Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1140
TUESDAY 12 DECEMBER 2000
1140. "The short future", is that
a new phrase for government?
(Mr Meacher) I did not want to say "soon"
because you would ask me what "soon" meant.
Mr Donohoe: Do you know what "short"
1141. Before or after the General Election!
(Mr Meacher) Within the next few months. Considering
that this is an issue which has actually been current for something
like the last two years, in my experience the next few months
would be a relatively short period in which to resolve it.
1142. Six, five, four, three, two, how many
(Mr Meacher) I think, Mr Blunt, you should leave us
to try and determine this as quickly as we can. I cannot tell
you because it has not been predetermined in that way. I am very
keen to see this matter resolved. I have to get agreement between
all the parties; I have to protect taxpayers' money; and I also
have to expand and improve my newsprint recycling objectives;
and it is bringing all those three together which is causing a
1143. Are boroughs like Reigate and Banstead,
that have achieved high levels of recycling quite quickly, now
running into problems because there is not a market for newsprint
and they cannot get the newsprint away? This is an urgent problem
if people are not to turn round and say, "This is all too
difficult and expensive".
(Mr Meacher) It is an urgent problem. The Chairman
has already correctly said that we are importing newsprint. That
is a nonsense when we can do it ourselves and should do it ourselves.
We are simply talking about the essential requirement for a given
level of funding which can be justified to Treasury, DTI and DETR.
1144. Minister, which is more important: achieving
the recycling targets in Waste Strategy 2000, or ensuring that
the Best Practicable Environmental Option is selected for each
waste management decision?
(Mr Meacher) I think in most cases there is not a
conflict there, but the answer must be achieving the best practicable
environmental optionand, as I say, in the vast majority
of cases I believe that that is recycling. You can think of extreme
cases, for example in rural areas, where the nearest recycling
banks or units are a considerable distance away and you cannot
ignore the transport impacts of continually taking relatively
small amounts of material long distances. I think that that is
unusual. The best practicable environmental option in the vast
majority of cases is recycling.
1145. How do you believe that the tension between
BPEO and sustainable waste management can be resolved?
(Mr Meacher) By the Government issuing guidelines
making absolutely clear, as we have, that best practicable environmental
options should be pursued. Sustainable waste management means,
in principle, that it is based on BPEO.
1146. Why do you say that incineration is safe?
(Mr Meacher) No industrial process in an absolute
sense is safe; no combustion process is safe; and, therefore,
no incineration process is absolutely safe. However, I do think
there is considerable public misperception about the safety of
modern incinerators. It is quite another matter as to the standard
of incinerators in the 1960/1970s, I concede that.
1147. So we could have one next to Oldham Athletic's
ground without any trouble?
(Mr Meacher) Perhaps I could just complete the answer.
It does depend on planning controland planning control
would look at the siting and whether it was appropriate and take
account of local objections. In terms of safety, and I will come
on to this, I think there has been great misunderstanding. In
1996, in November I think, a new EU Regulation governing incinerators
came into force which led to many, probably most I think, of the
incinerators in the UK being closed down because they could not
meet the standard. The others that remained had to have their
standards raised and that left something like only a dozen, if
I recall. Abroad there are many, many more incinerators in countries
which have very green recycling levelsfor example, Denmark,
Sweden and the Netherlands. The standard which was set in November
1996 with regard to dioxins, furans which are regarded as the
most worrying component, was that there should be no more than
1 nanogramme/metre3, which means no more than one part in a billion.
In the proposed Waste Incineration Directive, that standard is
being tightened ten-fold, to 0.1 nanogramme/metre3, so it is no
more than one part per 10 billion. You can still say, of course,
that dioxins, which are a very toxic substance, are still permitted
at that level; but that is absolutely minuscule. When I say that
on Guy Fawkes Night the amount of dioxins released is hugely greater,
the amount of dioxins released by other industrial processes,
for example, steel making is much higher, the amount of dioxins
produced by burning wood, not just on Guy Fawkes Night but other
processes including household, is considerably higher, then I
think we do have to see this in perspective.
I am not saying that incinerators are totally safe. Dioxin emissions
from municipal waste incinerators in 1994 were 521 grammes; and
in 1998 14 grammes. There has been a substantial reduction. With
regard to health effects I am extremely conscious that the consultancy
which we used, namely Entec, made a mathematical error in estimating
the health effects of the tighter standards in the proposed Waste
Incineration Directive. There is this concept which I should explain
of deaths not brought forward. The concept is this: if you have
a standard which is a typed standard, nevertheless, deaths can
be brought forward as a result of the operation of an incineration
plant. If you tighten the standard then you have a number for
deaths not brought forward and that should reduce. They calculated
that the deaths not brought forward were 51. As a result of their
miscalculation they now believe the correct figure is six. In
other words, that the health impact of incinerators is less than
Entec originally estimated. I think the most important fact is
that the Environment Agency, using the correct Entec data, and
also data from COMEAP (which is the Committee on the Medical Effects
of Air Pollution) now estimates that of the 24,000 deaths brought
forward each year in Britain by air pollution only three or less
than three may be attributable to the ten operating municipal
solid waste incinerators in 1999. That, I think, sets it in perspective.
I know there is great fear about this, and I think we have to
listen to this, but we do have to explain the facts and the relative
consequences of incinerators as against other processes. Even
if you consider those three, you have to look at the costs and
benefits of alternative forms of disposalfor example, landfill.
