Sonae Factory (Kirkby)

– in the House of Commons at 10:12 pm on 27th February 2007.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Huw Irranca-Davies.]

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East 10:14 pm, 27th February 2007

The Sonae chipboard factory in Kirkby in my constituency has been a source of controversy and concern since it first opened in January 2000. There have been four fires in the past 12 months. The most recent fire, which occurred last week, is the latest in a growing catalogue of incidents that have left many people understandably concerned about the safety of both the work force and the residents who live close to the factory.

Later in my speech I shall list the various prosecutions that have taken place, on behalf of Knowsley council, which is responsible for regulating the process under pollution control legislation, the Health and Safety Executive, which exercises responsibility for the health and safety of the work force, and the Environment Agency. First, however, it is important to highlight the concerns of local residents about Sonae. The skyline of Kirkby is dominated by an 85 metre high chimney stack, which, when the factory is operating, belches out a long plume of smoke—or as Sonae would have it, steam. The chimney stack is a navigational landmark for miles around, and I am told that pilots use it as a reference point on the flight path to Liverpool John Lennon airport.

Kirkby has a long and unhappy history of health problems, most particularly of cancer. A debate is currently under way locally about the causes of the high rates of certain kinds of cancer. I have recently been responsible, along with others, for the establishment of a monitoring group to consider what action is being taken and to monitor the research that is under way. However, there is a widespread belief in Kirkby that industrial pollution is at least part of the problem, and the name most often mentioned is, sad to say, Sonae. Time prevents me from going into the various theories on the causes of the abnormally high rates of cancer in Kirkby, but, at the risk of understating the case, I simply say that many local people are deeply suspicious of the effect that Sonae has on the town's health. Councillor Terry Garland, one of the Northwood councillors, spoke for many earlier this week when he said:

"as far as the people of Northwood are concerned, Sonae should be closed down and the sooner this happens the better. Since Sonae has been in Kirkby, it has been perceived as a potential source of danger to people's health and a continual nuisance. This latest incident, serves to reinforce people's feelings towards Sonae—frankly, they've had enough."

It can be said with confidence that until modifications to the plant were carried out in 2005, which included the increase of the chimney stack height to 85 metres, there was a serious odour problem, which caused great nuisance and distress to many residents. There was also a problem with dust settling on vehicles and residents' homes. To be fair, since the improvements at the plant, those problems have been reduced. Part of the reason for that, as far as I am aware, is the fact that emissions from the extended stack dissipate higher into the atmosphere and are less likely to ground locally.

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper PPS (Rt Hon Lord Rooker, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I support my right hon. Friend, as the Sonae factory is a cause of great concern and nuisance, and is a threat to the health and safety of my constituents. As he has said, the higher the stack, the further the pollution is spread over west Lancashire, affecting many people around the site. My constituents in Simonswood fear for their safety, so I absolutely support his plea to ensure that the plant is made safe.

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. The theory is that with the extended stack, the plume will disperse and therefore ought not to ground, although I am not scientifically well trained enough to support that theory or otherwise. However, my hon. Friend is right that the people of Simonswood have been concerned about the problem for many years. Indeed, some of them have worked closely with me and with her predecessor on the issue.

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Labour, Knowsley South

The effect depends on prevailing winds. My constituents are similarly exposed, and I too am concerned that the higher the chimney stack, the further afield the residue will settle. Does my right hon. Friend agree that not just internal diseases but ophthalmic disorders are attributed to the Sonae factory?

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

Before the stack height was extended, there were a number of incidents of the smoke plume grounding—on one occasion, in a school playground. As a result, people got runny noses, sore eyes and sore throats. My hon. Friend is right; such incidents, which have been recorded, are very unpleasant indeed.

Other modifications initially seemed to reduce the amount of dust generated, which is also a great nuisance, although I am told that complaints about dust have recently started to increase again.

I should at this point say a word or two about Knowsley council. Its environmental health team has been heavily involved in monitoring the plant for many years, and any improvements that have been carried out have to a great extent been at the council's instigation. There is, however, a burden on the council because of Sonae. A disproportionate amount of its environmental health resources have to be allocated to work associated with the plant. Inevitably, that is at the expense of other problems that need attention.

Last Wednesday, Knowsley council unanimously passed a resolution stating:

"This Council notes with grave concern yesterday's fire at the Sonae plant in Kirkby and calls upon the Health and Safety Executive to carry out a full and thorough investigation into this event, particularly in view of this Council's concern for the safety of the employees of the plant and the welfare of the surrounding community."

