Water Quality (Norfolk)

STATUTORY INSTRUMENTS, &c. – in the House of Commons at 12:06 am on 12th July 1990.

Alert me about debates like this

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

Photo of Mr John Garrett Mr John Garrett , Norwich South 12:13 am, 12th July 1990

In this brief and late debate I wish to raise a number of issues related to declining water quality that concern my constituents and those who live in the county of Norfolk. There are two main water problems in the county: first, a water shortage caused by population growth and low rainfall, so that rivers and fens are drying out because of over-abstraction; secondly, pollution that affects drinking water, coastal bathing waters, marine life, rivers and inland bathing waters. I shall deal with the second issue.

Water pollution incidents in East Anglia caused by farms, sewage and industry have risen by 60 per cent. since 1980, but only 2 per cent. of offenders have been prosecuted. The bulk of the prosecutions were for farm pollution. The recent National Audit Office report showed that silage effluent and slurry are major pollutants of water supplies because of poor construction of silos and ineffective effluent management systems but found that

farmers are reluctant to invest in systems without grant support. East Anglia has high concentrations of nitrates because of the widespread use of fertilisers in farming. Even if no further fertilisers were used, nitrate levels would continue to rise because it takes up to 40 years for the chemical to seep through to the groundwater.

Five Norfolk boreholes, including Thorpe and Bowthorpe in the city of Norwich, were named by the European Commission in the indictment taking the British Government to court because they regularly exceeded the maximum recommendation of 50 mg per litre of water. Anglian Water has 25 derogations in force on nitrate and nitrite levels, but not for the Bowthorpe supply. Here lower levels are achieved by blending supplies from different sources but the environmental health department of Norwich city council is concerned about the effectiveness of blending.

The Government have responded to the concern about nitrates and last summer designated 12 nitrate-sensitive areas throughout the country where compensation will be paid to farmers who voluntarily reduce the amount of nitrates used on their crops. Amazingly, Norfolk, with the highest levels, is not one of them. At a further nine sites, three of which are in Norfolk, farmers will be encouraged, without compensation, to reduce the use of nitrates. Why are there no nitrate-sensitive area designations in Norfolk?

The Anglian Water region has by far the highest number of breaches of the maximum admissible concentration for combined pesticides. Water supplies in East Anglia are more contaminated by pesticides than those in any other part of the country. Anglian Water was the only company regularly found by the Department of the Environment to have concentrations above the EC limits of all seven pesticides tested for in its drinking water supplies. Mecoprop, atrazine, simazine, dimethoate and lindane were detected regularly at 20 out of 22 sites. Most of those are on the red list of inputs of dangerous substances to water. The 1987 report of the Select Committee on Agriculture, dealing with the effects of pesticides on human health, made 45 recommendations, including one—No. 25—on ground water.

It stated: If regions are found where serious contamination occurs, urgent action should be taken to moderate the use of offending pesticides. What are the Government doing about that recommendation? Anglian Water is a major polluter. In 1986, 40 per cent. and in 1987 34 per cent. of Anglian Water treatment works tested breached their discharge contents—compared with an average of 23 per cent. and 21 per cent. in England and Wales. Anglian water is substantially the worst performing authority in this regard. In Norwich, much pollution is attributable to the decaying Victorian sewerage system. Storm drains carry raw sewage straight into the Wensum, putting the canoe training centre at Gibraltar gardens and swimming places at Bawburgh, Lyng, Earlham Park, Lakenham Cock, Hellesdon Meadow and many parts of the broads at risk. As no inland waters have been designated under the EC directive on the quality of bathing water, they are not sampled. Why are no inland waters designated when they are clearly used for bathing, as in this case?

Nearly five tonnes of mercury have been released into the Yare since 1976. About half of that is still in the river and the rest was swept out to sea. Mercury is not tested for in the coastal waters of Norfolk. No one realised that mercury was building up in the river bed until a local naturalist and diver carried out an examination and found the once thriving river severely affected.

Norwich city council environmental hazards committee recommended warning signs, but a letter from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to Norwich environmental health officer thought that would "cause public disquiet." The fact that there was already public disquiet led me to ask a parliamentary question in May 1989 about the mercury levels in the River Yare. I was told that the levels were all above the EC limit. The fish are still contaminated and no one has taken action to warn the public, especially fishermen, of the hazard. Do the Government still think that warning notices about this and other pollutants cause disquiet?

