HC Deb 04 April 1985 vol 76 cc1400-5 1.51 pm
Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I am grateful for the opportunity of raising on the Adjournment what I believe to be an important subject, and I hope that the debate will give a wider platform to an exciting British technological breakthrough which renders an extremely harmful substance completely innocuous.

I need not remind the House that a most worrying problem in the building and other industries is the health hazard of asbestos products, not because those products are harmful in situ in a building, but because they are harmful when they are disturbed, damaged or dismantled, and when the waste products of asbestos are removed from a site, transported and disposed of.

It may be helpful if I briefly mention that there are three sorts of asbestos. There is white asbestos, whose principal use is in asbestos cement products, such as roofing, wall sheeting and down pipes. White asbestos, which is the least toxic sort, is generally safe until it is disturbed. The second type is brown asbestos, which was widely used in the 1960s as a fire safety spray on steel-framed buildings. Brown asbestos is not as hard as white asbestos; therefore, it is more easily disturbed. It is much more toxic.

The third type is blue asbestos, which is widely used for sound and thermal insulation in buildings, including the lining of air ducts. It is a very high temperature material and is used frequently in the insulation of boilers, not only in buildings but in ships. The House will know that ship breaking yards have a special problem, an example of which occurred at Faslane. Blue asbestos is the most toxic.

The current method of disposing of asbestos waste is that it must be double-bagged on the site and then transported to a suitable waste disposal site, where it is tipped and buried. The regulations state that it should be buried in 1 m of earth. Since for me imperial preference has a double meaning, I prefer to say that the regulations require that it be buried under 3 ft. 3⅛ in. of earth. The problem with the conventional method of double-bagging and dumping is that the asbestos waste remains toxic and is therefore still a health hazard. It is also in danger of being re-exposed or disturbed on the waste site at a later date. For example, during the construction of part of the M25 motorway, an asbestos waste site was discovered.

Recently, a new process was invented by the Sheffield firm of King, Taudevin and Gregson. I understand that it was invented by no less a person than the technical director of that firm, Dr. David Roberts, whom I had the great pleasure to meet in the House yesterday. Previously I had met the firm's finance director, Mr. Keith Hindle, and the managing director, Mr. Stuart Johnson.

The firm has invented a process which transforms asbestos waste into a completely harmless glass substance which is safe for all time. It is worth stating what that new process means. First, the harmful asbestos waste is vitrified on site. The vitrification of the waste makes it non-toxic and, therefore, completely harmless. The process removes any danger in the transporting and burying of asbestos waste. An added advantage is that there is no need to sterilise land when getting rid of the asbestos waste. Another gain is that the vitrification of the waste reduces its bulk. I am told that it reduces it to one fifth of its original size. If we allow for the volume and area required for the double-bagging of asbestos waste, I am told that it can reduce the area needed for disposal to one tenth of the volume presently needed.

A further beneficial by-product of the process is that not only does it get rid of a harmful substance by making it non-toxic, but it produces something that can be used, albeit only as hard core for infill on a building site. Another small but significant advantage of the new process is that it can use, as part of the vitrification process, rejected, uncycled glass from bottle banks.

There is no doubt that this is a significant breakthrough. King. Taudevin and Gregson is the world's largest glass furnace manufacturer. It is worth pointing out that it not only won the Queen's award for export achievement in 1984. but that last month it was awarded the pollution abatement technology award for inventing the process. The award was organised by the CBI, the Department of the Environment and the Royal Society of Arts.

There is no need for me to do it, but it might be prudent now to say that I have no financial interest in that distinguished Sheffield company and, of course, it does not employ any of my constituents. I must declare an interest in such matters, because I qualified as an architect many years ago. Vanity — the placing of four extra letters after my name—requires me to remain a member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and I am a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

This invention is a significant breakthrough. Cost must be a crucial factor in recommending that this process should be used. If the cost is very great, clearly it will inhibit the use of such a process. I recognise also that the cost assessment very much depends upon the amount of asbestos waste which has to be stripped and removed from a site. If, however, there is a large amount of asbestos on a building site or upon any other site—for example, a requirement to dispose of asbestos waste at the rate of 10 tonnes a day — there is no doubt that the cost of the vitrification process invented by KTG, including an assessment that the capital is on a four-year write-off, the manning of the plant, the electricity needed to power the plant and the recycled glass, will be about £130 per tonne.

Having checked the figures as carefully as I can, I believe that £130 per tonne could be half the conventional cost. I understand from inquiries I have made today that the cost of bagging and dumping the asbestos waste at Fulham power station worked out some time ago at £210 per tonne and that at West Thurrock power station, where there was a requirement to get rid of 4,000 cu m of asbestos waste, the cost worked out at £260 per tonne for bagging, transporting and dumping. My information is that the figure of £260 does not include the cost of stripping the asbestos.

