First Standing Committee on European Community Documents


Thursday 2 November 1989



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Wednesday 9 November 1989


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The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Amos, Mr. Alan (Hexham)

Baker, Mr. Nicholas (Dorset, North)

Bellingham, Mr. Henry (Norfolk, North-West)

Bennett, Mr. Nicholas (Pembroke)

Blackburn, Dr. John G. (Dudley, West)

Boateng, Mr. Paul (Brent, South)

Bonsor, Sir Nicholas (Upminster)

Colvin, Mr. Michael (Romsey and Waterside)

Coombs, Mr. Anthony (Wyre Forest)

Forman, Mr. Nigel (Carshalton and Wallington)

Howells, Dr. Kim (Pontypridd)

Knight, Mr. Greg (Derby, North)

Lewis, Mr Terry (Worsley)

Macdonald, Mr. Calum (Western Isles)

Martlew, Mr. Eric (Carlisle)

Moynihan, Mr. Colin (Party Under-Secretary of State for the Environment)

Taylor, Mr. Matthew (Truro)

Walley, Ms. Joan (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

Mr. R. M. Hutton, Committee Clerk


[SIR GILES SHAW in the Chair]


10.30 am

The Chairman: Before I advise the Clerk to read the business for this morning's debate, I shall tell the Committee that there is enhanced lighting in the Committee Room in connection with experiments for television purposes. However, I should like to assure hon. Members on both sides of the Committee that there are no cameras present, and that our proceedings are not being recorded.

