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Viscount Ullswater moved Amendment No. 128J:

Page 45, leave out lines 16 to 18.

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The noble Viscount said: My Lords, I also spoke to this amendment with a previous one. I beg to move.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

[Amendment No. 128K not moved.]

Lord Crickhowell moved Amendment No. 129:

Page 46, line 6, leave out ("a closed landfill site") and insert ("contaminated land").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I now return to a group of amendments which were moved by my noble friend Lord Mills at an earlier stage. They are in exactly the same form as that in which they were debated in Committee. My noble friend and I are continuing to ensure that highly contaminated sites, which may well not be closed landfills, may be open to designation as special sites, and thus fall within the remit of the agency, which should have the expertise and the resource to deal with sites of this kind.

Replying to a number of amendments put down at the earlier stage, including one by my noble friend Lord Lucas of Chilworth, my noble friend the Minister indicated that the Government felt that they were justified in paying particular attention to closed landfills because they presented:

    "a particular range of technical and engineering problems on which staff in the agency are likely to be well qualified by virtue of their responsibilities for the regulation of operational landfills".

I quote from my noble friend's response in Committee on 31st January.

My noble friend also made it quite clear that the Government were willing to consider the question of expanding the range of sites that could potentially be designated as special sites. But he wanted to have a clear idea:

    "of why the agency would be better qualified to regulate those other sites than would the local authorities".—[Official Report, 31/1/95; col. 1437.]

He indicated that he did not believe that the case had been adequately made.

Without making the case by way of examples, it seems almost on grounds of principle that there is a fairly strong argument. It is very hard to see why sites such as a closed steelworks or gasworks—to take two obvious examples—which may have been closed for decades or even longer, are likely to create less of a problem than the closed landfill sites. It is clear that such sites may well require the kind of skills possessed by the agency.

I could produce a long list of examples but I do not want to detain the House for too long. Certainly I could let my noble friend have a longer list than I shall give the House tonight. Let me give just two examples. One is a former chemical works. It is a property that had been a chemical factory since the 1960s and used for the production of pesticides and other products. The chemicals had been stored on site in drums and packages, many of which had been buried. The NRA, and possibly its predecessors, and the local waste regulation authority had been chasing the company for some considerable time to do something about the storage of those chemicals.

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Then, in 1993 the site caught fire. Some of the water used to extinguish the fire inevitably soaked into the ground. Subsequent investigation by the NRA revealed ground water contamination which had spread at least one kilometre from the site. Much of that contamination is considered to be long term, and the problems of dealing with it have been hampered by the fact that there is no one authority with responsibility for the whole site; and the local authority has neither the resources nor the expertise to deal with the problems which have been encountered there. Under the provisions of the Bill as they currently stand, that site would be designated as contaminated land only and in the absence of an owner to pay for any remediation, the cost would ultimately reside with the local authority, which has already proved unable to deal with the issue.

Let me give another example with which I am familiar. I visited the site very soon after the NRA was set up. It is waste ground in the West Midlands. There is highly acidic water, which carries copper and nickel in strong concentrations, welling up on the site. It can be watched, highly coloured, going into the river. It is probably one of the principal sources of sulphuric acid, flowing eventually into the Trent and adding to the concentrations that emerge into the North Sea. It is a particularly difficult site because the land is in the ownership of various parties and development is unlikely. One attempt to establish light industrial use did not get very far because of the pollution problem. The pollution source probably originates from historical waste disposal into disused mineworkings from a nearby copper refinery. But proof would be difficult and extremely costly to obtain. We are in a situation in which all the industrial activity which is going on nearby meets modern pollution control requirements.

