Examination of Witnesses (Questions 890
TUESDAY 28 NOVEMBER 2000
890. Can I welcome witnesses from the Environment
Agency and can I ask you to identify yourselves for the record?
(Dr Leinster) My name is Dr Paul Leinster.
I am Director of Environmental Protection at the Environment Agency.
On my right is Mr Steve Lee, who is the Head of Waste Regulation.
On my left is Dr Martin Whitworth, who is Policy Manager in Process
891. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction
or are you happy to go straight into questions?
(Dr Leinster) We are happy to go straight into questions,
892. Is incineration safe?
(Dr Whitworth) One of the roles that the Agency plays
in the regulation of industry in general is the evaluation of
the techniques proposed by an operator of industrial processes,
including large incinerators. We evaluate the techniques proposed,
their potential impact on the environment and on human health.
If using the scientific methods available to us as regulators
demonstrates that there could be an adverse environmental effect
of an incinerator (or any industrial process) or an adverse effect
on human health, then the Agency would reject the application.
It is one of our roles to ensure that if the information supplied
by an operator is not sufficient to make a judgment then we have
powers, and always exercise those powers, to get enough information
to make a decision as to whether we would be prepared to permit
an incinerator. We endeavour to use standards of environmental
modelling and assessment which are determined by bodies other
than the Environment Agency, so we will look at, for example,
standards set by the World Health Organisation or standards based
on the Health and Safety Executive's occupational exposure limits.
We endeavour to make sure that any determination is transparent
and also that the setting of those standards is transparent so
that the public will have confidence in the decisions that we
893. I am not, to be honest, entirely clear
about that from the answer that you have given. You have described
the process, which is fair enough, but there is obviously a lot
of public controversy about incineration, as you are only too
well aware. You might be sitting in front of a group of people
considering a planning application which will result potentially
in an incinerator being sited near where they live. They are going
to ask you, amongst others, as people with expertise that question:
is incineration safe? What I really want to know is what is your
answer to that question, not the process by which you take the
decisions, given the level of your knowledge and expertise. What
would you say to the person who asked you that question?
(Dr Whitworth) If an operator were to propose the
construction and operation of an incinerator to modern, up to
date standards, then we would not have any objection in principle
to that incinerator. What we would have to do, bearing in mind
the process I have just described, is to go through, for an individual
incinerator, and look at the potential environmental impacts in
and around that incinerator to determine if it is safe. The way
we would do that would be by comparison to internationally recognised
894. So your answer would be that, given the
internationally recognised standards, what the World Health Organisation
has said is safe, according to that definition is safe?
(Dr Whitworth) We would accept comparison to an external
895. Do you think those standards are adequate?
(Dr Whitworth) I am not a medical doctor so I would
not really be able to state whether the World Health Organisation
standards or other medical standards were safe or not. We would
trust the expert judgment of others on that.
896. What would you say to those who would argue
that when we talk about "safety" we are really talking
about what we can measure currently rather than what is safe,
which can be two different things?
(Dr Whitworth) That is entirely true. With all scientific
methods there is a degree of uncertainty due to measuring techniques.
One of the things that we have done recently is move towards lower
dioxin emissions from municipal waste incinerators as a result
of improvements in the ability of monitoring techniques to determine
lower and lower levels.
897. One of the reasons somebody might ask you
that question is that they may know something about what happened
at Byker. You clearly have a responsibility there and we understand
you are currently carrying out an investigation, but they might
say, "Hang on a minute. If you are an organisation which
is entrusted with operating the regulations as they currently
exist and allow something like Byker to occur, how is that going
to give confidence in the Environment Agency's oversight on safety?"
(Dr Whitworth) As I am sure you are aware, you have
already mentioned that the Agency is conducting an investigation
at the moment into possible legal action against parties concerned
with Byker, so I am not really at liberty to say anything in detail
about that particular case. It is with the nature of any regulation,
any regulatory system, that one has to approach regulation on
a risk basis. One cannot be present on site 24 hours a day 365
days a year, so an inspection regime has to be put in place which
will hopefully be able to identify any non-compliances. Some non-compliances
will be spotted immediately. Others will take quite a while to
come to the fore. With instances like Byker and other enforcement
areas, we will learn from those lessons and put in place policies
and systems so that we can make sure they do not happen in the
898. In which case the resident at the public
meeting might say, "You have got your systems and processes,
but you have just said to me, `We cannot be there all the time',
in which case we are then dependent on the operators as to whether
they observe the requirements that you lay down, and since the
Byker case appears to have shown that they are not capable of
doing so, how can we be assured that this whole thing will be
safe, whether it is down to your oversight or the operation of
the people actually running the incinerator, in which case why
should we have one?"
(Dr Whitworth) If one takes the example of air pollution,
in the past five to ten years there has been a significant development
of continuous emission monitoring systems and they are much more
common and less expensive than they used to be. It is possible
now to have continuous emission monitoring of releases into the
atmosphere which can be interrogated by computer either over a
telephone network or actually when one of our inspectors is on
site. We can have a much greater degree of oversight because of
technological developments and also in cases where we have installed
cameras to look at plumes from stacks so that we are able to look
remotely at those stacks. We are always trying to tighten the
regime and thereby trying to ensure that there is an appropriate
degree of control to give the public confidence in the regulatory
system. We would never condone an operator breaking the terms
of its authorisation and we will always take enforcement action
in line with our published enforcement and prosecution policy
if we discover non-compliances.
899. On that very point, would you be quite
happy to share, given that development of technology, access to
that to local authorities, interested individuals in the community,
so that they might in effect undertake their own monitoring role
in relation to the emissions from a particular incinerator?
(Dr Whitworth) One of the areas that we are considering
as part of the development of an Agency policy is looking at how
we can make the international standards on industrial performance
(and in particular let us take incinerators) more accessible to
members of the public and anybody else who is interested in them
so that they can see the actual performance on a day to day basis
or an annualised basis. One of the developments there has been
the Agency's Pollution Inventory which quantifies, for a number
of important substances released to all environmental media, the
actual emissions of each process authorised under the Integrated
Pollution Control System, showing that on a year by year basis
so that people have access to trend information or they know what
sort of pollutants are emitted by large industrial processes in
the vicinity of where they live.