HC Deb 08 May 1990 vol 172 cc28-32 3.54 pm
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he will make a statement on the dumping by ICI of explosives in the Firth of Clyde.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Mr. Ian Lang)

Fishermen working in the Firth of Clyde have recovered explosive material and detonators in their nets. It is believed that these items may be associated with the dump site at Birch Point used until last year by ICI's Nobel Division for the disposal of explosive waste. The fishermen claim that the material was recovered outwith the limits of the dump site. The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland has advised fishermen of the steps to be taken should they find explosive material in their nets and has instructed them to report the precise location of the incident so that further investigations can be made. A DAFS research vessel will reach the area as soon as possible to establish the situation through underwater surveys. Until these surveys are completed, it is not possible to offer an informed opinion on how the material has come to be located outwith the dump site.

The dump site has been used for many years. It is clearly identified on Admiralty navigation charts as an explosive dump site. Fishermen are well aware of its existence and position and know that it has to be avoided. Disposal operations at the site have been strictly controlled and monitored by DAFS since 1974 under the Dumping at Sea Act and, more recently, under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985. Regular surveys have been carried out by DAFS to establish the accuracy of dumping and the effects on the marine environment. Since 1985, all dumping operations have been carried out in the presence of a representative of DAFS, the Department of Transport or the Health and Safety Executive. For the past three operations, the dumping vessel was fitting with a marine position recorder.

ICI's Nobel Division was the only holder of a licence to dispose of industrial waste at sea in Scotland. Its licence expired in August 1989 and was not renewed. This was in line with the decision of the second North sea conference in 1987 to terminate the dumping of industrial waste at sea by the end of 1989. The disposal of detonators at sea has been prohibited by DAFS since 1984.

The Clyde Fishermen's Association and the Scottish Fishermen's Federation have been advised of the situation. The advice given to fishermen by DAFS is that any explosive material found in nets should be returned immediately to the sea and that the position should be marked with a buoy for further investigation and recovery, as necessary, by the relevant authorities. Fishermen have been instructed to report the location of all incidents to DAFS and the coastguard immediately. This information will greatly assist the ongoing investigations.

Mr. Foulkes

I am grateful to the Minister for his statement, especially as he also has a constituency interest in the matter. Is he aware, as I understand today from Patrick Stewart, the secretary of the Clyde Fishermen's Association, that the extent of the explosives on the surface of the Firth of Clyde is far greater than originally understood, and that the explosives are covering hundreds of square miles and going as far north as Tarbert? Is the hon. Gentleman also aware that yesterday and today the coastguard has been broadcasting a warning on channel 16 instructing vessels to steer clear of the material? As it covers such a wide area, does it not inhibit the movement of many vessels up and down the Firth of Clyde?

Will the Minister institute a full-scale inquiry into how this dumping took place, whether the explosives were dumped in the appropriate place, and whether they were dumped in proper containers? It appears that they were in hessian sacks. If that was so, it was irresponsible. Will the hon. Gentleman also give an assurance today that all the material will be cleaned up, that the Firth of Clyde will be made safe for all navigation and that the cost of cleaning up will be borne by ICI if it is clear that it has been responsible for the dumping?

Will the Minister give a guarantee that there will be no more dumping of such material—or of any explosives or other dangerous material—in the Firth of Clyde? The firth is used not only by fishermen, but by submarines, by ferries and, as I know myself, by pleasure craft throughout the whole year. Is it not irresponsible and dangerous to continue dumping such material in the Firth of Clyde? Will the Minister guarantee that there will be no more licences and that dumping will stop forthwith?

Mr. Lang

The hon. Gentleman referred to my constituency interest. That is a different matter as the material found in my constituency is believed to be white phosphorus and the distance is such that it seems unlikely to derive from the ICI site.

