HC Deb 23 April 1993 vol 223 cc701-8

Motions made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Kirkhope.]

2.43 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is a great authority on dioxins in Derbyshire, but he is unable to be here because he is attending the funeral of his mother-in-law. Similarly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) would be present but for a prior commitment in Copenhagen. Bolsover, Chesterfield and north-east Derbyshire are linked because pollution knows no boundaries and certainly no constituency ones. We share a common problem.

For the people of Staveley the fact that they have pollution problems comes as little surprise. In the past, smoke belching out of factories and old-fashioned muck and dirt produced the problem, but now pollution is often caused by chemicals, new techniques and the unknown. The people of Staveley live with, and often live by, the operations of local industries. They need those industries to continue because their livelihoods depend on them.

Why are we focusing on Derbyshire? It goes back to the Coalite fire at Bolsover in 1968 when the chemical, 245T, was burnt at levels inappropriate for materials that produce dioxins. As a consequence of the fire, the area was subject to investigations by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Subsequent surveys were conducted on a grid basis by MAFF in the south of Scotland, England and Wales. It later decided that it should study specific areas and it focused on the northern end of Derbyshire where farms, factories and people are in close proximity to each other.

In the 1990–91 MAFF investigation it was discovered that there were unacceptable levels of dioxins in milk produced by two farms and those supplies were prevented from entering the food chain. As a consequence of that decision, further investigations took place within three miles of the Coalite fire. One particular investigation was held on 23 February 1993 and it was discovered that Stanton plc of Staveley was a potential source of a different mixture of dioxin.

What is a dioxin? It is not easy to discover or to explain in layman's terms and perhaps the Minister will say something about it. I understand that it is a core element with two aspects, hence the use of "di" in the first part of the word, one of which is oxygen, which obviously makes up the rest of the word, "oxin". Other chemicals adhere to the combination of carbons and oxygen. The particular make-up of those chemicals decides whether a dioxin is potentially toxic. It is argued that just 17 out of 210 dioxins are a cause for concern, but that does not mean that the others do not need to be investigated.

Dioxins have a particular characteristic; they do not saturate. One part of the element that makes up a dioxin does not help to dissolve another element of it. It therefore takes an exceptionally long time for a dioxin to disappear. If a problem arises with the toxic nature of a dioxin, it is liable to be a long-term one.

Although there are natural or fairly common types of dioxin in advanced society, the source of the problem is often associated with combustion and various chemical processes, which throw dioxins into the air. Subsequently, those dioxins may be washed from the land into rivers, the pollution of which is another problem which needs to be investigated. Experts, technicians and certainly Government officials tend to argue that the problem mainly involves farming and occurs when dioxins move into the food chain, particularly if they get into the grass and herbage eaten by other animals. Dioxins can get into milk in that way.

It is only considered a problem for humans who breathe it in when there are excessively high levels of dioxin such as that unleashed in Vietnam to destroy foliage. A bad case also occurred in Seveso in Italy in 1976. One example that occurred in this country which was not as serious as that in Italy took place at the Coalite factory in Bolsover in 1968. There are fears that excessive levels of dioxin caused skin disease, cancers and problems in human reproduction. Unfortunately, not enough is known about it. The literature in this country tends to show that there is nothing to worry about in the levels of dioxin that occur here. But evidence coming from America and the Environmental Protection Agency there suggests that there could be other considerations. Certainly organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth stress the problems and are not convinced by the lack of information.

Due to the discovery of dioxins in soil and herbage, eight farms in Staveley are having their milk tested. In theory, the production could be stopped from entering the human food chain at those eight farms. The Government have currently adopted a polluter-pays policy. I accept that polluters must pay, but the problem is that the aggrieved party has to take action against the polluter. That policy is causing difficulties for the three farmers affected in the Bolsover district, who are acting through the National Farmers Union.

Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution states that Stanton may be the polluter, although—in mitigation—there may be difficulties in fully establishing who is responsible. I am not attacking Stanton, which has introduced new procedures. It is proud of its gas cleaner plant and states that legislation on the stocks will require other companies to adopt some of the techniques that it now uses.

