HC Deb 26 July 1990 vol 177 cc689-96 12.30 pm
Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor)

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to speak in an Adjournment debate on the important subject of the tyre dump fire at Heyope, Knucklas, near Knighton in my constituency. I have tried on two previous occasions to secure such a debate. People often say, "Three times for a Welshman"; on this third occasion, I have been lucky enough to bring the matter to the attention of the House. I am especially glad to see that the Under-Secretary of State for Wales is present to deal with my constituents' anxieties.

The fire was described on the front page of one of the tabloids as a "burning inferno" on the first day of the year, I suspect that the papers were short of news, but it made a dramatic headline none the less. However, it has become a forgotten fire. My objective is to give a balanced view and to come up with serious suggestions about how it can be tackled, while stressing the legitimate fears of my constituents for their community and for the precious environment in this lovely part of my native Wales.

Late in the day on Saturday 28 October 1989—ironically, one of the wettest days of the year—a fire was started at a tyre dump in Heyope. We believe that it was arson, but the police authority has yet to track down the perpetrators. That irresponsible act set light to some of the 10 million scrap tyres on the old dump, which lay in a dingle through which flowed Ffrwdwen brook. For those who are not familiar with the dingle, it is a deep wooded valley on the borders of Wales.

Twenty years previously, the dump had been started by the predecessors of the Motorway Remoulds company of Knighton, in an age when the environment was not considered in the same light as today. The tyres became a serious pollution hazard as soon as they caught light. Before, when they were inert, they were not believed to be a pollution hazard. The resulting pollutants from the burning tyres ran into the brook, and the fire and fumes polluted the air. It took the Powys fire brigade nearly 10 days to get the fire under control, and it had to seek help from the Shropshire brigade to tackle the blaze. The fire services deserve our grateful thanks for controlling the fire.

The Motorway Remoulds company is a valuable local employer. employing some 110 people in Knighton. It could be said that the company is also performing a useful service in recycling tyres by retreading them. The only problem is that as a by-product there are many waste tyres, which are dumped at Heyope in the landfill site. The old site—which is still burning some nine months after the fire started—was licensed by the local authority, the then Radnorshire county council. A new site nearby was licensed about three years ago by Radnorshire district council. That is more strictly controlled under the council's interpretation of waste management paper No. 26. Tipping takes place in compartments and the tyres are shredded.

The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs commented on tyre dumps and on the Heyope site in its recent report on toxic waste disposal in Wales. I was a member of the Committee and its main recommendation was that the waste management guidelines for disposing of tyres should become a condition of any site license. It also recommended research into recycling programmes for worn tyres. The Select Committee's recommendations are extremely sound.

During the Select Committee's study two factors emerged about the interpretation of waste management paper No. 26. They came to light in a letter from the Clerk of the Committee to the technical director of environmental services of Radnor district council, Mr. Lance Cartwright, who replied to inquiries about the Committee's interest in the fire. The Radnorshire environmental health officer said: The telephone call with which the principal EHO Cartwright received. I would confirm that the above facility was licensed in accordance with our understanding of waste management paper 26. He quotes the relevant sections of the document and says that the site is mono-disposal whereas paragraphs in the waste management paper No. 26 refer to the disposal of tyres on a co-disposal site. He goes on:

In the light of recent events I would suggest that waste management paper 26 could be revised so as to more fully cover the situation of either mono or co-disposal sites. Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution commented on that in a letter to the Committee on 9 March: Though the section on the disposal of tyres in waste management paper 26 is contained in the chapter on co-disposal, I think the opening sentence is very clear in advising against the large scale disposal of tyres, be this at mono or co-disposal sites. The fact that mono-disposal is not mentioned specifically should be read as this form of disposal being not recommended. However, I do accept that this advice against the large scale mono-disposal of tyres is not as clear as it should be. When we revise waste management paper 26 we shall take the opportunity to make clear our strong advice against the disposal of shredded tyres in other than minor quantities. That shows that there is some confusion about waste management paper No. 26. The local authority has interpreted it in one way and Her Majesty's nspectorate of pollution has interpreted it in another. The matter must be clarified.

The pollution caused by the fire gave rise to great worry in the area. The bodies dealing with the effects of the pollution are the National Rivers Authority, Radnor district council and Motorway Remoulds Ltd. At one stage Harwell was called in. In addition, Powys fire service has played an invaluable role. The pollution has affected water courses, especially the Ffrwdwen brook, and air pollution has also been experienced. Local people are understandably worried and have formed an effective tyre fire association. They fear that the fire may flare up and that the area may have to be evacuated. There was a small outbreak on 23 June but fortunately it was extinguished.

