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Column 131Perhaps the parish council network could have been better used. Could more loudspeaker vans have been deployed in rural areas ? Bowsers were provided quickly in Worcester, but in many rural areas in the vale of Evesham it simply took too long. Some bowsers in Worcester city were vandalised and even stolen, which may also raise questions about the design of the bowsers for future incidents. I am delighted by Severn Trent's response to demands for compensation. We all now have our cheques for £25. That is a generous and prompt response for domestic consumers, but what about businesses ? There may be no strict liability on Severn Trent, but many restaurants and hotels in my constituency experienced very real losses.
What inquiries are being conducted ? There are at least five : by Severn Trent, the drinking water inspectorate, the National Rivers Authority, the Worcester and District health authority and the West Midlands regional health authority.
I expect that Shropshire county council, Ofwat, the Health and Safety Executive, Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of Health and others are also taking a very close look at the issues raised by the events.
There is a desperate need for co-ordination. Will all the right questions be asked ? Will there be wasteful and confusing overlap ? Perhaps a full public inquiry is the only way to deal with those concerns properly. I will be listening to the Minister with particular care on that point.
The fundamental question revolves around the filtration system. The system used at the current Strensham plant would have prevented pollutants reaching the water supply. We must bring forward commissioning of the enlarged plant and the associated water main to Worcester and closure of the Barbourne treatment works.
It is only Severn Trent's massive investment programme--already well under way before the incident--that makes that possible. Worcester city and Wychavon district councils and the district health authority are all clear that that is the single most effective way to restore the confidence of the people of Worcestershire in their water supply. It is also the only way to ensure that the incident cannot be repeated.
I have read accounts of four similar incidents in the United Kingdom and the United States of America. The experience of this latest incident shows that many lessons have clearly been learnt. We have separated the provider of water from the regulator--a direct result of privatisation. We have recognised the need to speed up public notification, which has been dramatically improved, despite my lingering concerns.
The media have become more prepared to play their part--I particularly congratulate my two local radio stations, BBC Hereford and Worcester and Radio Wyvern on their excellent service during the weekend in question. The water company has been much more open than other companies were in the past. Finally, the necessary investment in water is being made.
What do the Government need to do ? First, they must do all in their power to stop similar pollution ever occurring again. If history does repeat itself, they must do all that they can to ensure that all drinking water would still be safe to drink. That means two things. The top priority
Column 132must be a thorough review of the licensing regime for industrial processes, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr.Pawsey) suggested. That regime enabled Vitalscheme Ltd. to pollute so much water only six weeks after getting its licence. It is particularly important to establish whether the test of an individual being "fit and proper" is properly defined in legislation and in guidance from the Department of the Environment. It is also essential that the maximum pressure is put on Severn Trent to bring forward commissioning of the expanded Strensham works and the water main to Worcester.
Secondly, as I have already said, we must ensure that each and every lesson from this incident is learned. I am encouraged by the openness and determination of Ministers and all the agencies involved, but can we not co -ordinate their work more effectively ? Failure to draw the right conclusions because of confusion between the inquiries would be unforgivable, and could have serious implications for any similar future incident.
I am not one of those who believe that all risk can be eradicated from human life simply by spending enough money--generally, enough of someone else's money, that is. Risk is an integral part of the human condition. On the basis of what I know so far, however, I am clear that my constituents have been exposed to very serious and genuinely avoidable risk. That is why I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to be conscientious and diligent in pursuing this matter. Such events must not be allowed to happen again.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry) : I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester(Mr.Luff) on bringing this matter before the House and on the way in which he reacted throughout to an incident that caused understandable concern to many of his constituents. I also commend the thoughtful way in which my parliamentary colleagues, my hon. Friends the Members for Staffordshire, South-East (Mr. Lightbown) for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Forth), for Rugby and Kenilworth (Mr. Pawsey) and for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs), who are present tonight, approached the matter throughout.
My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester has raised a number of issues, and I hope that I can cover most of them fully in the time available. If not, I shall write to my hon. Friend and to other hon. Members present who are concerned about the issue.
On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, the drinking water inspectorate and the National Rivers Authority are carrying out investigations into this incident. I understand also that the Worcester and District health authority is also carrying out investigations. They are all, of course, liaising with each other. I appreciate that there may be concerns that a number of investigations are involved, but as I am sure will be appreciated, these are separate bodies looking at different aspects of the incident. As my hon. Friend has said, I am sure that they will want to try to achieve the maximum possible co- ordination of their work.
