§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Nicholas Baker.]10.14 pm
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
I am delighted to have secured this Adjournment debate, and to have this opportunity to raise a matter of grave importance to my constituency. I am glad also that it should take place today, as this week marks the second anniversary of the arrival of a consignment of toxic waste that should never have reached South Yorkshire.
The toxic waste to which I refer is in Wath upon Dearne, in the Dearne valley, in the northern part of my constituency. It was once a green, lush meadow valley, with rich wildlife, woods, and rivers.
The latter part of the 19th century saw the rapid pace of deep mining and the industrial revolution, which brought its problems as well as jobs. The coalfield developed rapidly—it has closed at an even faster pace. The pits of Dearne valley have closed, the science laboratories have gone, and the railway marshalling yards—which Lord Haw Haw threatened to destroy on several occasions during the second world war—have gone as well. That was not done by the Luftwaffe but caused by the experience of the last few years.
That railway complex included a locomotive shed, which was obtained by a company named Wath Aluminium. It was succeeded by another company, Wath Recycling. For whatever reason, Wath Recycling received a consignment of waste from the FMC fertiliser factory at Baltimore, in the United States of America.
When that material arrived, it was found to be heavily contaminated by what I have previously described as a cocktail of poisons—a number of dangerous carcinogenic substances. The first batch arrived on 9 June. Local rumour developed in July, when I asked to visit the works. Then a local journalist discovered that secret meetings were being held to consider the grave nature of the substances that had arrived in Wath upon Dearne.
At that time, the substances were stored in an open-fronted shed, partially covered by tarpaulin. As soon as I found out, I asked to see the Minister of State, now the Secretary of State for Wales. He saw me immediately. I demanded that the material be securely contained.
By the end of October, it was contained. During the period of containment, workers wearing protective clothing and masks spent 15 minutes at a time putting the material into drums. However, it had been in the open, quite close to the homes where thousands of people lived, for a long period before then.
At that stage, I brought a deputation from my constituency led by the mayor of Rotherham, Councillor Hughes, who has been a friend of mine since boyhood. We were young councillors together when we agitated for a wide economic base because we knew that the mines would close. We did not anticipate that they would close at the pace that they did. Councillor Hughes and I have long pressed for the Dearne valley to be prepared to be green again.
Councillor Hughes was accompanied by Canon Michael Wright, the vicar of Wath upon Dearne—a man of enormous significance in our community; a local general practitioner, Dr. David Plews; and two local business men, Mr. Bedford and Mr. Binns, representing 1147 various parts of the local community. We saw the Minister for the Environment and Countryside, who received us very courteously, and expressed the hope that the material would be gone by Christmas—Christmas 1989. I shall end my relatively short speech by telling the Minister that I hope that the material will be gone by Christmas 1991.
The Americans disputed the responsibility for some of the poisonous material. In March 1990 I went to Washington and met the members of the American company, FMC. They admitted that they were responsible for a number of the chemicals in that cocktail—the benzines, fluorons and PCBs. However, they flatly refused to accept responsibility for some of the heavy metals.
The case was taken to the British courts in February 1990 and they decided that they had no jurisdiction since the contract was signed between FMC and a company associated with Wath Recycling. The case should then have proceeded to the courts in the United States.
In March of this year, Mr. Nicholas Rowe of The Independent, who wrote a splendid article in that newspaper, ascertained on questioning the company that not only had it not embarked on litigation in the United States but that there seemed to be no certainty that it would do so.
Then, with Councillor Sir Jack Layden, leader of Rotherham council, and Councillor Jack Carr, the chairman of the environmental health committee, I saw the Minister for the Environment and Countryside again and asked him to make sure that there was legal action.
At the moment, as the Minister knows, we have welcomed a succession of Ministers from the Department of the Environment. We have shown the Department, and it accepts, that we have superb plans for the future of the Dearne valley. We are being helped by the Department of the Environment. Immediately to the north of the site, work is proceeding on reclaiming a large area of land which, in a short time, will be green. The Government have given us financial support for that.
But we are spending a lot of public money, central and local, to give hope to and to regenerate the Dearne valley, while this satanic mill, this sordid site, remains sticking out like a sore thumb it limits our hope.
§ Mr. Martin Redmond (Don Valley)
My hon. Friend has been patient and tolerant over the lack of progress in shifting the drums of toxic waste. My constituents, who live in the constituency adjacent to that of my hon. Friend, are also extremely concerned not only about the possible effect of wind should deterioration set in or in the event of a fire, but because the longer the toxic drums stand there and rot, the more likely it is that the toxic waste will seep into the water table beneath. It is a twin problem, and my hon. Friend has shown remarkable restraint. Will he consider transporting the toxic drums to the Department of the Environment so that we can see the remarkable progress that there would be in shifting them back. I would gladly assist my hon. Friend in bringing those drums to the Department.