Similarly, I pay tribute to the work force at Sonae and their trade union representatives, who are deeply involved in efforts to bring about improvements to health and safety procedures and practices at the plant. Nevertheless, last week's fire has yet again highlighted people's worries about the instability of the process, and heightened residents' concerns about their own safety and well-being. That is hardly surprising, given the history of problems at the plant. According to Merseyside's chief fire officer, Mr. Tony McGuirk, there have been four fires in the past 12 months, the most recent, which I have already referred to, being the most serious. Since April 2004 the fire and rescue service has been called to the premises on 33 separate occasions.

Sonae has been successfully prosecuted on six occasions by the Health and Safety Executive, Knowsley council or the Environment Agency. Let us consider the initial incidents. On 23 July 2000, a fire in the gas generator area developed. On 1 September 2001, an explosion and a fire in a fuel store occurred. On 17 December 2001, a fire occurred in a dust filter adjacent to the woodchip dryer. The HSE has prosecuted Sonae on four occasions since the factory first opened. Three of those incidents involved injuries to employees. In March 2000, an employee was trapped in a machine, and the company was prosecuted and fined £35,000. In April 2000, another employee was trapped in a different machine, and the company was fined £15,000. In June 2002, an employee was hit by a fork-lift truck, and the company was fined £12,000.

On 1 June 2002, a more serious explosion resulted in significant damage to the plant and serious injuries to a Sonae employee. It is understood that the HSE issued a number of prohibition and improvement notices and prosecuted Sonae as a result of that incident, for which it was fined £70,000, with a similar sum being awarded in costs. After that explosion, a major fire started in the external stockpiles of woodchips. The fire followed significant overstocking of the factory yards; supplies continued to be taken, despite the fact that the factory had closed down following the explosion. Fires continued to burn and emit smoke and fumes that affected residents over a wide area, until they were finally extinguished more than six months later in January 2003.

The Environment Agency prosecuted Sonae in connection with a series of pollution incidents affecting watercourses following that explosion and the subsequent fires in the stockpiles. The cases were heard on 2 October 2003, the company pleaded guilty to five charges and was fined £37,500.

On 11 March 2004, a leak in the thermal oil heat exchanger inside the hot gas generator—in effect, the wood burning furnace—led to the ignition of oil in the furnace. That caused the main safety vent to open and resulted in unabated emissions. On 4 May 2005, there was a fire in the area where woodchips are separated into size fractions before entry into the pressing area.

As I have said, the most recent incident took place on 20 February 2007, when a fire started as the result of an oil leak from pipework in a room occupied by pumps that circulate the hot oil used to power the chipboard press and the adjoining press hall. The fire spread to the main plant control room above the oil pump and the computer pump which controls the operation of the plant was destroyed.

Since the factory opened in 2000, Knowsley council has served many statutory notices on Sonae, including two prohibition notices, 10 enforcement notices, five variation notices and one notice requiring information, with which Sonae did not comply. In December 2005 Sonae pleaded guilty to three charges brought by Knowsley council under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and was fined £13,000.

In addition to the council's concerns and complaints received on the basis of health and safety, the site is a regular source of complaints and concerns about the environmental impact. As a condition of the current regulations governing authorisation of the site, the company is required to submit reports of any abnormal emissions, which in its opinion could have an impact on the community. Since the factory opened seven years ago, it has submitted 306 such reports. That level of environmental nuisance has a disproportionate impact on the local authority.

Following the most recent incident, Knowsley council last week unanimously passed an emergency resolution, which states:

"This Council notes with grave concern yesterday's fire at the Sonae plant in Kirkby and calls on the Health and Safety Executive to carry out a full and thorough investigation into this event, particularly in view of this Council's concern for the safety of the employees...and...the surrounding community."

Sonae is one of the biggest issues in my constituency and has been for several years now. The history of problems and the regularity of successful prosecutions against the company raises serious questions about the health and safety of the work force and residents. There have been many calls for the plant to be closed down, and I have to confess that I have some sympathy with that point of view. I do, however, recognise that closure is not a zero sum option. First, and importantly, some 200 jobs would be lost. Secondly, any legal action would be protracted and costly, and decisions could be reached that had national significance for the industry as whole. That could place a significant burden on Knowsley council, which is only a small metropolitan borough council. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister could draw that problem to the attention of her colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Photo of Rosie Cooper Rosie Cooper PPS (Rt Hon Lord Rooker, Minister of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

After such a catalogue of incidents and serious injury, would my hon. Friend say that Sonae must have one of the worst records of any industrial unit in the country? What will it take to make the site safe for employees, as well as for his constituents, my constituents and those of my hon. Friend Mr. O'Hara?

