HC Deb 12 December 1991 vol 200 cc1145-59 2.13 am
Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)

The Minister for Public Transport said a moment ago that it was rather late. Debates such as these usually run all night; in my experience that does not do any harm, because it means that Ministers have to sit up late and answer for what has gone wrong over the years.

Although the subject that I wish to raise relates to my constituency, I believe that it has much wider implications for the rest of the United Kingdom. I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the whole question of the disposal of toxic and hazardous wastes once again before the House rises for the Christmas recess. Such waste arises from many sources in the manufacture of materials in widespread use. Most of the materials are so useful that they simply cannot be discarded. I see little chance of any of them being replaced. We shall work with those materials for many years.

We also have the problem of waste that was created many years ago before people realised how dangerous it was. The injury to the health of persons who come into contact with such substances is not new. Those who used mercurous nitrate were not aware of its effects, and they were equally unaware that those effects would echo down through history in the phrase "mad as a hatter". I often wonder whether we should all have so cheerfully followed the holy grail of nuclear energy if those who made the decisions had known far earlier what we know about the subject nowadays.

People believe the scientists and then find out, only by a slow accretion of knowledge, that scientists can get it wrong, just as the ordinary individual can. That has fuelled much of the present doubt about the claims of science today.

I received an answer from the Department of the Environment on this side of the Irish sea in response to my request for a copy of the United Kingdom red list of dangerous compounds. It is an interesting list and one almost needs a degree in chemical engineering to understand it. One or two of the compounds are well known. The first is DDT. What a boon that insecticide was when it first appeared and what a concern its residues are to the whole world today.

I also found on the list aldrin and dieldrin. Like the rest of the agricultural world, I embraced those new discoveries when they first came out. They appeared to be the final answer to the problems of sheep dip, because they were powerful instruments against the diseases in sheep which we were fighting at that time and which we still have to learn about. Those compounds were also used for dealing with potato pests and God knows what else. Yet we now find those compounds on the red list. It is no wonder that people today cry caution whenever they are told that some new and wonderful product has appeared on the market.

I am principally concerned with the residues of the manufacture of man-made fibres and plastics. I am especially concerned about the proposal to build a plant to incinerate such residues and about the effect of the fallout from the plant on my constituents. However, there is a wider implication for the rest of the country. There is a world wide danger from such materials. The residues are long lived and cannot be recaptured once they are in the environment. Not all the effects are yet fully understood.

I have taken a keen interest in the proposal since it came to my notice a year or so ago. Whenever a light is placed outside one's own front door, one starts to wonder about the strength of the light and about its effects. An article in the September edition of Chemistry in Britain was brought to my attention. The article refers to PCBs—polychlorinated biphenyls—one of the materials about which I am concerned. The article says: Many of these higher chlorinated and mono-ortho-substituted PCBs produce toxic effects and have been reported to accumulate in human tissues. There are considerable species and sex differences, but the toxic effects include the loss of body weight, atrophy (wasting) of the thymus (an important organ in the development of the immune response) skin cell disorders, liver damage, decreased reproduction, diminished immune response". It was also pointed out that previously the potentially toxic effects of PCBs on man were so little appreciated that they were seriously considered as a substitute for the gum component in chewing gum. That illustrates best just how easily mistakes about dangerous long-lived materials can be made. Heaven knows how many other such materials exist about which we are not worried yet.

According to the article to which I have referred, there is evidence that professional mixtures of PCBs can be carcinogenic and mutagenic when tested on laboratory animals. It is now well established that female rats are more responsive in tests than males.

One really needs a degree in chemical engineering to read the red list, let alone understand it. However, there is enough information in plain everyday English to worry the living daylights out of me. Another article in the same issue of Chemistry in Britain states: Environmental exposure to PCBs and eating PCB contaminated food can cause PCBs to accumulate in fatty tissues"— one of which, of course, is human breast milk. PCBs can be transferred from mothers to their young during lactation. This finding prompted us to do a small survey of the individual PCBs in samples of breast milk from 10 mothers living in the Reading area. The separation of the individual PCBs by capilliary gas chromatography and their measurement by electron capture detection enabled us to estimate a mean concentration in milk of approximately 1.2 µg total PCBs ml-1, which is at least 20-fold greater than the concentration that can cause adverse effects in humans. Sixty individual PCBs were identified and—were highly chlorinated. Some of these PCBs are thought to promote carcinogenesis in laboratory animals. That is surely enough to worry any mother or parent for the children and for succeeding generations because these things tumble down the line.

