Orders of the Day — Waste Dumping (North Sea)

– in the House of Commons at 10:51 pm on 25th January 1990.

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

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland) 11:05 pm, 25th January 1990

I am very glad to have the opportunity to debate in the House the issue of the dumping of waste in the North sea. 1 make no bones about it: as far as I am concerned, the purpose of this debate is to continue to bring pressure on the Government to put an end to this filthy British habit of dumping industrial and chemical waste in the North sea. The immediate precursor of this debate is probably the incidents last week when the Greenpeace ship Sirius attempted to stop the dumping of fly ash by the Central Electricity Generating Board off the north-east coast of England—and it did for a short time disrupt that process.

Much more to the point, the action highlighted what was going on, not only with the dumping of fly ash but also in the licences that were still in force and the new applications being considered and made by the British Government for the dumping of chemical waste in the North sea. There were at that time three applications for licences outstanding, and a fourth application has been submitted this week.

Those licences have drawn the fury of the other countries around the North sea who are signatories to the Oslo Commission and the North sea anti-dumping agreement. Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Holland have all said that they do not accept the prior justification arguments put forward by the British Government, that inadequate information has been provided and that no case has been made that either these materials are harmless or that there is no adequate alternative method of disposal—the prime considerations of the prior justification procedure.

I have seen the letters submitted by several of those Governments and they contain the nub of the argument. For example, the Swedish objection says: In our view the proposed dumping of industrial waste, MAFF/DAS752, is not in accordance with the decision taken by the commission in 1989 … According to your report there also seem to be alternative synthesis routes available, routes that other producers have found practicable and economically feasible. The Dutch Government have gone somewhat further and said: As indicated in Berlin and Ghent it is very difficult to assess the availability of alternatives if so little detailed information is given. The present information is more detailed, in comparison with the data submitted in Berlin. Nevertheless the level of detail is still not sufficient to enable outsiders to assess and to advise on possible alternatives.… The documentation of no alternative treatment is very poor and it is therefore difficult to accept the conclusion.

Norway, on behalf of the Oslo Commission, has asked for an urgent meeting to discuss Britain's continuing dumping of waste in the North sea.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland)

I have very little time.

This, I understand, is to take place on 14 February in London, but the Minister will no doubt tell us when he replies. My understanding is that the Government intend to maintain a robust line, defending their position.

I have also been advised that the application by Fisons, who wanted to dump 4,000 tonnes of waste from Intal allergy/asthma medicine, has been withdrawn by the company, fundamentally because of the adverse public reaction, and presumably the judgment that it is not good for the company's image to be associated with that kind of dumping. Sterling Organics still wants to dump 42,000 tonnes of waste from paracetemol. I understand that it is para-aminophenol, which is known to be toxic. Orsynthetics wants to dump 3,000 tonnes of waste from the production of ortholybignanide.

In addition, Fine Organics has apparently, through the British Government, applied for a licence, for which prior justification is sought by the British Government, to dump 8,000 tonnes of chemical waste. I am told that the waste is mostly alcohol, which has a very high oxygen demand and is likely to have a negative effect on marine environment.

The important point is that the British Government's line tends to be, "We have no evidence that these substances are harmful. They are diluted and dispersed. Therefore, we should dump them." My challenge to the Government is, is it not high time, in the changing circumstances and with the pressure from other countries, to presume that substances which are certainly not beneficial or naturally occurring in the North sea should not be dumped where they cannot be monitored and where the consequences cannot be determined? The Government should consider whether there are other means of disposal which allow for proper monitoring and control.

That raises another factor—whether adequate monitoring takes place of the dump sites in the North sea. The evidence is that the Department has inadequate resources to conduct monitoring satisfactorily, and that we are continuing to dump without knowing the consequences.

Another question that arises is whether these companies, and presumably other companies which operate under licences, were told of the implications of the North sea agreement. Were they given an indication that dumping was to end and that they should be looking for alternatives, or were they told nothing? Worse still, were they told not to worry, that the Government, under the prior justification procedure, would ensure that they could carry on dumping, and that this was simply a fig leaf to give the impression that Britain had taken an initiative to advance the limitation of dumping in the North sea, when in reality it was attempting to get out of the commitment? I am afraid that that is becoming increasingly the way the British Government choose to operate—claiming rhetorically that a great deal is being done to advance environmental protection, when they are actually trying to find methods of escaping their obligations.

