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Underground Storage Tanks

1 pm

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): In 1996 and 1997, there were two serious petrol leakages from underground storage tanks in my constituency. Those incidents occurred at Bontddu near Dolgellau and at Llanrwst. Different things happened in each incident, but I wish to refer briefly to what happened in Bontddu.

Details of that pollution incident were received by the Environment Agency locally on 19 September 1996, but some of the villagers at Bontddu had complained of petrol odours to Gwynedd council's trading standards officers in the previous week. It is reasonable to conclude that both were linked, and that the discharge had begun several days before 19 September.

It was subsequently found that there had been a leakage from underground tanks at Bontddu service station into a stream that flows into the Mawddach estuary, which is one of the most environmentally sensitive areas in Wales. The quality of the stream was severely impaired; there were high fish mortalities and some estuary invertebrates were also affected.

During the initial investigation, the Environment Agency ascertained that a volume in excess of 30,000 litres of petrol had leaked from the underground tanks and drained from the immediate vicinity of the site. A meeting was convened on 27 September 1996 between the Environment Agency staff, the garage proprietor, Liquid Cargo Management—an oil recovery specialist—and officers of Gwynedd trading standards and environmental health departments. Certain remedial works were agreed—for example, booming off the river, excavation of the tank in question and flushing the contamination from the ground. By now, the leaked volume was estimated to be in excess of 60,000 litres—twice the original estimate. Families were then evacuated.

Things were proceeding very slowly. The Health and Safety Executive was reticent about becoming involved. Eventually—in November—the HSE was dragged to a public meeting that I chaired; its representative said that it could not become involved unless there was a risk to public safety. With a spillage of 60,000 litres of the most flammable products known to man, it might have been reasonable to conclude that there was a risk—but that was not the case, according to the experts. The HSE continued to say that there was no risk until the first explosion occurred.

The situation dragged on—seemingly interminably—for several months. It became obvious to me—and to many others—that too many players were involved in this drama. The local councils—Gwynedd in the Dolgellau example and Conwy in the Llanrwst example—the HSE and the Environment Agency were all wringing their hands and running around, but none of them were able or willing to take control of the situation. It appears that although there is abundant legislation, none of it gives any authority a lead role; consequently, the whole situation is a bit of a mess.

When I refer to the abundant legislation, I am not exaggerating. For example, there is the Petroleum Spirit (Motor Vehicles etc.) Regulations 1929, the Petroleum

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(Mixtures) Order 1929, the Petroleum (Compressed Gases) Order 1930, the Petroleum (Liquid Methane) Order 1957, the Highly Flammable Liquids and Liquefied Petroleum Gases Regulations 1972, the Petroleum (Regulations) Acts 1928, the Petroleum (Consolidation) Act 1928, the Petroleum Spirit (Plastic Containers) Regulations 1982, and many others.

Given this plethora of legislation, it is incredible that when leakage occurs the HSE will not become involved unless there is a danger to the public. Most people would consider that a danger arises as soon as highly flammable liquid escapes. However, as I have said, that is not the view of the HSE. A senior fire officer from Gwynedd decided that my warnings about the situation being dangerous were without foundation. In my absence, he convened a meeting of local councillors and interested people at Bontddu: he threw a lighted taper into a ravine to show that there was no danger, but caused an explosion and ran for his life. I do not know whether he has now been promoted, but he probably has. That incident shows that danger is occasioned as soon as the liquid escapes.

Despite the fish kill and some birds being killed, too, the Environment Agency did precious little. The situation dragged on for many months, ending up in costly litigation for some families. On 19 November 1997, I raised such worries in an Adjournment debate, in response to which the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths), the then Under-Secretary of State for Wales, stressed that under the Water Resources Act 1991 a criminal offence was committed when pollution was caused in controlled waters. Reference was made to the Government's intention to bring into force the provisions of that Act, thus enabling the Environment Agency to require that anti-pollution works be undertaken. That was a useful suggestion. The then Minister also referred to the Government's intention to impose a duty through regulation to make safe all tanks and pipes that were no longer in use. He said that the Government intended to lay such regulations, supported by new guidelines, before the House towards the middle of 1998.

No one would deny that such suggestions were useful, but given the scale of the problem that we will undoubtedly encounter in the next five to 10 years, might it not be better to adopt a proactive stance by assisting retailers to upgrade their tanks now, before the inevitable happens? Financial assistance is a must for many independent retailers. Access to expert advice would be helpful, too. The last thing anyone wants is an acceleration of the already critical rate of closure of independent petrol retailers, especially in rural areas, where the garage is often a general store as well.