I read in another document: EPA has calculated that the tolerable daily intake of TCDD for humans is 0.006 picograms per kg body weight per day. This level would supposedly result in a one in 1 million chance of excess cancer from TCDD. But this level is far, far below the 1 to 3 picograms per kg body weight per day that people are estimated to be actually ingesting. Other nations, using different risk assessment models, have calculated the tolerable intake level much higher. Germany uses 1 picogram, the Netherlands 4, and Canada and the World Health Organisation use 10 picograms per kg body weight per day. When we stop to consider the wide differences that exist in the information, it is clear that, if the scientists really understood the effects of these materials, they would long since have reached a common standard as to how much the human body can tolerate without serious adverse effects. The reality is that we do not know what we are dealing. The matter has not yet been sorted out that: must be cause for concern and for great caution.

We should be concerned not only with the present generation, but for generations ahead of us. It is clear that experiments have thrown up nasty results, and no doubt the Minister will follow that up.

My constituents are particularly concerned because they are down wind of the proposed incineration plant. I received a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham), written on 7 November. The letter was written on recycled paper, which gives us some hope for the future. It said: In broad terms, Northern Ireland has introduced the legislation required to implement the series of EC Directives. Of course, they have been broadly implemented across the rest of the United Kingdom.

That letter went on: Most requirements of this Directive were introduced here by the Pollution Control and Local Government (NI) Order 1978. In Great Britain the Directive was implemented by the existing Control of Pollution Act 1974. It was brought to my attention on 21 November that the European Court of Justice judged that EC Governments could be sued in their own courts for failing to implement certain EC directives. That judgment arose out of two Italian cases in which the employees were seeking to recover wages owing to them when the employers went bankrupt, leaving no assets from which the employees could recover their money. They subsequently sued the Italian Government for failing to implement a 1980 EC directive requiring member states to set up compensation funds for people in such circumstances.

One must consider the possible implications. If there are any mistakes in carrying EC directives into domestic law, the Government, rather than the individual, should get the shivers. It could leave them open to heavy compensation claims from their own nationals. Perhaps the social charter is not quite as dead as the Prime Minister thought at Maastricht. There could be ramifications through European avenues, and they could be very costly. Let us hope that the Government have got it right. It is a serious matter. I hope that we shall try to ensure that our people who come into contact with those substances and suffer injury are properly covered.

Another problem has arisen. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is not present, because the problems arose in his constituency. Farmers found that some milk had been contaminated with dioxins. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food stopped the sale of that milk—good for him—because of the danger to the individuals who might have drunk it. The farmers were left to sue the polluter. That is the answer that the hon. Member for Bolsover received from the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Unfortunately, the Department of the Environment did not close the offending plant. I believe that it was the coalite plant in the area. That was not much help to the farmers. They were told by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, "You can sue the polluter." Certainly, initially, they did not receive much help from the Department of the Environment or from the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to identify the polluter.

I always remember the Hanrahan case in the Irish Republic. The farmer eventually won that case on a technicality. His entire milk herd had been wrecked. The case went on for years. It was a telling mark against how Governments deal with the problems that citizens come up against whenever they are injured by insidious, long-term, dangerous materials. It is not a light matter; it will continue to affect our constituents over the years unless we take action.

I now refer to the time that it takes for dangerous materials such as dioxins to go out of an incinerator chimney stack and into the human body. Some people think that it is a long time. However, in certain circumstances, it is a very short time.

I ask the House to consider a situation that I, as a farmer, can well understand. I do not know whether any one else present is a farmer. Let us suppose that, on a dull, quiet, overcast Friday evening, something goes wrong in the local incinerator. A dumpstack is used. When I first heard about dumpstacks, I thought that they were a sort of recycling system, but that is not the case. Whenever something goes wrong, it is dumped into the atmosphere and it flops down on to the grass over a 20-mile radius.

If the farmers' cows are out and eat the grass, they will convert it into milk. When the farmer drives them in in the morning, he milks them and that milk goes straight into the tank. Nobody will know that there is anything wrong with it. When the farmer brings in the cows in the evening, he milks them again. Still nobody knows that there is anything wrong with it. The tanker takes the milk to the dairy next morning and within 24 or, at most, 36 hours, everyone who has bought and drunk the milk has dioxins in their body—and there they stay. It is as quick and as dangerous as that.

