King’s Lynn Incinerator

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:16 pm on 16th January 2013.

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Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk 4:16 pm, 16th January 2013

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s excellent support. My hon. Friend the Minister wrote to me about the Government’s planning policy and said, “Our policy is to put power into the hands of local communities to shape the plans and places where they live.” Does the Minister agree that it is wrong for any council, particularly a strategic tier council, to ride roughshod over local people when they have made their views so crystal clear?

I want to say a word or two about incineration. Is it efficient, does it encourage recycling and how green is it? First, it has low energy efficiency. It produces more CO2 than oil and gas, and even coal. On the plus side, it generates electricity, but in doing so the process of combustion creates new waste streams and new hazards. I will elaborate on that in a moment. Incineration now flies in the face of the whole philosophy championed in DEFRA’s 2011 waste review, which referred to “reduction, reuse and recycling”. Recycling crowds out the three R’s.

Norfolk’s current recycling rate is a pitiful 38%, one of the lowest in the country. The county council’s figures show that it will increase to 55.4% by 2020, which is still a very low rate. I suggest that incineration discourages recycling. The revolution that is taking place is about educating people, and encouraging young people and the older generation—people like my mother who had never recycled anything, but now separates her waste and follows the recycling rules. There is a recycling revolution.

Norfolk county council committed itself under the contract to supply 170,000 tonnes of waste to the incinerator. The beast will need feeding, and the council has a choice of either keeping recycling rates low, or importing waste from around the whole region, or perhaps both, which would be the worst of all worlds. A disincentive to recycle is built into incineration, which is why in the DEFRA waste hierarchy incineration is falling down the list. The whole world is turning way from incineration, including the EU and the US.

The Massachusetts state government’s waste master plan 2010-20 refers to “A Pathway to Zero Waste”, and calls

“for keeping the state’s current moratorium on new incinerators; expanding reuse, recycling and composting; ensuring greater producer responsibility for materials; and promoting recycling businesses and jobs.”

It continues:

“on a per-ton basis, recycling sustains 10 times the number of jobs that burning does.”

That is a strong argument, and it is going on around the world.

Is incineration safe and healthy? Although the filters remove most of the larger particles, those under 10 microns are not filtered out. Those nano or microparticles escape into the atmosphere and can be blown on the wind for up to 15 miles. Even if industry removed the nanoparticles down to 2.5 microns, some would still escape, and they contain CO2 obviously, nitrogen oxides, mercury, lead and dioxins. An additional problem is that a significant percentage of the waste from the incineration process is left behind as toxic fly ash that must be treated and dealt with. There is an issue with that because the site is in a flood zone.

Many of those chemicals are both toxic and biocumulative, so they may have an impact on people’s health if they are subjected to them over a prolonged period. Many of the studies are only just reaching conclusions and producing results. The situation is evolving, and the lead-in time is often long and slow. However, a recent report from the British Society for Ecological Medicine is headed, “The Health Effects of Waste Incinerators” second edition, June 2008, and the authors are Dr Jeremy Thompson and Dr Honor Anthony.

They focus on people such as the very young and the very old who might have a pre-existing respiratory condition, and say that some of the dioxins, particularly PAHs—polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons—may have an effect on people with pre-existing conditions. They say that

“it has been estimated that these increase the lung cancer risk by 7.8 times”,

which I find very, very worrying.

What does that mean? It means that if the incinerator is located upwind of King’s Lynn, it could have an impact on people’s health. We do not know for sure, but I suggest that on the precautionary principle alone, one would not put it in the proposed location. Furthermore, substances such as mercury and lead do not biodegrade. They remain in ecosystems and they can have a long-term impact on food chains through a build-up, for example, in farming, horticulture and shellfish. We would be mad to locate the facility upwind of a population centre and upwind of very valuable agriculture and horticulture. All I say to the county council is, have a look at the potential damage. Look at the precautionary principle, and do not put a blight on our homes, on our habitats, and on my constituency and those of my hon. Friends nearby. I have a vision of west Norfolk attracting new waves of dynamic IT and life science businesses, but all that could be put at risk by the project.

