HC Deb 22 May 1978 vol 950 cc1295-306

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That this House do now adjourn. [Mr. Snape.]

12.3 a.m.

Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)

No one—certainly not one of my constituents—doubts the compelling necessity to have controlled disposal centres to deal with the problems of toxic waste disgorged by modern industry. As a result of the initiatives coming from the Department of the Environment no one doubts that many problems that would otherwise have arisen have been contained. For that the Department deserves high praise. However, the encouragement given by the Department to waste disposal industries must not be so generously given that citizens in areas where such plants are sited may come to the conclusion that the Government are more concerned about the needs of industry than the needs of men and women.

If the waste disposal plants are so conducted that they provoke resentment, hositilty and fear from those who live for miles around their curtilage, the good work of the Department may be undone by the irresponsibility of the management. That, unhappily, is what has happened in my constituency.

Re-Chem International Ltd., a waste disposal firm, backed by the huge resources of its parent company, British Electric Traction, six years ago applied for planning permission to a non-suspecting small district council—the Torfaen District Council. Eager, as are all South Wales councils in areas threatened by or enduring high unemployment, to welcome new work into the district, the council gave it permission. The company obtained its planning permission by deception or by its overweening misplaced confidence in its own technological capacities, for it assured the council that the works would in no way impinge upon the amenity of the nearby estates.

Almost from the time that the works commenced operation a yawning gap appeared between the company's promises and its performance. Noxious fumes, smokes and smells regurgitated out of the stack, sometimes by day and sometimes by night. Protests mounted from residents in the area as all the claimed modifications to the incinerator plant resulted in no material diminution in the grave inconveniences being suffered.

The Welsh Office, at my request, with the aid of my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment—the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Marks)—co-operated, by means of the participation of the Alkali Inspectorate, in a liaison committee which included representatives of the local authority, of Re-Chem, and of the residents' environmental association. However, despite the monitoring and the promises of further avoiding action by the company, that has been of no avail. The nuisance continues, with the residents collecting funds to commence legal action against the company.

The local authority is inhibited from suspending the company's licence only by fear that that may result in millions of pounds worth of compensation having to be paid by hapless ratepayers. That would be payment to swell BET profits, which Sir John Spencer Wills, the company's chairman, recently told shareholders rose to a record figure of £55 million. When Mr. Wills announced the profits he complained bitterly about the time that his company wasted on dealing with the controlling legislation that had come from the Labour Government, and declared that Profits are the lifeblood of the nation. At the same time he announced the company's usual annual subsidy to the Conservative Party.

In the light of experience my constituents believe that their lives would be happier if there were more controls on this company and less profit. I should have thought that with two Tory ex-Ministers on the Board—Viscount Colville and Christopher Chataway—the company would have sufficient political sensitivity not to inflame an already highly combustible situation which many of us have sought to contain in recent years.

But the company's avid and reckless search for profits continues unabated. Now it has provocatively announced its decision to import from the United States of America for incineration at Pontypool a deadly pesticide which has wrought such havoc in the Virginia-Maryland coastland region by its release into the estuarine atmospheric environment that its use has been banned in the United States as it has been here.

The two companies which manufacture this insecticide have received the highest fines for pollution ever imposed in the United States—$13.2 million and $3.8 million. The people of the United States have been so shocked by the disaster, made so aware of the serious illnesses. including sterility, among the workers and their families at the Kepone manufacturing plant, and are so fearful that it might cause cancer, through dissemination in the food chain—as stated by distinguished scientists—that no state in America is prepared to be the site at which an attempt can be made to dispose of the stocks that have accumulated.

In the United States, the most highly developed technological country in the world, no state is prepared to permit an attempt to dispose of the material on its soil. But that does not deter Re-Chem with its insouciance and rare arrogance. It claims, despite its wretched track record at Pontypool and despite being convicted only a few weeks ago, in Scotland, for its reckless pollution at the plant in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan), that it alone has perfected the technology to dispose of this poison and wishes to import 1½ tons for a trial run. After what is necessarily an innovatory experiment it proposes to import another 35 tons.

It is my duty to warn the Minister that my constituents are not prepared to be guinea-pigs. With Government aid, Wales is only just clearing away the debris and tips which an irresponsible British capitalism left behind. South Wales is not prepared to become a receptacle for the excreta of an incontinent sector of American capitalism. No Minister, no Health and Safety Executive, no company can give a 100 per cent. guarantee that the incineration of Kepone will have no attendant environmental risks, because it has never been done on this scale before.