There is no escape unless there is total honesty about the burning of the materials by the people operating the incinerators. I fear, however, that the polluters will often try to hide what has happened because the costs are colossal. In the scenario that I have described, the dioxin is on the herbage, the grass. I do not know about dioxins in the ground. I should like to be told whether, if there are dioxins and fluorants in the soil, the herbage that the cattle eat will absorb them and whether the pollutants can enter the human food chain by that path. We need a clear answer on that. There is far too much secrecy at present. The problem will not be solved without public debate and unless people think seriously about it.

Facts such as those that I have described give me grave concern about the burning of those materials. As a result of my investigations, I would be the first to acknowledge that burning such things at the recommended ternperatures has, at first sight, a lot to recommend it and many advantages. It is quick and it is certainly much cheaper than any other system of cleaning up those things. But what happens if the temperature control goes wrong? If the temperature falls from the recommended 1,200 to 1,500 degrees, which is mighty hot, to 400 or 500 degrees, the result is not harmless materials.

Incidentally, no one is sure whether the resulting materials that go up the stack really are harmless. However, if the temperature falls, dioxins are created, and out they go into the atmosphere. One knows that they are out once they have left, but there is not much that one can do about it once they are away and in the atmosphere and environment—and they will drift a long way. Parts of my constituency are still suffering from the effects of the Chernobyl explosion. and nobody is happy about that.

Let us suppose that something goes wrong with the burning mechanism and pressures build up. The dumpstack is opened and the pollutants are dumped out into the atmosphere. I am not a technician, but it seems to me, as a fairly practical man, that whenever that happens, the materials bypass a large part of the process. They are probably not quenched and will therefore cool slowly, which is when the dioxins form. We could run into severe difficulties through using dumpstacks, which I understand are frequently used in the United States. This is not a matter to be treated lightly.

The Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Wiltshire, North could not answer the long series of questions that I put to him last winter, spring and summer. The reason why the Minister could not answer was that Du Pont had not told him the outcome of the various experiments.

One of my questions was answered only yesterday. I asked what information the Minister had about pyrolysis experiments carried out by Du Pont on the waste to be incinerated at the proposed hazardous waste incinerator at Maydown, Londonderry to determine the products, at what temperatures these experiments were carried out; and what products resulted. His answer was: The Goverment have no information on any such experiments. I should have thought that, before the Government could give a reasoned answer on whether the thing should be built, they would need access to such information. Even at this stage, it is not too early to ask such questions. It is long overdue that the Northern Ireland Office should have the information.

I do not know the position of the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), but I hope that Ministers at the Department of the Environment are better informed than their colleagues at the Northern Ireland Office. It might not be the fault of Ministers. Perhaps our legislation is not strong enough to extract the information from the firms involved. If it is not, we should introduce the necessary legislation. We need to know.

The Government do not seem to have addressed the point that I made on 10 July about what the position will be if, as some firms tell us, the amount of waste is reduced by 70 per cent. by the end of the century. If the amount of waste is reduced by 70 per cent., all the economics on which the present plans are based will go out of the window. They will simply no longer make sense. I wonder exactly what is going on. The fact that it does not add up to anyone causes me concern, and I must tell the Minister that it is a concern shared by many people in Northern Ireland.

I raised that very point on 10 July, and I did not get an answer then. I am not sure that I shall get an answer tonight, but I am putting down markers for the Government to tell them what they should examine. That has to be done. It is a serious matter. There is tremendous public anxiety in my constituency and an enormous number of objections. Hazardous waste is the one thing that unites north, south, east and west, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Sinn Fein and Democratic Unionist party in the area. I cannot think of anything that unites people so much. The farming community and the general public are involved. The latest groups to voice their anxiety are the Foyle anglers and Foyle Fisheries Commission, who are equally worried about the effect on fish in the Foyle.

Furthermore, at Northern Ireland Question Time today, the Minister seemed unfortunately to be closing the door on the vital suggestion, that the producers of the waste should not be in charge of incinerating it. Financial pressures will be put on management and workers at such a plant by the owners and those who produce the waste. Those who operate the plant will be forced to take short cuts.

In the press at the beginning of the week, I saw horrifying information which has recently surfaced about near misses in nuclear plants. They are enough to make one shiver. It worries me even more that the nuclear plants involved were the Savannah river plants in the United States, run by the very same firm, Du Pont. There were stories of melted rods and God knows what. It was terrifying. In some cases, the workers even ignored the red warning lights and signs until attention was drawn to them by other people.

