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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9)(European Committees),

Diplomatic and Consular Protection of Union Citizens in Third Countries

Mr. Speaker: I think the Ayes have it.

Hon. Members: No.

Division deferred till Wednesday 25 June, pursuant to Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions).


Post Office Closures (Leeds)

10.16 pm

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): I wish to present the petition of my constituents opposed to the closure of the post offices at Far Headingley, Bramhope and Newall.

24 Jun 2008 : Column 261



10.17 pm

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I bring this petition to the House on behalf of the petitioners who call on the Government to do all that they can to get the world community to pressure countries such as Japan, Norway and Iceland to stop killing whales across the globe. The International Whaling Commission meets this week in Chile, and the petition calls on that body to make it clear that, when the world says no, it means no—to all-out whaling, to targeted culls and to the “scientific” cull con. It means no to whaling full stop.

Following is the full text of the petition:

[The Petition of those concerned about whaling,

Declares that the situation for whales is bleak. More than 30,000 whales have been killed for commercial purposes since the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moratorium on commercial whaling came into effect in 1986, in blatant disregard of global conservation efforts. In the next 12 months Japan and Norway intend to kill around 2,000 whales, including endangered species such as fin whales.

Japan claims that the whaling it conducts is for scientific research. However, Japan's “scientific research” is simply a means to carry on commercial whaling despite the moratorium. Whaling is also extremely cruel. There is simply no way to kill a whale humanely at sea.

Japan has also been continuing its attempts to recruit more developing countries to the IWC in order to regain a simple majority at this year's IWC meeting in June and promote commercial whaling. If Japan were to succeed, it would be a disaster for whales. Many whale species have still not recovered from the intensive commercial whaling of the past and face many other threats such as climate change, ship strikes and pollution. It is therefore extremely important that the current pro-conservation majority at the IWC is both maintained and strengthened.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, to demand that the Japanese Government end its cruel and unnecessary “scientific” whaling programmes; to continue and enhance his efforts, at the highest ministerial and diplomatic levels to recruit more pro-conservation countries to the IWC and to persuade those countries which currently vote with Japan to vote instead for whale conservation; and to work with other anti-whaling countries to turn the IWC into a body exclusively focused on protecting and conserving whales for future generations.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.]


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Open Windrow Composting

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Khan.]

10.17 pm

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured this debate this evening on open windrow composting. Let me say at the outset that I support the recycling of green waste. However, it must be done in a safe manner and without endangering the safety of those who live in close proximity to recycling sites. It is in that context that I want to make two points in my contribution—about the danger associated with this type of process, and about public safety.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank the Minister for her reply to me of 16 June 2008, which goes some way to answering some of my concerns, but I want to encourage her to go a little further. I will refer to her letter later and suggest how we may take the matter forward.

The problems associated with open windrow composting were brought to my attention by local residents in my constituency who were protesting against the proposal for a composting site near to the village of Hood Green in the hinterland to the Pennines. I know that matters to do with the site are for the local planning authority and not for this debate, but I want to speak about the dangers generally associated with the open windrow composting process and what can be done to mitigate them.

The process takes place on a large concrete base and the method of decay is helped by the natural internal combustion of the waste. As the green waste heats, the process of decay is facilitated. The waste is turned over by machine at intervals to ensure thorough decomposition. That agitation produces bioaerosols, which can be called organic dust. One such bioaerosol is Aspergillus fumigatus, a fungus that can cause serious respiratory damage and has been known to be fatal. There are other downsides to the process, including the odour that results—particularly from the run-off of rain, which can collect and stagnate. That adds to the sickening smell, which also attracts vermin and flies; they are a further hazard of the process.

I want to draw the Minister’s attention to the Giessen study, which took place in Germany; I shall read from its introduction and conclusions in a moment. I want to do that because the Environment Agency advises a 250 m precautionary buffer zone, although from its website it appears that the agency is not too sure of what the distance should be. That is an important issue.

I contend that, on the evidence available, a 250 m buffer site is inadequate in many circumstances. In that context, I refer the Minister to a study carried out by scientists at the university of Giessen Institute for Hygiene and Environmental Medicine on the effects of bioaerosol-polluted outdoor air on the airways of residents. It is dated 14 November 2005. I am advised that, for some strange reason, the study was not included in the Health and Safety Executive review of research report 130.

The introduction to the study states:

The conclusions of the study are of great interest, and I want to draw the Minister’s attention to them:

The study continues:

The agency referred to is of course the German environment agency. It concludes in its final paragraph:

In effect, the study is saying that we should have a buffer zone of 500 m. Given that it is the most comprehensive study that has been done, I am rather surprised that it was not included in the HSE review of research report 130.

The Minister will be aware of the Stourbridge case, where, on 10 December, a composting site that was within 250 m of residential homes was closed. A man who acted as a consultant to the group that opposed the site advises me that it was closed because of excessive amounts of odour and bioaerosol emissions; I know that the Environment Agency takes a different view. He has provided me with the medical backgrounds of 12 of the 14 victims. Two of the 12 were suffering from the Aspergillus fungus; the others had picked up different infections on top of their chest conditions. Since the closure, I am advised that the five people who have been followed up have all reported that their health has improved and that they are using only half the medicines that they were prescribed at the time when the site was open. If we not only look at the Giessen study but draw on the experience gained from Stourbridge, it is clear that important evidence links the victims to the inhalation of organic dust from those composting sites.

