Orders of the Day — Water Supplies (Essex)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th June 1973.

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11.25 p.m.

Photo of Mr Alastair Harrison Mr Alastair Harrison , Maldon

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter, which is of vital importance to some of my constituents and of wider importance nationally. I refer to the damage caused to commercial tomato crops by the pollution of the public water supply. Not only has it caused a number of my constituents and prospective constituents to face possible ruin—and this is no exaggeration, as I shall show—but it is a matter of great national importance in this overcrowded island in an increasingly crowded and polluted world. Without more control of the chemicals that get into the water supply that we drink and use in our gardens, and which we use industrially and horticulturally, before long we shall face a situation which will increasingly jeopardise the existence of the human race.

The problem raised its head in March this year at a nursery in Bocking, near Braintree, where unusual symptoms began to appear in the leaves of young tomato plants. Unlike the usual spray drip symptoms—which have, fortunately, occurred less frequently in recent years—the tomato plants on this holding all showed signs of what appeared to be selective hormone weedkiller application. The nursery takes its water supply direct from the River Pant, which eventually flows into the Blackwater.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was called in. Plants were taken for laboratory examination and water samples were taken for analysis both by the Essex River Authority and the Ministry. The Essex branch of the National Farmers' Union was also involved from the outset, for obvious reasons. A few weeks later, following Press reports of the difficulties experienced at Bocking, several further reports of similar damage were received by the Ministry of Agriculture from tomato growers in Essex. Again, all tomato plants, whatever their age, exhibited symptoms of selective hormone weedkiller application evenly over each crop.

The worrying feature of these subsequent reports was that all the growers used public mains water supplies for irrigating their tomatoes. After exhaustive examination of all aspects, the Ministry of Agriculture was led to the conclusion that the only common factor in each nursery except the Backing nursery was that they all used public mains supply for watering their tomatoes.

Almost every known type of husbandry was used by the growers—hot-house and cold-house cultivation; tomatoes grown in soil, peat, straw bales and manufactured compost; tomatoes grown with natural fertilisers and manufactured compounds. There were different varieties of plants, grafted plants and plants of differing ages. All showed typical similar symptoms of selective hormone weedkiller damage.

The Essex branch of the National Farmers' Union was extremely concerned about the situation, which affected not only its members but several growers who were not members. The Essex Water Company was also extremely concerned, as was the Essex River Authority, which is responsible for the water supply. These authorities—particularly the public authorities—have shown equal concern about the problem and are trying to find a solution.

Water samples have been taken and analysed by the Ministry. Soil samples from three holdings were analysed for a selective hormone type weedkiller, and 24-D in three parts per million was found in one nursery. Two other nurseries also had 24-D in the soil. The fact that three parts per million were found in one nursery gives some idea of the great difficulty in measuring the effect of this weedkiller or hormone in a water supply.

As a result of this analysis, the pattern of damage was found to relate to the public mains water supply that had passed through the Langham and Langford treatment works, which take water from either the Blackwater or the Stour, both augmented by water from the Ely/Ouse. Water from here passes direct into the supply and does not go through a storage reservoir.

The two main areas affected were Hockley and Hawkwell, near Southend—in my prospective constituency—and Mayland and Latchingdon and Southminster—in my present constituency—and, I would add, for full measure, the 12 domestic plants at my home at Cop-ford were also affected. This is water from a special supply from the mains, which has a wayleave through my estate.

After various experiments, it appeared to the Ministry that, bearing in mind the volume of water flowing through the various rivers supplying the public mains system, it would have been necessary for something like 100 gallons or more of some kind of weedkiller to enter the system to cause the degree of damage to the plants that had occurred. Initially, it was thought that the pollutant might have been 24-D, but recent analyses carried out by the Water Research Association on the best scientific equipment available in the United Kingdom indicate that a chemical called mecaprop is responsible for the trouble.