The scale of the disposal of asbestos waste is a primary factor. There is much asbestos waste to be disposed of in buildings and other constructions. A conservative estimate is that we shall have to dispose of asbestos waste at the rate of 100,000 tonnes a year. At Fulham power station over 1,000 tonnes have to be disposed of. Greater Manchester has informed King, Taudevin and Gregson that it needs to dispose of 25 tonnes a day from its area. During the next few years a number of power stations will be decommissioned, most of them in the south-east of England.

An additional benefit of this newly invented process is that it provides options for how the asbestos waste can be treated. The plant could be put on site, with all the attendant savings. That is the most favoured option from the point of view of savings, where there is a large amount of asbestos waste to be disposed of. However, a temporary mobile unit could be placed on site to deal with small amounts of asbestos in sensitive areas where the health of those in the immediate area has to be monitored very carefully. In the case of other sites where the amount of asbestos waste is very small it could be transported to central units strategically located in different parts of the country.

The central unit or the temporary mobile units may be less cost effective than having the plant on the site. However, I believe that it is still competitive with current conventional disposal methods. I should very much like the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment to say whether he believes that the figure of £260 per tonne is too high.

Tremendous interest has already been shown in the new process. I believe that King, Taudevin and Gregson would wish me to say that my hon. Friend's Department has been extremely helpful, in particular Mr. Tony Sheils of the land waste department. At least 20 local authorities have expressed interest in the process. My hon. Friend may also be interested to hear that about 17 countries have been in touch with King, Taudevin and Gregson, including West Germany where, because of the lack of sites, there is an arrangement for asbestos waste to be exported for burial in East Germany. The cost is £1,500 per tonne. Therefore one understands why West Germany is deeply interested in this new process.

I had expected the Central Electricity Generating Board to be very interested in the new process, because potentially it is the largest client. However, I understand that after showing initial enthusiasm the CEGB rejected a trial scheme. I find this hard to believe and, if it is true, it is disappointing. Surely it is in the power stations which will have to be decommissioned that a cheaper and more effective system for making the waste harmless will be of the greatest economic benefit.

It would be wrong of me not to mention that there are other alternatives to the present conventional method, but I do not believe that they are half so good or half so effective as the process invented by King, Taudevin and Gregson. In the case of one scheme, I understand that the asbestos waste can be compressed to reduce its volume. Another system involves the encapsulation of asbestos waste either in cement or in a resinous material, but in those cases the asbestos waste is still toxic. Therefore its harm is not necessarily removed.

I have no doubt that the King, Taudevin and Gregson process is an important breakthrough. It could end the asbestos waste problem, which is a major environmental hazard. I am proud to say that a British firm has created this process. I ask my hon. Friend to use his good offices and his considerable authority not only to broadcast this achievement to local authorities and other potential clients but also—I think I am entitled to say this on behalf of the constituents of other hon. Friends as well as my own constituents — to consider seriously whether the regulations relating to the disposal of asbestos waste could be tightened up by means of a requirement to make the waste non-toxic. That is necessary on health and environmental grounds. I should like to think that I have demonstrated that there is a process by which the waste can be made non-toxic, and that on economic grounds it is practicable and reasonable to do so.

2.9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. William Waldegrave)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) for raising this important subject. It is appropriate that he should do so, because his commitment and expertise over a long period, even before he became a member of the Select Committee on the Environment, and his professional training as an architect give him insights into some of the problems resulting from the demolition or design of buildings.

I think that it would be useful if I filled in a little of the background. I shall have little to add to what my hon. Friend said, because his speech contained a wealth of accurate information.

It is estimated that about 6 million tonnes of asbestos has been imported into the United Kingdom over the past 80 years. Imports of asbestos are declining but in 1984 about 38,000 tonnes was imported, mainly for use in asbestos cement, friction materials and asbestos textiles. The amounts of asbestos waste arriving for disposal are substantial — about 120,000 tonnes per annum. Those levels are likely to continue for some years as asbestos materials are replaced by substitutes. The waste is often fibrous or dusty and must be handled properly. That leads directly to the manner of its disposal.

It may be helpful if I explain our general approach to the disposal of wastes; the treatment of asbestos is exceptional. We believe that a substantial proportion of domestic, commercial and industrial ordinary waste can be safely disposed of by controlled landfill. In many cases, that may be the best environmental option.

Only last week, I opened a symposium to launch the report of our landfill practices review group which has produced comprehensive guidance on the landfilling of wastes. I urged the authorities concerned to make sure that their standards are as high as they need to be, because some preliminary reports from the hazardous waste inspectorate give cause for concern. However, we rely equally on other methods such as incineration and chemical or physical treatment for wastes that need special approaches.

Most of the wastes for which we advocate disposal by landfill undergo dispersion and dilution or various forms of degradation within landfill, rendering them effectively harmless. Wastes that could pose long-term potential risks to man or the environment are not normally landfill. Asbestos is one of the exceptions.

Paradoxically, as I shall be agreeing with my hon. Friend, there is some evidence that the nature of even that asbestos waste is slowly changed for the better within landfills that also accept domestic and similar waste. It is due to the reaction of the leachate generated within those co-disposal landfills. However, those mechanisms are normally afforded only limited opportunity to work because asbestos waste has to be sealed in plastic bags to protect handlers. Therefore, the only benefit of the leachates is when the bags are broken in the landfill, which we do not want to happen.

