Sixth Environmental Action Programme

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Jim Dobbin (Heywood and Middleton): Will my right hon. Friend extend his comments on waste management to landfill sites? During the foot and

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mouth outbreak, there were problems and worries about pollution of water and grazing land. Will that be part of the Environment Agency's concerns?

Mr. Meacher: It is part of the Environment Agency's concerns. There was a requirement to move the carcasses of the 3 to 4 million animals that were killed in the course of the foot and mouth outbreak. They were disposed of by a variety of methods that included incineration, and disposal on site and in large registered landfill sites. The issue is covered generally by the framework document, and waste control and management is one of the biggest unresolved environmental issues.

We have not succeeded in this country, or in any other country, in decoupling growth, which we all want, from its environmental consequences. In this country, the increase in waste is roughly in proportion with the rise in growth, roughly 3 per cent., and possibly more. Our objective must be to ensure that we retain growth, which is not a politically contentious issue, while reducing waste arising to zero, and then to a negative rate, which would mean less waste in the next year than in the present year. The Commission will return to that area in future documents.

With regard to my hon. Friend's specific question, I know that many concerns were expressed in his constituency because mine adjoins his. There was worry that landfilling carcases could have an impact on those sites, particularly through leaching into the water supply. To my knowledge, the Environment Agency has investigated all those cases and ensured that that did not happen. Unless he has specific evidence to the contrary, which I would be glad to know about, that has not led to any adverse long-term environmental consequences.

Matthew Green (Ludlow): At the end of his introductory remarks, the Minister touched on implementation and enforcement. How will the EU ensure that all member states meet the targets in the document? If they do not, what penalties might apply?

Mr. Meacher: The document places much more emphasis on the fact that we do not want an endless train of new provisions, and the UK was at the forefront in pressing for the requirement that provisions be fully justified and properly costed. We do, however, want better implementation and enforcement of measures that are already in place. The UK is rightly scrupulous in implementing measures from Brussels, but it is alleged—not by me, as I am not familiar with the evidence—that that is not always true of other member states. I repeat that that is an allegation. It is therefore right that the Commission should place greater emphasis on implementation and enforcement, which is a central requirement under the framework directive.

The hon. Gentleman asked how the process will be carried through, and it is clear that the Commission will seek more direct evidence on enforcement. Of course, enforcement within their own boundaries is a matter for national Governments, but the

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Commission has a right to demand information showing that rigorously assessed inventories of action have been taken. The Commission will ask for more of those, not because it wants to be more bureaucratic, but simply to ensure that EU decisions are being implemented.

On sanctions, such matters are written into each of the technical documents that require action to be taken on a particular aspect of environmental policy. Each measure should contain a sanction, which it is the Commission's responsibility to exact. If there is evidence of a failure to implement, or prima facie evidence that another state is failing to implement, which might have competitive consequences for industry, it must be provided by the complainant body or country. The Commission is expected fully to investigate, and to publish its conclusions.

Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green): Will my right hon. Friend comment on nuclear waste and, in particular, on disagreements between the Republic of Ireland and our country over the issues on which he has touched?

Mr. Meacher: Over radioactive waste?

Dr. Vis: Yes.

Mr. Meacher: The level of radioactive discharges in the Irish sea remains a serious bone of contention between the UK and Irish Governments. Compared with levels in the 1960s and 1970s, the discharge has unquestionably been substantially reduced, particularly through the manufacture and operation of the enhanced actinide removal plant. Although I am no technician, I know that EARP removes radio nuclides from the process and disposes of them on site, so that their discharge in the Irish sea is not required. The one exception is technetium 99, which remains a source of complaint for the Irish Government and for each of the Scandinavian Governments.

Technetium 99 is a radio nuclide that persists in the environment for about 213,000 years. That is just about the length of time that hominids and homo sapiens have been roaming the planet; it is a long time. It is not radiologically highly significant, and none of the parties claims it to be, but it has been discovered off the Irish coast and off the coast of Scandinavia.

