Examination of Witnesses (Questions 900
TUESDAY 28 NOVEMBER 2000
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
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?
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
904. Why did not the Environment Agency do anything
(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.
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
(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
(Dr Whitworth) That is correct. There was not any
on the specific report that Public Interest Consultants asked
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
(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
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.
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.