If Re-Chem has the technology, let the Government tell it to sell it to the United States. Let Kepone be incinerated on American soil or waters. The Secretary of State has the power to make regulations forbidding the import of such poisons. If he exercises that power he will have the full support of the House. If he does not, and Kepone makes its way to my constituency, a confrontation will take place with the whole of the community.

Womens' institutes, Methodist chapels, union branches, my constituency party and council, apart from the environmental associations, urge me to persuade the Minister to ban Kepone's entry. We have too many unfulfilled promises from BET, the parent company of Re-Chem.

One of its subsidiaries, Rediffusion, came into my constituency with full support from the Government, the new town corporation and myself, deceiving us into the belief that its advanced technology was so certain that it would expand rapidly in the field of navigational satellite-assisted aid. The advanced technology ended in a shambles and led to the closure of the works, with hundreds of my constituents being made brutally redundant. The technological and safety skills now being pleaded by BET's Re-Chem subsidiary understandably, therefore, fall on deaf ears.

I appreciate that the Department of the Environment has a difficult task trying to persuade people that modern industry must have the facilities with which to dispose of its wastes. Acceptance that that need exists can be secured only by the community's gaining increased confidence that it can be done safely and without disruption. The past record of Re-Chem at Pontypool has caused that confidence to be forfeited, and the Department would be unwise to give the company the opportunity to challenge the community's view.

If Kepone came to Ponytpool I would regard it as my duty, as my mayor regards it as his, to picket the factory in a bid to stop its entry to the incinerator plant. I do not doubt that my constituents, of all political views, would join me. In the eastern valley we are a law-abiding community, and therefore we look to the Minister to use to the full the powers of the law that are at his disposal.

12.11 a.m.

Mr. Dennis Canavan (West Stirlingshire)

I also declare a constituency interest, in that the company referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) also has a disposal plant in my constituency at Bonnybridge. Since the plant was built there, and since I became the Member of Parliament for West Stirlingshire, I have received many complaints from constituents about the atmospheric pollution caused by it. I suspect that part of the reason for this has been that initially the company received the co-operation of the local planning authority, which was deeply concerned to secure the creation of jobs. There is no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool had that concern in respect of his area.

It is clear now that the planning decision by the former Stirling County Council was a bad one, in that the plant is located in a low-lying hollow and that it is therefore difficult adequately to disperse the fumes that it produces.

Although measures have recently been taken by the company to increase the length of the chimney stack, constituents still complain to me. Recently, after I reported certain matters to the inspectorate based in the Scottish Office, certain steps were taken and suggestions were made to the company, but a prosecution against the firm has been carried out at Falkirk sheriff court.

In addition to these problems, there is now the threat at Bonnybridge of the importation of this dangerous chemical Kepone. I have tabled Questions to the Department of the Environment and the Scottish Office on the matter. On 5th May I received a reply from the Department of the Environment, telling me that the Health and Safety Executive had issued a prohibition notice to prevent the disposal of the chemical at the Pontypool plant, for which it had been destined. That information perturbed me somewhat. I thought that it was reasonable enough to prohibit the importation of the chemical into Pontypool, but I was anxious lest Bonnybridge would then be chosen as the place at which it should be disposed of.

I therefore tabled a Question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and was told on 9th May that the Secretary of State, has informed the company that he will issue a prohibition notice to prevent the disposal of Kepone at its Bonnybridge works unless and until he is fully satisfied that the disposal could go ahead without causing any environmental damage."—[Official Report 9th May 1978; Vol. 949, c. 483–4.] It appears from the difference in tenses used by the two Departments in those replies that before I had tabled my Question to the Scottish Office no prohibition order had been issued by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. I should be grateful for clarification of that tonight.

My constituents, like those at Pontypool, want an assurance about this matter. It is true that we are concerned about jobs. I would not like to see the plant close down in my constituency, because jobs are at stake. I am also in continuous contact with the trade unions within the company. Nevertheless, we want an assurance not just about jobs but about the safety precautions which are absolutely essential not only for the workers in the plant itself but also for the people in the wider community.

12.15 a.m.

Mr. Bryan Gould (Southampton, Test)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) not only for raising this important matter but for generously allowing me a few minutes in which to make some remarks.