In 1985 a public inquiry into the building of the Costessey Pits storage scheme was told by Anglian Water that it was necessary because of the ground water contamination and the "present and potential hazards" of abstracting water from the Heigham plant. Heigham is regularly monitored by the National Rivers Authority which says that it is "improving slightly". Nevertheless, on several occasions it has breached the EC standard for pesticides in drinking water.

In 1987, the Thorpe borehole was found to be contaminated with industrial solvents, one of which is on the red list. Anglian Water investigated the contamination and Norwich city council requested a copy of the report, but after three years it has still not received a copy, and it remains concerned about the condition of the water.

The EC requires member countries to safeguard their water aquifer supplies because they are difficult and expensive to treat once they have become contaminated. The EC has issued in a draft directive standards that most British waste tips fail to meet. Anglian Water depends on ground water for 51 per cent. of its water supply. Using an unpublished Government survey, Friends of the Earth located two toxic waste tips at Harford Bridges and West Beckham near Cromer which are classified by the Department of the Environment as "serious" risks to ground water and no fewer than 48 other Norfolk tip sites pose some risk to ground water.

There is also a large question mark hanging over the Attlebridge tip, in which 100 BSE-infected cattle carcases have been dumped, and that could lead to the leaching of infected matter into the River Wensum. The farmer living near the tip has been advised not to drink the water from his borehole as it contains ammonia and industrial solvents. The tip is less than the 1 km from the river that is advised in the directive and drinking water for most of Norwich is extracted from the River Wensum. Why do the Government not insist on the lining of tips as recommended by the directive?

Otters have disappeared from the rivers Waveney, Yare, Little Ouse, Bure, Wensum and Glaven in the past 20 years. The cause appears to be PCBs which leak from hydraulic pumps, common on fenland rivers. Should not these pumps be banned and replaced?

Last year blue-green algae was found at three Norfolk sites—at Filby broad, Barton broad and Blickling lake. This year it has already reappeared at Blickling lake as well as at Ranworth, Salhouse, South Walsham, Filby and Hoveton great broad. The Minister said in this House that there were no significant increases in nutrients last year and that it is not possible to prevent algae as they are a naturally occurring phenomenon. The broads authority disagrees and has sent evidence to the Royal Commission on environmental pollution arguing for further EC action on water quality and Government action on research and on consent levels for polluting discharges and grants to control agricultural pollution. Have the Government responded to this concern? Where is the Anglian task force report promised by the Minister for the early summer in an Adjournment debate on Rutland Water in April?

The news that the EC is taking action against the British Government because 140 beaches, including three in Norfolk at Sheringham, Cromer and Great Yarmouth, failed to meet EC standards came four days after the go-ahead for the long sea sewage outfall at West Runton. People are astonished and angered at the decision, particularly as the Secretary of State promised in March that the discharge by pipeline of raw sewage into the sea would be phased out as soon as possible. As the local paper put it: Anglian Water were tight-lipped in the wake of the announcement from Mr. Patten". A similar scheme at Fleetwood in Lancashire was refused and yet, after tremendous public protest, including 9,000 letters, it has been decided that the West Runton outfall goes ahead.

It comes as no surprise to hear that so many beaches fail the EC directive. Those of us who have studied the bathing water survey have been struck by its cursory nature and answers to parliamentary questions have been less than satisfactory. The directive lays down mandatory limits for total and faecal coliforms tested at fortnightly intervals in the bathing season, and states that no salmonella or enteroviruses should be present. It also states that there should be no abnormal colour change, no visible film or foam and no odour, with further checks if it is thought that heavy metals, cyanides, nitrates and phosphates, pesticides or ammonia are in the water as well as floating waste. The directive expresses the hope that member states will endeavour to observe the guidelines. We do not. Of Norfolk's nine designated bathing beaches, only Mundesley meets the mandatory standards, and none meets the recommended guidelines. Wells, Mundesley arid Great Yarmouth North were never tested for salmonella or enteroviruses. Heacham and Hunstanton were tested five times, but the other beaches only twice. Great Yarmouth pier and South beaches failed all tests except one.

The popular beaches at Caister, Hemsby, Corton arid Pakefield, with their caravans, bungalows and holiday camps, are not designated and therefore not tested; yet Caister has a sewage outfall pipe. Why are bathers not informed of the health dangers of beaches so that they know which resorts to avoid? I have never received satisfactory answers to parliamentary questions that I have tabled asking whether Anglian Water has tested bathing water for the chemicals and heavy metals mentioned in the directive.