I congratulate the NRA on its effective monitoring of pollution and its preventive action. The NRA told me that from 12.15 pm on 29 October the local pollution control officer was at the scene. The brook flows into the River Teme, and approximately 50 miles downstream, water is extracted for drinking purposes. I am informed that up to 4 million consumers in the west midlands depend on that supply. The NRA ensured that pollution did not enter the river Teme after the initial outbreak, although traces of phenol were found as far downstream as Tenbury in the first two days.

Biological deterioration has been noticed in the Ffrwdwen brook up to one mile downstream from the fire site. Peak phenol pollution reached a brief high after the intitial fire of 2,000 mg per litre, but that fell rapidly to low levels. The brook breached EC drinking water standards three times in respect of phenol concentration in the initial stages. Other chemicals present were cyanide and polyaromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are carcinogenic. At no time was the brook or the river Teme above European drinking water standards in this respect and the NRA is continuing to monitor the situation.

Radnorshire district council engaged Harwell to investigate air pollution, and a brief report was produced at a cost of £500. However, monitoring of air pollution has been inadequate, and it has not produced detailed information comparable to that available from the NRA in respect of water pollution.

Air pollution is of major concern to residents, and I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure them. They would like the site to be regularly monitored for air pollution, although I suspect that insufficient resources are available to do that adequately. No problem may be evident on a superficial examination, but the local population needs more convincing reassurances.

A small authority such as Radnorshire needs assistance because it cannot respond alone. I ask the Minister to note the recommendations of the Welsh Select Committee regarding waste disposal authorities and the need to provide resources on a larger scale, and on a regional scale in Wales. The pollution inspectorate is inadequately resourced in Wales. That was highlighted in the Welsh Select Committee's report. The Principality has only two HMIP officials and its office is moving to Bristol.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Ian Grist)

indicated dissent.

Mr. Livsey

The Minister indicates otherwise, so perhaps he will put the record straight when he replies.

Motorway Remoulds deserves some sympathy. The company is trying hard to overcome its problems, but a long-term solution must be found. The priority must be to put out the fire quickly. The company is digging out some of the tyres and damping down those that are exposed and are still burning. That is a long job, and it presents hazards in terms of run-off into the local stream. It is also vital to maintain employment at the Knighton factory, which provides jobs for 110 people.

The long-term future of the dump must be examined with the ultimate objective of phasing it out. Recycling should be at the top of the agenda, and the production of rubber crumbs, and of rubber for playgrounds and for other purposes, should be investigated. The feasibility of tyre burning in power production should also be examined, although a plant would cost £38 million. However, that option would dispose of 12 million tyres annually, which is roughly half the number dumped in Britain each year. The contents of tyres are complex. Rubber now constitutes only a minor part of a tyre. Carbon black and metals of various kinds are also used.

I ask for more resources from the Welsh Office and from the tyre industry to put out the fire, even if it costs as much as £100,000 to do so.

I hope that the Minister will address the problem of resources for a small authority such as Radnor. Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution must be beefed up, with a full-time director and office in Wales at least six staff. Radnorshire district council needs more resources. I believe that the recommendations of the report of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs need to be taken on board.

I am sure that the Minister will have studied the Department of Trade and Industry report on recycling and disposal of tyres. About 23 million tyres are dumped annually in the United Kingdom and we need a regulatory framework such as exists in other countries. For example, in West Germany there is a payment of DM 100 per tonne for dumping tyres.

The report says that historically landfill is cheap but is not now appropriate, that the United Kingdom is backward with proposals for recycling and that we need recycling legislation.

The local community is worried about a number of matters: it wants regular air tests, monitoring for health risks to children, who should be kept away from the stream, evacuation procedures, the continuation of water monitoring and monitoring of potential health risks.

The Heyope fire must be put out now. We need to maintain jobs. We need the resources to tackle environmental pollution, and to clear it up. We need weekly information to be provided to the local community so that residents know what progress is being made on the site. We also need to review landfill procedures under waste management paper No. 26 and we need to legislate.

Will the Minister promise future legislation, based on the DTI report, so that all tyres are recycled or burned, and will he now initiate a five-year programme to bring that about?

12.46 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Ian Grist)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) on bringing this subject to the attention of the House, even at this late stage. Otherwise, I might have been tempted to remain in his constituency after my visit to the Royal Welsh show yesterday. I am rather surprised that, as a farmer, he has not been there this week. It certainly brings great credit to agriculture and, with the present fine weather, offers a marvellous scene for young and old and for those people who want to learn about the industry.