The Minister may be interested in the work that is being done at Sheffield university. The Environment Agency decided on its 250 m buffer zone on the basis of a study carried out on flat lands in Norfolk, but when people from Sheffield university investigated how the wind carries spores in the hinterland to the Pennines, they found that it blows up the hill and then forms a kind of vortex on the other side, carrying some of the spores up to 1 km further than was previously supposed. It is important that we take into consideration the
24 Jun 2008 : Column 264
terrain for which many composting applications are made. I understand from a similar study that the Californian authorities have decided to go with a 500 m buffer zone instead of the shorter one that was previously used.

As the Minister will be aware, there are alternatives to open windrow processing, including complete enclosure and a system called IVC—in-vessel composting—which operates almost like a low-pressure cooker and deals with the green waste without producing the bioaerosols.

Problems may be created in the work environment for employees, and that issue should also be considered closely.

The Minister wrote me a helpful letter—it included one point on which we may be able to make further progress—in which she referred to the development of amenity risk assessments at waste management facilities. She wrote:

As I say, dispersion modelling is being done at Sheffield university. She went on to say:

It is in that context that I urge her to ask that the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive, which has a public health function, look at the Giessen study. As far as I can see, it is the foremost study on composting in the community.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister to do four things. First, I would like her not only to ensure that the HSE and the Environment Agency review the Giessen study, but to encourage them to take a cautious view on recommendations of a more appropriate buffer zone, particularly in areas such as the hinterland to the Pennines, where it is very hilly and we get the sort of wind problems and vortexes to which I referred. I would also be pleased if she advises that research done before 2000 is outdated, because much of the relevant literature is more recent. The Cornell Waste Management Institute, which is an Ivy league institute, is making that recommendation. Will she ask the HSE to advise on the best and safest composting method for employees and the public? Finally, will she ask local authorities to defer any proposals for new sites until the Environment Agency and the HSE advice is available so that we can ensure public safety in the future?

10.32 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Joan Ruddock): I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) for securing this debate, and for the excellent way in which he presented his case. I will attempt to answer his many questions and deal with the promises that he seeks from me.

As has been identified, open windrow composting is one of the forms of biological treatment of biodegradable waste that has increased in recent years in the move increasingly to recycle or recover waste and to reduce our reliance on landfill. Of course, however, composting is by no means new and it is, indeed, a process that occurs naturally, as my hon. Friend will appreciate. Good quality compost has a number of benefits, including
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its water-holding capability and as a sustainable alternative to peat, so it is important to us. It returns organic matter to the soil, sequestering carbon, and it can be used as a soil improver—in agricultural or landscape applications, for example—and as a growing medium for the horticultural industry.

At the heart of our waste strategy is the need to meet our European Union landfill directive targets. The amount of biodegradable municipal waste we send to landfill needs to fall to 11.2 million tonnes by 2010, 7.46 million tonnes by 2013 and 5.22 million tonnes by 2020. That is quite a challenge. We have already made progress, with the amount falling from 13.9 million tonnes in 2004-05 to 11.55 million tonnes in 2006-07. That achievement reflects the increase in waste being recycled and composted—from 27 per cent. in 2005-06 to more than 30 per cent. in 2006-07. A third of that figure is made up of composting.

Open windrow composting is the form of composting green waste that is carried out in our back gardens, our community composting schemes, in large public gardens and hotels, on farms and at other establishments. Composting is also carried out on a much larger commercial scale by operators contracted to handle source-segregated green waste collected by local authorities or delivered by the public to civic amenity sites.

Open windrow composting is less suited to dealing with other types of waste such as food waste or other contaminated biodegradable waste. As my hon. Friend said, other methods are more appropriate, for example, in-vessel composting, which must fulfil animal by-product regulations, and anaerobic digestion. The Government are encouraging that and we have announced a £10 million technology demonstrator programme for anaerobic digestion.

At the core of my hon. Friend’s concerns are the risks that such activities pose to the environment and human health. As he said, a bioaerosol is a suspension of fine biological material in a gas. Bioaerosol particles are made up of a range of different types of particles, including fungal spores such as Aspergillus fumigatum and Penicillium. Of course, they occur naturally in urban and rural environments, and can aid the composting process.

It is important to stress that background figures vary from location to location, and with the seasons, ranging from less than 100 to more than several thousand particles per cubic metre. My hon. Friend is correct to say that the dispersal of bioaerosols will vary with atmospheric conditions. That is why the Health and Safety Executive reviewed a range of data from different sites, conditions and modelling techniques. My hon. Friend asked why the Giessen study was not included in the review. The reason is that the review was carried out before the publication of the Giessen study, so its inclusion was not possible.

The review, which was published in 2003, found that fungal particles generated at any site would drop to background levels within about 150 m. That is why the Health and Safety Executive has proposed a precautionary approach and recommended not 150 m but 250 m. By taking a bigger margin than is perhaps considered necessary, the HSE is confident that it has taken account of unexpected or extreme conditions.

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