There have, of course, been allegations of health ill effects
of landfill and of transport impacts. I do not wish to pretend
that they are nil, but I do think we need to look at this seriously
and in proportion.
1148. You have described clearly what the standards
are but one of the causes of great public concern is the gap between
the standards and regulation of what actually happens. Do you
think the Environment Agency has the capacity in every sense to
regulate incineration effectively?
(Mr Meacher) I certainly hope so. I have no reason
at the moment to believe that that is not the case. The Environment
Agency does have the responsibility of deciding whether industrial
processes, including of course municipal waste incinerators, can
operate, which means looking at potential environmental impacts,
including health impacts, and (going back to Mr Cummings' first
question) assessing whether they can operate on a BATNEEC basis,
best available technique not entailing excessive cost.
1149. What is the public meant to make of what
happened at Byker
(Mr Meacher) I hope the public will make of what happened
to Byker what the Environment Agency Report does when it is announced
shortly (and I hope that will be in the next few weeks rather
than the next few months) as to whether there were any breaches
of waste management controls. I have not seen the report. I think
we should wait for that report. It has been reported in the press
that incinerator bottom ash and fly ash were mixed before being
disposed of which should not have happened. I am merely repeating
what has been said; I am not giving credence to that story, and
I think we should wait for the official report.
1150. Can you understand why the public might
have concerns about the Environment Agency's capacity, given that
it is both monitoring the way in which incineration operates and
advising on new planning applications?
(Mr Meacher) It is the regulator and I do not see
why it should not perform both of those functions. I do not think
anyone has suggested that the independence or integrity of the
Environment Agency is at risk or under challenge. I think we do
have to rely upon them imposing and exercising the highest standards.
Those standards are of course set by Parliament, and they are
continually being increased. I have no evidence to suggest that
they do their job inadequately or sloppily, or do not regulate
tightly. If I have that evidence I will pursue it.
1151. Finally, do you think that one way in
which the public might be reassured is if there were to be continuous
monitoring of the output of incinerators and for that information
to be shared fully with the public and local community?
(Mr Meacher) I do very much agree with that. I myself,
together with the Environment Agency, set up the pollution inventory,
which is precisely designed to allow people locally to know the
exact details on a continually updated basis as to what are the
levels of pollution to air, water or land of all the main pollutants
in their area. Indeed, the current pollution inventory does take
into account 150 polluting substances; I think in Europe the level
is much less, but we have a much higher level; and those figures
are republished each year. I am certainly keen that that should
include the discharges from incinerators.
1152. Is that easily available?
(Mr Meacher) It is available in a public place, which
would normally be in the civic centre. If we are talking about
waters, I would expect that to be available on a notice board
in a coastal area by a river.
1153. If someone was living in a council estate
round the corner from an incinerator how would they know where
to get that information?
(Mr Meacher) You could certainly ring up the local
authority civic centre and they would give you the information.
I would hope that if you were interested in finding out the information
it would be in a sufficiently prominent place that it would be
readily available to you, i.e. near the incinerators.
1154. I would hope so too. I agree wholly with
what you say about the need for people to be accurately informed
on a continuous basis; but what concerns meyou and I know
how the system workssupposing a group of mums get together
and say, "It's very strange, I think there is an effect from
that incinerator over there", and everybody in the area says,
"That's anecdotal and totally ridiculous, of course your
child hasn't got this", and responds in a way that authorities
always respond: how would I know easily where I could go and check
those figures and find my 14 year-old who had some scientific
training to tell me what they meant?
(Mr Meacher) I think the only sure way is to ring
up the town hall.
1155. You are satisfied that information is
going to be made available by all local authorities?
(Mr Meacher) I am. Again, there are a very large number.
Chairman: You did not say that with a great
deal of conviction!
1156. Is Ms Shaw, with her anti-pollution hat
(Ms Shaw) I was suggesting the Minister draw attention
to the Environment Agency website which is a very good source
1157. You and I know how the system works. How
many people in Crewe do you think will click on to the Environment
Agency websitenot a great many?
(Mr Meacher) Not a great many, I entirely agree. Therefore,
I think the more conventional sources, like ringing up the local
authorityand it means being persistent and getting through
to the right personI am sure they would provide you with
the information. There are 500 local authorities, or something
of that order, and I cannot guarantee the results of ringing all
1158. Is there any direction from your lot which
says, "We think this information ought to be available for
the public"? You obviously believe it; you are doing the
work; do you say to them, "Make sure somebody can find it"?
That is all I am asking you.
(Mr Meacher) It is a very fair question.
1159. All my questions are always fair, Minister.
I thought over the years you had gathered that. That is why if
they can get rid of me they will!
(Mr Meacher) Whether we have issued guidelines specifically
requesting/requiring local authorities to make available
5 Note by Witness: Research has shown that
bonfires and/or fireworks may be a significant source of trace
organic pollutants. Measurements were taken of dioxins in ambient
air before, during and after 5 November at a limited number of
sites in the UK. In Oxford, ambient air concentrations increased
by a factor of four during bonfire night while the data for Cardiff
indicated possibly greater change over this period. It has not
been possible to use the ambient air data to make an estimate
of the actual quantities related. Reference: Dyke, P, Coleman
& James R (1997) Chemosphere 34 (5-7) pp 1191-1201. Back