Indeed, through the Environmental Protection Bill, the Government are seeking to write the prior justification procedure into the law. For those who might not appreciate the implications, it might look good in the Bill but, far from tightening the law, the Government are trying to give a new reinforcement to their unilateral action, which has been roundly condemned in many parts of Europe.

The evidence of waste build-up in the North sea justifies concern. A report in August 1988 states: A joint monitoring programme carried out by the North Sea states under the aegis of the Oslo and Paris Commissions has shown that concentrations of mercury, cadmium and polychlorinated biphenyls"— mostly from sewage sludge— in coastal waters have declined less rapidly than have pollutant loads, but that pollution levels are at worst stable and at best falling slowly in virtually every area. So there is no justification for carrying on a process that all other countries have recognised should end, and have ended.

The position gets worse. The countries in the Oslo Commission are also trying to tighten the controls on the dumping of sewage sludge. Britain is the worst offender. There are two draft final declarations for the third North sea conference in March this year. One states that the objective as regards the disposal of sewage sludge in the North sea should be

  1. "(a) to monitor and review dumping operations with regard to paragraph 21 of the London Declaration with a view to adopting land based means of disposal whenever this becomes a practicable alternative;
  2. (b) to continue their efforts to reduce the contamination of such sludges by materials that are persistent, toxic or liable to bioaccumulate, so that they pose no hazard to the marine environment and to ensure that the quantities of such contaminants disposed to sea by this pathway in the immediate future do not increase"
above 1987 levels.

That is the British Government's submission. Let us compare that with the submission of the Federal Republic of Germany, supported by most other countries: (a) to gradually reduce the dumping of sewage sludge in the North sea, aiming at a termination within a transitional period"— of five years— (b) to launch as soon as possible a programme to achieve such a reduction". In other words, there is a clear, unequivocal objective to put a stop to the process, but the British Government will not sign it. We have tabled an alternative, which effectively would allow us to carry on dumping.

Interestingly, the Government complain about their image. The Guardian, on 6 December 1989 reported the Secretary of State for the Environment as saying: I am tired of seeing the UK pilloried as the dirty man of Europe. That tag is simply not accurate. The Government do not have the slightest chance of getting rid of that tag as long as they carry on with such actions. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food cannot state, as he did in his written answer of 4 December: The United Kingdom is fully meeting international agreements reached unanimously by the North sea countries."—[Official Report, 4 December 1989; Vol. 163, c.104.] Ours is the only country that believes that to be true. Every other signatory is protesting vehemently about our interpretation of the treaty. To blame Germany for polluting the North sea through its rivers is not a relevant response.

The Government are certainly in spirit, and possibly even in the letter, flouting the agreement to stop dumping chemical industrial wastes in the North sea. In so doing, they are becoming the biggest threat to marine life and the total ecosystem of the North sea as far as Britain is responsible for it.

The evidence may not be automatically connected, but once-common seals are dying in their hundreds, dolphins are fighting for their very existence and fish stocks are falling disastrously, with appalling economic consequences for fishing communities, especially in Scotland. The Government's response to the problem is to carry on dumping, because they say that there is no evidence that what they are doing is harmful and they do not intend to comply with what every other member state expects them to do. While every other country has stopped waste dumping, Britain carries on. The Government say that it is harmless and there is no risk—they should tell that to the marine environment.

Britain alone continues to dump sewage sludge—3·5 million tonnes was dumped in 1989, contaminated with heavy metals. The Government say that that poses no risk. Britain continues to incinerate 90,000 tonnes of highly toxic waste off the coast of Scarborough every year, and claims that that is harmless. No wonder the other nations around the North sea are outraged by Britain's cynacism in allowing 22 dumping licences to continue in operation, with one more being sought. Among its neighbours, Britain is simply becoming an environmental outcast.

The fly ash dumping, although not the subject of the complaint, is a real issue, because it suffocates marine life. It sets like concrete on the sea bed and sterilises that area. Some 98·5 per cent, of all fly ash is disposed of in other ways, so it is ludicrous to suggest that there is no other way of doing so. A local company, Thermalite, in the north-east of England, has said that it could have taken it all and coverted it to breeze blocks. Fly ash dumping, therefore, should come to an end.