Initial reports suggest that some of the material has been lifted up to 18 miles from the dump, although the dump itself is only about half a mile in radius and is very deep—75 fathoms, which is about twice the depth of the surrounding sea bed. Fishermen were advised on 5 May, after the first incident, to keep clear of that area. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are inquiring closely into the matter to establish the exact circumstances. The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland is in close touch with the Clyde Fishermen's Association and with ICI, which has been extremely co-operative.

Disposal in hessian sacks was one of the tightening up procedures introduced in 1985 under the Food and Environment Protection Act of that year because it was felt that such packaging would allow material to leach into the water and disperse, which would be a desirable development.

The hon. Gentleman asked for a guarantee that there would be no more industrial dumping. I am happy to give him such a guarantee. The licence was terminated last year under the commitments that we gave in the North sea conference and we have made it clear that such licences will not be renewed.

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

Is the Minister aware of the deep alarm and worry that my constituents who fish out of the ports of Campbeltown and Tarbert and their families feel at the disclosures made over the weekend? Can he say how it will be possible to clear the area of this noxious material so that the Clyde becomes clean and safe for all those who use it, including fishermen, and for the nuclear submarines that exercise up and down it?

If fishing is restricted, will the fishermen, who are already under considerable pressure, be properly compensated?

Mr. Lang

I fully understand the anxiety felt by fishermen in the hon. Lady's constituency and elsewhere. If they find such material, they should report the matter at once to DAFS, the local fisheries officer and the coastguard. They should at once return any explosive material to the sea, mark the position carefully, and report the incident.

The hon. Lady asked about clearing the site. As I have said, the site is a narrow one—about half a mile in radius —and it is twice the depth of the surrounding water. It has been used for some 50 years, but will no longer be used, for industrial dumping. Some dumping of sledging spoil continues to take place, although that has the effect of reducing the exposure of other dumped material.

Mr. David Marshall (Glasgow, Shettleston)

As we approach the holiday season on the Clyde coast, can the Minister guarantee that Glaswegians will still be able to indulge in one of their favourite pastimes and go doon the watter in complete safety?

Will he answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) about who will pay for the mess to be cleared up?

Mr. Lang

I see no reason why anybody who is keen to go doon the watter should not do so with the same confidence as they have done in previous years.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the cost of clearing up. That matter will have to be assessed in the light of the clearing up operations that may be necessary.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

The Minister does not paint a reassuring picture of the Clyde: he says that we have white phosphorus in the south and explosives in the north. Submarines, both conventional and nuclear, go up and down the Clyde in my constituency. Has the Ministry of Defence been consulted about this matter? What is the Minister's opinion with regard to the MOD and safety?

Finally, on the environment, great steps have been taken in cleaning up the Clyde. Will the Minister give us an assurance here today that he will personally charge ICI with cleaning up the mess so that we may restore the Clyde to its former beauty?

Mr. Lang

There is no evidence that nuclear submarines have been adversely affected by the incident. The dump is some 75 fathoms deep and there is no reason why it should pose a problem to nuclear submarines or why the submarines should pose a problem to the dump.

A number of measures have been taken to tighten up the control of dumping in recent years, particularly under the Food and Environment Protection Act, and industrial dumping has now been discontinued.

The question of liability is not a matter for me and it is too soon to assess the clearing up costs.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Does the Minister accept that those of us who have had constituency relations with ICI in Scotland have found it to be a most careful, competent and responsible company? Will he ascertain whether there has been any evidence of infringement of the agreement to stop dumping since last autumn? Will he make a rather different inquiry to ascertain whether it is possible that the new trawling equipment operated by many deep trawlers, which ravages the marine environment and the sea bed, has raked up the explosives far away from the area in which they were dumped? Before jumping to the conclusion that ICI is at fault, will he look at what the fishermen themselves might have done also and look at other circumstances during the inquiry?

Mr. Lang

I am happy to endorse the hon. Gentleman's comments about ICI. It has been extremely responsible in its approach to the matter.

