HC Deb 21 October 1998 vol 317 cc1254-60 1.29 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

There have been two major incidents of clouds of acid vapour escaping from SARP (UK) Ltd. at Killamarsh in my constituency. They presented considerable and serious dangers to the residents of Killamarsh and the surrounding built-up areas, including parts of the constituencies of my hon. Friends the Members for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) and for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). The plant is situated close to housing and within a few hundred yards of a junior school. It is also on the border of the Rother Valley country park—I see my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley in the Chamber—which is used by thousands of people.

The first incident occurred on 14 May. I explained the events in detail to the House in a speech on 20 May. I shall not repeat the points that I made then, not least because the case is being placed before the courts in a prosecution by the Environment Agency. However, I should like to place on record details of the second major incident and subsequent events before making some general comments. Although the matters that I shall refer to are under investigation by the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency, no official reports or prosecutions on them have yet seen the light of day. In the absence of such prosecutions, I am free to speak about the issues.

The second major incident took place on 30 May. I visited the site soon after, and met local residents. I have not been able to inform the House of the second incident until now, having been out of parliamentary action from 4 June because of a stroke. Apart from the short recall of Parliament following the tragedy at Omagh, the House has not met for 12 weeks.

However, I raised the issue through early-day motion 1385 on 3 June, and presented a petition to the House on 24 July on behalf of 7,000 residents in north-east Derbyshire, Killamarsh, Rother Valley and Sheffield, Attercliffe—my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe is also in his place. I should like to mention on the record the help that I obtained from my agent Bob Harper and other Labour party members in the Killamarsh area during my illness and subsequently.

The SARP plant at Killamarsh is a chemical reclamation plant. At its acid-alkali treatment plant, there were four storage tanks surrounded by a concrete bund near the base. On 30 May, one of the tanks collapsed, with two thirds of its sides immediately disintegrating. The tank contained nine tonnes of liquids, 26 per cent. of the contents being nitric acid.

As the liquid, including considerable amounts of acid, fell into the bund, a huge orange cloud of acid vapour rose and escaped. The atmospheric conditions were poor and the acid cloud moved back to the site and its vicinity before slowly dispersing. Firefighters who went to tackle the toxic spill were initially refused entry to the plant on the grounds that the matter was under control, even though the plant's fire hose, which had been found to be defective on 14 May, had not been put right by 30 May.

That second major incident, just 16 days after the first escape of acid vapour from a tanker, had a dramatic impact on officialdom, the local communities and SARP.

The authorities—the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency—set up investigations into that further major incident, and embarked on a full audit of all the processes at the plant.

The reaction of the communities in Killamarsh and surrounding areas was dramatic. Everyone had had enough, and demanded the removal of the plant to a site away from areas of population. A residents committee was formed, known as RASP—an anagram of SARP that stands for Residents Against SARP Pollution. It has persistently campaigned for the closure of the plant in dramatic style, including a visit to SARP's parent company, Vivendi in Paris—a multinational that is embarrassed because it likes to portray itself as environmentally friendly.

The parish council, the district council, the local county councillor Alan Charles and the three Members of Parliament have all made vigorous representations to my right hon. Friend Minister for the Environment. We are all thankful to my right hon. Friend for visiting SARP and meeting representatives of RASP and the councils in Killamarsh on 29 July. However, the determination of the residents did not come out of the blue. It has built up over a long period, which included an explosion at the site in 1986, when the plant was run by Leigh Environmentals.

I took a deputation to meet the Minister for small firms, Mr. David Trippier, even though I was not a Member of Parliament at the time. That deputation was made up of local councillors and representatives of KRAC—the Killamarsh Residents Action Committee. I placed details of those and further serious matters before the House when I became a Member of Parliament, most notably in an Adjournment debate on 28 February 1990. There had been the additional possibility of the infamous Karen B being brought to this country, with materials from it being likely to go to the Killamarsh site.

