Underground Fires (Research and Control) and Land Protection

– in the House of Commons at 3:36 pm on 19th January 1988.

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Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes , North East Derbyshire 3:36 pm, 19th January 1988

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to improve research into and services directed towards the prevention, combat, control and extinction of underground fires; and to protect land affected by such fires from consequential damage from subsidence. Before referring specifically to the modest scope of the Bill I am seeking leave to introduce, I wish to place into a wider context the problems the Bill will seek to tackle, which I hope will illustrate the importance and significance of the measures I propose. There are two main reasons for seeking to extend and co-ordinate expertise in handling natural disasters or acts of God; the types of incidents associated with floods, gales and certain fires. First, complexities arise from the rapid technological changes which are taking place around us, or at least apart from in the Chamber.

Centralised aid and back-up facilities are required to monitor, prevent and, if things go wrong, handle local disasters such as the floods affecting Strabane in Northern Ireland, which could arise in complex new harbour developments such as the Felixstowe dock. The gales which recently hit the south could hit high-rise, man-made structures or complex chemical and nuclear plants. Fires can hit complex underground workings and facilities.

The coal mining industry has had 80 cases of heating in the past year and has a long tradition of fires that require stoppings to be placed within pits. The new technology of Selby-type developments means that the problems associated with such fires are extended. The recent King's Cross disaster revealed massive problems in handling underground fires where passages act as wind tunnels, producing unmanageable fires. Bodies such as the Fire Brigades Union have produced well-documented figures on potential accidents and fire incidents in the proposed Channel tunnel.

Apart from these many technological factors, a second set of problems is faced in handling such disasters—the cuts in local government funding. There have been cuts via the rate support grant, and rate capping and grant capping in Derbyshire. Now we are to have the poll tax and the unified business rate, all pushing down the provisions and facilities for local government services, unless the House can prevent the latter development.

Emergency services dealing with nuclear waste, chemical explosions, extensive floods, sweeping gales or fire hazards could be sustained, even in a less than adequate form, if the Department of the Environment established units to provide research and back-up to help prevent or combat the situations I have touched upon.

I concentrate my remaining remarks on underground fires and the need for my Bill. The definitions of three categories of underground fires should be established: the man-made tunnel with supporting walls, such as the Mersey tunnel; the tunnelling exercise to establish those provisions, including mining activities, where roof support is the only method of protection; and underground fires in closed, confined areas where there is no direct access by individuals, such as the fire in the coal seam which occurred at Oakthorpe in Leicestershire and the fire at Dronfield in my constituency, where waste material caught alight under an industrial estate that had been constructed out of waste. The last category could also include other potential sources of fire where gas pipes, oil resources and the like are ignited. It is the final category of enclosed underground fires that my Bill will deal with. The available expertise in handling other underground incidents will need to be brought into consideration by the structure that is set up in the Bill. I am seeking the setting up of a special unit under the supervision of the Department of the Environment, whose services and resources of expertise can be drawn on by local authorities that are now faced with complex matters that go beyond their normal experience and expertise.

At the moment, an interdepartmental committee, which is serviced by the Department of the Environment, is discussing the redevelopment of contaminated land. In July 1986, it produced a second draft of a paper on the fire hazards of contaminated land. It dealt with the main hazards of underground fires and listed them as: 1. Production and release of toxic … noxious gases which can travel considerable distances through the ground; 2. subsidence of the burnt ground, causing physical damage to any buildings or other structures on or near the site of the fire, and creating hidden cavities which may make tackling the fire or reclaiming the land hazardous; 3. heat damage to buried structures and site services, such as power supply cables. It continues: All these hazards are dangerous on derelict sites and much more so on sites which are being or have already been developed. After development has been completed, it may be more difficult and expensive to repair the damage. The final points made in the report are exactly illustrated by the problems that arose in my constituency in the underground fire at Dronfield.

A lead is required to introduce this measure, and I hope that it will be used and built upon in future after the appropriate unit has been established in the Department of the Environment to begin to tackle some of the wider hazards that I have mentioned associated with floods, fires and gales.

I hope that the Bill will gain general support in the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Harry Barnes, Mr. John Cummings, Mr. Harry Cohen, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Mr. Frank Cook, Mr. Martin Redmond, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. Bernie Grant, Mr. Alan Meale, Mr. Dennis Skinner and Mr. John Battle.