However, Stanton is part of a multinational company. Its headquarters are located at Saint Gobain in France, and there are 338 subsidiary and ancillary companies involved in 30 different countries. Therefore, the NFU faces difficulty in finding the resources needed to take the matter to court. It would be helpful if the law could be changed so that it was the same as that in Holland, where the Government have to pay compensation, then decide who they will take to court as the polluter.

There are other worries besides dioxins in the Staveley district. One of the farmers has reported high levels of sulphur molybdenum and fluoride in the herbage and silage, and 25 per cent. of his calves born since 1971 have had eye defects. I visited his farm last July when a calf was born blind.

I subsequently wrote to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 10 July 1992, raising the issue of dioxins. The reply was sent on 7 August, by Earl Howe: It is not appropriate to draw a parallel with the case of dioxins in the Bolsover area. Now I discover from a parliamentary answer that a high reading was taken near Hall lane in Staveley in early 1992. The pollution inspectorate took the reading from the soil. That information should have been given to MAFF. The reply that I received last July should have admitted that there was some problem with dioxins in the area that needed looking at.

Now, almost a year later, we have the figures for 1993. I cannot believe that there have been no more readings during the past year, however. Certainly, MAFF and the Department of the Environment have been remiss if they have not carried out other investigations during the period.

The community in the area is also worried. A mass of medical evidence shows, for instance, that the incidence of asthma among young children in the Barrow Hill area is far greater than the expected average would be. So we need an investigation of the whole environment to tidy up the problem of dioxins and other pollutants.

We want industry, communities and farms to be able to live in comfort with each other. That can happen only if the Government apply rigorous standards and if they help firms when problems arise and need dealing with. I should like a full environmental survey of the north-eastern part of Derbyshire, in the areas affected by dioxins and other problems. We need to establish the post of Secretary of State for Environmental Protection, and an environmental protection agency, because a great many threads must be drawn together in this business. The DoE has an obvious interest, as have the pollution inspectorate and farmers. The Department of Health begins to be drawn into the picture; likewise the Department of Trade and Industry, to deal with the conditions of people at work. The National Rivers Authority must be involved because dioxins end up in rivers, as witness the high levels in the Doe Lea river. It runs along the border between north-east Derbyshire and Bolsover. District and county council planning departments, environmental health officers from the Chesterfield borough council, and North-East Derbyshire district council—all these should be involved, too; likewise environmental groups, local and national. Yorkshire Water, which is responsible for sewage, also has an interest.

It would be very difficult for any organisation that was not a central Government body charged with this particular task to draw all these threads together.

I am alarmed by the fact that the problem was dropped on the environmental health inspector from Chesterfield borough council, following only 24 hours' notice that an answer was to appear to a planted question in the House. I was not informed, although I did find out about it. I thought that it was about dioxins in Bolsover, because it never mentioned Staveley. Until its publication I knew nothing about dioxins in Staveley beyond the guesses that I had made based on the letter sent in July 1992.

The environmental protection legislation that we have places a great onus on borough or district councils, but I think that a Secretary of State should have far greater responsibility for these matters, not just a general overview.

In this connection, Staveley, Bolsover, north-eastern Derbyshire, is not a unique area. In many other parts of the country there is the combination of factories, incinerators, chemical works, population and farms. The problem is liable to exist on a much wider basis. It is almost an historic accident, to do with the Coalite problem of 1968, that the problem has been discovered in north-eastern Derbyshire.

We also require a public inquiry. Many of the authorities in the area have called for one, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover. There is no reason why the inquiry should not be combined, with different groups and bodies drawn together. People in the area have organised a call for one. I have here more than 2,000 signed letters asking that such action be taken, and there will be a petition to Parliament later, involving far more people within the Staveley area. The letter says: I the undersigned demand that John Major and the Tory Government undertake a public inquiry following the discovery of Dioxin in the Barrow Hill and Hollingwood areas. We further demand that the Department of Health undertake an extensive medical survey of the local residents. The problem goes wider than the Barrow Hill and Hollingwood areas, although there is serious concentration there. Those actions—environmental protection inquiries, public inquiries and automatic compensation for the farmers from Government—need to be taken on board.