§ Mr. Hardy
My hon. Friend is risking leading me astray. You may recall, Mr. Speaker, that some months ago my hon. Friend, concerned as he is for his constituents, presented a motion to the House calling on me to bring a drum of the material to Westminster, indeed into the House. I would have been willing to do that, but I think that you were not quite so enthusiastic at the 1148 prospect. However, I must admit that many of my constituents would be highly delighted if I did bring a drum here.
I drew up a list of constituencies of Ministers with appropriate responsibility and I suggested that we place a collection of the drums in their constituencies, many but not all of which are in the south, though that of the Minister for the Environment and Countryside certainly is not. Many of my constituents believe that if the waste were in the south of England the Government would have been rather more active in securing a solution. But that would probably be uncharitable, because I know that the Minister for the Environment and Countryside has worked hard on the matter.
The difficulty is that the Government take the view that recycling is an important industry, that it is profitable and it can bring a lot of overseas earnings to Britain. It is important that we have a recycling industry. There is a limit to the amount of materials in the world that the industry handles and we must recycle. But recycling industries should be substantial. The company in this case at the time of importation had 100 £1 issued shares and I believe that the principal shareholder is a Dutch metal trader and company director called Mr. Weinstock with a residence in Hertfordshire, certainly not in Wath upon Dearne.
If we are to have a vigorous recycling industry, it must be conducted by substantial businesses which are governed by adequate legislation. This case does not give grounds for comfort about the nature and quality of legislation in force in Britain.
Our area has been economically devastated in recent years, and if it is to see the economic advances that it desperately needs they must be accompanied—indeed preceded—by the environmental recovery which is essential.
I am grateful for the consideration that the Government have given to the matter and to Ministers for their visits. However, that money has to be accompanied by common sense in our arrangements. This is a serious matter because there are more than 2,700 drums of poisons there. As my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) has said, the prevailing wind would take any fumes or noxious airborne substances to affect his constituents.
There is justified anxiety throughout the area. For example, two or three months ago there was a fire at the works. I congratulated the South Yorkshire fire service on the speed with which it responded and I was told that the fire was not very significant and that there was no public risk because the fire had not got nearer than 18 feet to the drums. Those 2,700 drums could well be a time bomb. I do not want to use emotive language and to rouse anxiety, because there is enough of that, but we must have action.
I have a number of questions for the Minister and I hope that I have given him sufficient notice of them. I accept that I did not give him long. Given our dreadful experience, are the Government giving any thought to the need to revise national regulations? Are they prepared to amend the law to prevent such cases or to make their occurrence less likely? Could steps be taken to protect our areas, in the way that the United States and other countries have protected themselves? As the Minister is aware, under American law such material can be exported, but it cannot be taken back into the country.
1149 Does the Minister consider that an intense problem could remain at Wath, no matter what decision is taken by the American courts, partly because of American law and partly because the company may not have the resources to deal with the problem and to respond to it in the proper manner? Would the Department prepare to take immediate action if the decision of the American court relieves the American company of responsibility? The material would still be in Wath upon Dearne and we want it away, and quickly.
If the American company is found to be largely or wholly responsible, can we expect action? Could that include ensuring that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office acts with whatever vigour is required in the pursuit of British interests? I have said before that, if the boot were on the other foot, I think that the American official response would have been more strident and more positive than ours has been.
Given the delay in moving towards court action in America, which is so desperately needed—it has been delayed since February 1990—will the Government maintain sufficient interest to ensure that the case proceeds and that there is no withdrawal from it and no protracted delay? Will the Minister give assistance and approval to enable Rotherham council to take whatever steps are needed to remove the waste as soon as possible after the court case?
The Minister is aware that his hon. Friend the Minister with responsibility for local government—another of his colleagues who has taken a detailed interest in the matter and has visited the locality—is visiting the area next week. If the Minister is not able to give a full response to those serious questions tonight, I hope that he will ensure that his hon. Friend does so when he is in South Yorkshire.
As I said at the beginning of the debate, there is an enormous amount at stake. The future of the area is far too important to allow the interests of a very small company to prejudice the prospects that we are seeking to develop. The area can be made decent. It is in the process of being turned green. If we do not make it decent and green, economic prospects for the area will remain benighted. Therefore it is of considerable importance at local level. The Minister will be aware that the implications of the case are of national gravity, and I look forward with great interest to hear what he has to say.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry)
The hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) has raised an important issue. Let me first explain what my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Mr. Trippier), the Minister for the Environment and Countryside, has explained to the hon. Gentleman and other interested parties on numerous occasions—either at meetings or in correspondence—as the saga has developed.