I do not want to create panic, but we might be sitting on an environmental time bomb. I was advised in a parliamentary answer in 1997 that from January 1995 to 1997, the Environment Agency had recorded 55 incidents of water pollution from underground petrol storage at filling stations in England and six such incidents in Wales. By contrast, it is estimated that the London fire brigade registers 70 to 80 seepages per annum. In 1994, Shell UK suggested that up to one third of all underground tanks—as many as 10,000—may be faulty. Indeed, most of the United Kingdom's buried

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petrol storage tanks have already exceeded their original design life. There are major leaks from underground storage tanks each year. In the past few years, most major oil companies and several supermarkets have been fined and forced to pay high clean-up costs. Today, The Independent reminded us of the fine of £50,000 that was imposed upon British Petroleum for that reason.

It would be better to be proactive, not reactive. It is all very well to say that the polluter pays and so on, but steps can be taken to deal with the problem before it hits. Margins in the petrol retail market are currently low, so tank owners are reluctant to replace or upgrade tanks. In the past 10 years, the number of UK sites has dropped by almost 35 per cent. More will close if regulatory burdens are increased. I am in favour of a strong regulatory regime to control the underground storage of petrol—a regime that will protect public health and the environment—but any changes must, of necessity, recognise the fragile nature of the industry. The Government's proposal is to remove the licensing of petrol stations and replace it with a system that puts more responsibility on station owners to assess their own risks and to implement improvements. That is a cause of great concern. The new system could lead to greater risks to the public and the environment or to more service stations closing, neither of which would be a good outcome.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has published the approved code of practice, "Groundwater Protection Code: Petrol stations and other fuel dispensing facilities involving underground storage tanks". Under the Groundwater Regulations 1998, the owner of an underground tank would have to provide documentary evidence to demonstrate to the agency that they were following the code, or risk legal action to prevent them from storing fuel underground. If tank owners adopt the recommendations of the code, they can prevent leaks without incurring crippling costs. The main concern, however, is that the agency does not have the resources effectively to enforce the code.

The Environment Agency recently published internal guidance on the design and decommissioning of tanks and it has established a small team to provide guidance to agency staff and to promote better practice in the industry. The 1998 regulations require the agency to check that adequate surveillance is put in place where groundwater may be affected, but many pieces of anecdotal evidence suggest that its enforcement of the regulations is patchy. Most of its staff rely on an ad hoc arrangement with petroleum operatives for day-to-day monitoring of any risk, because they have not resolved the conflicts of interest that have been generated. For most service stations, the only protection against leaks is regular monitoring of fuel stocks. The agency is concerned that most site owners and managers do not have the necessary skills or resources adequately to carry out that task. It is preparing guidance and encouraging training, but until that has an effect, there is a real risk of environmental damage.

On 15 November, the Health and Safety Executive promoted a new set of regulations entitled the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002. The first part will remove the licensing of retail petrol stations, but the main effect will be to bring operational practice into line with the principles of risk management that are common in other

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areas of health and safety legislation. However, problems could occur when the licensing regime is removed, probably next year.

Current proposals suggest that all stations will be given automatic approval based on their existing licensed status and will be required to ask for permission only to make major changes. That might be a disincentive to operators who are planning to invest in their sites to reduce the risk of leaks by installing corrosion protection tank pipe monitoring. It is possible that a conscientious owner trying to reduce risks would be charged by local authorities to obtain permission, but an owner ignoring the problem would avoid scrutiny.

The DEFRA code is welcome, but better co-ordination between the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive is required and greater priority must be given to enforcement. The Government's proposals would create a fairer system, but possibly one with weaker enforcement. The changes could result in an increased risk of environmental damage or harm to human health.

I respectfully put some solutions before the Minister and ask him to respond in writing, if he is not able to do so in this debate. We should consider establishing an agency or appointing an individual to co-ordinate the activities of the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive in this field and to provide an annual report to the appropriate Ministers. We should research the condition of underground tanks to quantify the cost of cleaning up leaks and the potential risk to human health. A condition audit could be attached as a requirement of any new licensing regime. Soft funding should be provided to small independent retailers to help them to upgrade their tanks and pipework, as was the case in Scotland under the old regime before devolution, and continues to be so post-devolution. We should increase resources to train enforcement officers and to strengthen the quality control standards required for wet stock monitoring, and regulate companies providing an off-site service, which is what happens in the United States. Most of those recommendations were incorporated in early-day motion 389, which I tabled and which was well supported.