Astonishingly, although SARP has been under constant supervision by the Killamarsh community since the second incident, it has failed to get its act together. A catalogue of incidents has been unearthed. On the day of my right hon. Friend's visit to Killamarsh, it was discovered that barrels of rocket fuel were stored close to the local junior school. My right hon. Friend will remember his visit to the school playing field, with the SARP site starkly nearby.

The consignment of rocket fuel came in 1,507 drums in 20 deliveries between 1993 and 1995. Of those, 184 were left to deteriorate and had to be stored under water. Some of the remaining drums were incinerated, while others remain in storage on the site. I know that my right hon. Friend is concerned about the matter, which is under investigation by the Environment Agency, as are another five incidents.

First, waste was left on the ground, with serious smells affecting the community, when an old storage tank was being cleaned out. Secondly, substantial off site odours were caused following leachate recycling. Thirdly, 20 tonnes of slurry were dumped on a landfill site. There are questions as to how that met the provisions of the waste disposal licence. Fourthly, the recirculation of effluent in storage tanks caused serious smells. Fifthly, a gas scrubber was not properly maintained, leading to a further inability to remove smells from waste.

There have been numerous other incidents, such as the sample bottles of aniline carried from Killamarsh to Teesside by TNT that leaked en route. The material is hazardous, and causes skin and eye irritation. TNT was not informed of the contents of the bottles. Past carbon monoxide releases from the incinerator have also been found not to have complied with the licence. Then a tanker started to leave the site, although a worker was still on top of it.

In addition to the responses of officialdom and the community, and because of them, SARP has had to react. It closed down the six chemical reclamation processes at the plant following the incident on 30 May. Although the company attempted to restart the secondary liquid fuel plant within 48 hours, it backed off when I objected to the Health and Safety Executive. On 18 June, however, as I was leaving hospital, the process was reopened—not least because it accounts for 48 per cent. of SARP's turnover on the site. The other processes have remained closed down—20 weeks after the tank collapsed.

SARP has announced its intention to transfer its acid plant, oil plant and transport depot from Killamarsh, while reducing the number of drums on site, including the rocket fuel. It claimed to me that that will involve the end of emissions into sewers, which have caused major unrest in the area for years. I welcome SARP's belated recognition that too many processes operate on the site, and appreciate that employees need to be fully consulted about transfer arrangements, as they will affect half the 110 jobs on the site.

SARP's proposals still leave us with the secondary fuel plant in operation, and would involve the reopening of the incinerator and the solvent recovery plant. We are awaiting the outcome of the reports of the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency, including the audit of the plant. Those could lead to SARP having to remove more, or even all, of the operations from Killamarsh. I am therefore keen that the official reports into incidents should be completed as soon as possible and put into the public domain. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to respond specifically to that point.

I am also concerned about whether highly critical reports of SARP will be enough to prompt the authorities to take action to close down SARP's remaining processes. A House of Commons Library briefing tells me that, under part 1 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, local authorities are statutorily obliged to include conditions in any authorisations they issue which are designed to ensure that the process is operated under the Best Available Techniques Not Entailing Excessive Cost … to prevent and minimise emissions of prescribed substances and to render harmless any substance that may be emitted … local authorities can issue enforcement, variation, prohibition and revocation notices to ensure that appropriate standards of control are met, and raised in line with new techniques and new awareness of environmental risk. Prohibition notices are a mechanism for stopping a process if there is an imminent risk of serious pollution of the environment. Will fresh legislation be needed to strengthen such provisions so that the experiences of the long-suffering residents of Killamarsh may come to shape legislation that will have a wider application in protection against industrial pollution?

A series of reports is being prepared about SARP's operation at Killamarsh. The Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency are conducting three major reports—plus six other investigations, which I have described. SARP commissioned a report by W. S. Atkins after the first incident; it has not seen the light of day. The company is going on to commission a unit at Sheffield university to produce a further report, and the area's Member of the European Parliament is undertaking his own inquiry. RASP has been first off the blocks and has published a report. In fact, SARP has responded to it—it was published yesterday—in a four-page fax to me. That response is somewhat more speedy than the emergence of the reports that it has commissioned.