I want to talk about the company itself, because Cory Wheelabrator is a partnership between Cory Environmental Ltd, which is a well-known, well-established UK company, and Wheelabrator Technologies, which is a subsidiary of the US credit company Waste Management Inc., or WMX Technologies. The parent company in America has a truly awful record of performance. There is absolutely no doubt about that. I have a long list of examples of where it has either been heavily fined or severely reprimanded. Most recently, Wheelabrator Technologies, which operates three waste incinerators in Massachusetts, agreed to pay a staggering $7.5 million sum to settle a state lawsuit. The alleged violations included emitting ash through holes in the plant’s roof and walls; failure to properly treat and dispose of ash; and dumping waste water in the surrounding wetlands.

Another payout, again in 2011, was $77,500, in agreement with the Maryland Department of the Environment to resolve violations of the state’s air pollution control laws in two separate incidents, both of which stemmed from a failure to control mercury emissions released from its south Baltimore incinerator. If we go back further, there are other examples—I have a long list, and I will quote two more. In 1991, the sheriff of Ventura county, California, issued a report describing 225 different criminal and civil actions over 13 years against WMI and subsidiaries. That, again, is a staggering figure. In 1992, a report in San Diego found that

“the company’s history requires extreme caution by the San Diego County Board of Supervisors or any other governmental entity contemplating any contractual or business relationship with Waste Management.”

It also stated that

“it is clear that Waste Management engages in practices designed to gain undue influence over government officials.”

I would also like to mention one other event, from 1996, when WMX was found guilty of cheating, fraud, misrepresentation, greed and other crimes in respect of hazardous waste. A federal judge ordered an award of damages of $76 million, plus punitive damages of $15 million. Among other things, the judge said:

“What is troubling about this case is that fraud, misrepresentation and dishonesty apparently became part of the operating culture of the Defendant corporation.”

The company has serious questions to answer. I also ask Cory Environmental Ltd whether it has carried out full due diligence. I also ask the Environment Agency whether it looked at Wheelabrator’s associated companies’ and parent companies’ records in America. Surely that would have some influence on the decision about whether it is a fit and proper company to be doing business in Norfolk, and furthermore, is this really a company that Norfolk’s council tax payers should be funding?

If there were no alternatives to incineration, I would be saying that perhaps we have to go along with it as the only solution available, but it is not the only solution available. Earlier, I mentioned the three R’s, the recycling revolution that is taking place that all of us want to encourage, and the change in culture across families and communities regarding people who want not only to recycle, but to add value to waste. A number of exciting technologies are now emerging, and one in particular involves anaerobic digestion plus plastics extrusion and manufacturing.

There is a company called Material Works, with which the borough council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk has signed a memorandum of understanding and a conditional contract to treat all of its 30,000 tonnes of waste. The company’s process entails, first of all, methane extraction from anaerobic digestion, and then adding fibres and digesters from the anaerobic digestion into an extrusion process, adding plastics and polymers, and ending up with a substance called Omnicite, from which plastic products such as fencing, pallets and roofing material can be manufactured. There is a conditional contract and a pilot plant is about to be opened. If it works, and there is a very strong chance that it will, given what has been proved on the continent, Norfolk county council’s waste strategy would be in complete tatters, because it would be losing out on a key waste management partner in the waste partnership, because if the waste is not obtained from west Norfolk, I do not see how the strategy could survive.

My approach—I want to make this clear to the Minister—is constructive and pragmatic. As I say, if there were no alternative to incineration, I would not be questioning the plant so vehemently, but I believe that there are cheaper, better, more modern and more exciting alternatives that would command public support. I have lived in Norfolk all my life, bar four years, and I spent all that time in west Norfolk, which has a truly remarkable environment. We have some world-class habitats, world-class biodiversity, and an amazing tourism industry. We have some really impressive light industry and IT companies. We have a great deal going for us, with a growing community and a great historic town, in King’s Lynn. We have some of the best farming in the country and a horticultural industry that is second to none. We have a shellfish industry in the Wash that is also incredibly important and a number of SSSIs and areas of outstanding beauty. We have a community that is very proud of itself, and what concerns me a great deal is that there could be a blight on this community, and the impact would be very significant. It would be an absolute scandal if all those things I have spoken of were put at risk.

What I am saying to the Norfolk county council is, please think again. I know it has the penalty clause and that it has made commitments. I know that civil servants, officials and councillors, having made their mind up, do not like to change track, because they see it a sign of weakness. What I am saying is, why not sit down and talk to local MPs—talk to all of Norfolk’s MPs—and to the borough council of King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, and look for an alternative solution that could command public support? There is an opportunity to do that, and would that not be far better than slugging it out in a public inquiry at huge public expense? There is a better way to go, and I urge it on Norfolk county council and on Cory Wheelabrator.