The objections which have come from the Nordic countries and Holland not only require answer at the Oslo Commission, but the matter is to be debated at the European Parliament, by its environment committee on 1 and 2 February. The German Government have called for a stop, and Mrs. Maji-Waggen, the Dutch Minister of Public Works and Transport, who will chair the next North sea conference in March, has called Britain's explanations unsatisfactory and said that Britain appears to stick to procedures, not agreements. We hail our agreement as a great breakthrough and then cop out on the technicalities afterwards.

The North sea is becoming seriously polluted. The information may not be fully available and may be disputed, but it is no longer justified to go on adding to a problem which we have not yet learnt how to tackle and solve.

The Secretary of State for the Environment should be ashamed of himself. It is not his Department that issues these licences .or answers this debate. He should get a grip on the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to make it stop its filthy habits. He should ensure that, if Britain is to take a lead on environmental issues, it honours the obligations that it has signed, not just in the letter, but in the spirit.

He should ensure that it puts pressure—this is an important point—on companies to recognise that they cannot rely on cheap dumping of waste at sea, but must find ways of reducing the waste, recycling material and developing the best techniques to ensure that waste is handled well, minimised and, when disposed of, done so in a way that can be seen to be least harmful and most effectively monitored.

Companies must not be allowed simply to toss waste into the environment, without any possibility of retrieval, effective monitoring and seeming to say, in a cavalier manner, "We do not believe it is harmful, so we do not propose to stop it." That is against the evidence of all the marine life in the North sea, which is facing a fight for its very survival.

The Government rightly stand condemned, and they will not be able to clean up their act until they ensure that British industry cleans up its act and stops the filthy habit of dumping rubbish in our North sea.

Photo of David Curry David Curry , Skipton and Ripon 11:20 pm, 25th January 1990

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) for raising this subject, albeit in a frantic sort of way. I found some of his remarks rather bizarre. The idea that fish stocks have declined principally because of pollution is daft. They have declined basically because of over-fishing. When that has ceased and there has been restraint—for example, in herring—the stocks have come back very strongly indeed.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned incineration. He failed to mention that the United Kingdom incinerates less than 5 per cent, of the total amount and that it is all done aboard a Dutch ship, which is presumably registered by the Dutch Minister to whom he referred. Many of his remarks in that context bore the same hallmark of a sort of frantic objection without looking at the facts of the case. He is anxious to paint us as the villain of the North sea, but I decline that mantle of villainy.

I should make clearly at the outset an essential point. The Government fully endorse the objective of stopping the dumping of liquid industrial waste, so there is no difference between us on that. We are committed to stopping it at the earliest practicable date, and where we differ appears to be on those practicabilities. Our position is clear-cut: we shall terminate the licences as soon as safe alternatives of disposal are available on land.

Photo of David Curry David Curry , Skipton and Ripon

If the hon. Gentleman, who has spoken at length on other matters earlier tonight, will listen to me, he will hear that I have figures to sustain the point that I am making.

It might be helpful if I were to distinguish the various categories of dumping at sea which we license. The hon. Member for Gordon referred to industrial waste. There are certain categories of waste which nobody has the intention of phasing out in dumping at sea. For example, there is dredged spoil. Most companies dump that at sea, because disposal on land can be difficult. Most North sea countries dump dredged spoil in their inshore waters. There is no question of a ban on dumping at sea in general by anybody; nobody has suggested that.

There is sewage sludge, to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Then there is the industrial waste in its solid and liquid form. The North sea conference declaration exempted inert material, of which minestone is the only one being dumped to any degree, from its controls. For the other industrial wastes, the declaration envisages that dumping will stop. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the North sea conference is made up of the eight North sea riparian states, and covers all means of polluting the sea.

We do not for a minute believe that we are in breach of the international commitment that we accepted in that declaration. It is not the case that there was to be a complete ban on the dumping of industrial waste from the end of 1989. The ministerial declaration stated that the dumping of industrial waste in the North sea should be phased out by the end of December 1989, except for inert materials of natural origin or other materials which could be shown to the competent international organisation to cause no harm in the marine environment.