It is essential that the mountain of paperwork produces results. After all, actions speak louder than wordy surveys. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond to the points that I have placed on record, especially in connection with the availability of reports and whether consideration has been given to improvements in environmental protection legislation in order to ensure that the type of problems that have for so long occurred in Killamarsh begin to be solved—not just there but in other communities.

1.44 pm
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) has secured a debate on this important subject. I pay him a very great tribute for the extremely thorough and persistent manner in which he has pursued this serious case—not least because, as he said, in the middle of the events, he was struck down by illness. I know that I speak for everyone present when I say that we are delighted to see him again fully active, in pursuit of these matters with all his accustomed vigour.

I should express my real and unreserved sympathy and concern for the Killamarsh residents' worry and anger about the two occurrences that my hon. Friend has described. As he said, I have taken the opportunity to visit the plant in order to see for myself at first hand what has led to the concerns. I want to put on record how tremendously impressed I was by the poignant and forceful manner in which members of Residents Against SARP Pollution presented their case. It made a very big impression on me.

Having said that, I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand why I cannot comment on the two specific incidents on the SARP site—not least because it would involve a discussion of matters that are before the courts. Another key constraint that prevents me from discussing the specific issues is that activities at the site are subject to waste management licensing. The Secretary of State exercises a quasi-judicial role in relation to appeals by waste management licence holders or applicants against licensing decisions made by the Environment Agency. I therefore cannot comment on any individual case that may become the subject of one of those appeals. Having said that, I shall still do everything I can to deal with the issues raised.

As my hon. Friend said, the Killamarsh site is a waste treatment site which has been in operation for several years. At the end of last year, its operation was taken over by SARP (UK) Ltd. To be fair, the company inherited a legacy left by the previous owners and operators of the site. None the less, the legal responsibility for the two incidents in May and other concerns rests with SARP.

As a result of investigations by the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency into the first incident on 14 May, SARP (UK) Ltd has been charged with contravention of section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, regulation 10 of the Carriage of Dangerous Goods by Road Regulations 1996, and section 33 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

The other incident took place on 30 May. A Health and Safety Executive inspector attended the site on the day of the incident, where he met my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire and several parish councillors. He advised that, following the investigation of the incident and the previous one, there would be a comprehensive inspection and audit of all activities carried out on the site. The investigation into the second incident is highly complex, and may yet take several more weeks before it is concluded.

Several key actions have been taken since the very regrettable incidents in May.

First, an off-site safety plan is now being developed by SARP in co-operation with the local emergency authorities. Secondly, all processes on the site were suspended following the incident. Some have restarted to a limited extent, following detailed audits by HSE and the other authorities. Others, including the acid plant that was responsible for the incidents, have been closed down permanently.

Thirdly, my hon. Friend asked about publication of the HSE audit, and I am glad to say that it will be made public in full. Fourthly, SARP has appointed Sheffield university's environmental consultancy to undertake a full and independent audit of the site. The recommendations of that will be published, and SARP has committed itself publicly to implementing them all. Fifthly, HSE and the Environment Agency continue to monitor closely the activities on the site, and are co-operating fully with one another.

Such serious incidents raise many issues concerning underlying standards, procedures and systems, and I shall try to deal briefly with the main questions. The waste management licensing system established under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 is intended to ensure that waste management activities do not cause pollution of the environment or harm to human health. I note my hon. Friend's lengthy list of the company's alleged breaches of consent.

Anyone who deposits, recovers or disposes of controlled waste without a waste management licence, or contrary to the conditions of a waste management licence, or in a way that causes pollution or harm to health, commits a criminal offence. There are strict penalties for such offences. For example, the maximum penalty for the illegal management of special waste is five years' imprisonment and an unlimited fine.

My hon. Friend asked whether additional legislation was needed. I am happy to reconsider that question, but I do not believe it is. I believe that adequate powers are already there, and it is up to the authorities to exercise them where any of the licence conditions are not met.

The Environment Agency already has extensive powers to take enforcement action against the holder of a waste management licence. It may modify a licence in whatever way is necessary to ensure that it does not cause pollution to the environment or harm to human health, or become seriously detrimental to the amenities of the locality affected by the activities. That is a significant power, and I look to the agency to exercise it.

