HC Deb 11 January 2000 vol 342 cc131-3
4. Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

What assessment the Government have made of possible health risks arising from waste incineration. [103254]

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher)

Emissions from incinerators are strictly regulated under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. We are fully alert to health worries relating to incinerators and are confident that the high environmental protection standards set for them mean they do not pose unacceptable risks to health or the environment.

Mr. Stunell

The Minister will be aware that the waste disposal authority in Greater Manchester has the worst record in the country for re-use and recycling, yet it has made proposals for five waste incinerators. Will the Minister tell that authority to put recycling and re-use ahead of incineration in its strategy, and will he enable that to happen by changing the basis of charging to tonnages in Greater Manchester?

Mr. Meacher

The Government will publish their waste management strategy in the next few months. We shall make it very clear that our priority is to shift away from landfill to the maximum feasible increase in recycling. There may be occasions when the best practicable environmental option is incineration rather than recycling, but we look to a role for incineration only where recycling is not appropriate.

I take note of the hon. Gentleman's second point. He should await our paper on that.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the target for recycling in Greater Manchester must increase dramatically? If the authority is looking for an incinerator, it must be combined heat and power, not simply a way of disposing of waste.

Mr. Meacher

I entirely support my hon. Friend on both counts. If we are looking to any increase in incineration, or energy from waste, as it is now more politely called, we certainly expect it to be related to good quality combined heat and power. I also agree with my hon. Friend that the level of recycling—not just in Manchester or indeed my constituency of Oldham, but throughout the country—is pathetically low. Let me make that clear: it is 8 per cent. Our target is to reach 30 per cent. by 2010—that is a fourfold increase. There need to be dramatic increases right across the country and our waste management strategy is intended to provide the drivers to achieve that aim.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Is the Minister aware that in Marchwood in my constituency a large incineration plant was closed down some months ago because of the unacceptably high emissions? Is he further aware that a state of the art, modern incineration plant is planned to replace the old one; and can he guarantee to me and my constituents that the emissions from the new plant will give no reason for concern?

Mr. Meacher

I understand the concern about the local siting of incinerators, which relates mostly to the old generation of incinerators that were phased out as a result of a EU directive in November 1996. We now have much tighter standards. Most concern is caused by dioxins; the current standard is no more than 1 nanogram per cubic metre, which means no more than 1 part in 1 billion. We know from studies by the Environment Agency that incinerators now give rise to no more than 4 per cent. of total dioxins, whereas 10 years ago that figure was 63 per cent. We also support tightening those standards even further and we shall support an EU directive on waste incineration that will raise the dioxin standard tenfold.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

As landfill opportunities diminish throughout the United Kingdom and in spite of best efforts to recycle as much waste as possible, there will always be a need for incineration. What steps will the Minister take to reassure the public and avoid campaigns of opposition to the modern, highly technical and scientifically developed incineration plants?

Mr. Meacher

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that incineration will continue to have a place. The simple reason for that is that in this country we currently landfill between 80 to 85 per cent. of municipal waste. Under the landfill directive passed last year, that has to be reduced to no more than 35 per cent. of 1995 levels by 2016. We have to make a massive shift away from landfill. I support the maximum feasible increase in recycling, and that is Government policy, but incineration is bound to have a role.

The question of reassuring the public is a difficult one, because there is great public concern about incinerators. Planning inquiries will continue to be held on the siting of any future incinerators and local communities will have to be persuaded that the plants are safe and will not cause health problems.

We believe that the evidence exists. In 1996, a health study was undertaken by the previous Government of the incidence of cancers near municipal waste incinerators, and it found no increase in cancers in the local population. The study did find some small increase in primary liver cancers, but it is not clear whether that is related to incinerators. Further research is being carried out. We will examine the issue more fully and we intend, as always on environmental issues, to be transparent and publish all the evidence.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

The Minister may be aware that Carlisle city council recently gave permission for a large plant that will burn waste wood. My constituents in the north of the city are deeply concerned about the pollution that will be created by the plant and by the hundreds of heavy goods vehicles that will bring the waste wood to the plant every day. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the Environment Agency will examine the proposals thoroughly before any operating licence is issued to the plant?

Mr. Meacher

There is no question but that the Environment Agency, in which I have confidence, undertakes rigorous inquiries before it grants consents. I have no reason to doubt that that is what will happen in my hon. Friend's case, and I shall support that. If there are objections, an open planning inquiry must be held before an inspector and his report must be made public. All objectors have a chance to make their points and they are taken into account. I assure my hon. Friend that that procedure will be thoroughly followed in his case.

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