The Minister is interested in environmental matters, and I am sure that the issue is of concern to some of his ministerial colleagues, too. We are sitting on a large time bomb: in five to 10 years, we will see regular leakages occurring in every locality and the current regulations will not provide any assistance. It is much better to deal with the problem before it occurs than to react to it. It is surely time that the Government took a proactive stance, rather than leaving matters until crises, which will have to be dealt with in haste, inevitably occur.

1.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) on securing the debate. He made some sensible suggestions on the important subject of the environmental management and control of underground storage in this country. I understand the problem in his constituency and the severe consequences that stemmed from it. It is an example of why it is important to ensure that we have proper control.

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I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's point that there are currently some 14,000 petrol stations in England and Wales containing 60,000 to 70,000 underground storage tanks. In addition, there are underground tanks at commercial, industrial and domestic properties, airfields, ports, vehicle fleet depots and a variety of other sites. The issue is important and we need to take it seriously. Given the large number of underground storage tanks, the overall environmental record is good, which is largely because of the stringent regime.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that there are no proposals to remove the licensing of underground tanks, which will remain within the regime. Of course, we recognise that we cannot be complacent. The Government, the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and petroleum licensing authorities need to ensure that the risks are minimised and that the points that he raised are taken seriously and addressed properly.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Groundwater Regulations 1998. They came into force in April 1999 and enhance the groundwater protection afforded by the Water Resources Act 1991. They make it an offence to allow hydrocarbons to enter groundwater, and provide the Environment Agency with powers to prohibit or control activities, including the storage of hydrocarbons, which could pose risks to groundwater.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point about lead responsibility, and he mentioned the idea of establishing an agency to co-ordinate activity. The Environment Agency is, however, clear that groundwater pollution, along with any other kind of pollution, is its responsibility. It works closely with the Health and Safety Executive, local authorities and petroleum interests to develop codes and to make sure that the issues are addressed. Co-ordination is therefore quite good, but I shall make sure that the hon. Gentleman's suggestions get the detailed replies that they deserve.

The regulations also allow Ministers to approve codes of practice. The hon. Gentleman mentioned, rightly, the recently produced groundwater protection code, 2,000 copies of which have been distributed to all the main trade organisations. I am sure that he has a copy of it because he referred to it, but he is welcome to have the one that I have brought with me. The code was launched in July 2002 by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment. It sets out principles for groundwater protection, along with relevant advice to help those involved with underground petrol tanks.

The hon. Gentleman pointed out that there are a lot of independent petrol retailers. Like him, I represent a rural area and understand the pressures on rural petrol retailers, whom I do not want to be overburdened by costly regulations. Practical guidance is a good idea because it gives people advice on how to address particular issues.

The code also lists four main principles for environmental protection that would apply to all fuel dispensing facilities involving underground storage tanks. First, there must be a suitable environmental risk assessment, which should identify site-specific risks and indicate the appropriate engineering and operational controls required to protect groundwater. Secondly, appropriate engineering measures identified by the risk assessment should be implemented as soon as is reasonably possible.

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Thirdly, management systems and controls should be in place and should include leak detection, environmental monitoring and the keeping of records on site operation. Fourthly, emergency plans and procedures should be in place and should include an appropriate pollution incident response plan, which should form part of the environmental management system. Those four important basic principles are the framework for a successful risk-based approach to groundwater protection. They are also in line with the type of measures necessary to protect health and safety.

In addition to those four principles, the code sets out the key considerations necessary at each stage—commissioning, operating and, importantly, decommissioning—in the life cycle of an underground storage tank and its related facilities. The section on commissioning facilities provides advice on issues to be addressed during planning, design and construction and emphasises the need to avoid problems in the first place, rather than ironing them out through engineering and operational solutions.

Installing tanks is a lot easier than it was because there is very clear guidance about new designs of tanks and about tank linings. For instance, there is guidance about double-skin tanks, which have detection equipment within the skins so that leaks can be detected straight away. There is a better and wider range of available technology to minimise risk than there used to be.

Mr. Llwyd : I am following the Minister's argument, and I understand the current guidelines and what is being done in relation to newly commissioned sites. My great concern is about the old sites—the small independent sites in particular. At such sites, people may not know whether there is a leak until it is too late.

Mr. Morley : I quite agree, and I was going to come to that point. I was just emphasising that the standards for new-build sites are much higher and the risks are therefore much lower. The hon. Gentleman is right: there are a lot of existing tanks, some of which are becoming quite old.