Where the agency considers that there is an imminent risk of serious pollution, it has a duty to serve a prohibition notice specifying the risk and the steps to be taken to overcome it, and suspending the authorisation for whatever aspects of the operation are causing the risk.

I addition, the agency has the power to revoke an authorization—in effect, to shut down the process—where, for example, there has been persistent failure to comply with conditions. I heard what my hon. Friend said about that. It is, of course, for the agency to decide what action is appropriate in which circumstances. For the reasons that I have already given, I cannot comment on whether it would be appropriate to take action along those lines in the case of the Killamarsh site. I can only repeat that I listened attentively to what my hon. Friend said, and those words too will be noted by the Environment Agency.

I shall now talk about standards regulating tankers. The first incident involved a vacuum-operated waste tanker, and I am aware that my hon. Friend is concerned that standards for tankers may be less rigorous in the United Kingdom than in other European countries. I have looked into the subject, and let me assure him that that is not the case. Regulations for the domestic transport of dangerous goods in all EC member states are essentially harmonised as a result of the ADR framework directive adopted in November 1994.

The introduction into ADR of requirements for vacuum-operated waste tankers has been a United Kingdom initiative, and the adopted text is based primarily on existing UK controls. UK safety requirements for such tankers have therefore been accepted by Europe as the best model for future regulation.

Mr. Barnes

The Minister is aware that, as he told me in a parliamentary answer, there have been about 125 incidents involving leakage from tankers over the past 10 years. I do not believe that, until the incident on 14 May, any of those incidents concerned vehicles operated by Leigh Environmentals or SARP. However, there has since been a second incident involving a SARP tanker, near Grantham, which caused considerable leakage on the M1

Even if we are in line with European standards, it is a matter for consideration whether the regulations on the movement of materials about the country are tight enough. One of the problems is that the first incident at Killamarsh might have happened not on the site but in transit. It was bad enough at the site, but it could have happened in all sorts of more dangerous conditions—either at the origin of the goods being moved or during transit through heavily populated areas.

Mr. Meacher

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. It is true that there have been many instances of leaks from tankers either in transit or at their destination, as was the case with the first SARP incident. I am concerned about that, and I am asking HSE to investigate whether there is a pattern behind the large number of incidents, and whether there is a case for revision of the regulations.

My understanding is that the regulations are tight and clear, and that the incidents have largely been caused either by human error or by management failure. However, I accept the fact that the number of incidents is sufficiently high to warrant further examination. I will have that undertaken, and will then report to my hon. Friend.

Sheffield council has called for an official public inquiry into the activities on the Killamarsh site. Having been there and talked to the residents in Residents Against SARP Pollution, and having seen how the site is cheek by jowl with the local community, I have every sympathy with that request. However, I have to bear in mind the constraints imposed by the legal proceedings now under way, the impact of which I trust I have made clear. It is very unlikely that any public inquiry could start substantive considerations until the legal proceedings are concluded.

As I have already said, SARP itself has announced that it has appointed Sheffield university's environmental consultancy to undertake a full and independent inquiry into operations at Killamarsh. I have been formally advised that SARP will refocus and simplify operations at the site to make it more manageable. That will include a substantial clean-up of the facility.

As my hon. Friend knows, I have enormous sympathy with the local strength of feeling, and will continue to take a close interest in developments.

Mr. Barnes

I thank the Minister for the nature of his response. I know that he takes the issue seriously. For my 11 years as a Member of Parliament, I have been concerned with the issues surrounding the site, and my right hon. Friend's responses today are much more serious than those that I received from the previous Administration when we were dealing with such problems many years ago.

Mr. Meacher

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments. I must choose my words carefully here, but I am inclined to say that the previous Government undervalued health and safety issues. The present Government take such issues extremely seriously. Two worrying incidents involving SARP have taken place within a fortnight of each other, and, having listened for several hours to the people who experienced the consequences, I intend to ensure that justice is done.

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.