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

10.31 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr Colin Moynihan): I beg to move, That this Committee takes note of European Community Document No. 8337/88 and the Supplementary Memorandum submitted by the Department of the Environment on 10th July 1989 relating to the control of discharges of dangerous substances to water, and supports the Government's efforts to secure the future selection of substances for priority action according to clear, scientific criteria. I begin by welcoming you, Sir Giles, to our deliberations and thanking you for taking the Chair. We know that the Committee will be kept under excellent control, and also that you have an extensive knowledge of the subject that we are debating, and indeed of the water industry as a whole. We shall be careful to stick closely to the facts. I anticipate that any additional heat will be generated by the enhanced lighting. My photogenic hon. Friends can handle that as well as they can handle the subject of our debate. The Select Committee on European Legislation has reported three times on the proposal for a European Community directive, most recently in its 29th report of the current Session. The Select Committee has been critical of the Commission's proposals in a number of respects, and I shall discuss those criticisms later. The Committee has also sought further evidence of progress on the Commission's undertakings to improve the selection of substances for priority action under the dangerous substances directive. The common theme in its comments has been the need to improve the scientific basis and rationale of the Commission's proposals and that is reflected in the motion. 4 Before setting out the Government's position on these issues it may be helpful if I described the background to the proposal made by the European Commission and its content and implications. As long ago as 1976 a framework directive was agreed on the mechanisms by which the discharge of dangerous substances was to be controlled within the European Community to protect the aquatic environment. It specified that all discharges to water that were liable to contain dangerous substances had to be subject to prior authorisation and emission standards. It also divided dangerous substances into two categories, known as list I and list II. List I substances are those that pose a particular threat to the aquatic environment. For those substances, controls would be set at Community level in a series of daughter directives on individual substances. List II substances are those that are less likely to pose a risk of long-term of widespead environmental pollution, but may do so in certain cirumstances. They were therefore deemed to be best suited to control at national level, subject to certain rules laid down about how such control was to be exercised. Member states—or their pollution control authorities—must authorise discharges containing list I or list II substances to conform either with the uniform emission standards laid down for particular industrial sectors—the so-called limit value approach—or to ensure that specified safe concentrations were not exceeded in the receiving water—the so-called environmental quality objective approach. Since 1976, daughter directives have been agreed that set standards for a number of list I substances. The current proposal would be the latest in the series. It covers four substances, to which I shall judiciously refer by their abbreviated names—TCB, EDC, Tri and Per. TCB and EDC are used primarily in the chemical industry. The former is used at only one location in the United Kingdom, but more widely in some other member states. EDC is produced or used at five industrial sites in the United Kingdom. It is used as an intermediate chemical—that is, it is used to help make other chemicals. Tri and Per are manufactured at one location in the United Kingdom, but their pattern of use differs from that of the other two substances. Tri and Per are widely used as solvents for removing grease in dry-cleaning and in the light engineering and electronic industries. The former use normally involves a small occasional discharge from dry-cleaning premises; the latter should not normally involve any discharge to water if good practice is observed and spillages avoided. The emission standards or limit values that the Commission has proposed for the various industrial sectors involved in the production and use of these substances appear broadly reasonable, with the notable exception of those for the dry-cleaning sector. There the limit values proposed appear to be based on erroneous information, and the approach envisaged is not really applicable to large numbers of occasional, very small discharges. The Commission is right to address such an important diffuse source of the substances, but, we believe, has not chosen the best way to go about it. Fortunately it has shown every sign of being prepared to accept member states' arguments on that point and is likely to produce alternative proposals. 5 By contrast, the quality objectives proposed by the Commission do not appear soundly based, for reasons identified in the Select Committee's report. Environmental quality objectives should be based on the establishment, from scientific studies, of the concentration of substance that would cause no harm to the most sensitive species of aquatic life, and then building in an appropriate safety factor. There is no evidence in the Commission's proposal that it has used that approach. As the Select Committee has pointed out, for three of the four substances it would appear that the Commission has based its proposals on World Health Organisation guideline figures for concentration limits in drinking water, based on exposure over a lifetime. This is clearly inappropriate and reflects badly on the care and attention with which the proposal has been prepared. However, setting quality objectives is not a precise art, and although probably over-stringent, the quality objectives proposed are not wildly out of line with what would appear to be justified on the data that we have been able to assemble. But the Commission should adopt a more scientific and rational approach to setting standards, which can often entail substantial cost, implications for industry, including small businesses. The Government's main criticism of the current proposal is in the selection of substances for priority action. Two of them, TCB and EDC, are on our own priority red list, and we have little doubt that they can pose a serious hazard to the aquatic environment. TCB in particular is extremely toxic, persistent in water and liable to accumulate in aquatic organisms. EDC is moderately toxic and a proven carcinogen. We therefore agree with the Commission that those two substances should be accorded list I status. Tri and Per, on the other hand, do not appear to meet the criteria laid down in the framework directive for list status. They are only moderately toxic, do not persist for long in surface waters, and do not bioaccumulate. That is not to say that the substances should not be subject to careful control. It remains the case that any discharges must be strictly limited and environmental quality objectives should be set and observed. But the characteristics of Tri and Per substances make them more appropriate for national level control as list II substances under the terms of the framework directive. More important, it is a distortion of priorities to focus attention and scarce resources on those substances first, rather than on others that are potentially much more dangerous. In the past two years my Department has been developing a system for assessing the relative hazard posed to the aquatic environment by different dangerous substances. The need for such a scheme derives from the fact that there are thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of chemical substances in use, any of which may potentially reach the aquatic environment. Some of those chemicals pose a risk to the aquatic environment while others do not. We need to identify those that are most likely to find their way into rivers or the sea, and those which, once there, pose the greatest risk of harm. Action to reduce or eliminate such inputs should then be taken as a priority. It is essential that we direct our legislative and administrative energies, and our human and financial resources, to where they will produce most benefit most quickly. 6 In April this year, my noble Friend the then Minister for Housing, Environment and the Countryside, Lord Caithness, announced the publication of the first red list—the United Kingdom's initial list of substances for priority action. The 23 substances or groups of substances were selected after the consultation that I have just described. My noble Friend also announced, the continued development of a scheme to select additional candidates for the list in due course. As well as looking at the relative toxicity, persistence and ability to bioaccumulate, the system also examines evidence of carcinogenicity, and includes other factors that reflect the likelihood of a substance reaching the water environment. Now that the top priority substances have been identified a series of measures are being taken to minimise their input to the environment. Measures to introduce tough new control standards on industrial sources of those substances, based on a requirement to use the best available technology and practices, will be included in the green Bill that we shall introduce shortly. Work is already in hand to compile inventories of discharges of red list substances and to establish their prevalence in the water environment. Regulations already impose strict controls on discharges of such substances to sewers under powers in the Water Act 1989. Agricultural and other uses of such substances are subject to systematic assessment; in some cases, all approved uses have already been withdrawn. The Water Research Centre has been commissioned to propose environmental quality standards for all red list substances, where they do not exist already. The measures will substantially reduce the input of red list substances to the aquatic environment. The Ministerial declaration signed after the 1987 North sea conference in London commits us to seek reductions of 50 per cent. by 1995. In many cases, we expect to achieve substantially more. All that illustrates the practical value of a clearly defined priority list of substances on which to target urgent action. To be credible, that list must be drawn up on clearly stated, scientific principles. That returns us to the proposed European Community directive that we are discussing today and to the Select Committee's anxiety about the lack of an equivalent priority list in Europe. Last year, in the course of discussions on a proposed list I directive on chloroform, the United Kingdom elicited from the European Commission an undertaking to produce such a list as a basis for its future work. The Commission promised to compile one within six months. Informal discussions quickly produced agreement on a list of likely candidates. That list closely resembled our own red list. The discussion went further, and the Commission was persuaded to begin drawing up proposals for a selection scheme, to identify the most hazardous substances—again, along the lines that we were already developing. I regret to say that progress since then has been slow. The Commission has not yet delivered the goods, as the Select Committee noted. Under pressure from the United Kingdom and other member states, the Commission has now let a contract for a study of possible selection schemes to identify priority substances. The outcome of that study should contribute eventually to the development of a European scheme. 7 I can report also that we understand that a proposal embodying a first priority list of dangerous substances is currently in the final stages of preparation within the Commission, and that should be published in the next few weeks. We must await sight of its proposals before giving our unqualified support. None the less, any measure that seeks to direct the future work of the Commission along more scientific lines, and to aim the investment of regulatory and financial resources in member states at more important pollution control targets, must be a step in the right direction. That returns me back to today's proposal, which is essentially a throw-back to the Commission's old, rather haphazard way of selecting substances for action. As I said before we believe that the Commission have got it right with two of the substances, but that the other two really do not merit urgent action—in terms either of their characteristics or actual pollution problems in surface waters. That said, those substances—Tri and Per—must still be carefully controlled, and we welcome the Commission's flexibility in seeking to improve the less practicable aspects of the proposals. Furthermore, if we can use the proposal in any way to force home to the Commission and to others the need for a sensible approach to setting priorities and standards in the future, that will make a useful contribution to the developing and improving Community policy on water pollution control.

