HC Deb 27 November 2003 vol 415 cc231-6

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

6.1 pm

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con)

Lafarge Cement works has submitted an application to the Environment Agency to run a trial using recycled liquid fuel. RLF is a soup of things that no one wants: it includes windscreen wash, antiseptic, nail varnish remover, cosmetics, paints and thinners, and photographic material. The cement works already co-incinerates tyres with coal and coke, but there are serious questions about the way in which the Environment Agency has managed permissions to burn tyres. It is therefore understandable that the local public are concerned that their interests will not be adequately protected in relation to RLF. The use of tyres as a substitute fuel has been driven by the need to comply with European Union directives, including the landfill directive. Given that imperative, it is easy to see how the Environment Agency, as an agency of Government, could be steered in a direction that might not be in the direct interest of people who live cheek by jowl with what has become, by the back door, an incinerator in west Wiltshire.

Lord Whitty wrote to me on 30 October in response to a petition raised in my constituency that requested a public inquiry into the use of RLF at the Lafarge Cement works. He was not minded to grant the request, which is a pity, as I believe that there is a need to examine and test in public the evidence on RLF and tyre burning. It is a pity that we are not at this juncture to have the opportunity of a full public inquiry into both matters. I shall press the Minister for the Environment on that point later in my speech, and I am grateful for the opportunity to bring my constituents' concerns to his attention. I am indebted to the Air That We Breathe Group based in Westbury, West Wiltshire district council, Wiltshire Friends of the Earth and, indeed, Lafarge Cement and the Environment Agency for their input. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) shares my concerns, as Devizes lies downwind of the cement works. He has asked to be associated with my remarks

Let me say at the outset that the cement works in Westbury is a very good local employer. Lafarge, formerly Blue Circle, is actively engaged in the community in west Wiltshire, and provides £10 million a year for the local economy. As a heavy manufacturing concern, it is something of rarity in rural west Wiltshire, and broadens our economic base considerably. The Environment Agency, as the principal statutory authority involved, has a lot of work to do to convince me and, more importantly, my constituents, that the disposal of waste as fuel at the plant will not pose a danger to public health.

The use of substitute fuels is governed by the Environment Agency's substitute fuels protocol, which, unsurprisingly, the cement industry, wants to amend. Indeed, recent decisions by the European Court of Justice have paved the way for that. The Environment Agency says that it is consulting the public on proposals

to revise the protocol, and is having its own "big conversation". How closely the end result will match public opinion rather than the directives of various European institutions is a matter for speculation. That is especially the case as the Environment Agency does not seem to like public consultations. Its director of environmental protection wants to trim the current requirement to consult, and says that there is no need to consult twice, first in the run-up to a trial for an alternative fuel and again before a commercial licence is granted. I hope that the Minister for the Environment agrees, in the spirit of the big conversation, that that is not the way ahead.

I worked with the Environment Agency before I became an MP, and developed a healthy respect for it, so I am somewhat saddened that it has not gained the confidence of the public in west Wiltshire. Historically, monitoring procedures regulated by the Environment Agency in connection with the cement works could have been better. Contrary to the impression given at the time, there was no like-for-like comparison of emissions between the old coal/coke regime and the current co-incineration of tyres. Moreover, recent data show that total particulates have gone up since tyres have been burnt at Westbury, and other key pollutants have either gone up or not been monitored at all.

We have little idea of what the electrostatic precipitators in the chimney at the Westbury plant are removing. Surprisingly, the Environment Agency does not seem to know whether they remove small particles—the so-called PM2.5s, which measure 2.5 microns across or less and have recently been linked to a range of human illnesses. If PM2.5s are venting to atmosphere, there is a potential problem with RLFs. One does not need a GCSE in chemistry to appreciate that halogens are an integral part of solvents. Halogens cling to small particles, so the co-burning of RLFs may increase the amount of highly toxic halogen leaving the plant.

To make matters worse, it seems that we will be disposing of other people's toxic waste. The UK management plant for the export and import of waste sets out policy on the trans-frontier shipment of waste. It is based on the EU waste framework directive, and it rightly bans the import of waste for disposal. However, when is waste not waste? The answer is when the European Court of Justice says that it is an energy recovery material. In other words, people cannot import French RLF to burn in a designated incinerator but they can if it is heading up the A350 to be burnt as a fuel at the French-owned Westbury cement works.