The Government should not shut their eyes to the point that I make. I have been told—the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that in Germany incinerators are part Government owned and part industry owned and operate on a non-profit making basis. Such a plant must be built in Northern Ireland. That is the way forward. I wish that such plants could be built in the rest of the United Kingdom, so that financial pressures are not exerted on workers in the plant by the folk who produce and burn the material.

If Du Pont is doing the environmental impact assessment for the plant, who will confirm that work? And what of the methodology used in the work? Many people will be interested to know the answers to those questions, for we believe that it must be checked and rechecked by independent people. It appears that, under EC rules, wastes of this type must be treated at the nearest facility. That reason alone leads one to believe that there will be one plant in Ireland for the whole island of Ireland.

Committee D of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body issued a report in November of this year. That made it clear that the Republic would build a plant. The proposals had been received and were under consideration, and the Du Pont plan then came into view, whereupon the Irish Republic rapidly said that it would shelve its proposal. It was shelved because of the discovery that the location of such a facility in Northern Ireland would be designed to serve the whole of Ireland. I was surprised that the Irish Republic, which was apparently so far ahead in relation to the Northern Ireland facility, was so willing to drop it. In other words, the Irish Republic thought it such a hot potato that it was willing quickly to get rid of it.

I tabled a parliamentary question on 18 November this year—it was answered on the 25th—asking the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to clarify the position regarding the proposal for a toxic-hazardous waste incinerator at Maydown, Londonderry, in the light of the recent statement by the Minister for the Environment in the Republic of Ireland that the Republic would have to construct a toxic waste incinerator in the near future. The reply was: The Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland has not received a planning application for a toxic-hazardous waste incinerator at Maydown, Londonderry. A planning application for a major development involving a hazardous waste incinerator would not be determined without a public inquiry held under the terms of article 31 of the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1991".—[Official Report, 25 November 1991; Vol. 199, c. 387.] That did not clarify matters much, and that answer is indicative of the attitude that has been taken by the Northern Ireland Minister throughout this affair; he is sitting on the fence. Perhaps he has to sit on the fence. Even so, there are many answers outstanding, and I would like to have them.

It is clear from a reading of the report of Committee D to which I referred that the promoters of the Northern Ireland proposal have now completed their feasibility study and announced their intention to proceed with the environmental impact assessment of the project. A copy of the study has been made available to the Department of the Environment and is being examined. It seems to me—unless there is something wrong with the language—that not only has the feasibility study been completed, but that the environmental impact assessment may also have been completed. May I be told? I appreciate that the Minister may not be able to tell me, but I hope that he will draw that, and the other matters that I have raised, to the attention of the Northern Ireland Office.

That Committee D report also refers to the importation from the Irish Republic of 15,000 tonnes of hazardous waste and 17 tonnes of toxic waste each year into the United Kingdom for incineration or treatment. That is a fair amount of stuff. Given that there was once a plant in Northern Ireland producing acetylene gas by a known method which produced waste that has now also been found to be not quite so harmless as it was once thought to be, there is a lot of other stuff lying about in dumps in Northern Ireland. I have seen the figure of 250,000 tonnes quoted. Whether or not that is correct, it seems that a lot of material requires to be treated.

While it may seem that much of what I have said applies only to Northern Ireland, I assure the House that that has not been my intention, for I believe that this issue has much wider implications.

Again, the Minister at the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment wrote to me last August. In that letter, he drew my attention to the fact that a survey had been carried out of dioxins and turons of soil samples in Northern Ireland and that the results suggested that those levels were generally comparable with those found in England and Wales. He then went on to talk about the fact that there would be rigorous monitoring by the alkali and radiochemical inspectorate.

I would like to know if the results of the those surveys are available to the general public, or to me in the House. Are the reports of the monitoring mentioned also available? I would certainly like to have a look at them, and so would some of my researchers, to see exactly what is coming out. I would also like to know the methodology that is used so that we can be assured that it is being properly done.

The hon. Gentleman has always indicated that the COSHH regulations, that came into force on 11 July just a fortnight before that letter was written, would be relevant to the emission of substances which might affect persons on the site. It is my understanding that the COSHH regulations cover far more than persons on the site; they cover persons outside the site who have no tie-in with it at all. The Minister is indicating here that they apply only to persons who have a right to be on the site. I do not believe that that is so and I would like the Minister to comment on that.

I would also like to know whether the Northern Ireland Minister has reached final conclusions with regard to the Environment Agency for England and Wales, because he said that that would have an effect on his thinking.