Our concern is to reduce those technetium 99 discharges. The levels have been reduced from the levels reached in the 1990s. In 1994, I think that the discharge level was 10 becquerels. I always get mixed up about the units, and it might be terabecquerels. But whatever the appropriate unit, the discharge level was increased from 1994, in order to remove the level in the five tanks that store it at Sellafield, to 200 of whatever the units are. It has now been reduced again—I am not sure whether by the present or by the previous Government—to 90. We are committed to reducing it to 10 again as quickly as we can. The problem is the technology that will deliver that.

The Environment Agency has been in extensive discussions with Sellafield and British Nuclear Fuels about the matter. I have put in place an examination of the level of radionuclides at Sellafield and other

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nuclear plants in this country. I have asked the Environment Agency to carry out a thorough investigation of each, but to give priority to technetium 99 because of the international concerns. It has presented its decision, and that is now in the public domain and being examined closely by the Irish Government.

The problem is that the technology that would deliver a rapid reduction to a discharge level of 10 units is simply not available. I am keen that any technology that will deliver that, which the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive will support, should be put in place as fast as possible. The agency has proposed that, at the very latest, discharge levels will reduce to 10 by 2006. If that could happen earlier, I would be the first to support it.

The only other problem that arises is that, until 2006, the material continues to be stored in the five tanks. The HSE is constantly examining the integrity of those tanks and, of course, we would have to take action if it should find any risk to their integrity. That is not the case at the moment, nor is it believed likely before 2006. If the discharge continues at 90 units a year, all those tanks will be discharged by 2006. However, I repeat that if we could find the technology to do that earlier, and without discharge to the Irish sea, the British Government would strongly support it.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. O'Brien.

I was surprised at the Minister's answer to the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Jim Dobbin) regarding leachate in watercourses and pipes. May I suggest that he asks his Department to contact Northumbrian Water? It actually had to move a main water pipe because there was a danger of leachate coming from piles of carcases into a main drinking water pipe.

The question asked by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) was very important. The implementation of directives has, to put it at its most generous, been patchy. We believe that this country has a good record, and are pretty clear that other countries have not always had the same record, especially when they have thought implementation to be against their commercial interests or where strong political interests have delayed it.

All too often, the implementation of directives is self-regulating. The document clearly states that the legal process has been slow and cumbersome in enforcing directives. It proposes a name, shame and fame system, which we welcome. However, it does not propose an auditing process for the implementation of directives. Are the Government minded to press the EU for an effective auditing of the implementation of directives, so that we can ensure that everyone in the EU has to face up to the same responsibilities?

Mr. Meacher: On the hon. Gentleman's first question, I was not suggesting that there have not been problems with regard to leachate. I simply said that, to my knowledge, the Environment Agency took the

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necessary action to ensure that water supplies were not threatened. I accept the example that the hon. Gentleman cited.

On his main question about implementation and delays, the hon. Gentleman raised the interesting issue of an auditing process. The Commission can carry out an auditing process only by asking for information from national Governments about the state of progress according to target dates on the implementation of directives. That is what the framework document commits the Commission to do. Whatever phrase one uses, closer attention to implementation is now in place.

The Mandelkern—not Mandelson—group of high-level experts published a report last November in which it suggested that a new comprehensive impact assessment covering all Commission regulatory proposals should be in place by June. That will help with the manner in which implications, costs and delivery mechanisms are assessed. In the light of that, I expect the Commission to give much closer attention to demanding more information.

The hon. Gentleman may be one of those who, if we go too far in that direction, will complain that the Commission and the EU are being buried under bureaucracy. We must make a trade-off between getting the necessary extra information to check on the speed and adequacy of implementation—the hon. Gentleman made a valid point about that—without going so far that officials are increasingly simply filling in pieces of paper. A closer auditing process is certainly one of the fruits of the document.

 
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Prepared 16 January 2002