The Environment Agency may refuse the Lafarge application following the receipt of a health impact assessment from the primary care trust. That assessment is overdue, and is eagerly awaited. However, the Environment Agency stated from the outset, in a slightly prejudicial way, that it was minded to allow the trial. The Minister may have a view on that, and he will perhaps agree with me that if a trial is permitted at Westbury, it must be subject to the heaviest scrutiny. It must have a minimum three-month baseline monitoring period so that changes in atmospheric pollution during the burning of RLF and afterwards can be properly

assessed. Monitoring must be geographically exhaustive and continuous, as required by West Wiltshire district council and neighbouring authorities. That will allow the agency to move away from its heavy reliance on modelled data. I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes would insist that monitoring be carried out up to and beyond Devizes. Lafarge has undertaken to pay for monitoring, but it must be conducted rigorously, independently and to the satisfaction of the district councils involved. Any possible impact on the food chain must be clarified, and I hope that the Minister will outline the Food Standards Agency's involvement.

It must be clear to the public during any trial period that air quality is not deteriorating. If it is, the trial must be stopped immediately. Assurances must be given to my constituents living along the A350, and particularly in the town of Westbury and the villages of Yarnbrook and West Ashton, that they will not be put at risk from tankers bearing toxic material. If that assurance cannot be given, transport by the existing rail link into the cement works must be a condition of the trial.

Finally, and this is vital, if the Government are to have any chance of convincing sceptics such as me that our backyard has not become home to a back-door incinerator, there must be an unequivocal undertaking that unless any trial gives confirmation of environmental benefit, no definitive permissions shall be granted at the end of the trial.

Lord Whitty has rejected a public inquiry at this stage. I very much regret that, because such an inquiry would have clarified many issues, both to do with RLF and other novel fuels. Certainly it was the wish of my constituents that one should be carried out at this juncture. I hope that the Minister can give me some of the assurances that my constituents seek today.

6.10 pm
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Elliot Morley)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) on securing the debate, and I assure him that the Department's and the Government's priority is to ensure that the very best environmental standards apply. It is perfectly reasonable for people to raise questions about the impact of changes, in this case in relation to what is burned in cement kilns, but I am sure that he would agree that, if one is to take people's legitimate concerns seriously, it is not reasonable to distort the arguments or unnecessarily frighten or worry people when there are no grounds to do so.

I should like to correct one point that the hon. Gentleman made about the EU hazardous waste directive. That is entirely a matter for the company and its commercial decisions; it is not driven by the Environment Agency. The agency has no involvement in the implementation of the directive, only in monitoring. The changes are a matter for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We will deal with those, but that does not necessarily involve the burning of such wastes in cement kilns. We do not want to set hares running without justification.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly states, the Environment Agency is involved in the evaluation. I do not have all the details in relation to the emissions that he mentioned, but for the record, I do have some figures in relation to the emission limits set for the Westbury cement works for 2000 to 2003, and they have been tightened up. For example, the oxides of nitrogen limit has been reduced by 43 per cent., from 3,528 mg to 2,000 mg per cubic metre, and the particulates limit, which he mentioned, has been reduced by 55 per cent., from 78 mg to 35 mg per cubic metre. That demonstrates that the agency is doing its job in terms of applying good standards in relation to the operation of the works. I have considerable confidence in the operation of the agency, which influences such matters as calls for public inquiries.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly states, under regulation 17 of the Pollution Prevention and Control (England and Wales) Regulations 2000, the operator, Lafarge, applied for a variation to the integrated pollution prevention and control permit on 18 June to allow the trial use of RLF, and the hon. Gentleman explained what that was.

Such waste liquid solvents have been used in other cement works in the UK and elsewhere in Europe for over a decade, so the technology is not new and the risks associated with it are well known and understood. The Environment Agency is considering the application under its substitute fuels protocol. The protocol is readily available on the agency's website and includes an extensive consultation process. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that consultation is important, as is access to information, subject to normal commercial confidentiality.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that no decision about the application for a variation to the IPPC permit has yet been made by the Environment Agency. For six months after a decision is made, it would be open to Lafarge to appeal to the Secretary of State if the company were aggrieved by the decision. For that reason, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that, in view of the company's legal rights, it is inappropriate for me to speak in great detail about the application or the determination process.

