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19 July 2006 : Column 73WH—continued

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that Hertfordshire has a
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very delicate environment because our water comes from chalk aquifers? When a motorway service station or something like that is built, a lot of work goes into ensuring that the run-off is secured. Does he feel that a Minister who deals with environmental matters should make a clear statement about safety, pollutants and so on in the light of the Buncefield incident? That would allow us at least to know what the damage was and what the risks and worries are.

Mike Penning: I could not agree more. People are concerned not only about Buncefield and the explosion, but, quite naturally, about the fact that if PFOS and other contaminants—not least the oil-based products—were getting into the aquifers, that needs to be addressed long before Buncefield is given permission to reopen, although I reiterate that I hope it never does. During the incident I was told that the nation could not live without Buncefield, which is a major part of our fuel infrastructure, but I understand now that capacity is up to 95 per cent. without Buncefield. Is that correct? If so, does the Minister agree with my logic, which is that if we reconnect the feeder lines there is no national strategic need for Buncefield and that it should not reopen? That would alleviate the next problem that I want the Minister to deal with, which is about planning.

Naturally, the community wants to get on with its life. The business community wants to get businesses back on to a level playing field. It wants to find out whether properties can be rebuilt or whether they will be too close to a new exclusion zone, if Buncefield is rebuilt; it wants to know whether, if Buncefield is not rebuilt, the contamination of the land will put employees at risk. There are so many questions that I should have hoped that seven months after the incident my constituents and the country would have received the answers.

It is deeply damaging to the Government and to public confidence that the inquiry continues to be operated in secrecy, behind closed doors, and that the evidence to the inquiry is not fully known by the public. I accept that some evidence may need to be held back because of the possibility of prosecutions. However, on behalf of my constituents I cannot understand the Government’s reluctance to come clean, open up and let the public see natural justice take place, especially in the light of the obvious involvement—interference, if you want to put it that way—of the HSE in the safety of the depot before the incident, and in the catastrophic failures that occurred. My final plea to the Minister is that he go to his bosses and persuade them to give us the public inquiry that we deserve, so that we can get on with our lives in Hertfordshire.

Derek Conway (in the Chair): Order. Several hon. Members have said that they hope to catch my eye. We must conclude the debate within the hour, so I urge them—including Front-Bench Members—to make their contributions as brief as possible.

10.02 am

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): On that Sunday morning at 6 o’clock, I, too, was woken in my home a few miles from Buncefield. It is
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certainly an experience that I shall not forget. Nor will I forget the experience of driving past Buncefield on the A41 and seeing the plumes of smoke, or visiting the site with my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning). He mentioned the subject on which I should like to focus—perfluorooctane sulphonate, or PFOS, traces of which have been found around Buncefield, raising several concerns.

It may be useful briefly to consider the issue and give the history of PFOS. The chemical was widely used, mainly as a fabric protector—most famously as Scotchgard. However, it had several other uses, such as in pesticides, insecticides and, of course, firefighting foam. In May 2000, 3M, the manufacturer of Scotchgard, announced that it was phasing out the use of PFOS from 2001. Following that, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development produced a hazard assessment in which the US and the UK took the lead. Several conclusions about health were reached. One was that PFOS was persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic in mammals. It was detected in blood serum of occupational and general populations. There was a statistically significant association between exposure to PFOS and bladder cancer, and an increased risk of tumours of the male reproductive system, the overall category of cancers and benign growths, and tumours of the gastro-intestinal tract. There is quite extensive evidence suggesting that PFOS is persistent, with a human half-life of four to eight years. As for toxicity, tests on monkeys and rats—but not, you will be pleased to know, Mr. Conway, on cats—show that it can kill at 4.5 micrograms per litre on a repeat dosage over a 90-day period. The OECD hazard assessment further concluded, with respect to the environment, that PFOS is persistent and bioaccumulative, that it is highly toxic in honey bees and that it bioconcentrates in fish. It has been detected in the tissues of wild birds and fish, in surface water and in sediment, in waste water treatment plant effluent, in sewage sludge and in landfill.

After that assessment, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs commissioned a review of environmental risk. Despite the fact that that use of PFOS has, overall, been substantially reduced since 2001, certain concerns remain. The environmental risk reduction strategy concluded that marketing and use restrictions on PFOS-related substances

In October 2004 the Government proposed an immediate prohibition on the storage or use of PFOS and PFOS-related substances at or above 0.1 per cent. of mass. It is important to recognise, however, that within the consultation document produced by DEFRA a five-year derogation was proposed for the development of acceptable substitutes and alternate technologies for firefighting foams. However, implementation of the proposals for that quite extensive ban on PFOS usage was prevented. In an answer to my hon. Friends the Members for Hemel Hempstead and for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles), the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela E. Smith), said that

On first reading, that rather rankled with me, given my Eurosceptic instincts. I do not see why that is a matter for the European Commission and why the UK should not be in a position to make a judgment on the dangers of PFOS and to legislate accordingly.

