Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1140 - 1159)




  1140. "The short future", is that a new phrase for government?
  (Mr Meacher) I did not want to say "soon" because you would ask me what "soon" meant.

  Mr Donohoe: Do you know what "short" means?

Mrs Dunwoody

  1141. Before or after the General Election!
  (Mr Meacher) Within the next few months. Considering that this is an issue which has actually been current for something like the last two years, in my experience the next few months would be a relatively short period in which to resolve it.

Mr Blunt

  1142. Six, five, four, three, two, how many is "few"?
  (Mr Meacher) I think, Mr Blunt, you should leave us to try and determine this as quickly as we can. I cannot tell you because it has not been predetermined in that way. I am very keen to see this matter resolved. I have to get agreement between all the parties; I have to protect taxpayers' money; and I also have to expand and improve my newsprint recycling objectives; and it is bringing all those three together which is causing a problem.

  1143. Are boroughs like Reigate and Banstead, that have achieved high levels of recycling quite quickly, now running into problems because there is not a market for newsprint and they cannot get the newsprint away? This is an urgent problem if people are not to turn round and say, "This is all too difficult and expensive".
  (Mr Meacher) It is an urgent problem. The Chairman has already correctly said that we are importing newsprint. That is a nonsense when we can do it ourselves and should do it ourselves. We are simply talking about the essential requirement for a given level of funding which can be justified to Treasury, DTI and DETR.

Mr Cummings

  1144. Minister, which is more important: achieving the recycling targets in Waste Strategy 2000, or ensuring that the Best Practicable Environmental Option is selected for each waste management decision?
  (Mr Meacher) I think in most cases there is not a conflict there, but the answer must be achieving the best practicable environmental option—and, as I say, in the vast majority of cases I believe that that is recycling. You can think of extreme cases, for example in rural areas, where the nearest recycling banks or units are a considerable distance away and you cannot ignore the transport impacts of continually taking relatively small amounts of material long distances. I think that that is unusual. The best practicable environmental option in the vast majority of cases is recycling.

  1145. How do you believe that the tension between BPEO and sustainable waste management can be resolved?
  (Mr Meacher) By the Government issuing guidelines making absolutely clear, as we have, that best practicable environmental options should be pursued. Sustainable waste management means, in principle, that it is based on BPEO.

Mr Benn

  1146. Why do you say that incineration is safe?
  (Mr Meacher) No industrial process in an absolute sense is safe; no combustion process is safe; and, therefore, no incineration process is absolutely safe. However, I do think there is considerable public misperception about the safety of modern incinerators. It is quite another matter as to the standard of incinerators in the 1960/1970s, I concede that.


  1147. So we could have one next to Oldham Athletic's ground without any trouble?
  (Mr Meacher) Perhaps I could just complete the answer. It does depend on planning control—and planning control would look at the siting and whether it was appropriate and take account of local objections. In terms of safety, and I will come on to this, I think there has been great misunderstanding. In 1996, in November I think, a new EU Regulation governing incinerators came into force which led to many, probably most I think, of the incinerators in the UK being closed down because they could not meet the standard. The others that remained had to have their standards raised and that left something like only a dozen, if I recall. Abroad there are many, many more incinerators in countries which have very green recycling levels—for example, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. The standard which was set in November 1996 with regard to dioxins, furans which are regarded as the most worrying component, was that there should be no more than 1 nanogramme/metre3, which means no more than one part in a billion. In the proposed Waste Incineration Directive, that standard is being tightened ten-fold, to 0.1 nanogramme/metre3, so it is no more than one part per 10 billion. You can still say, of course, that dioxins, which are a very toxic substance, are still permitted at that level; but that is absolutely minuscule. When I say that on Guy Fawkes Night the amount of dioxins released is hugely greater, the amount of dioxins released by other industrial processes, for example, steel making is much higher, the amount of dioxins produced by burning wood, not just on Guy Fawkes Night but other processes including household, is considerably higher, then I think we do have to see this in perspective.[5] I am not saying that incinerators are totally safe. Dioxin emissions from municipal waste incinerators in 1994 were 521 grammes; and in 1998 14 grammes. There has been a substantial reduction. With regard to health effects I am extremely conscious that the consultancy which we used, namely Entec, made a mathematical error in estimating the health effects of the tighter standards in the proposed Waste Incineration Directive. There is this concept which I should explain of deaths not brought forward. The concept is this: if you have a standard which is a typed standard, nevertheless, deaths can be brought forward as a result of the operation of an incineration plant. If you tighten the standard then you have a number for deaths not brought forward and that should reduce. They calculated that the deaths not brought forward were 51. As a result of their miscalculation they now believe the correct figure is six. In other words, that the health impact of incinerators is less than Entec originally estimated. I think the most important fact is that the Environment Agency, using the correct Entec data, and also data from COMEAP (which is the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution) now estimates that of the 24,000 deaths brought forward each year in Britain by air pollution only three or less than three may be attributable to the ten operating municipal solid waste incinerators in 1999. That, I think, sets it in perspective. I know there is great fear about this, and I think we have to listen to this, but we do have to explain the facts and the relative consequences of incinerators as against other processes. Even if you consider those three, you have to look at the costs and benefits of alternative forms of disposal—for example, landfill. There have, of course, been allegations of health ill effects of landfill and of transport impacts. I do not wish to pretend that they are nil, but I do think we need to look at this seriously and in proportion.

