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Column 1162phased out by the end of December 1989, except for inert materials of natural origin or other materials which could be shown to the competent international organisation to cause no harm in the marine environment.
It was also agreed as a matter of principle that waste should not be dumped unless there were no practical alternatives on land. Indeed, the Oslo Commission, at the request of the North sea conference, specifically developed a procedure for licensing industrial waste after 1989, and through that we are required to demonstrate that particular wastes cause no harm in the marine environment and that there are no practical alternatives for dumping the wastes on land. That is the procedure that we are now following.
The special meeting to which the hon. Gentleman referred--it was requested by the Swedes, Norwegians and Danes--will take place on 14 February. Objections came from those three countries and from the Netherlands, and informal objection came from Germany. Seven members have not so far registered any objection.
We are committed to phasing out the dumping of liquid industrial wastes. We are not licensing new wastes. We are requiring exising licensees to take all necessary steps to stop the dumping at the earliest possible time. Any suggestion that my Department is somehow giving the nod and the wink to companies, saying, "Don't worry chaps, go ahead, we will make it possible for you to do it," could not be further from the truth.
We are making good progress. There were more than 100 liquid industrial licences in 1980. By the time of the second North sea conference, that figure was down to 20. Between the second North sea conference and the end of last year, we got rid of more than half of those. Last week, I announced that Fisons would not receive a licence in 1990 because an alternative method of disposal appeared practicable. That leaves eight liquid industrial waste licences. More will go during 1990, and virtually all the remainder by the end of 1991. By that date, there will be virtually no licences. There may be the odd exception, and I shall refer to that later.
I want the practicalities to be understood. Disposal arrangements on land can not be set up overnight, and research will be needed into appropriate methods of treatment. We want recycling or re-use of waste to be considered. When a method is found, it must be engineered, an investment made and the plans tested. Immediate termination of sea disposal could be done only if environmentally risky disposal methods on land were used, and we do not intend to breach our established environmental guidelines and risk harm on land. The only alternative is to stop production, and that is not a practical course. For example, Tate and Lyle dumps certain products. It refines sugar from the Commonwealth countries, and there has been a great deal of debate about the company. It is not a practical option to say, "Let us not have the product ; then we can get away from the manifestation of it." It is more sensible to drive forward in our search for alternatives, so that in a short time we can say that dumping at sea is no longer necessary. That is the policy of my Department, and I have cited figures to show the determination with which we are pursuing it.
Column 1163becoming worse. In fact, it has existed for decades and is becoming better. Will my hon. Friend spell out the Government's determination that dumping will cease?
Mr. Curry : My hon. Friend represents a north-east constituency where these matters are important. I say without equivocation that it is the Government's policy to bring to an end the dumping of industrial waste at sea. We intend to drive forward with that policy and expect that, within two years, there will be virtually no dumping--although there may be the odd exception where limited dumping will be permitted.
The wastes do not cause harm in the sea. It is all too easy to refer to "toxic" chemical wastes--if they were toxic, we would not issue a licence. Some of the wastes are acid or alkaline, and when they enter the sea a chemical reaction takes place and the wastes are neutralised into salts and water. The salts concerned are already present in the sea in large quantities. There are also trace elements in the wastes.
It is not the case that there are large quantities of heavy metals. In fact, metals are naturally present in the sea, as I know the hon. Member for Gordon appreciates. Often, no metals are detectable in the waste. There are some organic substances that biodegrade rapidly. After five minutes in the water, the phenol in the waste is at a concentration of about one thousandth of that used in a mouth gargle. The sugar refining waste is composed only of chalk and materials that were approved for food production use.
Each waste that we licence has been thoroughly scrutinised, and we know exactly what it contains. We also know how it will behave in the sea. We have carried out monitoring work, and licence-holders have carried out their own programmes. We have published the results of our work. We also have a substantial annual monitoring programme for contaminants in fish and shellfish in our waters. The results are also published. They show that contaminants concentrations in fish taken from areas used for dumping are no higher than for other areas.
I know that the hon. Member for Gordon and my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) have a special interest in fly ash. That waste is covered by the same North sea conference rules as liquid industrial waste. There are two dump sites off the north-east coast of England, which serve three power stations. National Power has carried out studies of alternative options for disposal and is now urgently working on detailed proposals-- with more than encouragement from my Department.
