HL Deb 25 June 1874 vol 220 cc386-9

Order of the Day for the Second Reading, read.


, in moving that the Bill be now read the second time, said, its object was to amend the Alkali Act of 1863. That Act was framed and passed as the result of an inquiry made under the direction of the late Lord Derby, who moved that a Committee should be appointed to consider the effect of noxious vapours evolved in certain manufacturing processes. The operation of the Act was limited to works for "the manufacture of alkali; sulphate of soda, or sulphate of potash in which muriatic acid gas is evolved." At the time when that Act was passed there were not a very large number of such works in existence; and although the damage done owing to the absence of any precautions against the escape of noxious gases was considerable, it was thought to be sufficient by the provisions of that Act to secure that not more than 5 per cent of the muriatic acid gas evolved should be permitted to escape, while the other 95 per cent should be condensed to the satisfaction of an Inspector appointed under the Act. Since that time the alkali works had increased to the number of 130 or 140, distributed chiefly along the banks of the Mersey and the Tyne. There were some 30 in Lancashire and Cheshire, and the rest scattered—2 near Bristol, 4 or 5 in Staffordshire, 6 or 7 in Ireland, and 7 or 8 in Scotland. And whereas the Act of 1863 was sufficient to control the effect of the smaller number of works, it had been found utterly insufficient to prevent very serious damage from being done, now that the number of works had so largely increased. The nature of the damage was such as to destroy the vegetation, annihilating the trees and crops in the neighbouring country, and rendering it almost uninhabitable. It had been supposed that the health of the cattle was affected by the deposit of poisonous acids upon the food which they ate; and it was beyond dispute that the value of the land for purposes of cultivation was very considerably reduced. One of the chief points in this Bill was the new test proposed to be applied. It was obvious that whereas 5 per cent of the whole quantity evolved might not be of any serious consequence when the works were few and the quantity therefore limited, 1 per cent. might now cause greater injury, since there were a much greater number of works; and it was proposed by this Bill to provide that the muriatic acid gas evolved in such work should be condensed to such an extent that in each cubic foot of air, smoke, or chimney gases escaping from the works into the atmosphere, there should not be contained more than one fifth part of a grain of muriatic acid. There were two advantages in this new test. The first was that without unduly interfering with the business of the manufacturers, the majority of whom had shown themselves quite able to keep within these limits, it would materially diminish the quantity of this noxious gas daily distributed; and, secondly, it would prevent what was quite possible under the old Act—namely, the discharge of a large quantity during one hour, although during the 24 hours the average was not sufficient to cause any infringement of the Act. It had been proved that in certain states of the atmosphere the mischief occasioned by the escape of these gases was greater than at other times, and it was found that often in a single night the leaves of the trees were made to droop or the crops were destroyed by some sudden or unusual escape. This was more especially the case with fruit trees and seed crops when in bloom. There were various manufactures from which these nuisances arose. There was the manufacture of soda, evolving muriatic acid gas; of sulphuric acid, evolving nitrous acid; of ammonia salts, evolving sulphuretted hydrogen; and, moreover, the process of smelting copper, evolving large quantities of sulphurous acid—perhaps the most injurious of all. The reason why the operation of the Act of 1863 was confined to muriatic acid appeared to have been that no sufficient method of condensation had at that time been devised for the other gases evolved; and although in some cases, perhaps, it might be difficult, even now, for an Inspector to test their qualities and to suggest means for their reduction, yet science had so far advanced that it might be hoped that there would be no practical objection to the requirements of the Bill in this respect. It appeared from the report of the Inspectors in 1872 that a large quantity of sulphuric and sulphurous acids was allowed to escape from the copper-smelting works, and that they had proved highly destructive to vegetation. It was therefore proposed by this Bill to include "the formation of any sulphate in the treatment of copper ores by common salt or other chlorides as a manufacture of sulphate of soda" within the meaning of the Act. He believed there were about 12 of these works at Birmingham, Newcastle, Glasgow, &c. The owners were for the most part large capitalists, and the adoption of this Act would not put them to any serious expense. It was provided by the 5th clause that in addition to the condensation of muriatic gas, the owner of every alkali work should use the best practicable means of preventing the discharge of all other noxious gases from his works, and in the event of neglect to do so was made liable to a heavy penalty. It was hoped that the adoption of this Bill would secure the removal of a serious nuisance, against which the remedies hitherto provided were now quite insufficient, owing to the large increase of the manufacture. There had been always a great difficulty in tracing the damage done to any particular works,—it was done at night and in a few hours,—and those by whose carelessness or neglect it was caused often escaped unpunished. The Bill could not be regarded as an interference with the trade of the various manufacturers; indeed, it might be said that in one way it would be an economy to them, inasmuch as the muriatic acid saved by the process of condensation was a marketable commodity, and of value in many branches of industry; while sulphuric acid was even more valuable—and for that reason it had been argued that it was less necessary to insist that it should not be wasted; but it was also held to be more injurious to vegetation than muriatic acid. The manufacturers had been consulted upon this Bill, and had behaved extremely well. They had shown every inclination to meet the wishes of the Government in carrying out its provisions, and the Bill was intended, so far as it was possible, to be in conformity with their wishes and interests, while affording that protection which was due to the public.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a,".—(The Lord Walsingham.)


said, that the Government had in his opinion done well in proposing this Extension of the Act of 1863, though he thought legislation on the subject might well be carried still further. The Act of 1863 was practically a dead letter, and fresh legislation in the same direction was daily becoming more and more necessary.


also thought that further legislation in the direction of this Bill was much required, and expressed his concurrence with the opinion of the noble Earl who had preceded him, that the Act of 1863 was practically inoperative in respect of a very great evil.

Motion agreed to, Bill read 2a accordingly, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House on Tuesday next.