I have noticed the coverage of the issue in the local press, which understandably reflects local concerns. However, it is important that local newspapers, too, adhere to the facts. I have seen references to such things as "poisonous clouds". We shall not tolerate clouds of poisonous gases—that will not be tolerated by DEFRA or the Environment Agency. I repeat that we take people's concerns seriously, but they must be judged on the basis of the facts so that there can be proper evaluation of the risks and of the restrictions and protection to which people are entitled.

The hon. Gentleman has called for a public inquiry and he has written to my noble Friend Lord Whitty. I understand that he was motivated in part by a paper presented by the Environment Agency to the board of its regional environmental protection advisory committee. My impression is that that has been understood to mean that the agency is automatically in favour of the application. However, my understanding is that the paper asks the committee to comment on how the Environment Agency should determine applications to burn waste as a fuel in instances where the waste could not be reused or recycled. The agency appears to be seeking expert opinion on draft proposals, and I do not think that that action merits a public inquiry.

Similarly, I see no justification for the Secretary of State to call in the variation application for her determination. Rules apply both to such procedures and to public inquiries. The main rule is whether the issue is one of national controversy or importance. I do not doubt that it is of considerable local importance. I understand that, and I respect the hon. Gentleman's right to raise points in the House and directly with DEFRA. That is entirely proper and appropriate. I also respect people's right to ask questions and to seek assurances that there will be proper monitoring of the trial. However, as the, process has been used for nearly a decade in the UK and in Europe, the matter is not of national importance—it is not new in that sense.

With the greatest of respect, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that there are many public inquiry applications of that type. These days it seems to be the fashion immediately to demand a public inquiry, whatever the issue. We have confidence in the Environment Agency to carry out its duties and to follow its procedures. We cannot hold a public inquiry whenever there could be a controversial decision; otherwise we would be bogged down with endless inquiries. Procedures are in place; when a change is of national significance it is appropriate to hold a public inquiry. Although I understand local concerns, they do not fit that category, so an inquiry is not warranted under the rules that are currently applied.

The hon. Gentleman said that there should be proper monitoring. I agree If the trial goes ahead, I understand that there will be thorough monitoring of the process. That is what DEFRA expects and it certainly applies in other trials of that type. I would expect the information to be made available publicly, subject to the caveat of commercial confidentiality, and I cannot see why much of it should not be provided. I again agree that it is a matter of reassuring people and answering their concerns.

I understand that the Environment Agency will also look into other issues, particularly the safe storage of any recycled liquid fuel at the works, should that be required. I take the point about lorry movements in the area. There are rules in relation to the movement of any kind of hazardous waste. They apply to all vehicle movements and we would expect them to be applied. I was interested in what the hon. Gentleman said about the rail link. Rail links are often an advantage in moving bulky goods. I do not know whether, if the trial gets off the ground now or in future, that would be appropriate given the quantities going into the works. I certainly hope that it would be considered on environmental grounds, if it were appropriate. I stress, however, that for it to be economic, large loads are generally required. I am not at all sure that the quantities that we are talking about are large ones. Obviously, that issue will be considered and determined in the application.

In conclusion, I fully understand local concerns. There are always local concerns about changes of this kind that involve incineration. That is common across the country. I live downwind of a power station that burns waste—in this case, meat and bone meal from cattle that have been taken out of the over-30 month scheme. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, that is not uncontroversial in itself, so I well understand local concerns.

The priority from the environmental point of view is to ensure that the methods are justified and properly monitored, and that there are rules and procedures in place to protect the health of people in the area and to minimise the potential impact on the environment. We expect the EA to put those criteria in place as part of any monitoring of this trial, if the trial is given the go-ahead. I can assure the hon. Gentleman of that. I am sure, too, that the EA will be only too happy to discuss with him personally, should he so wish, the details, monitoring procedures and any other points that he would wish to raise on behalf of his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Six o'clock