It was also agreed as a matter of principle that waste should not be dumped unless there were no practical alternatives on land. Indeed, the Oslo Commission, at the request of the North sea conference, specifically developed a procedure for licensing industrial waste after 1989, and through that we are required to demonstrate that particular wastes cause no harm in the marine environment and that there are no practical alternatives for dumping the wastes on land. That is the procedure that we are now following.

The special meeting to which the hon. Gentleman referred—it was requested by the Swedes, Norwegians and Danes—will take place on 14 February. Objections came from those three countries and from the Netherlands, and informal objection came from Germany. Seven members have not so far registered any objection.

We are committed to phasing out the dumping of liquid industrial wastes. We are not licensing new wastes. We are requiring exising licensees to take all necessary steps to stop the dumping at the earliest possible time. Any suggestion that my Department is somehow giving the nod and the wink to companies, saying, "Don't worry chaps, go ahead, we will make it possible for you to do it," could not be further from the truth.

We are making good progress. There were more than 100 liquid industrial licences in 1980. By the time of the second North sea conference, that figure was down to 20. Between the second North sea conference and the end of last year, we got rid of more than half of those. Last week, I announced that Fisons would not receive a licence in 1990 because an alternative method of disposal appeared practicable. That leaves eight liquid industrial waste licences. More will go during 1990, and virtually all the remainder by the end of 1991. By that date, there will be virtually no licences. There may be the odd exception, and I shall refer to that later.

I want the practicalities to be understood. Disposal arrangements on land can not be set up overnight, and research will be needed into appropriate methods of treatment. We want recycling or re-use of waste to be considered. When a method is found, it must be engineered, an investment made and the plans tested. Immediate termination of sea disposal could be done only if environmentally risky disposal methods on land were used, and we do not intend to breach our established environmental guidelines and risk harm on land.

The only alternative is to stop production, and that is not a practical course. For example, Tate and Lyle dumps certain products. It refines sugar from the Commonwealth countries, and there has been a great deal of debate about the company. It is not a practical option to say, "Let us not have the product; then we can get away from the manifestation of it." It is more sensible to drive forward in our search for alternatives, so that in a short time we can say that dumping at sea is no longer necessary. That is the policy of my Department, and I have cited figures to show the determination with which we are pursuing it.

Photo of Mr Neville Trotter Mr Neville Trotter , Tynemouth

Unfortunately there is an image, fostered by some of the campaigners, that the position is new and becoming worse. In fact, it has existed for decades and is becoming better. Will my hon. Friend spell out the Government's determination that dumping will cease?

Photo of David Curry David Curry , Skipton and Ripon

My hon. Friend represents a north-east constituency where these matters are important. I say without equivocation that it is the Government's policy to bring to an end the dumping of industrial waste at sea. We intend to drive forward with that policy and expect that, within two years, there will be virtually no dumping—although there may be the odd exception where limited dumping will be permitted.

The wastes do not cause harm in the sea. It is all too easy to refer to "toxic" chemical wastes—if they were toxic, we would not issue a licence. Some of the wastes are acid or alkaline, and when they enter the sea a chemical reaction takes place and the wastes are neutralised into salts and water. The salts concerned are already present in the sea in large quantities. There are also trace elements in the wastes.

It is not the case that there are large quantities of heavy metals. In fact, metals are naturally present in the sea, as I know the hon. Member for Gordon appreciates. Often, no metals are detectable in the waste. There are some organic substances that biodegrade rapidly. After five minutes in the water, the phenol in the waste is at a concentration of about one thousandth of that used in a mouth gargle. The sugar refining waste is composed only of chalk and materials that were approved for food production use.

Each waste that we licence has been thoroughly scrutinised, and we know exactly what it contains. We also know how it will behave in the sea. We have carried out monitoring work, and licence-holders have carried out their own programmes. We have published the results of our work. We also have a substantial annual monitoring programme for contaminants in fish and shellfish in our waters. The results are also published. They show that contaminants concentrations in fish taken from areas used for dumping are no higher than for other areas.

I know that the hon. Member for Gordon and my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Trotter) have a special interest in fly ash. That waste is covered by the same North sea conference rules as liquid industrial waste. There are two dump sites off the north-east coast of England, which serve three power stations. National Power has carried out studies of alternative options for disposal and is now urgently working on detailed proposals—with more than encouragement from my Department.