In recent years, dumping has been subject to much more stringent requirements than before. For example, dumping has been monitored, there have been regular surveys of the dump, and a position recorder has been used in the past three dumpings to isolate specifically the position of the vessel doing the dumping. There is no evidence of any infringement of the dumping regulations. The detonators that have been found must have been dumped before 1984, since which time they have been banned.

On new trawling equipment or practices, any fishermen trawling in the Arran trench itself, where the dump is located, must know that they are in that area because of the substantially increased depth. They know that it is marked as a hazard on Admiralty charts and that it is not an area where they are advised to go.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

The Minister says that the site has been used for the dumping of waste for about 50 years. How many of those years have seen the dumping of the material about which we are now speaking? Has the Minister of State any estimate of the exact amount of explosives and detonators that have been dumped there?

Mr. Lang

I have no evidence as to how much was dumped before 1974, when, under the Dumping at Sea Act, the licensing procedure began. Of course, as I explained to the House earlier, equipment such as detonators has been prevented from being dumped since 1984. I believe that ICI had a licence last year to dump up to 250 tonnes, although I understand that it dumped only about 100 tonnes.

Mr. William McKelvey (Kilmarnock and Loudoun)

I am glad that the Minister has taken on board his responsibility to ensure that there will be a full inquiry into how the material was uplifted from the sea bed, apparently from an area in which it should not have been in the first place. As dangerous and frightening as this matter is, does not the Minister consider it more frightening that beaches on the Clyde coast are polluted with human refuse? None of those beaches comes up to European standards. When the Minister is investigating the explosives matter, will he look also at the pollution that is happening daily on the coastline of Ayrshire?

Mr. Lang

Beaches are a matter for the district council, not for me. However, I know that continuous efforts are being made to upgrade the quality of our beaches. A certain amount of dumping of sewage will continue off the Garroch Head until 1998, but that is a substantial way from any beach and has been used satisfactorily for some time.

Mr. Donald Dewar (Glasgow, Garscadden)

I welcome the fact that the Minister of State clearly accepts that this is a serious incident that has given rise to widespread public concern. As he has made it clear that in recent years dumping in the designated area has been closely monitored and that officials have been present while it is taking place, does that amount to a guarantee that there has been no unauthorised dumping at least by major firms in the area?

However, will the Minister of State accept that one of the most alarming factors is that large amounts of detonators and explosive material—people have been talking of up to one and a half tonnes being recovered by four boats—have been appearing several miles from the designated area? However deep the water may be there, it raises the question of the effect of tides and other circumstances in spreading the material and the possibility that, if there is a lot there for historic reasons, it may continue to be a menace for a considerable time to come. Will the Minister of State look carefully at what has happened and at the likely future storage in the designated area, which may spread, and consider what guarantees can be given that this will be prevented and that potential threat dealt with?

I unreservedly welcome the fact that the Minister of State has stated not only that ICI is no longer dumping explosives at sea and has no licence to do so but that no future licences will be granted and that the designated area is no longer active in that sense. The Minister said that it is clear that inquiries will be made. Will he give an undertaking that, to reassure public opinion, particularly about the possibility of volatile material drifting in the way that I have described, the report will be published and its findings made public so that there can be full discussion of the matter?

Mr. Lang

I share the hon. Gentleman's view that this is a serious matter. I cannot give him the guarantee for which he asks, that no unauthorised dumping has taken place, but that is a point that I am as keen as he is to establish. Large amounts have allegedly been picked up by fishing boats in the past few days. One fishing boat picked up the original amount after which a warning was given to fishing boats to keep well clear of the area. Thereafter, four fishing vessels picked up explosive matter in the area.

We have diverted a Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland research vessel to the area. It intends to carry out an underwater survey, and until the information resulting from that survey is available I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman's other questions in more detail. I am happy to assure him that we shall publish the findings of our inquiry in due course.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I will take points of order after the statement.