The issue is of concern to my constituents, because one of the three plants operated by Re-Chem is at Fawley, just outside my constituency, which is the centre for a large population in Southampton. My constituents were naturally alarmed when they were led to believe, initially, that Kepone was to be brought to Fawley for incineration. I made a public statement expressing alarm at this possibility. This prompted a telephone call from the chairman of the company, who assured me that whatever else may happen, Kepone would not come to Fawley.

I accepted that assurance. I imagine that it still governs the situation. Therefore, I take it—I wish my hon. Friends all the luck in resisting the bringing of Kepone to Pontypool and Bonnybridge—that whatever may happen at those sites, Kepone is not coming to Fawley.

Nevertheless, although the immediate danger has been averted for my constituents, I believe that there are wider issues, some of which I have already raised in a letter to my hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I am satisfied by the terms of his reply that he is taking the matter seriously.

I do not intend to traverse all the ground covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool, but there some specific questions which I hope my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be able to answer.

First, we are told—most improbably, it seems to me—that there is simply no one in the United States with the competence and technical capacity to deal with the incineration of this chemical. I believe that that is so unlikely that it cannot possibly be true. Surely the more likely explanation is that after the frightening, terrifying experience with this chemical in Virginia, no one in America is prepared to have anything further to do with it.

If we in this country, and Re-Chem in particular, are persuaded that we ought to have something to do with it, on the basis of the assurances given to us by the American company concerned with its manufacture, Allied Chemicals, let us be very careful indeed about that, because on this issue Allied Chemicals has a record of total irresponsibility. Indeed, it is still engaged in massive litigation in the United States, where it is denying responsibility for the tremendous damage which the chemical has caused.

The second question is, if Kepone is in fact, as I believe, so dangerous that no one in the whole of the vast United States is prepared to deal with it, how is it that Re-Chem can be so confident, since it has never dealt with it itself, that it can deal with it without danger to the public? If, again, Re-Chem is relying on assurances about the composition of the chemical and the ease of its destruction—assurances obtained from Allied Chemicals—I insist that those assurances be regarded with the greatest scepticism.

Finally, I urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to take the point that although it is true that the public must be protected, it is equally true that the public must be seen to be protected. Therefore, if there is any doubt at all on this issue, I urge him to err on the side of safety.

12.17 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the the Environment (Mr. Kenneth Marks)

My hon. Friends the Members for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould) and West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) have raised for debate a matter of great importance to their constituents. It is a matter with national and international implications, too. My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool talked about hostility, resentment and fear. We have heard the real concern expressed that a toxic substance, produced abroad, should be allowed to come into this country for disposal. We have had an account of the problems which Kepone caused in America and fears of what might happen if it were allowed into this country.

I fully understand why my hon. Friends should feel so strongly. It is right and proper that they should. I myself would not for one moment wish any disposal operation to go ahead if it appeared to pose an unwarranted risk to public health or to the environment. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has powers, which he would not hesitate to use, to prohibit the importation of any substance if he considered it necessary for the purpose of protecting public health or the environment. He would be required to lay an order before the House for approval, so it is important to consider the facts carefully.

First, no decision has yet been made on whether or not the proposed incineration will go ahead. The proposal is at present the subject of a prohibition notice served by the Health and Safety Executive. This will not be lifted until the Executive has agreed on a safe system of work with the disposal company. I understand that discussions are going on between the firm and the Executive, but that it may take a considerable time before any decision is reached. This is, of course, a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, who has responsibility for the Health and Safety Executive.

I urge my hon. Friends to put any facts they have—including any information from environmental health officers or councils in their constituencies—to the Executive and to the Secretaries of State for the Environment, for Wales and, now that my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire has intervened, for Scotland. In the meantime, the consignment of Kepone is in Baltimore, Maryland. We have been given assurances that the firm has no intention of bringing it into this country until the necessary consents have been received.

Kepone is undoubtedly toxic and environmentally persistent. It is the trade name for the chemical chlordecone, which is used as a pesticide, primarily in the form of an ant and cockroach bait. It was manufactured in the United States of America for about 10 years by the Allied Chemicals Corporation, apparently without incident. Then, in 1974, Allied Chemicals transferred its manufacture to the Life Science Product Company.