According to the 1988 Eastern Sea Fisheries district report, there is evidence of a major pollutant threat to the shellfish industry and also to the environmental wellbeing in this area. Despite such warnings being given and repeated … little has been done to improve sea water quality. There are closure orders on mussel beds in the Wash, and all mussels from the Norfolk coast marketed in the United Kingdom are now subject to prior cleansing.

Discharges of glycol by the offshore gas industry in the Bacton area are thought to be responsible for the deaths of sea birds. The RSPCA has found mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls and dioxins in the bodies of the many birds found on the Norfolk beaches. Those chemicals undermine their immune systems, and, in 1988, appeared to have allowed the bacterium paramyoxena to infect seals with the distemper virus that killed them in such large numbers off the north Norfolk coast.

Until we admit that the problems exist, we cannot implement solutions. The Government resist decisions made by the North sea conference, and contend that marine life is not affected by industrial waste and sewage sludge. They prefer to listen to the CBI, which has urged them not to agree to the phasing out of dumping of industrial waste because of the cost, and to Anglian Water, which contends that dumping is an economic and efficient way of dealing with sewage sludge.

While the Department of Health warns people not to eat shellfish, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food says that they are safe. While the Department of the Environment reassures us about drinking and bathing water, the European Commission takes the Government to court for failing to implement the directives.

In the run-up to privatisation, there was a complete clampdown on information. An Anglian Water scientist was prevented from presenting a paper on pollution data to a conference on agricultural pollution. For some months, both the Countryside Commission and I were even refused a list of the sites of special scientific interest in Anglian Water ownership; surely that was a modest enough request.

The pollution inspectorate is understaffed and under-resourced. The National Rivers Authority is responsible for monitoring water quality, but does not enforce that responsibility adequately. The shortage of environmental health officers and money impairs the ability of local authorities to fulfil their duties.

We need far more openness and public information on these matters. Data on pollution should be publicly available; warning notices should be put up. There should be a programme to eliminate the filth from our rivers and bathing waters. The quality of water is a matter of increasing public concern.

Photo of David Heathcoat-Amory David Heathcoat-Amory , Wells 12:27 am, 12th July 1990

The hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) has made a wide-ranging speech. In the few minutes that remain, I shall try to summarise the action that we are taking in the affected areas.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government are committed to maintaining high standards of water quality, and to securing the necessary improvements where existing standards are below what we would wish. We now have in place the right regulatory system to achieve that. The separation of the regulator from the operator was a key feature of the privatisation of the former water authorities. We have established a National Rivers Authority, which is widely recognised as perhaps the strongest environmental protection agency in Europe. We have two other regulators, the Director General of Water Services and the drinking water inspectorate. That separation also means that the private sector water service companies are now in a position to raise the substantial capital sums necessary to improve drinking water quality and waste water treatment.

Some £14 billion is due to be spent by the water service companies during the next 10 years on drinking water. But I emphasise that already most supplies in the country, including Norfolk, regularly meet the stringent requirements of the EC drinking water directive, and our drinking water regulations which, in some respects, impose still tighter standards.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned nitrates. I can confirm that most drinking water supplies already meet the standards required, but the water industry is actively working to ensure that the remainder do so as quickly as possible, either through the blending of water supplies or through nitrate removal plants.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned nitrate sensitive areas and nitrate advisory areas, three of which are in Norfolk. They will help to give us and the National Rivers Authority the necessary experience in tackling nitrate concentrations in drinking water. All the areas were chosen, on the advice of the NRA, to provide a range of farming types and geology. Decisions on what sort of measures would be taken in each area were based on where results could best be obtained. This is the first scheme of its kind in the country and we shall be monitoring progress closely with the object of learning how best to tackle nitrate concentrations. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that Anglian Water has assured us that all supplies in Norfolk should comply with the EC nitrate standard by the end of 1994.

On pesticides, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the Government's medical advisers do not regard the trace amounts of pesticides that have been revealed by extensive monitoring as a danger to public health. The precautionary standards for pesticides in the EC directive are not based on toxicological data and we have formally requested a review of those standards. But it obviously still remains an aim to reduce such instances of pesticides in drinking water as far as practicable.

The water companies and the NRA carry out extensive monitoring. The NRA routinely monitors the concentration of dangerous substances in water courses and the water companies are responsible for monotoring the quality of the water that they supply in accordance with the Water Supply (Water Quality) Regulations 1989.