Let us look for a moment at the pressures on chemical companies at the present time. They are very great indeed. I feel sure that the Minister will have had drawn to his attention the two articles in the Financial Times yesterday, which are quite interesting. One indicates that there is now over-capacity, that chemical groups are faced with increasing environmental expenditure and that in this country environmental spending is running at 20 per cent. to 25 per cent. of all capital investment, which is a very heavy burden.

In the second article, attention is drawn to the spending on environmental measures and the fact that Europe is estimated to be five years behind the United States in the implementation of these measures. It draws attention to the heavy fiscal instruments to discourage emissions in some countries. It draws attention to the cost in Germany and to the amount that environmental protection measures will cost the whole chemical sector in the United States and in this country over the next few years.

That is not the end, of course. There is also the fact that some companies in the United States have been fined very heavily for illegal disposal of wastes. I read in one publication that the EPA is proposing to fine three New York companies—CWM Chemical Services, General Motors Central Foundry and CECUS International — $35.4 million for violating the Toxic Substance Control Act and illegally disposing of 50,000 tons of sludge contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls. The penalties proposed are $14.2 million against General Motors, $7 million against CWM Chemical Services and $14 million against CECUS International. That is a sign of how seriously these matters are now being treated in the United States. I think that it is only a matter of time before similar penalties are imposed on such companies worldwide.

The position is serious not only for the general public but for the chemical companies. We need these materials. Nobody will stop using plastics and they will still be made. It is better that they be made in the west where we might be able to exercise some control over them, rather than have them hidden away in a third-world jungle where some of the local people are getting a good backhander and no one knows what is pouring out of the chimneys. We have to keep them in the civilised world. Therefore, we need to be careful about how we handle them.

The incinerator that is to be built at Du Pont is to cost between £40 million and £50 million. If the amounts in use by the end of the century diminish by 70 per cent., the plant will be a dinosaur because it will not be needed. It may well be completely out of date before it is built. Is the money being spent wisely?

The Chemical Recovery Association took an interest in some of the questions which I asked earlier in the year. In a letter to me in July, the chairman pointed out that its member companies recover an average 450,000 tonnes per annum of contaminated oils and chemicals, a quantity of which is received from Ulster and Ireland. I was somewhat aggrieved by Mr. Needham's statement that 'the nature of hazardous and toxic is such that recycling is not an option'. We like to think recycling is the second option after waste minimisation and that advice should be sought from the industry before the final option is undertaken. I hope that the Minister will note that advice and consult the association about what might be done.

We have to be more radical than that. As a country we should try to seize the initiative by seeking safe alternatives. Apparently this is not new chemical engineering; it is the oldest chemistry. As I said in July, if the chemists can find a way of zipping the materials together, there must be a way of taking them apart. I understand that it is possible to break them down into their harmless constituent parts of carbon dioxide, which may not be all that harmless, and common salt, but that it is difficult to do so.

If the plant is built in Northern Ireland, it will be a national plant because materials will be moved backwards and forwards; certainly it will be an international plant because it will burn material from the Irish Republic. Perhaps we should consider whether it is wise to spend not just Du Pont's money but much of our taxpayers' money on it, because the taxpayer will fund half of the expenditure.

Will the Government consider seriously setting up, preferably in the university at Coleraine, a pollution technology unit, financed properly with the help of the Dublin authorities, Du Pont and other chemical companies, to try to find a chemical means of reducing the wastes to their harmless base components? If it can be done on a small scale, albeit at great cost, surely it could be done on a larger scale. If the amount of money was poured into it that must have spent on sticking the blasted things together in the first place to get the polymers, surely we could find a way of taking, them apart thereby rendering the whole process of incineration obsolete and creating a new industry in which we would be a world leader.

The problem will not go away. It concerns every human being not only in this country but on the whole earth. There have been too many accidents in the past and no doubt there are more in the pipeline. We should break out of the cycle of looking for the cheap, quick, easy way of disposal and try to find a real alternative which will do the job properly by getting rid of the waste once and for all in a way which does not cause hazard to the general public or to the environment in which we all have to live.

2.54 am
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend)

I thank the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) for taking us in some detail through the problems that he and many experts see in dealing with toxic and hazardous waste.