I have several questions for the Minister. To be fair to him, I acknowledge that I did not have an opportunity to tell him my questions in advance, and I am conscious that PFOS is a subject not necessarily closely related either to work or to pensions. Any answers that the Minister can give now would be gratefully received, but perhaps he can write to me later.

I should be grateful to know the Government’s attitude and what steps they are taking to lobby the European Commission and the EU. Do they fully accept that the matter is something for EU jurisdiction? Having made that point I want to qualify it in two ways. First, on first reading the parliamentary answer that I quoted, one could get the impression that but for the European Union we would have banned PFOS and it would no longer be relevant. However, the two questions that I referred to related to the fire service, and, to be strictly accurate, even if the UK had proceeded down the route that it wanted, it would still have been possible to use PFOS for firefighting foam, because of the five-year derogation. The derogation does not relate to the EU position, under which use will continue. Secondly, there appears to be no reason why a voluntary plan could not be adopted here; indeed, the answer mentioned that. Given that we are talking about public authorities, I cannot imagine that there is anything within the EU draft directive that would stop the UK Government issuing guidance on that point. Reference is made to a voluntary phasing-out and I should be grateful to know where we are in that respect.

PFOS has been detected in the rivers near Buncefield and ongoing testing shows sporadic detection of PFOS. The levels are higher than 3 micrograms per litre, the advisory level set by the drinking water inspectorate in environmental monitoring samples, although it has not been detected in drinking water, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said. However, the samples show quite high levels: 4.8 and 5.9 micrograms of PFOS per litre have been reported, which is higher than the concentration that killed the monkeys and rats.

The initial report on Buncefield makes the point that there is apparently a widespread occurrence of trace quantities of PFOS in the Hemel Hempstead area, some apparently unconnected with Buncefield, which raises the question why PFOS was not routinely monitored prior to Buncefield. It clearly is a concern, for the reasons I have outlined. The Environment Agency has been taking samples at 150 sites in the area in the period April to July. We have not yet reached the end of July, but the view is that if PFOS is found to be widespread it is intended to expand the sampling. I should be grateful to know if there is any information on whether sampling has found PFOS to be widespread so that we know where we are.

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Mike Penning: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is imperative that we look not only around Hemel Hempstead and in Hertfordshire, but across the country? Clearly, if the chemical is in the environment in areas that have nothing to do with oil depots and fire stations, we need to know so that we can address the problem immediately.

Mr. Gauke: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Rather by accident, we have discovered that PFOS seems to be widespread. The early indications suggest that its presence is not just related to Buncefield; it could be anywhere. I hope that the sampling process will be thorough and widespread and that we do not assume that the presence of PFOS is related only to firefighting. There is a concern about how widespread it may be and I shall be grateful for an update on any progress in that respect.

Anxieties about PFOS have been heightened by the fact that 800,000 litres of stored firewater from Blackbird Lees sewage treatment Plant near Radlett was accidentally released into the water supply. I understand that it was treated and there has been no evidence of PFOS as a consequence, but it is a major concern.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): My hon. Friend will be aware of the concern felt in Radlett, whose residents will wish to hear from the Minister on that point. My hon. Friend may also wish to join me in paying tribute to the work of the Radlett fire crew who attended the Hemel Hempstead fire.

Mr. Gauke: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for two reasons: first, for further highlighting the concern about the leakage and, secondly, in paying tribute to Radlett fire station, which I am certainly keen to do. I also pay tribute to the fire station of Bovingdon in my constituency. My hon. Friend and I are both worried about the fact that Bovingdon and Radlett are set to close, or, indeed, have closed, but I will not go into that now.

I am especially concerned about the water sewerage because the fire water is stored in my constituency at Maple Lodge sewage treatment works. I wrote to Thames Water expressing my anxieties about the leakage and received a reply dated 12 July. It is reassuring; it says:

On the Maple Lodge site, it says:

I am reassured by that to some extent, but I am also rather concerned that, seven months on, the water continues to be held within Hertfordshire. It is a responsibility of the oil companies to dispose of it and they have been somewhat tardy in doing so. If the Minister can shed any light on progress and tell me when we can get the contaminated water out of my constituency I shall be very grateful.

In conclusion, there are concerns about PFOS levels, which seem to be widespread and are not narrowly
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connected with Buncefield. I hope that the Government recognise the seriousness of the matter and will address it as quickly as possible.

10.15 am

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): As my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) remarked, the incident at Buncefield is not only a Hemel Hempstead problem. From St. Albans we watched the pall on the horizon; we were lucky that the wind was favourable and it did not come over to us, but it could so nearly have done. Since then, residents have had major concerns about the environmental impact, because we are downstream from Hemel Hempstead. We have two major rivers, the River Ver and the River Colne, which help to define a beautiful part of my constituency, but which also makes us very vulnerable to pollution incidents.

As late as July 6, my local newspaper was still running stories about confusion about water pollution. I am glad that we are using the term PFOS, because the long name—perfluorooctane sulphonate—does not trip nicely off the tongue. It is a diary of disaster to local residents. I shall not repeat the details of the toxicity concerns about PFOS, except to say that my constituents have little faith in the system that seems to be throwing up such completely differing views on the safety of PFOS in the water supply, how long it will be there, who is responsible for eradicating it and how the effect on the health of the local environment is to be monitored.