If there is a market for re-use of the fly ash, it will no doubt wish to re -use it, and I shall draw the company's attention to the suggestion of the hon. Member for Gordon that there is a potential customer for the product. That will be good news, if it is substantiated. However, markets cannot be generated out of thin air. If the company has to dispose of the waste on land, this will have its own environmental problems. My hon. Friend will appreciate that, if it comes to applications for permission to build dump sites on the land or to put waste down holes, there will clearly be problems. There will be objections from local communities. There is no easy solution in the case of a product like this, which everybody agrees is not simply going to go away.
Mr. Trotter : I accept what the Minister says. Obviously there are very considerable difficulties in finding a land solution. But it is a fact that every other power station in the country found such a solution, and one will have to be found for these power stations in the north-east.
Mr. Curry : I have drawn precisely that point to the attention of National Power in relation to these power stations, as an encouragement to it to make even greater efforts to find an alternative solution. National Power will have to address these arguments effectively. We shall not extend the licence until it is absolutely necessary and until we are convinced that a genuine search for alternatives is being undertaken by the company.
It is suggested that our licensed dumping is harming the marine environment. Let me just put this matter in context. Dumping on this site began in the early 1960s--well before there were licence controls at all. We have actually reduced the area that may be used for dumping. Dumping may now be carried out only on an area already smothered by unlicensed dumping.
I do not dispute the smothering effect of the product--I do not dispute the chemistry of the process--but I must insist that we are very restrictive about where it is allowed to be dumped. Before licensing was introduced, it was already taking place. The licensed area is rather smaller, and our monitoring shows that areas of the sea bed that were once dumped upon, but are no longer, are now recovering and regenerating.
Many North sea countries dump dredged spoil, which has a smothering effect. There is no proposal to ban dredged spoil disposal at sea. The concern expressed by other North sea countries relates to their concern that fly ash might be toxic in the sea. This is not the case. Indeed, delay in recovery of the areas affected by fly ash can probably be put down to the fact that the material is so inert. We shall shortly be submitting a paper to the Oslo Commission as required by these procedures. This will give the evidence for our position that this waste is harmless.
As for dredged materials, we must not forget that the bulk of dumping at sea is carried out by North sea countries and consists of disposal of the spoil dredged from ports and navigations in order to keep shipping lanes open. But dumping of dredged spoil is also kept under strict controls. There are Oslo Commission guidelines, which the United Kingdom played a leading role in developing, and we are pleased that other countries have been able to agree to conform to these guidelines.
Minestone is not covered by the North sea conference rules. However, it is our policy that dumping of minestone at sea should also be terminated as soon as possible. This will not be easy. A number of reviews have been carried out of possible land disposal options for minestone. Nevertheless, we are continuing to press for land disposal options to be thoroughly examined.
Let me make the Government's position absolutely clear. We accept that dumping of these products at sea will have to cease. With our conference signature, we undertook quite clearly that we would work as rapidly as practicable towards that objective. Within the last few minutes, I have quoted figures to show that we have made rapid progress towards that end.
I have also said that, within the next two years, there will be virtually no necessity to continue dumping. The principal exception that I have in mind is, as the hon. Member will be aware, that ICI is investing £30 million in
Column 1165a plant to dispose alternatively of some of its wastes, and the construction of that plant may go a little beyond the deadline to which I have been referring.
Where we are convinced that there is an alternative, we will not be prepared to give a licence. The reason for the refusal to renew the Fisons licence was that our investigations suggested that there was an alternative. If one looks at the number of companies involved and at the products being disposed of, one will find that, in many cases, the alternative that appears to be the most practical is to treat the product so that it is purified to the degree at which it can go into the sewage treatment works.
From the list of possibilities in front of me, it is quite clear that that is one of the major options where a product is more bulky. Drying and use for, say, road building is a real possibility. Various forms of recycling is feasible. So,
Column 1166we are not talking about an enormous time scale : we are talking about measures that are feasible, with investment, engineering and determination. My Department is determined to see that those things come together.
I am sure that we can look the other members of the North sea conference in the face, because we have made extremely rapid progress. That progress has been substantial. My Department, far from conniving in the practice, as the hon. Gentleman seemed to imply, is the driving force in getting rid of the practice. We agree with the tide of public opinion that thinks that it should stop, and we intend to promote that end.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Twelve o'clock.
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