HC Deb 22 May 1992 vol 208 cc645-51 11.58 am
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

I am sure that it goes without saying that the importance of the chemical and allied sector in my constituency cannot be emphasised sufficiently, but it is an industry which, by its very nature, creates a fair amount of waste, some of which is dangerous.

Only last week, Sir David Attenborough spoke in glowing terms of the changing attitudes of the industry in the past 40 years. He was speaking at the Chemical Industries Association Ltd's awards ceremony for young achievers. I am pleased to say that Michelle Aspinall who is a constituent of the hon. Member for City of Chester (Mr. Brandreth) and works in a factory in my constituency, was the recipient of an award. The hon. Member for Chester and I both praised her for her achievement.

In his address Sir David stressed that one of the great changes that had taken place in the industry was the growing enthusiasm of young people in the industry for environmental issues. There is insufficient information in this country about many areas of environmental concern, but there have been a fair number of interesting epidemiological studies on environmental issues involving the handling of substances that we all now know to be dangerous. However, there is little real evidence on the issue that I am raising today.

Naturally, the fact that the evidence is not available causes fears in my constituency. There is a certain amount of anecdotal evidence about leukaemia clusters and the like—and it stems from the fact that in the United Kingdom there are no reliable statistics on waste produced or disposed of in the United Kingdom. That judgment comes from volume II of the second report of the Select Committee on the Environment 1988–89—"Toxic Waste". I believe that the situation has changed very little since then.

I want to raise the issue of organo-halogens, especially polychlorinated biphenyls. The Minister will know that those substances are known to be carcinogenic, which gives rise to serious concern in this country and throughout the world. Such compounds are extremely toxic and persistent and they are biocumulative—that is, they stay with us throughout the food chain. It is important that positive action be taken to control the handling of such materials, especially their disposal. It is vital that they be disposed of in circumstances that are scientifically proven to be safe and which are acceptable to society as a whole.

For some time, throughout the United Kingdom, there have been rumours and counter-rumours about the disposal of PCBs from Western Australia. It always seems odd to me that the people of an enormous land area such as Western Australia are concerned about PCBs being incinerated in their communities, yet in this country, which covers a much smaller geographical area, PCBs are often incinerated—both in my constituency of Ellesmere Port and Neston and elsewhere. There have been debates in the House in the past about a similar facility in Pontypool.

The concern about the waste from Western Australia was brought to my attention by a Labour party member from one of the Knowsley constituencies who visited Australia in December 1990 and brought back a press cutting from the Perth Sunday Times, under the headline: UK ideal for WA waste". I hope that the whole House would denounce that statement. The United Kingdom is not ideal for anybody's waste.

That press cutting contained some authoritative statements by senior officers of the Western Australian Administration, to the effect that large volumes of intractable waste needs to be disposed of, and that Cleanaway—an Australian public company with a United Kingdom operation—had a high-temperature incincerator at Ellesmere Port, near Liverpool. On receipt of the cutting I had a series of exchanges with the directors of Cleanaway, the company involved. As the House knows, 50 per cent. of that company is owned by GKN and the other 50 per cent. by Brambles, the parent company of Cleanaway Australia. Brambles Australia sent a facsimile to Cleanaway, which was subsequently passed on to me by the technical director. In effect, it says that the cutting came from a minor newspaper and was not quite correct. It said: This article was one of many hundreds that came out in the press following the announcement in November of the government's decision not to proceed with a high-temperature incinerator at Corowa … In summary, the article appeared in what appears to be a small regional newspaper following the decision on the Corowa site.

That statement gave a certain amount of comfort to people in my constituency and it was followed by a letter from the company, again making it clear that the Perth Sunday Times article was not known to the technical director. The letter said that the importation of PCBs into the United Kingdom was purely a matter of conjecture on the part of the journalist who wrote the article. At about the same time, the shipping company Carpenteria International stated its intention to ship to the United Kingdom material for destruction at the ReChem plant at Pontypool, and also at Fawley.

I have discussed the matter with my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Mr. Murphy), who regrets that he cannot be here for this debate on a subject dear to his heart. Unfortunately, he has had to attend a funeral today—I am sure that the House would wish to send our sympathy to him. He has told me that the situation in Pontypool causes concern equal to that expressed by people in my constituency. My hon. Friend and I are both determined to continue to campaign on the subject until positive results are forthcoming.

Despite the assurances that have been received, it is clear that plans are afoot to import into the United Kingdom toxic materials for incineration. During the general election campaign I was asked by the local media to comment on the latest news about shipments authorised by the Western Australia Government to leave Fremantle en route to the United Kingdom. I was pleased to be able to respond by giving an unequivocal assurance on behalf of my party, following discussions with my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), the shadow Minister for environmental protection. She said in a press statement that Labour's manifesto promised that trade in toxic waste would be banned. That was not a spur-of-the-moment decision; it was firmly contained in our manifesto.