If there is a market for re-use of the fly ash, it will no doubt wish to re-use it, and I shall draw the company's attention to the suggestion of the hon. Member for Gordon that there is a potential customer for the product. That will be good news, if it is substantiated. However, markets cannot be generated out of thin air. If the company has to dispose of the waste on land, this will have its own environmental problems. My hon. Friend will appreciate that, if it comes to applications for permission to build dump sites on the land or to put waste down holes, there will clearly be problems. There will be objections from local communities. There is no easy solution in the case of a product like this, which everybody agrees is not simply going to go away.

Photo of Mr Neville Trotter Mr Neville Trotter , Tynemouth

I accept what the Minister says. Obviously there are very considerable difficulties in finding a land solution. But it is a fact that every other power station in the country found such a solution, and one will have to be found for these power stations in the north-east.

Photo of David Curry David Curry , Skipton and Ripon

I have drawn precisely that point to the attention of National Power in relation to these power stations, as an encouragement to it to make even greater efforts to find an alternative solution. National Power will have to address these arguments effectively. We shall not extend the licence until it is absolutely necessary and until we are convinced that a genuine search for alternatives is being undertaken by the company.

It is suggested that our licensed dumping is harming the marine environment. Let me just put this matter in context. Dumping on this site began in the early 1960s—well before there were licence controls at all. We have actually reduced the area that may be used for dumping. Dumping may now be carried out only on an area already smothered by unlicensed dumping.

I do not dispute the smothering effect of the product—I do not dispute the chemistry of the process—but I must insist that we are very restrictive about where it is allowed to be dumped. Before licensing was introduced, it was already taking place. The licensed area is rather smaller, and our monitoring shows that areas of the sea bed that were once dumped upon, but are no longer, are now recovering and regenerating.

Many North sea countries dump dredged spoil, which has a smothering effect. There is no proposal to ban dredged spoil disposal at sea. The concern expressed by other North sea countries relates to their concern that fly ash might be toxic in the sea. This is not the case. Indeed, delay in recovery of the areas affected by fly ash can probably be put down to the fact that the material is so inert. We shall shortly be submitting a paper to the Oslo Commission as required by these procedures. This will give the evidence for our position that this waste is harmless.

As for dredged materials, we must not forget that the bulk of dumping at sea is carried out by North sea countries and consists of disposal of the spoil dredged from ports and navigations in order to keep shipping lanes open. But dumping of dredged spoil is also kept under strict controls. There are Oslo Commission guidelines, which the United Kingdom played a leading role in developing, and we are pleased that other countries have been able to agree to conform to these guidelines.

Minestone is not covered by the North sea conference rules. However, it is our policy that dumping of minestone at sea should also be terminated as soon as possible. This will not be easy. A number of reviews have been carried out of possible land disposal options for minestone. Nevertheless, we are continuing to press for land disposal options to be thoroughly examined.

Let me make the Government's position absolutely clear. We accept that dumping of these products at sea will have to cease. With our conference signature, we undertook quite clearly that we would work as rapidly as practicable towards that objective. Within the last few minutes, I have quoted figures to show that we have made rapid progress towards that end.

I have also said that, within the next two years, there will be virtually no necessity to continue dumping. The principal exception that I have in mind is, as the hon. Member will be aware, that ICI is investing £30 million in a plant to dispose alternatively of some of its wastes, and the construction of that plant may go a little beyond the deadline to which I have been referring.

Where we are convinced that there is an alternative, we will not be prepared to give a licence. The reason for the refusal to renew the Fisons licence was that our investigations suggested that there was an alternative. If one looks at the number of companies involved and at the products being disposed of, one will find that, in many cases, the alternative that appears to be the most practical is to treat the product so that it is purified to the degree at which it can go into the sewage treatment works.

From the list of possibilities in front of me, it is quite clear that that is one of the major options where a product is more bulky. Drying and use for, say, road building is a real possibility. Various forms of recycling is feasible. So, we are not talking about an enormous time scale: we are talking about measures that are feasible, with investment, engineering and determination. My Department is determined to see that those things come together.

I am sure that we can look the other members of the North sea conference in the face, because we have made extremely rapid progress. That progress has been substantial. My Department, far from conniving in the practice, as the hon. Gentleman seemed to imply, is the driving force in getting rid of the practice. We agree with the tide of public opinion that thinks that it should stop, and we intend to promote that end.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Twelve o'clock.