I do not think it would be right at this moment for me to give the chemical analysis, even if I could pronounce it, of mecacrop and other chemicals associated with it, but it would probably be right to say that they are highly complicated and complex chemicals, which have tremendous effects even in very small doses.

The damage has now been recorded by the Ministry on 36 holdings in Essex, spread mainly over the area already mentioned. The damage has varied, depending, apparently, on whether the crops were cold-house or hot-house, and therefore on the time of planting and when the crops were first affected by the polluted water. Crops have been affected in quality and in quantity—or ever, in some cases, have had to be pulled out and destroyed. The financial implications for many of the growers concerned are extremely serious and it is possible that unless we take action some of them will be forced out of business.

At present, it is impossible to make an accurate estimate of the overall damage since the crops are still growing and, particularly in the case of the later cold-house crops, the effect is still uncertain. But I will give, in financial terms—in so far as it is possible to quantify—three or four examples of what has happened to nurserymen in my constituency.

In one nursery, with half an acre of hot-house tomatoes, the estimated loss of crop to date is £700, and the loss from the sale of tomato plants grown from seed is estimated at about £500. In another nursery, in addition to the crop being a month behind the usual harvesting time, fruit did not set on the lower two trusses of the 18,000 plants of the holding. The yield of the remainder of the crop is being carefully notes, as compared with past years' crops, and this is being done also in other nurseries. On this holding, the estimated loss so far is over £2,000.

The third example is of a four-acre holding. On the advice of the Ministry, nearly two acres of plants were pulled out, as they were so badly damaged that there was no chance of recovery. These were the first tomatoes that would have cropped, and it is estimated that the grower has lost about £16,000 of income. He has expended manure, labour and heating on this crop when it had to be pulled out.

The fourth case concerns a grower who has lost four trusses per plant—over 20,000 plants—and the financial loss is estimated at about £13,000, at current prices. The lower trusses in a crop like this come on first, and therefore they are the most valuable. These are the plants that have been lost.

The legal position is extremely difficult. I am advised that there is no possibility of legal action on behalf of growers against the Essex Water Company to recover compensation for the disaster that they have suffered. Even if the Essex River Authority were to discover the person or body responsible for polluting the river it might not be possible to recover any moneys from that source.

I am not sure, however, whether it is completely out of court to take legal action. I feel that, under the Trade Descriptions Act, it is possible that where water is supplied and metered to a horticultural holding it should be pure, potable and suitable for the purpose for which it is required. However, as there is some doubt about this matter, I hope that the Government will regard the situation of these growers with great sympathy and will endeavour to alleviate the serious financial losses that they have suffered, through no fault of their own.

Last Sunday a meeting was held in Mayland, in my constituency, and a group of growers set up an organisation to protect their interests. They had three objectives—first, to present a claim for compensation; secondly, to defend against similar occurrences in future; and, thirdly, to further the interests of all grower members in particular.

It is the first and second of these objectives to which I want to draw attention. These growers are facing a most disastrous situation through no fault of their own. In other words, at present there is no way in which they can claim compensation. I feel that in circumstances like these the community at large—that is, the Government—should step in and help. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider this point.

I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture here so that she may understand the case that I am making. It is an indication of the seriousness with which the Government regard this matter that we should have Ministers from two Departments present tonight. I certainly appreciate it, and I am sure that my constituents do. I hope that two Departments will consider sympathetically the representations being made by Sir Henry Plumb, the President of the National Farmers' Union, on this matter.

I want to deal briefly with the problem of preventing similar occurrences in future. First, we must watch and improve our monitoring of water supplies and, secondly, we must be able to give a warning to growers if anything like this is likely to happen.

All garden and horticultural suppliers—I must declare an interest, for I am one—have on their shelves packets and tins which are lethal to plants and, in some cases, to human beings. I do not think that it would be practical to have to sign a poisons register every time one purchased something from a horticultural supplier, but the availability of these explosive materials should be considered very carefully, to see whether there should be some tightening up.