The current position is explained in a letter from Cleanaway which—coincidentally I am sure—I received this morning. A copy letter to local councillors was enclosed, setting out the details about Australian imports. It is clear that the imports will not necessarily be in large tonnages, but in dribs and drabs. The company clearly intends to import material half way round the world for incineration in the United Kingdom, close to a residential area. From my comments about Carpentaria's involvement in shipments to ReChem, it is clear that similar projects are under way which will affect the Pontypool area.

The position is changing rapidly throughout the world. In the United States, the Senate is now dealing in committee with the Hazardous and Additional Waste Imports Act 1991. In recent years, 89 less-industrialised nations have banned waste imports and many have called on the United States to stop exporting waste. The European Parliament has approved a ban on waste exports to developing countries and the EC has already banned all waste exports to former colonies in Africa, in the Caribbean and in the Pacific area.

There have been many scandals over the years concerning the trade in waste. In the run-up to the Rio summit, let us now take a positive step and protect our people by boldly saying to the world that this trade must stop. I call on the Government, in the interests of the health of my constituents and in the interests of their peace of mind, to block any proposals now, or in the future, to import any toxic material into the United Kingdom for incineration or for any other method of disposal.

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

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) has raised issues of understandable concern to his constituents and I welcome the opportunity to respond.

I fully understand and share public concern about the general question of imports of waste for disposal. There is no question whatever of the United Kingdom being a "dustbin" for the world's waste; there never has been and there never will be.

Waste comes here because we are equipped to deal with it efficiently, effectively and in an environmentally sound way. Some other countries, on the other hand, have been slower than us to develop their own facilities.

Notwithstanding our own abilities, we firmly believe that the international movement of waste for disposal should be minimised. In particular, we believe that all developed countries should become self-sufficient in the final disposal of waste and dispose of their own waste arisings. That position is reflected in international legislation, including an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development decision-recommendation of 1988 and the United Nations Basel convention on the transboundary movement of hazardous waste and its disposal.

The disposal of waste throughout the world raises questions that can be dealt with effectively only by international action—by world action. The United Kingdom is opposed in principle to the continuing import of hazardous wastes from developed countries. In principle, imports of such waste should continue only in respect of developing countries—countries which may, for the foreseeable future, be unable to deal with such waste in a manner that is not detrimental either to the planet or to themselves. We must keep matters in their proper perspective. Only about 5 per cent. of hazardous waste dealt with in Great Britain comes from abroad.

The Basel convention, which came into force on 5 May, is a significant global advance in waste management and we fully support it. The United Kingdom signed the convention in 1989 and has pushed for the earliest possible implementation of its provisions within the European Community so that we can ratify it as quickly as possible.

Basel has introduced a global system of controls on the international movement of hazardous waste. Parties to the convention must ensure the availability of adequate disposal facilities within their borders as far as possible and minimise transfrontier movements, ensure that importing countries are informed and give their consent before any shipments, minimise their production of hazardous wastes and provide for the environmentally sound management of wastes for which the parties are to agree guidelines.

At present the controls we have in the United Kingdom over the international movement of waste are those in the Transfrontier Shipment of Hazardous Waste Regulations 1988, which derive from European Community directives. They cover only hazardous waste and they prevent shipments only where these would lead to a breach of environmental or related controls—for example, if waste were going to a facility not authorised to handle that type of waste. Basel is a development of and a move forward on those principles.

To implement the convention and to deal with other concerns about waste movements of all kinds, the EC has proposed a new regulation which will apply to all shipments into and out of the Community, with the exception of some non-hazardous wastes moving for recovery. We hope that the latest draft of the regulation will be agreed by the Council of Ministers very soon, even possibly next week, following several years of difficult and complex negotiations. We can then proceed as quickly as we can to ratify the Basel convention, in company with the rest of the European Community.

The feature of the current draft of most relevance today is that it will severely curtail the import of waste for disposal from outside the Community and EFTA, from countries such as Australia. Such shipments would be allowed only under a bilateral agreement with the country of export. Those agreements would be possible only where the exporting country does not have, and cannot acquire, the necessary suitable disposal facilities of its own. The aim is to restrict imports of waste to those from developing countries, and not from developed countries.

I understand that the Australian Government have granted an export licence to one or more companies in Australia for hazardous waste, including PCBs, from Western Australia. A contract with an authorised disposal facility is a prerequisite to that licence and Cleanaway has such a contract with one Australian company. But those companies would then compete for a contract to carry out the export. Precisely where the waste went for disposal would depend on which company won. This might be the United Kingdom which has three possible facilities equipped to receive PCB waste, including the high-temperature incinerator at Ellesmere Port, but it could be elsewhere, including France.

The United Kingdom has outstanding transfrontier shipment notification documents submitted from Australia under the Transfrontier Shipment of Waste Regulations 1988. However, there are no indications about whether they will be used to cover any of this particular consignment of PCB wastes, or where it might actually be sent—if it is sent at all. The Australian Government have ratified the Basel convention and will know that the convention requires parties not to send waste to non-parties, which currently include the United Kingdom. We are looking to the European Community regulation to encourage developed countries, especially those outside the Community and EFTA, to become self-sufficient in waste disposal, in line with our policy in this matter.