By all accounts this was a very poorly managed operation; the manufacturing process itself was virtually uncontrolled. As a result, several employees suffered from Kepone poisoning. The health effects included disorders of the nervous system, liver, kidneys and testes. In addition the James River, in which there were important shellfish colonies, was extensively polluted.

In considering these alarming facts it is important to bear in mind that the work force at Life Science was permitted to remain in continuous and direct contact with the Kepone for over a year, and that the company discharged untreated Kepone waste direct to the sewerage system. This would not, of course, be the case if disposal went ahead in this country. The statutory controls on which we rely are extensive, as I shall remind the House in a moment.

The manufacture, sale and use of Kepone was banned in the United States in 1975, although I understand that the sale of existing stocks of ant and cockroach bait containing Kepone is still permitted. The Allied Chemical Corporation now apparently has for disposal about 60 tons of Kepone-contaminated waste. I am informed that although the States of Virginia and Maryland have prohibited the disposal of Kepone in their territories, there is no Federal ban on incinerating the substance.

Incineration of Kepone at 500 degrees to 700 degrees Centigrade for one second is quoted in the literature as sufficient for its safe destruction. The residues after incineration are carbon dioxide and a solution of common salt and sodium carbonate in water. Some of the carbon dioxide would be discharged to atmosphere and the liquid effluent, after treatment, into the sewage system.

I must now attempt to answer the perfectly reasonable question why should we in this country have to dispose of American Kepone which they themselves consider too dangerous to handle?

In the first place we do not have to. There is no question of a dangerous substance being foisted on us. Re-Chem International Ltd, the United Kingdom waste disposal firm, entered into a voluntary arrangement with Allied Chemicals. The proposal was for a trial incineration of 10 tons of waste containing rather less than 1.5 tons of Kepone. While it is not my business to plead its case, Re-Chem is a reputable firm whose technical expertise and wide experience made it natural for Allied Chemicals to approach it. Its incinerator is capable of sustaining 1000 degrees c—as against the 500–700 degrees c quoted for the destruction of Kepone—for a longer burn than the one second also quoted. It seems unlikely that any comparable facilities in the United States are commercially available. The transfer could therefore, on a world basis, make environmental as well as economic sense.

I turn to the question of safety during transportation of the waste. The Kepone is at present packed in two inner polythene bags within a steel drum with a secure lid. The drums are stacked in threes on a pallet which is shrink-wrapped in polythene. Twenty-six such pallets, comprising 78 drums, are packed in a steel container which would not be unpacked until it reached its destination.

I turn to the controls which would apply. Under the Control of Pollution Act 1974, waste disposal plants and facilities in the United Kingdom are subject to licensing by the waste disposal authorities. In Wales and Scotland these are the district councils, and in England the county councils. Before issuing a licence a waste disposal authority is required to refer the proposals to certain statutory consultees, including the water authority and the Health and Safety Executive. The waste disposal authority may specify operating conditions in its licence. I am told that the Pontypool plant of Re-Chem International Ltd. has a valid disposal licence whose terms would permit the incineration of Kepone and that no legal proceedings have ever been brought against the firm in respect of the operation of its Pontypool plant. My hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire was right to say that the firm was fined £50 for incinerating iodine.

A waste disposal authority, however, is empowered under the Act to modify or revoke its disposal licence, and no doubt the Torfaen District Council will consider this course. It would obviously have to have solid grounds for doing so within the terms of the Act, and the firm would have a right of appeal, but the possibility is there.

The disposal licence, however, is not the only control. Effluent discharges must have the consent of the regional water authority; gaseous emissions are controlled by the alkali inspectorate and the Executive's factory inspectorate also needs to be satisfied about the safety of the work force and of the general public. Transport also has to be under stringent safeguards. Every phase of the operation would therefore be subject to control.

To sum up; at the moment the disposal is prevented by a prohibition notice issued by the Health and Safety Executive. It will not be lifted unless and until my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, and the Health and Safety Executive themselves are fully satisfied that the waste can be transported and disposed of without danger to health. Until it is lifted, there is no question of the waste being moved to this country. We shall not hesitate to use the powers available to us to prevent the import if they prove to be justified. But, equally, we could not apply them if a rigorous examination of the facts showed no unwarranted risk to be involved.

Finally, I wish to inform my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool that I have received a request for a deputation to be seen by my Department, and I assure him that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State and I will be glad to see them on this matter as soon as it can be arranged.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Twelve o'clock.