Therefore, we are committed to ensuring that the standards are met wherever that is technically possible. Again, Anglian Water has submitted undertakings to the Secretary of State to comply with the pesticides standards throughout Norfolk by the end of 1995.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned waste disposal sites. The NRA is in close contact with the waste regulation authorities over those sites that are believed to present a risk of causing water pollution. The lining of existing landfill sites may not be possible, but the Environmental Protection Bill, currently before Parliament, sets higher standards and brings in a stricter licensing regime. It may well be that in those areas where the geology is not suitable the lining of new landfill sites will become far more common.

The hon. Gentleman rightly made considerable play in his speech about the need for public information. We remain committed to the principle of the widest possible public access to environmental information. Perhaps I can demonstrate that by reference to bathing waters—another of the issues that he mentioned. He complained that not enough beaches in East Anglia, and particularly in Norfolk, came up to EC standards for the quality of coastal waters.

Generally, British bathing waters are nowhere near as bad as some people would have it. We have identified 440 bathing waters under the EC directive, and three quarters of them now meet EC standards. I hope that local authorities will now act to bring those beaches up to the higher standards required for their designation as blue flag beaches. There are a number of such beaches on the East Anglian coast. Earlier this week I visited a beach at Lowestoft which comes up to EC standards for the quality of its bathing waters. Also I was glad to see that the local authority had provided public conveniences and information boards and had kept the beach free of litter.

As regards the voluntary provision of information to visitors, we encourage local authorities to provide information on public notice boards, and there is nothing to stop them doing so. The National Rivers Authority already makes that information and the raw testing data available on public registers and it is now up to interested voluntary bodies and local authorities to disseminate that information as widely as they wish.

The water industry throughout the country expects to spend some £3 billion on measures specifically designed to ensure that bathing waters meet the EC directive standards, and on implementing the recently announced policy that, in future, all significant discharges of sewage to coastal waters or to estuaries should first receive treatment.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of specific bathing waters in the area. I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to Yarmouth. Great Yarmouth south, Sheringham and Cromer are three bathing waters that fail the test. All of them are now covered by improvement schemes. I agree with the hon. Gentleman—as I think we can all agree—that too many of our beaches fail the test.

In the past, Governments of all parties failed to give water treatment in coastal areas the attention and investment that it deserved. I assure the hon. Gentleman that that is no longer the case, and that we have an ambitious investment programme in train, which is to be carried out by water service companies. It is not always easy to put in place the complex engineering and technical plant, particularly as planning issues may arise.

Our programme should bring all our coastal waters up to EC standards well before the end of the decade. I do not believe that appearances before the European Court of Justice can accelerate that process.

The hon. Gentleman asked why inland bathing waters have not been designated for the purpose of the directive. The simple answer is that we are satisfied that no inland waters at present meet the criteria for identification, which involves much more than a simple test of whether people bathe there. Local environmental health officers may monitor water quality at such places and make the information publicly available, and the hon. Gentleman may encourage them to do so.

As to river quality in Norfolk, the rivers there are, in common with the rest of the country, of good or fair quality. Throughout the United Kingdom, 95 per cent. of rivers are of good or fair quality, which compares favourably with the situation in Europe, where we believe that only 75 per cent. of rivers are of comparable quality.

Privatisation of the water industry has enabled us to plan for further improvements. The water industry will be spending about £11 billion over the next 10 years on improving its sewage treatment works and the sewerage system generally. Anglian Water's investment programme will amount to some £1.5 billion during that period.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned high levels of metal contamination of the River Yare. In the early 1980s, elevated levels of mercury in that river were traced to a pharmaceutical works in Norwich, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that mercury is no longer being discharged by the company concerned, and concentrations in the river are regularly below the limit of detection. Concentrations in sediments have reduced dramatically—though, inevitably, sediments take longer to clear. Fish taken from the River Yare now meet the EC's requirements for mercury levels, and the results of the NRA's monitoring of water quality in the river are available for inspection on the public registers that the authority maintains. I must take issue with the hon. Gentleman if he is suggesting that there is any secrecy. Not only is monitoring undertaken but the results are available to the hon. Gentleman and to other members of the public.

I am not complacent about river quality in Norfolk or anywhere else. There remains much to be done, but we have in place a highly ambitious investment programme and the right administrative structure to ensure that it is successful. The new water service companies have access to the necessary capital required. We can look forward to a gradual but further improvement in water quality—not only for drinking but of waste water. That will lead in turn to cleaner beaches.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to One o'clock.