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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 890 - 899)




  890. Can I welcome witnesses from the Environment Agency and can I ask you to identify yourselves for the record?

  (Dr Leinster) My name is Dr Paul Leinster. I am Director of Environmental Protection at the Environment Agency. On my right is Mr Steve Lee, who is the Head of Waste Regulation. On my left is Dr Martin Whitworth, who is Policy Manager in Process Industries Regulation.

  891. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy to go straight into questions?
  (Dr Leinster) We are happy to go straight into questions, Chairman.

Mr Benn

  892. Is incineration safe?
  (Dr Whitworth) One of the roles that the Agency plays in the regulation of industry in general is the evaluation of the techniques proposed by an operator of industrial processes, including large incinerators. We evaluate the techniques proposed, their potential impact on the environment and on human health. If using the scientific methods available to us as regulators demonstrates that there could be an adverse environmental effect of an incinerator (or any industrial process) or an adverse effect on human health, then the Agency would reject the application. It is one of our roles to ensure that if the information supplied by an operator is not sufficient to make a judgment then we have powers, and always exercise those powers, to get enough information to make a decision as to whether we would be prepared to permit an incinerator. We endeavour to use standards of environmental modelling and assessment which are determined by bodies other than the Environment Agency, so we will look at, for example, standards set by the World Health Organisation or standards based on the Health and Safety Executive's occupational exposure limits. We endeavour to make sure that any determination is transparent and also that the setting of those standards is transparent so that the public will have confidence in the decisions that we make.

  893. I am not, to be honest, entirely clear about that from the answer that you have given. You have described the process, which is fair enough, but there is obviously a lot of public controversy about incineration, as you are only too well aware. You might be sitting in front of a group of people considering a planning application which will result potentially in an incinerator being sited near where they live. They are going to ask you, amongst others, as people with expertise that question: is incineration safe? What I really want to know is what is your answer to that question, not the process by which you take the decisions, given the level of your knowledge and expertise. What would you say to the person who asked you that question?
  (Dr Whitworth) If an operator were to propose the construction and operation of an incinerator to modern, up to date standards, then we would not have any objection in principle to that incinerator. What we would have to do, bearing in mind the process I have just described, is to go through, for an individual incinerator, and look at the potential environmental impacts in and around that incinerator to determine if it is safe. The way we would do that would be by comparison to internationally recognised standards.

  894. So your answer would be that, given the internationally recognised standards, what the World Health Organisation has said is safe, according to that definition is safe?
  (Dr Whitworth) We would accept comparison to an external standard.

  895. Do you think those standards are adequate?
  (Dr Whitworth) I am not a medical doctor so I would not really be able to state whether the World Health Organisation standards or other medical standards were safe or not. We would trust the expert judgment of others on that.

  896. What would you say to those who would argue that when we talk about "safety" we are really talking about what we can measure currently rather than what is safe, which can be two different things?
  (Dr Whitworth) That is entirely true. With all scientific methods there is a degree of uncertainty due to measuring techniques. One of the things that we have done recently is move towards lower dioxin emissions from municipal waste incinerators as a result of improvements in the ability of monitoring techniques to determine lower and lower levels.

  897. One of the reasons somebody might ask you that question is that they may know something about what happened at Byker. You clearly have a responsibility there and we understand you are currently carrying out an investigation, but they might say, "Hang on a minute. If you are an organisation which is entrusted with operating the regulations as they currently exist and allow something like Byker to occur, how is that going to give confidence in the Environment Agency's oversight on safety?"
  (Dr Whitworth) As I am sure you are aware, you have already mentioned that the Agency is conducting an investigation at the moment into possible legal action against parties concerned with Byker, so I am not really at liberty to say anything in detail about that particular case. It is with the nature of any regulation, any regulatory system, that one has to approach regulation on a risk basis. One cannot be present on site 24 hours a day 365 days a year, so an inspection regime has to be put in place which will hopefully be able to identify any non-compliances. Some non-compliances will be spotted immediately. Others will take quite a while to come to the fore. With instances like Byker and other enforcement areas, we will learn from those lessons and put in place policies and systems so that we can make sure they do not happen in the future.

  898. In which case the resident at the public meeting might say, "You have got your systems and processes, but you have just said to me, `We cannot be there all the time', in which case we are then dependent on the operators as to whether they observe the requirements that you lay down, and since the Byker case appears to have shown that they are not capable of doing so, how can we be assured that this whole thing will be safe, whether it is down to your oversight or the operation of the people actually running the incinerator, in which case why should we have one?"
  (Dr Whitworth) If one takes the example of air pollution, in the past five to ten years there has been a significant development of continuous emission monitoring systems and they are much more common and less expensive than they used to be. It is possible now to have continuous emission monitoring of releases into the atmosphere which can be interrogated by computer either over a telephone network or actually when one of our inspectors is on site. We can have a much greater degree of oversight because of technological developments and also in cases where we have installed cameras to look at plumes from stacks so that we are able to look remotely at those stacks. We are always trying to tighten the regime and thereby trying to ensure that there is an appropriate degree of control to give the public confidence in the regulatory system. We would never condone an operator breaking the terms of its authorisation and we will always take enforcement action in line with our published enforcement and prosecution policy if we discover non-compliances.

  899. On that very point, would you be quite happy to share, given that development of technology, access to that to local authorities, interested individuals in the community, so that they might in effect undertake their own monitoring role in relation to the emissions from a particular incinerator?
  (Dr Whitworth) One of the areas that we are considering as part of the development of an Agency policy is looking at how we can make the international standards on industrial performance (and in particular let us take incinerators) more accessible to members of the public and anybody else who is interested in them so that they can see the actual performance on a day to day basis or an annualised basis. One of the developments there has been the Agency's Pollution Inventory which quantifies, for a number of important substances released to all environmental media, the actual emissions of each process authorised under the Integrated Pollution Control System, showing that on a year by year basis so that people have access to trend information or they know what sort of pollutants are emitted by large industrial processes in the vicinity of where they live.

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