Secondly, we must consider some form of early-warning system for detecting these poisonous chemicals both in the water supply to and in the soil in horticultural holdings. Currently, it takes anything up to three weeks to discover these minute quantities of material in the water. I hope that something will be done quickly to improve the situation, so that it will be possible to discover almost immediately whether these dangerous chemicals are present.

Thirdly, I hope that an adequate number of soil analyses will be available, so that where soil has been affected by water like this it is possible to have the samples investigated quickly.

We must do something to avoid problems of the kind that have arisen in this instance, and I hope that my hon. Friends will consider sympathetically the position of the growers and the national implications of pollution on this scale.

11.41 p.m.

Photo of Mr Eldon Griffiths Mr Eldon Griffiths , Bury St Edmunds

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Brian Harrison), who has so eloquently deployed the case on behalf of his constituents, I, too, am grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for attending tonight, since a large number of the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon are clearly for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to deal with—but I give the assurance at once that both my Department and that of my hon. Friend are working closely together. I thank my hon. Friend for taking note of the fact that our joint presence demonstrates that the Government are collectively concerned to assist where they can in this matter.

I agree with my hon. Friend that a supply of clean and abundant water is one of the most indispensable things for any society. I think he will know that, generally across the nation, our rivers, far from getting dirtier are getting cleaner. This can be ascertained by objective biological and chemical analyses that are under way all the time.

The rivers are materially getting cleaner, but, as this incident demonstrates, the complexity of chemicals in our society today is such that the tracing, monitoring and investigation of new trace elements within the water supply becomes an ever more difficult task requiring ever greater vigilance, and it must be our duty to ensure that that vigilant monitoring is done on all our river systems.

I say at once, in reply to my hon. Friend's well-documented case, that there is no lack of concern about this in my Department and elsewhere, for a number of reasons. The first is quite plainly that we recognise—how could we do otherwise?—the serious effect that this damage has had and is continuing to have on the growers whose crops have been affected. We are very much aware of their difficulties.

I suppose that there can be few things more frustrating for a grower who has invested in glass and the other equipment required for tomato growing, and who is confronted with all the difficulties of overseas competition, and so on, to find that through no fault of his own his crop is severely damaged, or even destroyed, in the very early stages. We understand this problem very well, and I should like to extend my sympathy to those who have been affected.

The second concern that the Government must have is to establish the precise cause of the damage. This search is now under way. Third, we must ensure that all possible steps are taken to prevent a similar situation from arising in future. The Essex River Authority and the Essex Water Company, as the statutory authorities concerned, have tackled this problem energetically from the outset and have spared no effort to try to resolve it.

The damage to the young tomato plants was first observed when a number of growers found that many plants were malformed. I am advised that the fruit was small and in many cases of an elongated plum shape. I do not know whether my hon. Friend can confirm that from his own experience. In some cases, the second or third trusses failed to set. This was reported to the Ministry of Agriculture's Agricultural Development and Advisory Service, which diagnosed hormone damage.

Extensive tests were started at that point by specialist staff from the Ministry of Agriculture and my Department, together with the Water Research Association and the Essex water undertakings. The tests have included bioassays on tomato plants, and both soil and water analyses.

Since it was suspected fairly early that the damage might be due to the presence of hormone weedkiller in the irrigation water, the Essex River Authority wrote to tell the growers what 'was being done. They explained that chemical and biological tests were being carried out and that a meeting of growers and all other interested parties would be arranged when the results were known. I understand that that meeting has now taken place.

However, it has proved extremely difficult to trace this chemical in the water supply, even using the most sophisticated and modern methods of analysis available to us, such as gas liquid chromatography, known as GLC, and new techniques of mass spectroscopy. This is partly because the concentration found in the numerous samples taken is so very small—as small as one part in 1,000 million—that it is at the extreme limits of detection, even with the best microscopes available.