Naturally, the hon. Gentleman is particularly concerned about an incinerator that may be built in his constituency. He pointed out that, when new products come on the market, they are often treated as great blessings, and it is only after a great deal of experience and use that we learn of their dangers and downsides. It is essential, therefore, that we proceed with great caution when handling toxic and hazardous waste.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the environmental impact assessment. I expect that the Minister can reassure him that an environmental impact assessment cannot have been made properly for that incinerator yet, because an application does not yet appear to have been made. When an application is made, the incinerator will face a mandatory environmental impact assessment under the relevant EC directive. In addition to a highly technical assessment document, there is a duty to produce a summary that the public can read.

Some of the important matters that the hon. Gentleman raises have been the concern of several Select Committees. In 1988–89, the second report of the Environment Select Committee was on toxic and hazardous waste. It was a savage indictment of both local and central Government for not taking their responsibilities seriously.

At this time in the morning, I shall not go into the details of the report but will simply say that the Committee was shocked by what it found. It discovered that local government was rather lax and did not appreciate the problems of dealing with toxic and hazardous waste, and central Government were equally lax in ensuring that local government enforced laws under the Control of Pollution Act 1974. We are now more aware of those problems, and there are possibilities under the Environmental Protection Act 1990—some of which are already being followed and others which have yet to be taken up—to deal with past laxity.

In addition to the general comments and proposals that the Environment Select Committee made about tightening up the approach to dealing with toxic and hazardous waste, it said that an environmental protection agency should be set up. The Government have belatedly agreed to do just that, and are currently in a consultation period on the matter.

The Welsh Affairs Select Committee considered toxic waste disposal in Wales. Apart from the general problems that relate to the haphazard disposal of such waste, particularly into landfill sites where little effort is made to seal them off, in the United Kingdom as a whole the land around a third of the 100 sites studied by the Department of the Environment was contaminated.

The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs came across a similar problem in Wales, where, in addition to the general land contamination report—most of the toxic waste has been disposed of to land—a study was also made of incineration. The infamous Rechem plant is located near Pontypool in Wales and there has been widespread concern at its operation. The Welsh Office responded positively to the Select Committee report, and an expert group is currently considering possible contamination dangers to which the public, the land, the cattle and livestock around that plant may be exposed. The result of those studies might have an impact on future incineration policy.

There is also widespread concern in many other districts. Only a week or so ago, most, if not all, hon. Members received a Community Action Against Toxic Waste appeal from Walsall in the west midlands. At Birch coppice, a firm which I think calls itself Leigh Environmental operates some large toxic and hazardous waste sites. What is worse, beneath the landfill sites there were old mining workings. It is estimated that Leigh Environmental deposited 400 million gallons of toxic liquids into the old workings. I believe that, as the law currently stands, Leigh Environmental could surrender its site licences at Birch coppice and Stubbers green, and the residents could be forced to live with the devastation for many years.

Will the Minister say this evening whether the Government intend to implement, if not immediately, at least in the very near future, those sections of part II of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 that prevent the surrender of a disposal licence until a certificate of completion has been isssued by the relevant authority?

By coincidence, the British Medical Association was represented in the House this week to report on its study of hazardous waste in the west midlands in the very same district of Walsall to which I referred. It said that its study had not discovered any conclusive evidence on the damage done to humans by low-level exposure, but it stated that the lack of information and knowledge of the effects of exposure to low doses of the chemicals over a long period had led the working party to adopt the precautionary principle that absence of evidence was not evidence of absence.

The report stated that a study had been made of an incinerator at Bonnybridge in Scotland that suggested an increased level of twinning in cattle, and possibly in humans, that may have been linked with the emission of PCHs and other substances from the plant.

The British Medical Association was sufficiently concerned about that evidence, and other evidence from the United States which showed that PCBs and other toxic and hazardous waste should be treated very seriously, to propose a national waste agency, because it claims that, at present, there is no central guidance and little consensus on the best form of industrial waste disposal, 90 per cent. of which is contracted out to the private sector. The BMA believes that there is an urgent need for a central waste policy to give guidance on the safest form of disposal. It also believes strongly that there should be a ban on the import of hazardous waste into the United Kingdom.

In the report of the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs, the BMA quoted figures from 1981–88. Those figures showed how the import of what is called "special" wastes —toxic and hazardous waste—had gone up. In 1981–82, 3,800 tonnes were imported, and by 1987–88 we were importing 80,000 tonnes, thereby almost becoming one of the major toxic dustbins of the world. However, I believe —perhaps the Minister will confirm this—that, in the last year for which we have the figures, the import of such waste has gone down to 44,000 tonnes, although that is still 10 times higher than in 1981–82.