The Heyope fire is a matter of considerable concern to the hon. Gentleman's constituents and he will, I am sure, be interested to know that when the deputy chief environmental health officer of Radnorshire district council visited the site on Monday of this week, there was no sign of smoke there at all. However, the work dealing with this fire is clearly still continuing, and we hope that the contractors will be able to extinguish the remains of it before very long—that is, this summer.

The site is a waste disposal site, operated under licence from Radnorshire district council. The council, as waste disposal authority for its area, is responsible for licensing all private sector waste disposal sites, passing resolutions for any sites operated by the council, and carrying out all site inspection and enforcement duties required under part 1 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974.

Similarly, as the hon. Gentleman knows, it is the duty of the National Rivers Authority to protect surface and ground waters against pollution and to ensure that flora and fauna are protected.

The council granted a waste disposal licence to Motorway Remoulds Ltd, in 1982. The licence was granted for the disposal of scrap tyres at a site specified as Batches Dingle, Heyope, Knighton and it stipulated that the disposal of tyres at this site should be limited to 5 tonnes per day.

As waste disposal is a locally determined matter, the regulation of this service is the responsibility of the district council, and under the provisions of the Act it is the council's responsibility to take the steps needed for the purpose of ensuring that the activities to which the licence relates do not cause pollution of water, or damage to public health, or become seriously detrimental to the amenities of the locality affected by the activities.

Thirteen conditions were attached to the licence for controlling the landfill operation. Notable among these conditions were the requirements to restrict disposal activities to the disposal of tyres; that the site should be securely fenced; that the watercourse flowing through the site should be culverted and that fire fighting equipment should be provided on site to meet the requirements of the chief fire officer. A further licence condition states that the whole site shall be covered with soil to a depth of at least 9 in and the soil maintained at this depth to allow consolidation to take place.

In 1987, in agreement with the company, the council revised the conditions of the site licence to include a condition requiring the operator to tip the tyres within contained areas. The purpose of this condition was to contain the possibility of a fire outbreak to the "contained" area, but insufficient detail is contained within the licence to prescribe the nature and extent of the containment. A further condition sets out the requirement that the site access road shall be kept in a good state of repair, sufficient for the access of any fire-fighting equipment that may be called.

Following the fire, Radnorshire district council proposed further amendments to provide greater clarity about the provision of fire-proof barriers. I understand that a meeting to consider that in detail is to be held between representatives of the council, the fire authority and the National Rivers Authority on 1 August, which is next week.

The operator of the site, Motorway Remoulds Ltd., collects worn tyres from a nationwide network and transports them regularly to its factory at Knighton for reprocessing. I understand that the company's selection and test procedures reject on average about 2,000 tyres per week which are sent for disposal to the Heyope waste disposal site.

The outbreak of fire occurred ironically on 29 October last year—one of the rainest nights of last autumn, and as the hon. Gentleman said, it has been suggested that it was started deliberately, but it is impossible to tell.

The district council visits the site on a regular basis to advise where necessary both on environmental health grounds and waste disposal activities. Similarly, the National Rivers Authority is visiting the site fortnightly to ensure that risk of pollution to the stream passing through the site is minimised.

To reinforce pollution prevention activities filter units have been installed in the bed of the stream within the confines of the site to prevent oily waste from the landfill area discharging into the stream. This oily waste is collected in 45–gallon steel drums and transported off site by contractors for disposal at a suitably licensed site. Polluted water produced during fire-fighting activities is being stored and recycled on site in a closed loop system, so no polluted water is entering the stream.

Inspectors from Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution are liaising with the regulatory authorities, providing advice, where considered necessary. I assure the hon. Gentleman that HMIP covers all forms of pollution and has a staff of seven in its Cardiff office. That office will remain—it is not going over the channel. As I have said, the inspectors liaise regularly with the local authority.

The most recent visit by a member of the inspectorate took place on 16 July. As there had been a partial collapse of the sealed surface area of the site on 23 June, which had resulted in dark smoke being emitted. That had been quickly brought under control by the site contractors present on site. The fire service had attended on that occasion, but fortunately, before the fire service arrived, the fire had already been dealt with by resealing the collapsed areas with inert material stored on site. No other fire outbreak has occurred at the site since that date.

