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Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): I welcome this opportunity to outline to the House and to the Government my concern and that of my constituents about the operations of the Cleansing Service Group Ltd, which is known as CSG and is the largest privately owned waste management company in the country.
The company's slogan is: "You identify the waste, we'll provide the solution!" Recent events, as I shall show, have endowed that slogan with a comic aspect that, sadly, also has a bitter twist. CSG has operated a liquid waste treatment facility at Pinchington lane in Greenham in my constituency since 1990. At present, the main business at this site is the bulk handling of waste oil. The company holds a waste management licence for that purpose from the Environment Agency.
The company wants to expand operations at Greenham to include the collection and transfer of a range of more exotic wastes. It is required to obtain two consents for that. First, it needs planning permission to upgrade the existing waste treatment facility, expand the office and provide a laboratory and a drummed waste transfer facility. Secondly, it requires a modified waste management licence from the Environment Agency. The original planning application was submitted in August 1996 to the former Berkshire county council. It was deemed inadequate to address public safety concerns, given the growth of residential and commercial development--including two schools--around the site, and the lack of a proper risk assessment.
CSG subsequently produced a risk assessment in May 1999, by which time West Berkshire council was the minerals and waste planning authority. The council engaged independent consultants--the chemical incident management support unit, which is based at the university of Wales in Cardiff--to review the assessment. It refused planning consent in July 1999, largely on the basis of the advice that it received. Allegations made at the time, mainly on the basis of stories from former employees of CSG, raised questions about the company's safety practices, including those at Sandhurst in Gloucestershire. CSG appealed against the refusal and the case was the subject of a public inquiry in June and August 2000. An inspector from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions then overturned the planning objections of West Berkshire council and granted the permission, much to the surprise of most local people.
It is important to sketch some details of the local area, to help place in context the environmental, health and safety concerns about the site. These concerns now arouse particular anxiety in respect of the proposed expansion of operations. Two schools are situated in close proximity to the plant. There is also a mobile home park, many of whose residents are elderly. The area is residential and new houses are on the way in the new district plan. We have a large branch of Tesco, including a petrol station, and a car dealership area with five or six car dealers, some of whom also have servicing areas. Finally, there is a large retail park.
I understand that approximately 200 tonnes of toxic waste, some of which was carcinogenic, were ignited, but the details remain unclear and are being investigated by the authorities. The explosion forced the evacuation of 60 residents on health and safety grounds. Meanwhile the release of chemicals continues to pose a serious threat to the local environment, watercourses and public health. The Environment Agency has provided a list of chemical substances that were consumed by the fire and which are known to have severe effects. They include industrial solvents, mixed pesticides and cyanide. With regard to the latter, Kenneth Pee, managing director of CSG, admitted:
The episode does not inspire confidence either in the company's competence in waste management or in the regulatory safeguards and contingency plans that were in place--or not in place--to protect the public. It has been suggested that its slogan should be not "you identify the waste, we'll provide the solution", but "you identify the waste, we'll provide the explosion".
That is not the first time that questions have been raised about the management competence of CSG at Sandhurst. There have been three smaller fires at that plant during the past year. Last year, the release of a cloud of noxious gas forced police to seal off Sandhurst for several hours.
Thirdly, in December 1997, an escape of powdered waste dye from the site caused a shower of purple rain over the nearby village of Maisemore. It caused purple staining on houses and vehicles. CSG initially denied knowledge, but later--two years later--admitted responsibility, following legal proceedings under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The company accepted a formal caution from the Environment Agency.
Fourthly, a number of former CSG employees have raised concerns about poor safety management and negligence, including claims of inadequate firefighting and decontaminating procedures. In addition, residents are subjected to a periodic stink, which is known locally as the Sandhurst smell. I understand from the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) that that has been an on-going problem for some years.
It is clear that CSG has a highly dubious safety record. This year's explosion in Gloucestershire raises serious questions about the operational competence of the company to manage highly dangerous substances. It is also clear that the concerns are not new.
My constituents therefore have strong grounds to be very apprehensive about the possibility that waste management operations at the company's Greenham site may be expanded to include similar functions to those that are carried out at Sandhurst.
Further, as I have outlined, the facility lies in the middle of a busy residential and commercial neighbourhood, which includes schools, mobile homes for pensioners, social housing and retail sites. Were the Greenham site to experience an explosion similar to that which occurred at Sandhurst, not just 60 but tens of thousands of residents might have to be evacuated.
The Minister will understand the considerable opposition in my constituency to any suggestion that CSG should be allowed to continue its operations at Greenham, let alone to expand them to include even more dangerous substances of the sort previously found at Sandhurst.
Ten thousand local residents have signed a petition that expresses concern about CSG's safety record and calls for the cessation of operations at Greenham, pending a full public inquiry. The signatures were collected in just six days--I am sure that you agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that an incredible number were collected--by a group of incensed local residents, led by Councillor Audrey Appleby of Greenham parish council.
The Environment Agency has suspended the waste management licence for the Sandhurst site. I understand that the application for a modified waste management licence for Greenham remains under consideration. The indications are that the Environment Agency is minded to withhold that licence at least until the outcome of the Sandhurst investigations is known, and has requested an extension of time on that basis.
In light of what I have said, I want to put a series of questions to the Minister. Does he agree that the longstanding concerns about the company's operations at Sandhurst raise wider questions about its management competence as a whole? Will he give my constituents a reassurance that the company will be subjected to rigorous examination to ensure that public health and safety standards are maintained, wherever they operate, if indeed they are allowed to operate at all in future? Does he agree that it would be extraordinary and irresponsible ever to grant a modified waste management licence to CSG for Greenham, given the question mark that remains over the competence and safety practices of the company, and the proximity of residential and commercial developments?
Finally, there is also a question mark over the adequacy of the regulatory apparatus in place both to guard against incidences of this kind and to provide adequate contingency plans in the event that they occur. Why was it not known that BSE-contaminated waste was being stored at Sandhurst? Why did checks on the site fail to reveal that? What account has been taken of the difficulty of evacuating the area should a similar explosion take place at Greenham?
Many of the more elderly of my constituents, particularly those living on the mobile home park--gaining access to it is in any case difficult--are very concerned about how they could escape if the worst came
My intention is not to be alarmist, but I hope the Minister will recognise the considerable and, in my view, justified local concern in my constituency about the company's competence to conduct waste management operations. Asked if he would live in Sandhurst, managing director Mr. Pee replied, "Of course not. I wouldn't live anywhere near an industrial facility if I had a choice." Why, then, should my constituents have to put up with a company on their doorstep that holds their health and safety in such questionable regard?
Chemicals can be dangerous. Different chemicals stored near one another can be very dangerous. Drums can leak; explosions have been known to take place. There have simply been too many instances in which CSG has been shown to operate unsafely. The Sandhurst plant is in a comparatively rural area. Pinchington lane in Greenham is, sadly, no longer a rural area. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure my constituents that the Government will not allow them to be subjected to all the dangers that they currently foresee.