Another aspect of the code relates to advice on delivery, storage, dispensing, drainage, maintenance and leak detection. The preferred approach in environmentally sensitive areas is to use controls that detect leakage immediately, before it has any significant environmental impact. The assessment of the minimum detectable leak that can be identified by the leakage detection system should be addressed in the environmental risk assessment for the facility. The guidance for existing tanks, particularly in environmentally sensitive areas, is that leak detection procedures should be in place and equipment should be there to monitor that.

The third section of the code relates to decommissioning when tanks have reached the end of their useful life. The code includes advice on emptying and removing tanks and pipework and making safe any tanks that remain in the ground. Finally, the code provides references to more particular advice on, for instance, training and engineering. This is a practical code for existing operators.

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The Government have a range of ways of enforcing the provisions. If there is any suggestion of a problem, the Environment Agency can consider whether to issue a prohibition notice under the groundwater regulations. In making its decision, the agency has to take into account sensitive aquifers and the proximity of drinking water sources, rivers and other receptors. The agency has produced groundwater vulnerability maps, which have been helpful in relation to risk-based assessments and risk-based enforcement. So the agency has that information with which to work.

The agency has also identified groundwater protection zones around abstractions used for sensitive purposes such as water supply or food and drink manufacturing. That is relevant in relation to planning permission for future developments, although I appreciate that the focus of the debate is on existing provision.

The agency has also been developing contacts with individual petrol companies and the Petrol Retailers Association to ensure that the need for environmental protection is clearly understood. The Environment Agency has that range of tools at its disposal in dealing with the existing situation and has other powers under the Water Resources Act 1991. It can serve notices that require preventive or remedial works to be carried out if it considers water to be polluted, or at risk of pollution. The agency will prosecute polluters wherever serious pollution is caused and there is adequate evidence to support the case.

One of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised concerned financial support for certain retailers or owners that have tanks requiring such work. That is a difficult issue, and I will respond in more detail in my promised letter. For his information, the Government are guided in general by the "polluter pays" principle. The general rule for potential polluters is that the costs fall on the individual or company concerned. However, local authorities that have the lead responsibility in dealing with contaminated sites may receive financial support. I appreciate that that is not quite what the hon. Gentleman was talking about, but I will give him a more detailed response after the debate.

In addition to the groundwater measures, the Government have brought into force part 2(a) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, which creates a regime for dealing with contaminated land. That regime supersedes the previous statutory nuisance powers for land contamination issues and places responsibility for identifying and remedying contaminated land on local authorities. That will allow a single operator—normally a local authority—to deal simultaneously with land that is affecting, or is likely to affect, controlled waters. That creates a focused and co-ordinated approach to contaminated land, which also relates to the hon. Gentleman's point.

As well as the new environmental measures, the Government have brought into force the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002. Those regulations are a safety measure aimed at protecting workplaces in which dangerous substances may be present and explosive atmospheres may occur, such as petrol stations. The main requirements are risk assessment, measures to eliminate risk, accident and emergency planning and suitable training. As was mentioned in the previous debate referred to by the hon.

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Gentleman, the HSE is also carrying out a review of the petrol licensing regime with the aim of modernising the regulatory framework, and his concerns will be fully taken into account in that review.

The result of those measures is a modern, good practice framework for managing environmental risks and safety. From the perspective of petrol station owners and operators, there is nothing fundamentally new in the good practice framework. I expect that many of them are applying it as a matter of course, because they are well aware of the risks. Besides issues of safety and contamination, the fact that petrol is not a cheap commodity guides their desire to ensure that tanks do not leak into the ground what they have bought and want to sell for profit. There is a powerful incentive for the petrol retail trade to ensure that the tanks are in good condition. That applies to any other organisation buying fuel or chemicals that are held underground; they are generally an expensive resource. It is in those organisations' interests in terms of good business management to ensure that such tanks are in good condition. That is a powerful incentive.

However, we are not complacent. There will be problems in any system, and there will always be a small minority of people who do not apply the standards in the way one expects. Therefore, we need a dual approach of advice and support through the statutory codes with the back-up of enforcement action if necessary. In that framework, the measures should enhance standards and reduce risk to health and safety and the environment. I appreciate that that is the underlying theme of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Not only did the incident involve a risk to his constituents, but I can see from his comments that there were severe implications for the environment. Although we recognise the need for such activities as part of legitimate business practice, it is important to have standards.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman again on raising the matter. I assure him that we take it very seriously. I have listened carefully to his points, and I shall reply to his specific questions in detail. I appreciate the positive and constructive way in which he has raised this debate and put forward his case.

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