On December 11 at 6 am, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead said, 30 million gallons of fuel went up in flames. On December 20 the Health and Safety Commission and the Environment Agency started an investigation into the events. In January, a large pool of liquid measuring 200 m by 10 m by 20 m was allowed to run off the site; it was standing in Cherry Tree lane for the first week of January.

In January, Lord Newton was appointed as the independent chairman of the investigation. Since then, there have been various progress reports. In April, a progress report was published which mentioned PFOS and zinc for the first time. The chemicals have seeped into the ground and are now detected in the water. On April 18, the Environment Agency revealed that diesel oil had been found in ground water. The water is taken from bore holes which goes into the water-holding layer of chalk, some 40 metres below ground level. Three Valleys Water said that it will continue to monitor the situation and the Environment Agency said that it could take years to assess the full impact.

On May 9, the third progress report was published, stating that PFOS had now been detected in local rivers—the River Ver, the River Colne and the River Red. Fuel and fire water had soaked into the water table and been detected in bore holes. The Environment Agency said that the chemical was at a very low level and generally below what the drinking water inspectorate considers acceptable.

Mike Penning: I emphasise, because it is very important, that before Buncefield there was no tolerance for PFOS in drinking water, but suddenly
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3 parts per million is acceptable. Our constituents are very concerned about that. Can hon. Friend see any logic or link in that?

Anne Main: I thank my hon. Friend for pointing that out. I shall give a little history lesson. We are all old enough to remember the Camelford incident in 1988. That was a different environmental disaster affecting water sources. Acidic aluminium sulphate got into the water sources and caused a level of toxicity that worried local residents. However, according to the newspapers of the day, South West Water Authority blithely assured people that it was safe to drink. It took weeks and 400 people complaining of ill-health effects such as mouth ulcers and so on before the problem started to be taken seriously. The view of the water industry and, to some extent, the medical establishment, remained that aluminium in drinking water was not toxic, and the 1991 Clayton Committee report failed to alter their views, yet, even now, people complain about long-term health problems such as dementia that might have arisen out of that unfortunate incident at Camelford. One can therefore forgive my constituents for not feeling terribly reassured that there is suddenly a new, safe level for PFOS.

I do not think that we will see the effects of the Buncefield incident for a long time. We cannot be sure what levels are acceptable for pregnant women, for example. I have here Dr. Brooke’s February 2004 report, which is hundreds of pages long, on the environmental risk evaluation of PFOS in the environment. The report points out some worrying issues. For example, the half-life of PFOS is estimated by some to be four to eight years, but the report estimates it to be 30 years. It says that concentrations in fruit and vegetables are hard to measure, but contribute to the toxicity build-up. PFOS has even been found in cows’ milk. We have to measure the levels not only in drinking water, but in all the animals—prey birds, for example—that inhabit our sensitive environment. People in St. Albans and the surrounding areas take their environment extremely carefully. We are blessed with the Ver Valley Watercress Society, which prides itself on having brought back that ecological miracle by really clearing up the environment. It is an indicator, or barometer, of how clean the environment is.

We must be careful about the creeping, accumulative toxicity which may cause dangerous levels further down the line. My constituents have had no reassurances: the drinking water sources might be safe, but all the other environmental sources of PFOS may not be safe and are not really being examined in the depth that they would like. We cannot blithely assume that everybody’s water comes from a tap. Mr. Hall of Hanrox Turkeys, whom I went to see the day after the disaster, is particularly concerned because all his water comes from a bore hole. He has been assured that it is all fine, but is it? Is it okay for him to feed the animals on his farm—he has other animals as well as turkeys—from that water source?

The impact on the environment, which will have a huge cost implication, has not been considered. Who is to pick up the bill? My local council seems to think that the problems will have implications for councils for years to come. I would like some answers from the
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Minister. What support will we receive, transparently, to ensure that the source of the harm is acknowledged and that people are aware of it, and who is responsible for monitoring the damage and clearing it up?

I would also like some assurances from the Minister about how the long-term adverse effects on the aquatic environment are to be cleared up in our sensitive area. We are in a fog of confusion. A report on June 16 said that no traces of PFOS had been found in drinking or ground water, and that consumers can therefore be reassured that

But that is only half the story, and I would like the other half to be brought out fully. The Environment Agency says that hundreds of thousands of litres of firewater escaped from where it was stored at Radlett—we have heard about that—into the River Colne. I, too, praise the Radlett firefighters, but add my concerns to those of others that if there is another Buncefield fire disaster, the Radlett fire service might not be there, because it is under threat. I hope that that the service remains.

We have contradictory statements from the drinking water inspectorate and the EA. The EA recently said:

One press release says that nothing is there, and another says that there is PFOS. We do not know where we are. I ask the Minister for clarity and honesty. I do not want another Camelford incident. I do not want somebody to say, 20 years down the line, “This was a problem.” I want the problem to be looked at now, and I do not want the bill to be picked up either by Hertfordshire as a whole or my constituents, particularly not the environmental or health bill.

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