The United Kingdom is virtually self-sufficient in disposing of its waste. Records for hazardous waste exports show only 500 tonnes exported for disposal in 1990–91 and that traffic is to cease, thanks to the co-operation of the United Kingdom company involved. The majority of wastes that we dispose of in Britain are produced here. As I have said, only about 5 per cent. come from elsewhere. Our procedure for disposal licensing and pre-notification of the movement of special waste were forerunners in European legislation and in 1988 we were one of the earliest nations to implement transfrontier notification procedures for hazardous wastes under an EC directive.

Incineration is an important waste disposal option. High-temperature incineration employing state-of-the-art combustion and emission control systems provides an essential long-term secure disposal option for a broad spectrum of organic wastes, including PCBs. Of course, it is quite rightly a sensitive issue, but the public may be reassured that the tight environmental regulations that are applied to incineration—and, indeed, to all waste disposal methods—ensure that there are no dangers from the incineration process. Modern high-temperature incinerators are safe and do not produce highly toxic emissions as some have claimed.

Although alternative options are increasingly being investigated, and some are being developed commercially, they provide at present only a partial alternative to high-temperature incineration for a limited range of specific wastes.

Mr. Miller

I was concerned about the Minister's comments regarding the safety of modern incinerators. Can he tell the House the evidence on the basis of which that statement was made? The waste coming out of incinerator chimneys is a matter of great concern to my constituents, as is the chemical make-up and disposal of the ash.

Mr. Baldry

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, in his constituency and elsewhere, incinerators are monitored, scrutinised, regulated and reviewed toughly and tightly by Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution. If the hon. Gentleman has concerns about the effectiveness of the regulatory controls, he may wish to discuss them in detail with HMIP. I am sure that the inspectorate will be only too happy to go through with him the controls, standards and tests that it uses to ensure the highest environmental standards for incinerators in Britain and to ensure that they cause no danger to the hon. Gentleman's constituents or to the environment as a whole.

The alternative of storing waste that would otherwise be disposed of by such means presents its own problems of safe containment, to say nothing of the difficulties of choosing and agreeing a suitable location for storage. Even in the wide ranges of Australia, those issues do not go away. So the environmental impacts of using incineration need to be compared with the environmental consequences of using alternative disposal methods, such as landfill. Modern incineration can offer a good disposal route for these wastes in which the various release routes by which pollutants can reach the environment are tightly controlled.

As I said, the Ellesmere Port incinerator is registered by Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution. Before a certificate of registration is granted Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution must be satisfied that the operator is using the best practicable means of preventing harmful emissions and rendering harmless any that cannot be prevented. Later this year, the plant will be subject to the new controls included in part I of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Under those provisions Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution will apply integrated pollution control, which addresses releases to all three media. This entails looking at the best practicable environmental option for dealing with potential pollution from the process and requires the application of the best available techniques not entailing excessive cost—BATNEEC—to prevent or minimise the emission of prescribed substances and to render harmless other emissions.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concerns, but the plant at Ellesmere Port has already demonstrated its ability to meet the new standards. It is fitted with comprehensive monitoring equipment for the measurement of releases and Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution regularly conducts independent confirmatory exercises. We should not underestimate the effectiveness of our monitoring and controlling procedures or the standards of our waste disposal industry.

In addition, the European Commission has recently sent to the Council of Ministers for consideration a draft directive on hazadous waste incineration, which will introduce strict combustion conditions and emission limits across the Community. We welcome the move towards common tight standards in the interests of protecting public health and the environment and we shall be looking closely at the details.

PCBs are chlorinated organic compounds, which, because of their stability and good die-electric qualities, have been widely used around the world in electrical equipment such as transformers and capacitors. They have subsequently been found to accumulate in the tissue of plants and animals and are probably carcinogens. Countries around the world are phasing out existing uses, and the United Kingdom is committed to doing so by 1995, and by 1999 at the latest.

Disposal is by means of high-temperature incineration under careful conditions. Such incinerators are relatively few and far between, even in the developed world at present. The risks from PCB wastes should be properly understood. They are not instantly poisonous or highly flammable. The risks lie in their persistence and accumulation in the environment and also in the possibility of dioxin emissions if PCBs are incinerated under less rigorous standards than those used by our own waste management industry and its regulators.

In conclusion, the United Kingdom has extensive controls to protect the environment. We would rather not import waste from other developed countries outside the Community and EFTA, such as Australia. The Government are looking to the new EC waste movements regulations to limit such movements. Existing controls do not allow local authorities or the Government to prevent such imports if all the controls on movement and disposal are being complied with. But the Basel convention prevents Australia from sending its waste here at present, while the United Kingdom has not yet ratified the convention. That should encourage the Australian companies involved to look for other solutions.

Britain has played a leading role in persuading the international community that all developed countries should become self-sufficient in waste disposal. We are strong advocates of the importance of self-sufficiency and are determined that there should be effective global controls on hazardous waste movements.

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