10.45 am

Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Sir Giles, and echo the Under-Secretary's remarks about your chairmanship of the Committee. I welcome much of what the Under-Secretary said about integrated pollution control, about which Opposition Members are greatly concerned. We are worried that there has not been the national progress on integrated pollution control that we believe to be urgent. Stalling tactics should not be used, but all four dangerous substances should be included in the documents and the action taken by the European Commission. We do not wish to draw a distinction between priorities. It is important that all four substances should be given equal priority in relation to controlling pollution of water. With regard to implementation, the Under-Secretary did not mention the extent to which waste reduction and minimisation is being taken on board. The framework directive should provide an overall framework. but within that there should be tight legislation at a national level to prevent the kind of discharges that are currently polluting the water environment. I was pleased to hear that there is no doubt about the first two substances being included. We need to introduce the most stringent safeguards. That can be done only by having a properly resourced environmental protection agency, which so far does not exist. Whether anything in the green Bill will change that and introduce one remains to be seen. We have already had problems with accidents and spillages, as research by the British Geological Survey has shown. There have been incidents where solvents have got into the ground water, and once they are there, the problem is intractable. We believe that when that happens, the longterm cost of having to write off the whole of the water 8 supply is far in excess of the cost of measures that could be taken at this stage to reduce and minimise the emissions of those dangerous substances into water. The most important point is that all four substances should be included in list I — there should be no Government stalling on that. However, that measure alone is not sufficient — it should be backed up by a properly resourced integrated pollution control framework and machinery, because at present, there is total demoralisation within Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution, with well-thought-of officers resigning all over the place. We support the Government's approach to the issue of the two substances, but wish to see far more effective control of discharges. The answer is not to tidy up after the event. The money and scientific research should be provided to prevent this pollution in the first place. That precautionary approach to pollution control has so far been lacking, and should be introduced. Therefore, it is important to support the proposal for the inclusion of all four substances.