Mr Benn

  1148. You have described clearly what the standards are but one of the causes of great public concern is the gap between the standards and regulation of what actually happens. Do you think the Environment Agency has the capacity in every sense to regulate incineration effectively?
  (Mr Meacher) I certainly hope so. I have no reason at the moment to believe that that is not the case. The Environment Agency does have the responsibility of deciding whether industrial processes, including of course municipal waste incinerators, can operate, which means looking at potential environmental impacts, including health impacts, and (going back to Mr Cummings' first question) assessing whether they can operate on a BATNEEC basis, best available technique not entailing excessive cost.

  1149. What is the public meant to make of what happened at Byker
  (Mr Meacher) I hope the public will make of what happened to Byker what the Environment Agency Report does when it is announced shortly (and I hope that will be in the next few weeks rather than the next few months) as to whether there were any breaches of waste management controls. I have not seen the report. I think we should wait for that report. It has been reported in the press that incinerator bottom ash and fly ash were mixed before being disposed of which should not have happened. I am merely repeating what has been said; I am not giving credence to that story, and I think we should wait for the official report.

  1150. Can you understand why the public might have concerns about the Environment Agency's capacity, given that it is both monitoring the way in which incineration operates and advising on new planning applications?
  (Mr Meacher) It is the regulator and I do not see why it should not perform both of those functions. I do not think anyone has suggested that the independence or integrity of the Environment Agency is at risk or under challenge. I think we do have to rely upon them imposing and exercising the highest standards. Those standards are of course set by Parliament, and they are continually being increased. I have no evidence to suggest that they do their job inadequately or sloppily, or do not regulate tightly. If I have that evidence I will pursue it.

  1151. Finally, do you think that one way in which the public might be reassured is if there were to be continuous monitoring of the output of incinerators and for that information to be shared fully with the public and local community?
  (Mr Meacher) I do very much agree with that. I myself, together with the Environment Agency, set up the pollution inventory, which is precisely designed to allow people locally to know the exact details on a continually updated basis as to what are the levels of pollution to air, water or land of all the main pollutants in their area. Indeed, the current pollution inventory does take into account 150 polluting substances; I think in Europe the level is much less, but we have a much higher level; and those figures are republished each year. I am certainly keen that that should include the discharges from incinerators.

Mrs Dunwoody

  1152. Is that easily available?
  (Mr Meacher) It is available in a public place, which would normally be in the civic centre. If we are talking about waters, I would expect that to be available on a notice board in a coastal area by a river.

  1153. If someone was living in a council estate round the corner from an incinerator how would they know where to get that information?
  (Mr Meacher) You could certainly ring up the local authority civic centre and they would give you the information. I would hope that if you were interested in finding out the information it would be in a sufficiently prominent place that it would be readily available to you, i.e. near the incinerators.

  1154. I would hope so too. I agree wholly with what you say about the need for people to be accurately informed on a continuous basis; but what concerns me—you and I know how the system works—supposing a group of mums get together and say, "It's very strange, I think there is an effect from that incinerator over there", and everybody in the area says, "That's anecdotal and totally ridiculous, of course your child hasn't got this", and responds in a way that authorities always respond: how would I know easily where I could go and check those figures and find my 14 year-old who had some scientific training to tell me what they meant?
  (Mr Meacher) I think the only sure way is to ring up the town hall.

  1155. You are satisfied that information is going to be made available by all local authorities?
  (Mr Meacher) I am. Again, there are a very large number.

  Chairman: You did not say that with a great deal of conviction!

Mrs Dunwoody

  1156. Is Ms Shaw, with her anti-pollution hat on, satisfied?
  (Ms Shaw) I was suggesting the Minister draw attention to the Environment Agency website which is a very good source of information.

  1157. You and I know how the system works. How many people in Crewe do you think will click on to the Environment Agency website—not a great many?
  (Mr Meacher) Not a great many, I entirely agree. Therefore, I think the more conventional sources, like ringing up the local authority—and it means being persistent and getting through to the right person—I am sure they would provide you with the information. There are 500 local authorities, or something of that order, and I cannot guarantee the results of ringing all of them.

  1158. Is there any direction from your lot which says, "We think this information ought to be available for the public"? You obviously believe it; you are doing the work; do you say to them, "Make sure somebody can find it"? That is all I am asking you.
  (Mr Meacher) It is a very fair question.

  1159. All my questions are always fair, Minister. I thought over the years you had gathered that. That is why if they can get rid of me they will!
  (Mr Meacher) Whether we have issued guidelines specifically requesting/requiring local authorities to make available—

5   Note by Witness: Research has shown that bonfires and/or fireworks may be a significant source of trace organic pollutants. Measurements were taken of dioxins in ambient air before, during and after 5 November at a limited number of sites in the UK. In Oxford, ambient air concentrations increased by a factor of four during bonfire night while the data for Cardiff indicated possibly greater change over this period. It has not been possible to use the ambient air data to make an estimate of the actual quantities related. Reference: Dyke, P, Coleman & James R (1997) Chemosphere 34 (5-7) pp 1191-1201. Back

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