The hazardous waste inspectorate has recently looked in detail at the practices adopted for the landfill disposal of asbestos and it reports that the main problem is the bursting of some bags during handling. There is a contradiction; there may be some degradation of asbestos through natural processes, but only in a way which conflicts with the manner in which it must be disposed of to ensure the safety of handlers.

The only environmental impact of any significance is the long-term hazardous potential of the waste within the landfill. That can be minimised by the proper recording of deposits, as required under the special waste regulations. All deposits have to be at suitable licensed sites, which are operated according to the licence conditions and the requirements of the Health and Safety Executive. However, the overall conclusion is that there are some drawbacks to the landfilling of asbestos waste and suitable alternative procedures are to be welcomed.

My Department is funding some research work at Harwell on the detoxification of asbestos waste. Preliminary results demonstrate its technical feasibility and work is being carried out to determine optimum conditions and operating factors. My hon. Friend asked whether we should now require detoxification before disposal. We cannot yet make a decision on that, but, in the light of progress on the various alternative procedures and the research work, we shall bear that in mind as a requirement for the future.

We understand that some alternative methods are available for the processing of asbestos waste prior to landfill. These mainly involve the conversion of the waste into a hard solid material, using a variety of bonding agents, some of which my hon. Friend referred to.

The WARD system — waste asbestos removal in drums—has recently been developed and has been used, or is being used, at some power stations. It consists of compressing asbestos waste inside steel drums and adding a bonding agent to make the waste a solid block within each drum.

Some other fixation processes, including Sealosafe and Chemfix, have been tried, but technical and economic reasons have prevented their wider use. They involve mixing asbestos waste with cement and a bonding agent such as pulverised fuel ash. A hard solid block results.

An older version, or forerunner, of the WARD system was called Black's blocking process. It involved compacting the asbestos waste after the addition of a bonding agent. The resulting hard block was wrapped in thick plastic sheeting, sealed and labelled before disposal by burial. Another method for disposal involves turning the waste into a slurry with water in a closed skip and depositing it in a disposal site.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, those approaches represent a different type of solution to the problem and, in one sense, a less complete solution than the KTG process which results in the waste being destroyed. I am happy to confirm that the company won a pollution abatement technology award under an admirable scheme set up under the impetus of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) when he was a Minister at the Department of the Environment. I had the pleasure of signing the certificate sent to KTG in recognition of its achievement.

Everything now comes down to differing assessments of the economics of the process. I am still receiving some conflicting advice and some conflicting reports, including some from the CEGB, about the cost of the bagging and disposal of asbestos waste from power stations. I am not sure that the board would accept the figure that my hon. Friend gave.

Nevertheless, there is bound to be some uncertainty, because we are scaling up processes that have been operated on a pilot basis, and we would hope for economies of scale. Recent trials, as I understand it, have been at half a tonne per day, and I understand that they may need to be scaled by at least 10 times. My hon. Friend said 20 times.

Mr. Chapman

I think that if the plant were put in on a site and there was 50 per cent. utilisation instead of 100 per cent. it would be about as expensive as the conventional method. So there is clearly a graph of costs.

Mr. Waldegrave

That must be so. My Department would welcome further information on and assessment of the commercial viability, on which the speed of introduction of the process at least is bound to turn.

On the question of relative health hazards, it seems clear that these must be considerably less in the case of the Vitrifix process compared with all the operations leading up to landfill with a remaining asbestos waste of some kind. I understand, however, from the Health and Safety Executive that it too feels that it has insufficient information at present as to the likelihood of dust being involved in the process. No doubt this point can be considered further between the HSE and the company. It is an important point in assessing worker exposure during the process.

As I understand it, the economics of the Vitrifix process turn rather crucially on the cost of electricity because it is an energy-intensive process, as any high-temperature furnace process is bound to be. Therefore, as with many processed chemical industrial operations, it will depend on the loading of the process — whether it can be kept going — and on the cost of electricity.

I think that the KTG process is a very positive step and that my hon. Friend is indeed right to draw the attention of the House to it. My Department would welcome close consultation with and further information from the company, as would the HSE. Without going too far — and I hope that I shall not be in any way misinterpreted —I think that it would be a helpful development if one of the disposal authorities which has a large amount of asbestos to dispose of would consider taking seriously tenders from Vitrifix so that we can move to the next stage.

Obviously, that must he a matter for the decision of the authority or company involved, but from my Department's point of view it would be very interesting to see a bigger plant work so that we could assess it. The Department will be delighted to do anything it can — either itself or through the hazardous waste inspectorate — in the way of facilitating the transfer of information or ironing out any misunderstandings.

I end as I began by thanking my hon. Friend for raising the matter and congratulating the KTG people on the invention of the process, which has already been acknowledged by the entirely justified PAT award. I hope that over the next few years we may come to see that my hon. Friend is right in saying that this is a breakthrough in terms not only of the safe disposal of hazardous wastes but of British industrial achievement.