The Labour party believes that there are a number of essential approaches to toxic and hazardous waste. The hon. Member for Londonderry, East quoted the experts waste recovery association and said that the first priority should be waste minimisation. We should reduce the amount of hazardous waste that is produced when making products—often useful products—for the market. It is possible, and companies are doing it. If hazardous materials are left after minimisation, there are possibilities for recycling. After recycling, we must find the safest way in which to dispose of the waste.

The first step is to ensure that the waste is disposed of as close to its source as possible. If it is transported over long distances, it can be dangerous. There have been accidents during transportation, which have caused serious pollution. We should also end the commercial trade in waste, except in exceptional circumstances—for example, if there has been a crisis and there is a need for waste to be disposed of somewhere else. By and large, however, we should try to ensure that waste is dealt with as close as possible to its source. We do not believe that the United Kingdom should import any toxic and hazardous waste.

In the longt term, Labour would look to a steep reduction in toxic waste and to the elimination of some of the most dangerous types of waste. It is clear that, as the world becomes wealthier and other countries start to want the things that we want, there is a danger that we shall produce more and more waste. That means that the technologies of waste minimisation and alternative means of disposal are very important.

Towards the end of his speech, the hon. Member for Londonderry, East mentioned the possibility of neutralising toxic waste. Before the products were brought together, they were not necessarily dangerous.

It just so happens that, before I came to this debate this morning, I was flicking through a pile of press cuttings when I came across one from The Journal (Newcastle upon Tyne), a north-eastern regional newspaper. What caught my eye was the headline: "Speedy Toxic Waste Ealer". The story is about a new chemical process which eats toxic waste. ICI has developed it at Billingham, and it will eliminate the need to dump waste from the manufacture of perspex into the River Tees and the North sea—one year ahead of schedule, too.

The project was supported with £300,000 of grant from the EC Commission. ICI has found a successful way of dealing with this waste without causing any harm to the public in the form of emissions from incineration, so perhaps there is good news to come. Perhaps the incinerator will not go ahead as planned in Londonderry, East. The Minister, who has access to more information than I have and who is ably supported by his civil servants, may be able to give us more news on that front this morning.

2.5 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry)

The treatment and disposal of hazardous waste in the United Kingdom is an important subject, and the whole House must be grateful to the hon. Member for Londonderry, East (Mr. Ross) for raising it this evening. He and the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) have made some interesting points and useful contributions on the matter.

We must put this important subject in its proper context. There are not enormous amounts of hazardous waste either arising here or coming here from elsewhere to be disposed of in an uncontrolled manner. Since the introduction of the Control of Pollution Act 1974, this country has had a system of strategic planning and site licensing for waste management. The Act set controls in advance of much of Europe's, which were reflected in the Community's own waste management framework directive in 1975. More recently, we have amended the legislation in the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which again places us in the vanguard of Europe, with additional provisions for integrated pollution control for those industrial processes with the most potential for pollution, and for a duty of care for all producers arid handlers of waste.

It is estimated that about 80 million tonnes of industrial waste arise each year in the United Kingdom, all of which is dealt with in this country. About 2 million tonnes of that is hazardous wastes. Under the Control of Pollution (Special Wastes) Regulations 1980, movements of defined categories of difficult wastes in the United Kingdom are subject to at least three working days notification to local waste disposal authorities. This system is designed to provide local authorities with opportunities to satisfy themselves that the planned disposal will be satisfactory, but with the delays to industrial operations kept to a reasonable minimum.

The Governments' primary aim is to see significant reductions in the amounts of waste requiring disposal. We are doing all we can to encourage waste minimisation. Indeed, this is built into the statutory requirements for consideration in the issue of IPC authorisations. Under these controls, what emissions are then unavoidable have to be rendered harmless. We therefore have cleaner technology as a main aim, and we see growing recognition by industry of the value of this for its economic well-being and international competitiveness.

Next come our policies for encouraging waste recycling. This requires a comprehensive programme for the development of suitable collection systems and to ensure the creation of reliable and economically valid markets.

However, even with complete success in encouraging waste minimisation and recycling, society will still have a number of wastes to handle. It has to be appreciated that, in a complex industrialised society such as ours, some wastes are unavoidable. We want to see such wastes dealt with to the highest possible standards in ways that are consistent with industrial economics. For any hazardous wastes, that means pre-treatment where necessary.

