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6.10 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Elliot Morley): I congratulate the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) on securing the debate, and I assure him that the Department's and the Government's priority is to ensure that the very best environmental standards apply. It is perfectly reasonable for people to raise questions about the impact of changes, in this case in relation to what is burned in cement kilns, but I am sure that he would agree that, if one is to take people's legitimate concerns seriously, it is not reasonable to distort the arguments or unnecessarily frighten or worry people when there are no grounds to do so.

I should like to correct one point that the hon. Gentleman made about the EU hazardous waste directive. That is entirely a matter for the company and its commercial decisions; it is not driven by the Environment Agency. The agency has no involvement in the implementation of the directive, only in monitoring. The changes are a matter for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We will deal with those, but that does not necessarily involve the burning of such wastes in cement kilns. We do not want to set hares running without justification.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly states, the Environment Agency is involved in the evaluation. I do not have all the details in relation to the emissions

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that he mentioned, but for the record, I do have some figures in relation to the emission limits set for the Westbury cement works for 2000 to 2003, and they have been tightened up. For example, the oxides of nitrogen limit has been reduced by 43 per cent., from 3,528 mg to 2,000 mg per cubic metre, and the particulates limit, which he mentioned, has been reduced by 55 per cent., from 78 mg to 35 mg per cubic metre. That demonstrates that the agency is doing its job in terms of applying good standards in relation to the operation of the works. I have considerable confidence in the operation of the agency, which influences such matters as calls for public inquiries.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly states, under regulation 17 of the Pollution Prevention and Control (England and Wales) Regulations 2000, the operator, Lafarge, applied for a variation to the integrated pollution prevention and control permit on 18 June to allow the trial use of RLF, and the hon. Gentleman explained what that was.

Such waste liquid solvents have been used in other cement works in the UK and elsewhere in Europe for over a decade, so the technology is not new and the risks associated with it are well known and understood. The Environment Agency is considering the application under its substitute fuels protocol. The protocol is readily available on the agency's website and includes an extensive consultation process. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that consultation is important, as is access to information, subject to normal commercial confidentiality.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that no decision about the application for a variation to the IPPC permit has yet been made by the Environment Agency. For six months after a decision is made, it would be open to Lafarge to appeal to the Secretary of State if the company were aggrieved by the decision. For that reason, the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that, in view of the company's legal rights, it is inappropriate for me to speak in great detail about the application or the determination process.

I have noticed the coverage of the issue in the local press, which understandably reflects local concerns. However, it is important that local newspapers, too, adhere to the facts. I have seen references to such things as "poisonous clouds". We shall not tolerate clouds of poisonous gases—that will not be tolerated by DEFRA or the Environment Agency. I repeat that we take people's concerns seriously, but they must be judged on the basis of the facts so that there can be proper evaluation of the risks and of the restrictions and protection to which people are entitled.

The hon. Gentleman has called for a public inquiry and he has written to my noble Friend Lord Whitty. I understand that he was motivated in part by a paper presented by the Environment Agency to the board of its regional environmental protection advisory committee. My impression is that that has been understood to mean that the agency is automatically in favour of the application. However, my understanding is that the paper asks the committee to comment on how the Environment Agency should determine applications to burn waste as a fuel in instances where the waste could not be reused or

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recycled. The agency appears to be seeking expert opinion on draft proposals, and I do not think that that action merits a public inquiry.

Similarly, I see no justification for the Secretary of State to call in the variation application for her determination. Rules apply both to such procedures and to public inquiries. The main rule is whether the issue is one of national controversy or importance. I do not doubt that it is of considerable local importance. I understand that, and I respect the hon. Gentleman's right to raise points in the House and directly with DEFRA. That is entirely proper and appropriate. I also respect people's right to ask questions and to seek assurances that there will be proper monitoring of the trial. However, as the process has been used for nearly a decade in the UK and in Europe, the matter is not of national importance—it is not new in that sense.

With the greatest of respect, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that there are many public inquiry applications of that type. These days it seems to be the fashion immediately to demand a public inquiry, whatever the issue. We have confidence in the Environment Agency to carry out its duties and to follow its procedures. We cannot hold a public inquiry whenever there could be a controversial decision; otherwise we would be bogged down with endless inquiries. Procedures are in place; when a change is of national significance it is appropriate to hold a public inquiry. Although I understand local concerns, they do not fit that category, so an inquiry is not warranted under the rules that are currently applied.

The hon. Gentleman said that there should be proper monitoring. I agree. If the trial goes ahead, I understand that there will be thorough monitoring of the process. That is what DEFRA expects and it certainly applies in other trials of that type. I would expect the information to be made available publicly, subject to the caveat of commercial confidentiality, and I cannot see why much of it should not be provided. I again agree that it is a matter of reassuring people and answering their concerns.

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I understand that the Environment Agency will also look into other issues, particularly the safe storage of any recycled liquid fuel at the works, should that be required. I take the point about lorry movements in the area. There are rules in relation to the movement of any kind of hazardous waste. They apply to all vehicle movements and we would expect them to be applied. I was interested in what the hon. Gentleman said about the rail link. Rail links are often an advantage in moving bulky goods. I do not know whether, if the trial gets off the ground now or in future, that would be appropriate given the quantities going into the works. I certainly hope that it would be considered on environmental grounds, if it were appropriate. I stress, however, that for it to be economic, large loads are generally required. I am not at all sure that the quantities that we are talking about are large ones. Obviously, that issue will be considered and determined in the application.

In conclusion, I fully understand local concerns. There are always local concerns about changes of this kind that involve incineration. That is common across the country. I live downwind of a power station that burns waste—in this case, meat and bone meal from cattle that have been taken out of the over-30 month scheme. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, that is not uncontroversial in itself, so I well understand local concerns.

The priority from the environmental point of view is to ensure that the methods are justified and properly monitored, and that there are rules and procedures in place to protect the health of people in the area and to minimise the potential impact on the environment. We expect the EA to put those criteria in place as part of any monitoring of this trial, if the trial is given the go-ahead. I can assure the hon. Gentleman of that. I am sure, too, that the EA will be only too happy to discuss with him personally, should he so wish, the details, monitoring procedures and any other points that he would wish to raise on behalf of his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

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