Another difficulty is that a considerable number of chemicals can produce similar results. The segregation of one from the other has proved difficult. Therefore, I must say with some regret that we still cannot say positively what the chemical is. My hon. Friend mentioned mecaprop in one of the many analysed samples. This was found in a concentration of one part in 1,000 million. The Agricultural Development and Advisory Service has considered the position very carefully, but its present view is that this concentration would not be likely to affect tomatoes, so it may be that mecaprop is not the source of the damage. Investigations are continuing, but we are not yet absolutely certain what the chemical is.

All the available evidence points to the damage having been caused by a hormone weedkiller and, through the incidence and general pattern of the damage, to the fact that it had been introduced to the plants through the irrigation water. The source of the chemical in the water has not been traced, but there is evidence that it would not have resulted from a normal agricultural use of the weedkiller. In other words, it seems to have been caused by some accidental spillage into the river system. That is where we are —in the middle of a detective hunt. Where did the spillage take place, who was responsible, and when did it happen?

In this respect the river authority is now checking with every manufacturer of hormone weedkiller on the distribution of bulk supplies of their products in or near the area over the relevant period. We shall try to trace the route over which any bulk supply could have been carried by a vehicle, one drum of which might have been tipped or spilled, or burst open, and have got into the river system. The river authority is also checking on waste tips in the vicinity of all the relevant watercourses which might have been or still are in use for the disposal of chemicals of this kind. These investigations are now being pursued as a matter of urgency. At the same time, the detailed programme of sampling and analysis of the rivers in Essex and of the relevant watercourses in the Great Ouse River Authority area is also going on.

My hon. Friend will know—indeed, it goes through my constituency—that some of the water that comes into the Essex rivers arises from the Great Ouse and is carried down through the tunnel to Wixoe. Therefore, it is necessary to search in the area of the Great Ouse as well in order to make certain that the accidental spillage did not take place there.

I am not complaining about the area of search, or the difficulty of it. I only ask my hon. Friend to accept that it is no easy matter precisely to pin down the cause.

The British Agro Chemical Association is also working in very close cooperation with the river authority to obtain from all its members as rapidly as possible any information that might help to trace these possible sources of pollution in both the Essex and the Great Ouse river authority areas.

I turn for a moment to the risks that are involved. First, I ought to assure the House that there is no medical risk from the concentrations so far found in the water. There is no risk to human beings, animals or fish. The Essex River Authority and the Essex Water Company, like the other authorities, have well-established methods of safeguarding the quality of the water, which include frequent and regular tests. Controls are imposed by the river authority on all human discharges of trade effluents and dumping of trade wastes. The use of agricultural chemicals is tightly controlled by voluntary codes used by manufacturers and growers alike. Chemical, biological and bacteriological surveys of raw water quality are carried out regularly by the river authority. Similar tests are made on treated water.

I am confident that the investigations are proceeding as vigorously as possible. But that leaves us with the problem of the individual growers who have suffered this loss. I must deal briefly with the points that my lion. Friend made about compensation, and about an early warning system.

My hon. Friend was quite right in saying that the legal position in respect of compensation is clear, namely, that compensation cannot be paid unless there is some ground for legal liability. I am bound to tell him that in this case there is no legal liability on the river authority or the water undertaking, for they have carried out their clear duty. The important thing is to find out who allowed this poisonous substance to get into the river system. A case of liability could then well lie against that person. But I do not disguise the fact that it will be extremely difficult to pin down responsibility.

I shall convey to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture the points that have been made by my hon. Friend about the needs of the growers for help. I know that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who is present with me tonight, will herself be considering this question in some detail.

No legal liability is established until we can find out precisely who put the material into the river, and where. A case might then lie against that person. In the meantime, the investigation is proceeding.

I want again to express my regrets to the growers, and to say—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at five minutes to Twelve o'clock.