Both the Secretary of State and the NRA are now considering whether prosecutions should be brought against some of those involved in the contamination of the river or in supplying contaminated drinking water. The
Column 133House will understand that I can say nothing that could prejudice either those decisions or any subsequent court proceedings. Furthermore, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth made clear, Severn Trent Water has announced that it is to commence criminal proceedings against Vitalscheme Ltd. and its director. I will, however, try to respond as fully as I can to the questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester.
I think that there is little disagreement as to the sequence of events. My hon. Friend has mentioned many of the facts, so I will not take up the House's time by repeating what he said. It may be helpful if, for completeness, I made the following points.
Severn Trent Water reported the incident to the drinking water inspectorate at 10.30 am on Friday, 15 April. The inspectorate monitored developments closely throughout that day and over the weekend. On Monday 18 April, the inspectorate sent two inspectors to the affected area to begin a thorough investigation.
On the afternoon of 15 April, Severn Trent detected odour in water being taken from the River Severn, and additionally shut down its Strensham water treatment works and Mythe waterworks. Mythe water treatment works supplies consumers in the Gloucester area, and Strensham supplies consumers in the Coventry area. Supplies were maintained to those areas from other sources, although appeals were made to conserve water.
At just after midnight on Saturday 16 April, the NRA had traced the source of the substance causing the contamination first to a sewage treatment plant operated by Severn Trent Water at Wem some 135 km above Barbourne. It is thought that the substance came to the sewage treatment plant from a waste disposal company in Wem called Vitalscheme Ltd., connected by sewer to the sewage treatment plant. The NRA took formal samples from the Wem sewage treatment works and from Vitalscheme Ltd., the company on the Wem industrial park from where the discharge into the sewerage system was believed to have come. The circumstances in which the substance reached the sewer and went into the river from the sewage treatment plant are among those matters which may, I suspect, come before the courts.
By the morning of 16 April, knowledge of the character and concentration of the contaminants enabled a decision to be taken to re-start the Mythe works. Customers in Gloucester were advised to boil water before drinking it to minimise taste problems. The Strensham works was brought back into use on Monday 18 April, and supplies substantially restored to normal by Monday 25 April. As I have said, it is thought that the source of the contamination was Vitalscheme Ltd., a waste disposal company in Wem. Vitalscheme was granted a waste disposal licence under Part II of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 by Shropshire county council. That Act, and regulations made under it, prescribe the procedures to be followed in granting such licences. The aim of these procedures is to ensure the prevention of pollution of water or damage to human health. An authority may attach what conditions it thinks fit to the licence to secure that.
The licence granted to the company was for a waste transfer station and related only to the handling and storage of water solvent mixtures. It did not and does not relate to the disposal of waste to the sewer or elsewhere. Approval
Column 134of disposal to the sewer would largely be a matter for that part of Severn Trent Water that deals with the sewerage system.
It is the duty of the water supply companies in England to supply water that is fit to drink. They must also meet the requirements of the water quality regulations relating to drinking water quality, and other matters, such as sampling frequencies and methods of analysis. They are also required by law to report to the drinking water inspectorate incidents where drinking water quality is affected or which, among other things, could give rise to public alarm. Water companies must also have in place arrangements to deal with incidents.
Water companies in England and Wales are not left to their own devices in those matters. The drinking water inspectorate inspects the companies to ensure that they meet their legal obligations on drinking water quality. It publishes an annual report on its findings. The inspectorate also investigates incidents where drinking water quality is affected or threatened.
The inspectorate is inquiring into the effects of that incident on drinking water quality and is considering all aspects of the actions that Severn Trent Water took to deal with it, including advice given to consumers and matters relating to sampling and analysis. The inspectorate will also advise my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment on whether Severn Trent Water should be prosecuted for supplying water unfit for human consumption. The inspectorate's report will be published, although that may be delayed if a prosecution is pursued.
My hon. Friend asked about treatment at the waterworks and why the substances were not removed by it. At this stage, I am reluctant to go into detail about that. That is one of the matters that are, rightly, under investigation by the drinking water inspectorate. It is studying the adequacy of the facilities and treatment processes at the works affected.
Identifying unknown chemicals present in minute quantities in water is complicated and perforce time-consuming, especially when one has no precise idea what chemicals one is seeking. It involves matching "signatures" with those known and recorded in existing databanks. There are perhaps more than 100,000 such chemicals. The drinking water inspectorate is checking the validity and performance of the methods used during the incident.