Industrial waste incinerators of significant size have, in the past, been subject to control by Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution, acting under air pollution control legislation, with plant being required to adopt the best practical means for dealing with the materials coming into the sites. But those incinerators are now regulated under integrated pollution control procedures, and HMIP authorisations will be based upon guidelines reflecting the best available technology not entailing excessive costs.

Incineration is the most appropriate disposal method for many wastes which can be rendered harmless only by breaking them down through the controlled use of heat. The methods used and the pollution control systems fitted are sophisticated and provide a safe and sound disposal option, subject to rigorous operational controls and inspection.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East has raised the specific problems of hazardous waste disposal in Northern Ireland, with specific reference to proposals for an incinerator at Maydown in Londonderry.

There are currently two Northern Ireland public sector landfills suitable for the disposal of certain special wastes —Dargan road, Belfast and Culmore, Londonderry. I understand that currently about 9,000 tonnes of those wastes are dealt with annually at those sites. They consist of asbestos, vanadium grit, acids and alkalis, pharmaceutical wastes, miscellaneous chemicals and treated sludges.

However, some wastes arise in Northern Ireland which cannot be dealt with by landfill. There are three chemical treatment plants in the Province, one of which is for in-house wastes only; so wastes required to be disposed of by high-temperature incineration have to be sent to disposal facilities outside the Province.

Approximately 1,600 tonnes of those wastes are transported from Northern Ireland each year. Until this year, some of that waste went to Finland and the remainder to facilites elsewhere in the United Kingdom. But there will be no renewal of contracts with the Finnish installation beyond this year, and all such waste will now go to United Kingdom facilities. We expect that to continue as long as necessary.

In Northern Ireland, special wastes are subject to the Pollution Control (Special Waste) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1981, which impose the same requirements as in Britain regarding pre-notification of movement of waste to suitable licensed disposal facilities.

The hon. Gentleman has referred to studies by Du Pont (UK) Ltd regarding a possible hazardous waste incinerator. I understand that the company has now completed a feasibility study on such an installation and is considering the appointment of consultants to prepare an environmental impact analysis, including consideration of alternative technology. Those are essential steps in considering any such proposal.

As the hon. Gentleman made clear, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend, the Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham), has already announced that any formal proposal from Du Pont would be put before a public inquiry. As the hon. Member for Bridgend said, that would enable those with concerns, including the constituents of the hon. Member for Londonderry, East, to have them aired, investigated and adjudicated upon.

As the hon. Member for Londonderry, East has recognised, one of the constraints on private sector investment in high-temperature incineration in the Province must be the relatively small volume of such waste which may not be sufficient to warrant large-scale investment. A guaranteed baseload tonnage is required for most waste treatment plants to make operations viable.

For that reason, there is a need to consider application of the European Community's proximity principle to the use of facilities by neighbouring countries. That principle is designed to encourage waste to be disposed of at the nearest available facility. We should look closely at its appropriateness to the possible situation with regard to an incinerator proposal in Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member also asked about alternative technology instead of incineration. He referred specifically to a technique developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for rendering wastes into harmless salts, which I understand is in its infancy. Apparently, the institute is considering building a pilot plant, but little is known about its proposals, and clearly we are a long way from that becoming a viable alternative to present-day technology.

Pyrolysis—the imposition of high temperatures upon material in the absence of oxygen—is often presented as an alternative to incineration. That technique has been considered by many interested in waste management, because it achieves considerably higher volumes of reduction than incineration, and seems to offer good prospects for even better pollution control standards.

However, it represents a number of practical operating difficulties, mainly because the process converts material rather than destroys it. That is particularly relevant when one is considering a diverse range of hazardous wastes. Nevertheless, as I said earlier, Du Pont proposes to ask consultants to examine alternative technology in the impact analysis of the incinerator proposal.

The hon. Member for Londonderry, East asked about emissions from the chemical incinerator at the Coalite works. I dealt with that matter in an oral answer on 6 November.

I am confident that Government policies provide, and will continue to provide, an appropriate basis for meeting the high expectations that society has for the future. We want waste management to play its part in the drive for sustainable development, with a high standard of environmental stewardship in the interests of future generations. That will not be easy, and there will always be areas of difficulty—some of which were usefully debated tonight.

Of course I appreciate the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Londonderry, East on behalf of his constituents. I am certain that we are developing the correct framework for tackling important issues, and that we will be able to accommodate developments in new technology as they become available.

Forward to