3.1 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Robin Squire)

As is customary, I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) on securing the Adjournment debate. In the time available to me, I shall try to answer his points. As he would expect me to say, I will write to him on those points with which I cannot deal in the time available. I also recognise, as will the House, that unfortunate circumstances have deprived us of both the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). I join the hon. Gentleman in sending our condolences to the hon. Member for Bolsover on his family loss.

I have noted the past interest of the House on the question of dioxins in Derbyshire and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for providing me with the opportunity to underline the continued concern of Her Majesty's Government to protect the health of our people and the state of the environment in the country, and in Derbyshire in particular, as highlighted in this debate.

Before I speak in some detail about the problems that have occurred in Derbyshire, to which the hon. Gentleman has drawn our attention, it may be helpful to describe the nature of dioxins, how they are formed, their transport through the environment and pathways for human exposure.

Dioxins is the generic name given to a number of closely related organic chemicals containing chlorine. They have no known uses and are not produced intentionally. They are, however, produced as unwanted by-products in some manufacturing processes and during incineration of chemicals and other wastes. The mechanisms by which dioxins are formed are not completely understood, but, in the case of combustion processes, important factors are believed to include the combustion conditions, the chlorine content of the material being burnt and the presence of suitable catalytic surfaces. Industrial processes known to have a significant potential for dioxin emissions are subject to strict control—notably under the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

Emission to air is the principal route for release of dioxins resulting in deposition on to soil, water and plants. Because of their physical properties, dioxins bind strongly to soil and since they are chemically stable, this makes them persistent in the environment. Dioxins are widely distributed in the environment, although at extremely low levels.

The main route by which the general population is exposed to dioxins is through food, largely milk, other dairy products and meat. Vegetables contribute much smaller amounts because uptake of dioxins through the roots of plants is almost negligible under normal circumstances. Grazing cattle take up dioxins from the soil and grass and because those substances are metabolised slowly, they are stored in the tissues and concentrated in the milk that cattle produce. For that reason, the most reliable means of assessing whether a health risk may be posed by food from a particular area is through milk sampling and I will describe in a moment the extensive testing that has been carried out on milk.

The Department of Health's advisory committee on the toxicity of chemicals in food, consumer products and the environment has endorsed a tolerable daily intake set by the World Health Organisation. For a person weighing 60 kg this level would be 600 picograms per day. A picogram is one millionth of one millionth of a gram—a very small quantity indeed.

The average dietary intake of dioxins in this country is estimated to be 125 picograms per day, which is very clearly safely below the accepted level. It is comparable with the esimated dietary intakes for other industrialised countries.

Let me now turn to the events in Derbyshire.

Mr. Barnes

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Squire

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make some progress; if there is time, I will give way later.

My Department published a pollution paper on "Dioxins in the Environment" on 22 June 1989. The Government believed that it was the appropriate action to take, given the concern at that time about dioxins both in this country and overseas. The publication showed that while dioxins were found everywhere in the United Kingdom environment, the levels were very low and gave no cause for concern.

However, as the report concluded that food is the major exposure route for most people, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food carried out an extensive survey on dioxins in food to estimate the average daily intake. That provided us with the figures I mentioned earlier. As part of the survey, samples of milk were collected from both urban and rural areas of the United Kingdom, including 11 farms in Derbyshire. In March 1991, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, two farms situated close to the Coalite chemicals plant near Bolsover were identified as producing milk with elevated levels of dioxin. Further investigations revealed that levels in meat from a third farm were considered unacceptably high. As a precautionary measure, an order was made under the Food and Environmental Protection Act 1985 to restrict movement of all products from the latter farm.

MAFF continued its investigations in the Bolsover area, including a comprehensive survey of milk from individual farms, and concluded, in published reports, that dioxin concentrations in milk and herbage were lower in the summer of 1992 than were levels during the same period in 1991, although there was no significant change in soil concentrations. By the autumn of 1992, concentrations of dioxins in milk and meat had fallen to levels which again made these foods safe for consumption. After publication of those results it was possible for MAFF to lift the Food and Environmental Protection Act order which had been put in place to restrict the activities of the farm closest to the Coalite chemicals incinerator. I will come to the incinerator in a moment. The milk marketing board was also reassured about the acceptability of milk produced on the other two affected farms and has confirmed that it is willing to accept milk from them.