My hon. Friend has expressed concern about the time it took to notify consumers of problems with their drinking water. The works at Barbourne was closed at 9.40 am on Friday 15 April, and local media releases were made at 12.25 pm. It takes time to mobilise the authorities and media to contact the large number of consumers involved.
It is of course important that any information given out is accurate and not alarmist. Here again, the drinking water inspectorate is investigating the speed of response of all people involved--of course, if my hon. Friend or any of those people involved have suggestions about the way in which the problem can be further improved, I should be very interested to consider such ideas. It is important to recognise that, if a water system becomes unpressurised, there is some risk of the water becoming contaminated from the ground. This is a major consideration when considering whether or not to resume piped supplies.
The NRA has an important role in safeguarding river quality, but it is important to appreciate the extent of its
Column 135responsibilities in fulfilling this role. Anyone who proposes to discharge trade or sewage effluent into a watercourse--including, but by no means restricted to, rivers--needs a consent to do so. If a discharge does not have a consent, or does not comply with the consent, then quite simply, a criminal offence is committed and the discharger is liable to prosecution and if convicted punishment. Considering applications for discharge consents, and setting and enforcing consent standards appropriate to protecting river quality, is one of the NRA's main functions. However, the NRA as a regulator is not responsible for discharges made by third parties into rivers, whether authorised or not. It is the discharger's responsibility to ensure that his effluent meets the terms of the consent. The NRA carries out regular monitoring of significant discharges to ensure that that is the case, but it is not feasible for the NRA to require or carry out continuous monitoring of every discharge from every source.
Inevitably, the NRA depends to a significant extent on dischargers, water users and members of the public to report incidents where it is suspected that water quality may have been affected by pollution. Such reports are carefully investigated without delay by "on-the-spot" pollution control officers. They then take whatever action is practicable to keep polluting matter from the river, keep it from spreading downstream, or neutralise its effects.
The NRA collects evidence with a view to possible prosecution of the polluter, as its policy is to prosecute in all serious cases. Moreover, the NRA also has the power to recover from the polluter the costs of responding to an incident.
I understand that, once the NRA received reports from Severn Trent Water of possible problems at the Barbourne abstraction, an urgent investigation was mounted into the possible source. The NRA faced the difficulty that there was no on-site visual, chemical or biological evidence of pollution in the river, but merely a slight and barely detectable smell. Portable instruments were simply not capable of detecting the pollution.
As such, working back up the river to locate the source was not a quick or easy task. Those concerned had to monitor and sample approximately 135 km of the River Severn and its tributaries, together with discharge points
Column 136and other areas of potential risk, before identifying Severn Trent Water's sewage treatment works at Wem, Shropshire, as the source. The NRA's further response to the incident included, in liaison with Severn Trent Water, releases of water from two river regulation reservoirs in Wales to help dilute the already low concentrations of pollutant in the river and wash them downstream.
The NRA is carrying out an internal inquiry to assess the effectiveness of its response and see whether useful lessons might be learned. The inquiry is being carried out by Grainger Davies, regional general manager of the NRA's Anglian region. He has been asked to report as soon as possible. The NRA's findings will be made publicly available when the investigations are complete, although care may have to be taken to do nothing that might prejudice any prosecutions in respect of the incident, in which case the report would be made public immediately after the conclusion of any such prosecution.
Severn Trent Water has commissioned its own review, which will be under the chairmanship of Professor Kenneth Ives, emeritus professor at the department of civil and environmental engineering at University college, London. Professor Ives has added two other experts to his team : Dr. Ronald Packham, a specialist in drinking water ; and Professor Desmond Hammerton, director of the Clyde river purification board.
Clearly, all the organisations concerned are taking the incident seriously. I shall write to my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester about the follow- up which the health authorities are taking. Suffice it to say that the Worcester and District health authority has sent questionnaires to people who are worried that the water may have made them ill and who contacted the helpline. I hope that those who receive a questionnaire will return it. Longer-term studies are planned by the West Midlands regional health authority, because it is determined that there should be the fullest investigation of possible longer-term health implications.
It is clear from the action that has been taken and is being taken that we take seriously any incident that affects the safety of drinking water, and that the most rigorous investigations are being carried out into all aspects of this incident
The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order. Adjourned at three minutes past Eleven o'clock.
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