whether we are prepared to tell him what is going on, let him come and ask me as the Minister responsible. I shall be only too pleased to tell him what is happening and to explain to him the full picture.

Mr. John


Mr. Gibson-Watt

The hon. Gentleman has made a fair speech and I hope to give him a fair answer.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether tests had taken place. Tests have taken place in running water on the verge of roadways, on farmers' land and also further into farmers' land, not just on the side of the road. He asked whether the presence of PCBs in milk was less than two parts in a million. The limit of detection was 0.02 parts per million, and I hope that that will reassure him. Thirdly, there is no question of lack of finance. I will explain later the various authorities which have been dealing with this difficult problem.

In March 1972 the Welsh Office was approached by Llantrisant and Llantwit Fardre Rural District Council which was concerned about the fact that its analysis and that of the Glamorgan River Authority of samples of water from the quarries showed much lower levels of contaminants than those of the consultants acting for some of the farmers in the area in the preparation of litigation against the waste disposal firm responsible for the dumping. The council expressed particular concern about the levels of polychlorinated biphenyls—PCBs—reported to it by the consultants.

Following a meeting at the Welsh Office involving officials from the Llantrisant and Llantwit Fardre RDC, Glamorgan County Council and Glamorgan River Authority, the Welsh Office sought advice from the Toxic Waste Division of the Directorate General of Water Engineering in London, which serves both the Welsh Office and the Department of the Environment.

After visiting the quarries it was decided to arrange for the laboratory of the Government Chemist to analyse water samples for the presence of PCBs. This was done in June and November, and, while PCBs were determined, they were at levels which our advisers considered to be of negligible toxicological significance. As the hon. Gentleman knows, these findings were communicated to him.

In the light of all the available evidence, including that reported by the consultant acting for farmers in the area, the Government Departments concerned decided earlier this year that it would be desirable to undertake a more extensive water sampling programme at the two quarries. It was decided that the samples of water should be split between the laboratory of the Government Chemist and that of the Glamorgan River Authority to validate these analytical techniques used. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that this was right. It was also decided that sampling to determine the possible effects of chemicals on the food chain should be undertaken too.

The water sampling took place at the beginning of April and about 400 determinations were made for 20 possible chemical contaminants. The results from the two laboratories were very comparable. Most results were below the limits of detection but where chloride, iron, phenols, some organic acids and nitrogen-containing compounds were shown to be present, there was no health risk.

The Welsh Office has also asked the Water Pollution Research Laboratory to make investigations at Brofiskin and Maendy because the laboratory is undertaking a long-term fundamental research programme into the problem of percolate from tips. The laboratory has identified PCBs, but the highest level recorded was 0.11 microgrammes per litre, which, I am advised, is toxicologically insignificant. [Interruption.] No. I will come to that in a moment. These tests have been taken in all sorts of weather over a period.

The water Pollution Research Laboratory programme of sampling and analysis will be continued and will include not only water but also stream sediments, soil and herbage; that is, it will be a complete environmental monitoring programme.

On the basis of the results of water sampling obtained by the river authority, the laboratory of the Government Chemist and the WPRL, the Ministry of Agriculture decided to carry out sampling on milk and animal tissue to test for possible contamination of the food chain—a decision that, I would stress, was taken before the current publicity given to the situation. I would also stress the word "possible" in relation to this contamination, because there was and is no evidence to suggest that the public are in any way being put at risk from milk or food products in the area.

Mr. John

That is not what it says here.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

The hon. Gentleman can read as many newspapers as he likes; I am giving him the benefit of expert advice—

Mr. John


Mr. Gibson-Watt

I will not give way. I have a very short time in which to answer. If the hon. Gentleman bases his arguments on newspaper reports, then I think less of him than I did yesterday. What I am saying to him, if he will take my advice on this, which is based on professional advice, is that the public are in no way being put at risk by milk or food products from the area.

Mr. John

indicated dissent.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. If he will tell me in the Welsh Office the evidence on which he says that the public are at risk, I will accept it, but if he has no evidence, he has no reason to make those remarks.

The Ministry of Agriculture sampling programme started on 11th June, and levels of PCBs have been shown to be below 0.02 parts per million—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We cannot have sedentary interjections.

Mr. John

On a point of order.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

No, no point of order arises. The hon. Gentleman knows that he must listen quietly to the Minister unless the Minister gives way to him.

Mr. Gibson-Watt

The sampling began on 11th June and levels of PCBs have been shown to be below 0.02 parts per million of whole milk, a result which is in accordance with the findings of the Glamorgan public analyst, and which is negligible. No TOCP has been found. The Ministry of Agriculture has also arranged to analyse animal tissue for the presence of chemical contaminants, and this is now under way.

The House will forgive me for going into such great length on the steps which the Government have taken to keep the situation at these quarries under the closest review.

I should like to point out that the sampling and analytical work undertaken has been carried out under the most stringent and professional scientific conditions by highly qualified and competent analysts. The certified analyses are freely available to anyone interested, including the hon. Gentleman. The water sampling has been carried out by the Glamorgan River Authority in all conditions of weather for the past 4½ years.

Throughout, the Welsh Office and its expert advisers have taken into account findings reported by the consultant acting for farmers in the area in the preparation of litigation against the waste disposal firm concerned. These results have been assessed against the evidence collected by the Glamorgan River Authority and Government agencies.

Any alleged findings of new chemical contaminants made by the consultant have always been given the most careful consideration. For example, we received a report from him on 8th June about a finding of a toxic chemical known as TOCP at levels of 50 parts per million in water from Maendy. Immediately we asked the consultant for full analytical details and for confirmation of this value. This confirmation has not been forthcoming yet, but the Water Pollution Research Laboratory has since analysed samples of the effluent draining from the east and west of Maendy Quarry and last week reported it had found no trace of TOCP. The limit of detection was 0.1 parts per million. Nor has the Glamorgan County Council Public Analyst found any TOCP in effluent from Maendy.

So much for the stories which have caused so much public concern.

The Tonteg Residents Action Committee and the parish council which visited the Welsh Office were considerably reassured by what they were told but they expressed the view that it would be desirable to erect more substantial fencing to stop children getting into Maendy Quarry. I recognise this concern and my officials have since had discussions about this matter with the Glamorgan County Council, with other local authorities and with the owners of the quarries.

I can report to the House that an assurance has been given by the waste disposal firm that fencing adjacent to the public highway or where public access can be readily gained will be strengthened to a satisfactory standard to prevent all but the most determined from gaining access. Signs clearly indicating the danger which have been repeatedly removed will be replaced. Daily surveillance by one of the security organisations is being arranged, and there will be regular liaison with the local police. The local management of the firm concerned will also make frequent random checks which will be recorded.

Following discussions over a long period with the Glamorgan River Authority the firm is very close to starting construction of a treatment plant to deal with the leachate. When this is in operation it will of course be regularly manned. Glamorgan County Council will be asking the firm to meet the council in July to review what action has been taken on these undertakings.

In the context of possible hazards to health, suggestions have been made that milk and produce from farms in the area should be banned at least until further investigations have been made. I do not believe that such action is either necessary or warranted. We have no evidence to suggest there is any immediate public health hazard from possible contamination of the food chain.

The veterinary service of MAFF is always ready at the request of farmers and their vets to assist in diagnosing the cause of animal death. During the last 10 days a farmer in the area has asked MAFF to examine a sheep which died and tests including, as I said earlier, analysis of the tissue are now under way. Some parts of a calf which also died within the last 10 days——

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

Adjourned at three minutes to Eleven o'clock.