In that case, the site owners are neither responsible for the cause of pollution nor, individually, do they possess the resources to do anything about it. Indeed, the NRA has not been able to tackle the problem either, because it has not been able to find an adequate source of funding for it. It is very unlikely that pressure on the site owners or prosecution would resolve the issues. The local authority is not concerned to initiate action since the only impact is on water. The land is not close to housing and the contamination does not pose any obvious, immediate threat to human health. So that is a case in which, in my view, there is an urgent need for action, not least because I suspect that it is one of the major sources adding to the very considerable volume of dangerous or listed substances that eventually emerge by way of the estuary and cause problems in the North Sea with our neighbours in Europe. It seems to me that that is the kind of case in which we ought to put the agency in a position to act.

I can give examples of other sites; a retail site, a detergent factory and other examples are in front of me. I ask my noble friend to accept that there are many seriously polluted sites where we need the extension of the Bill in the way that I argue. I am glad that at an earlier stage he indicated that he was perfectly prepared to consider the proposition, if he could be given adequate supporting evidence. I hope he will accept that

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the strongly held view of the National Rivers Authority that there is a case will be taken as fairly good grounds for believing that some kind of action is required. I beg to move.

5.30 p.m.

Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, I should like to come to the support of my noble friend Lord Crickhowell and provide my noble friend on the Front Bench with a little more of the evidence that he was looking for when my noble friend Lord Mills moved an amendment at Committee stage. The Government said that they would want a clear idea of why the agency would be better qualified than the local authorities to regulate such sites.

I had some experience of this issue—not dealing primarily with the matter of pollution but with very large derelict sites which had been abandoned—when I found myself with that difficult title "the Minister for Merseyside", a title given by the press and not by No. 10 Downing Street. I found myself with a number of extremely difficult sites which had been abandoned by their previous owners. In particular, there was the site of the old Burmah Oil refinery at Ellesmere Port, which I toured with representatives of the local authority of Ellesmere Port and Neston. I was overwhelmed by the sense that that relatively small and not particularly well-off local authority had been left with the appalling problem of an oil refinery which had been there for many years and from which the company had simply walked away. One can remember the financial problems of the Burmah Oil company at that time and it would have been quite ridiculous to have required it at that stage to do anything about it, even if one had had any power to do so, which one did not. There was a sense that the local authority had to grapple with something which was a great deal bigger than itself. The difficulties that it faced were beyond its capacity, however well-meaning it was. I must say that I greatly admired the officers of that local authority, but this was something outwith their experience and beyond the scale of their normal operations.

Looking at the whole subject, I find that industry itself feels that it would be better if the monitoring of some of the very large sites were the responsibility of the agency and not of the local authorities. Some of the arguments advanced are quite persuasive. One needs consistency of approach across the country. The agency is inherently more likely to be able to provide that than a large number of different local authorities, which have different experience and very different resources for dealing with such major contaminated areas. To deal with these sites often requires lengthy and very expensive investigation which may well be accompanied by complex issues of risks and their acceptability. Parallels have been drawn with the risks from manufacturing covered by the major hazard regulations. These are rightly placed under the control of the Health and Safety Executive, not the local authority. That is one reason. Another reason that I put to my noble friend is the experience overseas. A number of companies which face problems here also have overseas experience. In particular, I draw to the attention of my noble friend the Environmental Protection Agency in the

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United States. There, experience has shown that the development and application of new remediation technology to these types of sites is best carried out in conjunction with a single, central expert authority. Currently, remediation technology is evolving rapidly. I am quite certain that this country will be able to benefit enormously from the kind of environment that the agency can provide. It is much more likely to be able to keep up with, and perhaps keep ahead of, evolving technology abroad than a large number of local authorities.

I turn finally to the issue of prioritisation, to which I may wish to return in a later amendment. To place major remediation under the control of a central authority will greatly assist the decisions on where priorities should lie. That is very important for large manufacturing organisations whose sites are likely to be located in many different local authority areas. I urge my noble friend to look very seriously at the amendment that has been moved by my noble friend Lord Crickhowell. There are solid and substantial arguments in its favour, and I hope that those may be thought to tip the balance.

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