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

I was just coming to that. The seriousness of the problem leaves no room for complacency. For that reason, I support Knowsley council's resolution, and believe that the HSE should carry out the most comprehensive investigation possible into the cause of last week's fire. It needs to bear in mind the fact that, had the fire got out of hand, it would have caused serious injuries—and worse—to employees. Moreover, had the wind been in the wrong direction, the acrid smoke from the fire could well have caused respiratory problems to residents in the vicinity.

I hope that the HSE investigation will involve an examination of all the risks associated with the process at Sonae, together with any appropriate recommendations for preventing such risks. Unless and until the HSE can be satisfied that the plant can safely reopen, and guarantee the health and safety of the workforce and residents, I believe that the plant needs to remain closed.

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Labour, Knowsley South

I have been listening very carefully to the catalogue of disastrous incidents that my right hon. Friend has set out. They have happened over a long period: some seem to be related to the hazardous nature of the process being undertaken in the factory, but others appear to be avoidable. Does he agree that the HSE should look at both those factors?

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley North and Sefton East

My hon. Friend is right. On some occasions, poor management at the factory has caused incidents to happen, but that is a local problem that ought to be resolvable. I do not want to paint a totally gloomy picture, as there have been improvements in management at the factory, but problems in the past have caused concern.

The process involved in the manufacture of chipboard is controversial all over the world, and Knowsley is no different in that respect. Some believe that the process will never be safe, regardless of the measures that are taken, but my concern is that the HSE should do everything in its power to ensure that it is as safe as possible. As I said a moment ago, I believe that the factory should not reopen if the safety of the work force and the local community cannot be guaranteed.

Photo of Anne McGuire Anne McGuire The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions 10:32 pm, 27th February 2007

I begin by thanking my right hon. Friend Mr. Howarth for securing this debate. The issue that he has raised is of concern to many people living and working in the vicinity of the Sonae factory in his constituency. It also affects the constituents of my hon. Friends the Members for West Lancashire (Rosie Cooper) and for Knowsley, South (Mr. O'Hara), who have attended this debate.

My right hon. Friend has described a worrying series of incidents at the plant since it began operation in 2000. I am sure that anyone listening shares his concerns, which he also raised in 2004 with my right hon. Friend Jane Kennedy when she was the Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions with responsibility for the HSE.

Many of the points that my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East has raised tonight relate to the health and safety of people working at, and in the vicinity of, the Sonae plant. As such, they rightly fall within the remit of the HSE. However, he has also raised other concerns that relate to environmental matters—such as noise, dust, smoke, emissions and water pollution—over which the HSE has no regulatory powers. He has correctly identified that responsibility for those falls to the local authority, Knowsley metropolitan borough council, and the Environment Agency. Later on, I shall make some observations about how different bodies may be able to co-operate.

My right hon. Friend also explained that the agencies to which I have referred have taken enforcement action against the company—involving both prosecution and the issuance of various enforcement notices—where there have been failures to comply with regulations and breaches of operating conditions.

As my right hon. Friend knows, I shall deal in this debate with those matters that fall within the remit of the HSE. I hope to give him assurances about the action that the HSE is taking in dealing with the Sonae site, and about what it has done in respect of other incidents in the past.

As my right hon. Friend indicated, residents around the factory have had concerns about its operation since it was commissioned. Those concerns include the environmental impact of wood dust blowing from the wood yards, the increase in traffic volume, noise, water pollution and the catalogue of incidents that he highlighted.

I turn to the incident that took place last Tuesday, 20 February. I assure my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friends the Members for West Lancashire and for Knowsley, South that the incident is being thoroughly investigated by the HSE. An initial visit was paid on 20 February while the emergency services were still on site, so it was possible to make some preliminary observations of the site and the circumstances to inform the composition of the HSE's investigation team. At this stage, as I am sure my right hon. Friend will appreciate, it is too early to reach firm conclusions about what happened, but it appears that a mechanical seal on a thermal oil line in a manifold room failed, releasing hot oil that subsequently ignited.

According to our information, the fire was quickly noticed and emergency plans were put into operation. The plant was safely shut down and evacuated without injury to any member of the work force. The fire was confined to a small section of the plant, but heat and smoke from it caused damage to a control room and to some of the cladding on the building. The fire was quickly extinguished by the fire brigade once firefighters were on site, but the thick yellow and black smoke from the fire was carried by the wind, as my right hon. Friend pointed out. Fortunately, as he said, last Tuesday the wind was blowing away from the nearest residential estates and the smoke was carried over nearby industrial estates.

