Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 900 - 919)

TUESDAY 28 NOVEMBER 2000

DR PAUL LEINSTER, MR STEVE LEE AND DR MARTIN WHITWORTH

Chairman

  900. I understand your reluctance to go into Byker but actually the mixing of fly ash and base ash did go on for a very substantial period of time, which suggests that the Environment Agency or its predecessor was pretty incompetent, does it not?
  (Dr Whitworth) I would not like, as I have already said, Chairman, to talk about the specifics of the Byker case because I am concerned that if we say anything in the public domain now that might affect legal proceedings which may or may not be taken in the future.

  901. But Mr Benn's question to you was how do you convince people at a public inquiry that they should take the Environment Agency seriously? At that particular plant the mixing of those two things, which should not have been mixed, went on for some months at least, if not years. Someone from the Environment Agency ought to have been going there occasionally at least and doing something about it, ought they not?
  (Dr Whitworth) In the industry of waste incineration the mixing of bottom ash and fly ash has not been the most common practice but there are, as I understand it, other sites which mixed ash.

  902. Can you tell us the other sites and then we can concentrate on the other sites, not on Byker?
  (Dr Whitworth) I do not have them to hand. May I write to the Committee to advise you of that?

Mr Blunt

  903. You must know one of them.
  (Dr Whitworth) I believe, but I cannot remember exactly, that Edmonton used to mix fly ash and bottom ash. I am not entirely sure.

Chairman

  904. Why did not the Environment Agency do anything about it?
  (Dr Whitworth) I am not sure of the details of that site either. I can provide those.

  905. You can give us a note?
  (Dr Whitworth) I can certainly write to the Committee to let you know.

Mr Blunt

  906. The reason you were not able to answer Mr Benn's question directly (and if we can cut through the bureaucratic waffle it would be helpful) is that incineration is not safe, is it? You cannot give that undertaking. If you were asked, "Is incineration safe?", you cannot say yes.
  (Dr Whitworth) I cannot give any categoric answer that any waste management option is safe.

  907. Because the fact is, of course, that the Regulation of Environmental Impact Assessment of the DETR itself is that every 50 tonnes of NOX emissions calculated by DETR's own consultants bring forth one death due to secondary ozone impacts.
  (Dr Whitworth) I do not know the figure off the top of my head but the actual report which was undertaken by independent consultants, Entec, for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions has recently been revised because there was a mathematical error in the numbers produced. There are also some assumptions in that report which may or may not be entirely valid vis-a-vis the relationship between deaths brought forward due to ozone and the relationship to nitrogen dioxide emissions. The Agency has gone back to look at the first principles of the report from the Advisory Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution upon which the Entec report was based, so that we can interrogate the fundamental scientific relationship between exposure to ambient pollution levels and the possible response of a population.

  908. So no-one can challenge the fact that perhaps 88 people die each year and 168 people are hospitalised for lung related diseases associated with the country's 12 current incinerator plants?
  (Dr Whitworth) I think that that figure could be challenged on the basis of the most recent change to the Entec report.

  909. It could be challenged but the trouble with this debate is that it is a little vague in where you can pin down exactly what causes what, is it not?
  (Dr Whitworth) We have concluded that the numbers stated in the report would be a significant over-estimate of the actual figures, and I understand that Entec have also accepted that in that they notified the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

  910. But you are having to make recommendations based on balance of risk, are you not?
  (Dr Whitworth) That is correct, but we have looked at first principles in the report from the Advisory Committee. We have not looked in as much detail at the Entec report.

  911. But your transparency on this does not really give one cause for encouragement, does it? The whole way you have dealt with the Public Interest Consultants who were trying to find out information in this area is a rather unhappy story, is it not?
  (Dr Whitworth) We have provided all of the information to Public Interest Consultants that they have asked for in regard to our correspondence with the Department of Health.