As the hon. Gentleman has said, the matter is subject to litigation—indeed, litigation has been started. I shall say more about that shortly. We were advised by the proper regulatory authorities—the Health and Safety Executive and Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution—that the 1150 material in question was at present safely stored. I shall deal with that later as well, as it relates to one of the questions that the hon. Gentleman asked.
The problem of Wath began with a recycling contract that went wrong. Amlon Metals/Wath Recycling imported about 450 tonnes of copper waste for recycling from an American firm called FMC. The movement of the waste was notified as required in the Transfrontier Shipment of Hazardous Waste Regulations 1988, and it appears to have arrived in good faith in June 1989; 280 tonnes of the waste went to Wath and became partly mixed with other copper waste, and 170 tonnes were stopped at Leeds rail terminal.
Some of the waste differed from the sample specification, containing some difficult pesticide intermediates. The contract papers did not include clauses for the return of the material should the consignment be rejected.
Wath Recycling called in the relevant waste disposal authorities, West and South Yorkshire. The authorities called in HMIP and HSE to advise. Since then, HMIP has made two visits and the Health and Safety Executive 20. Both bodies advised about safety precautions and supervised the drumming of the material: in their judgment, that at Wath is now safe in 2,700 drums, and that at Leeds is also safe in seven guarded containers.
§ Mr. Hardy
I have noted the visits that have been made and the care that has been taken. South Yorkshire must, of course, undertake careful monitoring. I understand that the cost of that monitoring since June 1989 is now approaching six figures: obviously, a substantial burden has been imposed as a result of the importation of the waste, whoever is responsible.
§ Mr. Baldry
I have no reason to quarrel with the hon. Gentleman's figures. Clearly the regulatory authorities have had to be careful to ensure that the consignment is safe, and have wanted—quite properly—to respond to the concerns raised by the hon. Members for Wentworth and for Don Valley (Mr. Redmond) and others.
The problem now is that mixed wastes cannot be recycled at Wath. Wath wants FMC to pay damages, and to contribute to disposal costs. Both officials and Ministers have been trying to resolve the matter from an early stage. Indeed, shortly after HMIP had been brought in to help—as the hon. Member for Wentworth said—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales, who was then responsible for these matters, saw a delegation led by the hon. Gentleman. There has been a series of such meetings. On reflection, the hon. Member for Don Valley will probably decide, in view of the number of meetings and Ministers involved, that his criticisms were less than fair. If I were a constituency Member in his position, however, I too would urge Ministers to take further and faster action.
My hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside and other Ministers have been anxious to help to resolve the situation and get the material returned to the United States—if possible—in the spirit of the Basel convention and the transfrontier regulations. On 5 February last year, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside discussed with Ron Woods, the United States deputy chief of mission, his concern over the continued presence of the waste at Wath. The latter intended to raise the matter with the appropriate 1151 United States authorities. My hon. Friend also met the United States Environmental Protection Agency's administrator, Bill Reilly, who agreed to take a personal interest in the matter and to make direct approaches to the FMC corporation.
My Department and the United States Environmental Protection Agency have mediated in negotiations with the parties concerned in an effort to find a long-term solution which avoided lengthy litigation. Much ministerial and official time has been expended on trying to reach a workable solution to the problems at Wath.
Negotiations have broken down because the mixed wastes cannot be recycled at Wath and Wath Recycling wants FMC to pay damages and to contribute to disposal costs. Although FMC has offered to pay half the incineration costs of the material that went to Wath and negotiate further with British Rail about sharing the costs of the waste held at Leeds rail terminal, Wath Recycling has declined to respond to that offer.
My hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside met representatives of Wath Recycling in September last year in another attempt to reach a positive solution and to persuade them to reopen negotiations with FMC. They were unwilling to do so.
The Department of the Environment has probably gone as far as it can in this matter, in that the next stage depends on litigation. Wath Recycling has been considering the scope for litigation, but, as the hon. Member for Wentworth made clear, the United Kingdom courts have not accepted jurisdiction. On 7 June this year, Wath Recycling filed an action in the United States for damages, loss of profit and return of the material. We understand that its case will revolve around breach of contract and offences of disposing of toxic wastes contrary to United States requirements.