At the same time as MAFF was undertaking its further investigations in the Bolsover area, work was being carried out by Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution to try to identify the source of the dioxins. The Coalite chemicals works at Bolsover was known to incinerate chemicals containing chlorine. This works is subject to air pollution control by HMIP which, in August 1991, carried out a study on the incinerator and nearby smokeless fuels plant at the works.

The results, published in December 1991, showed the presence of dioxins in the emissions from the plants, particularly from the incinerator. The report recommended that an environmental survey should be carried out to obtain further information. In the meantime, Coalite closed down the incinerator for major refurbishment. Coalite has applied to HMIP for authorisation under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to operate an incinerator on the site. The plant will be newly constructed and therefore fully subject to the Act's requirement to use best available techniques not entailing excessive cost. Following extensive public consultation, HMIP is carefully considering the application and, after incorporating appropriate conditions, is likely to issue an authorisation in May. Construction of the incinerator will not begin until an authorisation is granted, so start-up of the new plant is unlikely before the end of the year.

In February 1992, HMIP started a soil survey in the Bolsover area, covering relatively undisturbed land up to 5 km from the Coalite works. Data collected during that survey are currently being assessed within HMIP and a report describing the work and showing the extent, distribution and magnitude of dioxin contamination in surface soils in the area will be published as soon as that complex task has been completed. In November 1992, HMIP started a programme of air and rain water monitoring for dioxins in the Bolsover area, which will also be published and will provide a baseline for any future operation of the incinerator.

I mentioned that the soil survey extended up to 5 km around Bolsover. Elevated levels of dioxins were found in samples taken 4 km north-west of the Coalite plant near Staveley. Because soils vary and analysis of dioxins is difficult, investigations were started as soon as possible into the reliability of these findings. Samples of herbage were taken close to the original soil sampling point, which confirmed the anomalous finding. Because of the difference in dioxins between the samples from Staveley and those from the earlier Bolsover survey, the results of MAFF's 1991 milk sampling campaign were re-examined. Some samples from the Staveley area also showed this different pattern, while confirming that for the samples in question dioxin levels were within the normal 1991 background range found for dioxins in milk from farms in urban and industrial areas. Thus, the Staveley samples had not attracted any particular attention in 1991.

Those findings suggested that the dioxins with the different pattern had probably originated from another source near Staveley other than Bolsover. Further investigations by my Department detected dioxins in the cupola—a scrap melting device—of a local foundry, suggesting that it might be a possible source. The management of the foundry, which is owned by Stanton plc, has given the Department its full co-operation during the studies.

Foundries such as that at Staveley are required under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to have an authorisation from the local authority to operate. All authorisations issued will contain conditions aimed at ensuring use of the best available techniques not entailing excessive cost to prevent emissions to air of specified substances—including dioxins—or, where this is not practicable, to minimise and render harmless such emissions. An application for authorisation has been received by the local authority, Chesterfield borough council. My Department informed the council as soon as the evidence of elevated dioxin levels was substantiated and the possible source identified. Close co-operation between my Department and the borough council has been maintained.

If the council believes that the foundry is giving rise to emissions of dioxins, it can be expected to include conditions in the authorisation aimed at tackling it. I cannot comment on the detail, because any views that I expressed might prejudice my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State's decision should the company appeal to him against these conditions under the provisions of Environmental Protection Act.

Samples taken from the cupola at another foundry operated by Stantons at Stanton-by-Dale near Ilkeston, which for technical reasons associated with the detail of the process is subject to pollution control legislation administered by HMIP, showed that they also contain dioxins. Erewash district, the local council, and Stantons have been informed of the situation and HMIP and MAFF are urgently investigating the finding.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has just written to the right hon. Member for Chesterfield and to the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) inviting local councillors to meet representatives from HMIP to discuss the issues surrounding dioxins in the Bolsover and Staveley areas.

During the investigations, the Department has been working closely with officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of Health. We have treated the matter very seriously and I can fully understand the real concerns that have been expressed by the local community about dioxin levels in its area. However, the results of surveys have revealed levels in milk which are only marginally greater than background. Recently, further milk samples have been taken in the Staveley area as a precautionary measure although there is no reason to believe that foodstuffs—

The motion having been made after half-past Two o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at thirteen minutes past Three o'clock.