  912. But here are you, the Agency meant to be in charge of assessing whether or not these plants should be able to get permission to go ahead, giving the Government expert advice and public inquiries expert advice on this. The Public Interest Consultants are invited to discover information from you at a cost of £200 to look at the correspondence between you and the Department of Health, and then it turns out that there is not any.
  (Dr Whitworth) That is correct. There was not any on the specific report that Public Interest Consultants asked for.

  913. What discussions have you had with the Department of Health on the matter of the regulatory environmental impact assessment on the Waste Incineration Directive?
  (Dr Whitworth) We have had discussions on the report from the Advisory Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollution. It is known as the "Quantification of the effects of air pollution on health". The Regulatory and Environmental Impact report is based upon that report. The Agency has appointed recently a senior member of staff to look at human health issues and that member of staff would have had discussions with the Department of Health on both of those reports, and certainly on the Advisory Committee report. Any reports that we have submitted either are in the public domain or can be put into the public domain. That is not a problem for the Agency because we are committed to open and transparent regulation.
  (Dr Leinster) The Agency, in discussing the issue with the Department of Health, has been seeking support and advice on human toxicology and environmental medicine because we believe that they have the expertise in that area. The Agency has expertise in aspects such as emission characteristics, sources, control measures and strategies, but we do need additional specialist advice which we believe the Department of Health can provide on human toxicology and environmental medicine. Although the Agency is happy to participate actively and to promote the process, we believe it is for Government ultimately to set health based air quality standards for these types of emissions.

  914. But the conclusion one would draw is that understanding of this whole area is frankly at a pretty early stage, on how exactly air pollution affects people's health.
  (Dr Leinster) The health effects of air pollution, I would agree, are at an early stage.

  915. Which means that when people are considering applications for incinerators, would it not be wise for the precautionary principle to be available, and if there are alternative routes for disposal of waste in those circumstances they should be advanced first?
  (Dr Leinster) I think that is a slightly different question. I would fully agree that what should happen in addressing this issue is that you look at an overall waste strategy. What we need to have is a structured high level strategic approach to waste management. Within that structured approach for a given region we need to ensure that waste minimisation plays a part, recycling plays a part, re-use plays a part, and then we come to disposal, but within any strategic assessment you will come to disposal. When you come to disposal we do not know of any no-risk options.

  916. Finally, should the Agency consider banning incineration of certain wastes which cause hazards when incinerated, such as PVC, wood that has been treated, batteries, (and some of this happens in other countries)? Could you do this through the licensing process?
  (Dr Leinster) We encourage segregation of wastes and we would ensure that there was adequate segregation of wastes. As Martin said, what we do is carry out an assessment of the process. We look at what the inputs to that process are and what the resultant emissions from the process are, taking into account the control technologies that a particular incinerator in this case might have. If we believe that those levels are acceptable then we will authorise the process.

Chairman

  917. On treated wood how do you know what on earth wood has been treated with?
  (Mr Lee) Under the Duty of Care it is for the producer of waste to make sure that the waste is passed on to the next person in the chain of responsibility for that waste with enough information to make sure that the recipient, whether they be a treater, a transporter or a disposer, has enough information to make sure that they can deal with the waste responsibly and prevent its escape or prevent unacceptable releases to the environment, so the onus lies very much on the producer.

  918. As I understand it, as an individual householder I do not have that Duty of Care, so I can get someone to put up a wooden fence which may well be treated with some pretty nasty things to make the wood last a long time. It does not necessarily mean that it will last all that long and I may put three or four different treatments on it in the course of trying to keep the thing standing up, may I not?
  (Mr Lee) There is only one assumption you can make about household waste, and that is that it will contain everything, and that is not just treated wood or PVC. That will also include small amounts of pesticides, household chemicals. It is a very inhomogeneous material and it will contain small amounts of treated wood. In dealing with household waste you have to start from that basic assumption. It will contain a very broad range of materials.

  919. And so you think that it could still be incinerated without too much worry?
  (Mr Lee) The whole accent has to be on anticipating that the household waste is going to be complex and will have a range of materials in it, and making sure that the operation of the plant and the abatement mechanisms built in are sufficient to ensure that the emissions to the atmosphere are acceptable through the licensing process.


 
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