The hon. Member for Wentworth asked about the future. In this issue, as in everything, we must act in accordance with the law. We have made a rigorous examination of this matter, but there are no breaches of United Kingdom consents or regulations which might require local authority consideration or action. My Department has no statutory role, except as approving authority for the export of any waste back to the United States under the transfrontier regulations.
The logical conclusion is that the disposal licence at Wath permits indefinite storage of the 2,700 drums which are not contravening any HSE requirements and the containers at Leeds rail terminal are also protected in accordance with HSE requirements. The waste materials are therefore stored safely, and Wath Recycling is keeping the condition of the drums under review.
On an earlier occasion, the hon. Gentleman asked me about the licensing conditions at that site. Wath Recycling is licensed to treat a long list of materials, including those that it thought it was obtaining from FMC, and to store waste. The licence condition is, in the view of the regulatory authority, adequate to cover the new safely drummed waste which Wath Recycling has and which it has mixed with other material.
As the hon. Gentleman made clear, local authority inspectors monitor the Wath site regularly under air pollution, waste treatment licensing and environmental responsibilities. Wath Recycling is able to provide them with lists of material on site. We are aware of the furnace 1152 fire in April 1991, but we were assured by HMIP that there was no danger to the drums of waste stored outside the furnace building.
§ Mr. Baldry
I was going to deal with the Dearne valley and the question whether we foresaw any changes in the law. As the hon. Gentleman asked specifically about the Dearne valley, I shall deal with that now.
I accept that the presence of the Wath Recycling site might, in his judgment, have an impact on the Dearne valley regeneration scheme, but I suspect that that impact will not be as great as he believes. I understand that the scheme includes an area known as Wath-Manvers. It comprises about 1,800 acres, including 887 acres of derelict land. Most of the land has been used by industry associated with coal mining.
Rotherham metropolitan borough council and British Coal are working together to carry forward the regeneration of the area. They engaged consultants who prepared a feasibility study and the final report of that study was made in July 1990. The regional office of the Department of the Environment has been kept fully involved in discussions on the proposals.
I accept and appreciate that the overriding aim of the strategy is to create a new image for the area through large-scale environmental improvements and through the creation of green facilities such as nature reserves, golf courses and water-related leisure facilities.
Total reclamation costs have been estimated to be about £12 million, with infrastructure costs of about £18 million. The strategy envisages a five-to-10 year development programme, with the majority of public funds being called on for the reclamation work and the infrastructure provision in the first five years.
Rotherham metropolitan borough council bid for derelict land grant funds for 1991–92 of £4.2 million for Wath-Manvers as part of the existing Dearne valley rolling programme. That includes £1.8 million of infrastructure. The council received £2.3 million. The relationship between the waste at Wath to progress on the Wath-Manvers strategy is a matter for local authority consideration in the first instance. However, I understand that it is not considered an immediate obstacle to progress on the scheme and substantial sums of money—millions of pounds—are being invested in the Dearne valley regeneration scheme. Although I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's concern, I do not think that that difficulty jeopardises the scheme because a considerable amount of money is being invested in it.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about changes in the law. Because of general concerns about transboundary waste, Britain has taken the lead in the European Community and in the OECD in calling for all developed countries to become self-sufficient in disposing of their own waste. We have been successful in that the principle of self-sufficiency has been incorporated in European Community legislation in the recently adopted revised framework directive. The principle is also an important part of the OECD's recommendation on the reduction of transfrontier movement of waste.
1153 Another key aspect of our policy is the ratification of the United Nations environment programme's Basel convention on the control of transboundary movements of hazardous waste and their disposal. The essence of the convention is the reduction of transboundary movements to the minimum consistent with the environmentally sound and efficient management of hazardous and domestic waste. The Government are helping to finance the convention's interim secretariat, which is developing further controls and compiling information for developing countries on waste management. We are also pressing the European Commission to bring to a successful conclusion its draft regulation, which will enable the Community and member states to ratify the convention.
The problems that the hon. Gentleman has rightly drawn to the House's attention involve a case in which a 1154 recycling contract went wrong. The material concerned is not abandoned and is, according to every regulatory authority involved, safely stored. Wath Recycling made a speedy response to the problem as soon as it became aware of it, and local authorities and Government inspectorates have worked together to ensure local safeguards.
Ministerial colleagues and others have made strenuous efforts to try to resolve the problem by negotiation and by whatever means they had at their disposal as soon as it came to light. Ultimately, we must act in accordance with the law, and I think that the future of the case depends on litigation. My Department has done what it can at this stage to ensure that that is embarked upon quickly——
The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
Adjourned at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.