The company has engaged consultants to advise it on the most appropriate measures, and work is currently being undertaken to excavate the burning tyres, to douse them thoroughly with water, and to spread them over the stabilised area of the site to cool off. The cool material is, I understand, then reintroduced into the lower tipped area where the fire has been extinguished, and the mass of waste consolidated and resealed. I understand that the contractors are gradually working their way up the valley, excavating partially pyrolised waste, cooling it with water and repositioning it in a non-active area of the site. I understand that large clouds of steam are emitted when new areas are opened up and watered, but no polluted water is leaving the site—all water seeping from the base is filtered and recirculated. I hope that the hon. Gentleman's constituents will feel reassured by that.

Mr. Livsey

I appreciate what the Minister is saying about water pollution, but my constituents also need reassurance about air pollution. Does the Minister have any plans to do anything about that?

Mr. Grist

As I mentioned, HMIP covers various forms of pollution. The first responsibility falls on the local council, and environmental health officers are qualified to reach a preliminary conclusion on that. If the environmental health officer or the HMIP inspector who calls regularly feels that it should be examined in greater depth, I am sure that it would be, but official bodies are already in place to take care of that issue and they are better qualified than the hon. Gentleman or me to do so.

Two tracked excavators are deployed to excavate the area. The excavation and reconsolidation of the tipped material will continue until all hot zones have been treated, and I understand that most of the work may be completed towards the end of this or next month.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the possibility of water pollution, and the fact that there is a public water supply intake some 50 miles downstream of the site. There has been some pollution of streams in the immediate vicinity of the fire, as I explained in a written parliamentary reply to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) on 5 March. The advice I have now is that there has been no significant pollution to date and that no polluted water is leaving the site.

The National Rivers Authority is maintaining bunds across the river where it emerges from the culvert to the tip. It is monitoring the water quality regularly and will continue to do so until such time as this particular problem has been sorted out.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned several other matters. I should draw attention to the fact that the Government have a wide variety of proposals for recycling tyres and for updating waste management paper No. 26, which was referred to in the report of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. The Committee took the trouble to mention the reference in that waste management paper to recommended practices for the disposal of tyres. The hon. Gentleman will be reassured that the British tyre industry is also taking the matter seriously.

On the Select Committee's first recommendation, we propose to enhance the status of waste management papers so that the authorities will be obliged to take regard of their recommendations instead of merely taking note of them in carrying out their duties of licensing and enforcement.

We recognise the size of the problem created by the large numbers of tyres being disposed of annually, and have for some years been encouraging the development of effective solutions. In November 1989, the Department of Trade and Industry commissioned a major study by KPMG Peat Marwick McLintock aimed at finding economically efficient, environmentally sound and commercially viable methods for the recycling and disposal of used tyres.

As indicated in the Government's reply to the report of the Committee, the report of the study has been presented to the Department of Trade and Industry, and it is intended to discuss it in a working group representative of the interests concerned, including consumer and environmental bodies. I understand that preliminary meetings have been held already between officials and representatives of the tyre industry, motor traders and tyre retreaders.

On atmospheric pollution, the Clean Air Act 1968 states: dark smoke shall not be emitted from any industrial or trade premises and if, on any day, dark smoke is so emitted the occupiers of the premises and person who causes or permits the emission shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine. That legislation has been recently strengthened by the Control of Smoke Pollution Act 1989 which enables local authorities to prosecute for illegal night-time burning—where the colour of the smoke cannot be asertained—and to take action against anyone, not just the occupier of the land, who causes or permits dark smoke to be emitted. However, the statute makes allowances for inadvertencies and we feel that that might form sufficient defence in this particular case.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the need for more recycling in general. He should remember that last year the Government established an advisory group on recycling to help identify ways sharply to improve the United Kingdom's recycling performance. The group comprises representatives of industry, trade and commerce, district and county councils and voluntary and environmental organisations as well as central Government. The group has been focusing on domestic waste and looking at the recovery and recycling of a wide range of products and materials such as glass, paper, metals, plastics, tyres, textiles and comestibles. Its recommendations will be taken into account in the preparation of the forthcoming White Paper on the environment. If the hon. Gentleman waits for that White Paper and considers what is in the Environmental Protection Bill, he will find that most cases and most of the concerns which he rightly expressed today will be taken care of in those Government publications.

This is a matter which concerns us all. The hon. Gentleman is right not merely to defend his constituents but to take an interest in something that concerns Britain and in which the European Community is taking an interest. He will be aware of the frightful fire in Canada. I am glad that his case is not as serious as that. Things are in hand and his constituents can be reassured.

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