The HSE's investigation will seek to establish the cause of the release of the oil, the source of ignition and whether the company's systems for maintaining the equipment were adequate. The investigation will also seek to establish whether the company should have been able to control the fire without resort to the fire brigade and how and why the effects of the fire were not confined to the manifold room. I assure my right hon. Friend that if the HSE considers that the company's plans for bringing the plant back into operation will leave anyone exposed to imminent risk of serious personal injury, the process will be prohibited until all measures that the HSE considers suitable are put in place.

On the factory's record on health and safety issues, the latest incident follows—but is considerably less serious than—the explosion that occurred on 1 June 2002, when a worker was severely injured and there was massive damage to the plant and buildings, which put the factory out of action for about three months. There is no doubt whatever that the company had a poor record of compliance with the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, particularly from the opening of the plant until the end of 2002. During that period, as well as the explosion I have just mentioned, there were several other accidents, some of which were serious. Workers at the factory raised their concerns with the HSE and as a result inspectors paid many visits to the factory and took robust enforcement action in the appropriate situations.

An indication of that poor record is that the company was prosecuted four times in its first three years of operation. After an incident in 2000, when an employee was trapped in a machine during commissioning, a penalty of £15,000 plus costs of £16,700 was imposed. Penalties and costs were imposed following an incident in 2001 when another employee was trapped by machinery. For the circumstances of the explosion in June 2002, the company was fined £70,000, plus £77,000 costs. An accident involving a forklift truck in 2002 attracted a penalty of £12,000, plus £13,000 costs.

At this stage I must apologise to my right hon. Friend that a promise to place in the House of Commons Library a copy of the report of the investigation into the 2002 explosion has not yet been fulfilled. Although the prosecution following that incident was eventually concluded in 2006, the commitment was overlooked and I have now arranged for a copy of the report to be placed in the Library.

In addition to the prosecutions that I have outlined, the company was served with a number of improvement and prohibition notices. Again, there were disproportionately more than were served to other similar-sized employers, an issue that my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire raised. Those covered subjects ranging from the preparation of risk assessments and safe systems of work to the prohibition of the use of certain plant and processes until there were suitable arrangements and procedures for their safe use. Formal enforcement notices were also served on some contractors working under Sonae's control.

I have no hesitation in saying that the management of the company in those first three years of operation fell well below the standard that HSE inspectors would expect of a large company operating a process with significant hazards and risks to both its work force and people living in the surrounding areas. That is why the HSE took extensive enforcement measures against the company. At the time, many of the senior management team did not appear to understand the basic requirements and concepts of health and safety legislation.

As my right hon. Friend indicated, in 2002 there was a change of management and the appointment of a new managing director and chief executive officer with a firmer background in the industry and a grasp of health and safety requirements.

During 2003 and 2004, it was apparent to HSE inspectors, as they concluded their investigations into the 2002 explosion and paid routine visits to the plant, that the new CEO was bringing about noticeable improvements to the company's heath and safety arrangements. In 2005, a routine visit established that the new management team had a stronger sense of responsibility for health and safety than existed before. The company appeared to be taking a proactive approach to health and safety and had identified concerns. That action, together with a reduction in the number and severity of reported injuries, indicated that the company was beginning to self-regulate and take responsibility for hazards and risks.

I understand that there is now in place a health and safety management team, including a full-time health and safety manager with a background in and extensive experience of the chemical industry, a full-time fire safety adviser and a full-time environmental manager. There is also a joint management and trade union health and safety committee on which the Amicus convenor sits along with a number of union-appointed safety representatives. A management committee oversees issues raised by the safety committee.

It appears that the current management arrangements are bringing improvements to the site because neither the trade union and its safety representatives nor any other employee has raised any issues with the HSE since the explosion in 2002, a clear change to what happened before that.

Until yesterday, the HSE was not aware of the recent history of fires at the plant described by my right hon. Friend. I give him my categorical assurance that in investigating the latest fire, the HSE will now be looking at the previous fires to see whether they should have been reported, why they happened and what actions were taken by the company to prevent further outbreaks. I will ensure that he is fully advised of the outcome of those investigations.

I recognise that the HSE has responsibility for a number of issues—

Photo of Michael Lord Michael Lord Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means

Order.

The motion having been made 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 sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.