10.49 am

Mr. Moynihan: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms. Walley) for her general support. I recognise the eagerness to bring all four substances within the same parameters. However, it is important to differentiate between priorities and also to distinguish between different controls for different dangerous substances. For example, trichloroethylene and perchloroethylene are used for grease removal in dry-cleaning. A bottle is often discharged into the sewerage system. If those substances were brought into the ambit of limit values, based on either a daily or a monthly average, that would be irrelevant to the control. One discharge from a dry-cleaner might be missed, if the limit value control were based on a daily average plucked out of the air. An effective control can be achieved through national objectives and programmes. Any national programmes must be monitored by the Commission. The Government would welcome that. I do not underestimate the nature of dangerous substances. There must be an appropriate scientific response to the different dangers posed by different substances in different circumstances.

Ms. Walley: What scientific research has taken place? What has the Department of Trade and Industry done about dry-cleaners and small businesses, which often use the two dangerous substances mentioned? What sort of recycling programme do the Government envisage? Will the Government set guidelines or requirements for recycling facilities, to ensure that the substances do not leak into the aquatic environment? Lack of incentive by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has allowed dangerous substances to leak into the water, and caused an environmental hazard. Industry should not be allowed to say, "Accidents happen sometimes." Guidelines must be set and enforced.

Mr. Moyniham: I believe that the hon. Lady and the Government are at one on the issue. Recycling is important and should be researched and implemented. We are more likely to achieve those objectives through national programmes than by setting strict limit values. One of the criticisms that I presented to the Committee was that the 9 Commission offered inadequate scientific research to support the proposals. The Government will ensure that more scientific research is undertaken.

Ms. Walley: Will the Under-Secretary of State inform the Committee what research has been carried out in Britain, and how this country is dealing with the important issues of integration and control?

Mr. Moynihan: Our view that there is a lack of scientific back-up is borne out by the excellent work of the Water Research Council, which forms the basis for our deliberations when we come to negotiate with the European Community. At its simplest, it is inconsistent with our view of effective scientific control for at least three of the substances to be based on World Health Organisation guidelines for drinking water when we should be concerned also about their effects on saline water and estuaries and about the problems in the sea. Therefore far more scientific approaches must be adopted to achieve the objective that the hon. Member described. The work done by the Water Research Centre in assisting the Government to prepare for those discussions has been invaluable.

10.55 am

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey and Waterside): I have a couple of questions for my hon. Friend the Minister that may assist the Committee. First, can he quantify the problem? He explained that TCBs are very toxic and that EDCs are moderately toxic and that their emission into water systems will be strictly regulated. May we be given an idea of how many manufacturing plants produce those substances as byproducts of their manufacturing processes and how many tonnes are involved? Storage difficulties also arise, and there is the question of eventual disposal or recyclying—one or the other. If toxic waste is to be transported, how dangerous is it—and how safe can it be made? When should it be disposed of? I speak with a number of interests. An important fishing river runs through my constituency and there are many fishermen around the coast, in the Waterside area. Emissions of toxic waste into the water systems are therefore of fundamental importance. Moreover the Rechem International plant in my constituency is probably the world's most sophisticated and efficient company with responsibilities for the disposal of toxic waste. Information on the extent of the problem and about what will eventually happen to TCBs and EDCs is important for both the Committee and Rechem International. When the Minister replies perhaps he will say whether there has been any progress with encouraging companies that produce large quantities of waste materials to dispose of them themselves. I was in Canada during the Recess and spoke to the Canadian Environment Department about its policy of exporting some of its toxic waste to other countries for disposal. Incidentally, I think that it was immoral of Britain to send back the waste that arrived in this country for disposal. It would have been far safer to dispose of it here than to send it back on the high seas. Canada is a net importer of waste from elsewhere, and considers the problem so serious that it now gives financial encouragement to companies that produce a lot of waste to set up self-disposal systems. As a responsible ministry, Canada's Environment Department is encouraging the establishment of mobile incinerators that can travel round 10 the country disposing of waste stuff in situ rather than transporting toxic material by road and rail, which is hazardous to the public. That is a slight digression from the subject of the directive but perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister can say whether the Government are making any progress—or are even considering making progress—down those avenues.

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North): I hope that you, Sir Giles, will excuse me for raising a constituency matter that arises directly from the comments made by my hon. Friend the Minister. He made a number of sound and positive remarks about the testing of chemicals before their use in water. The important constituency matter that I wish to raise relates to the eradication of the pest known as Simulium posticatum, which—as you will know, Sir Giles—is the scientific name for the Blandford fly. If, as I hope, you, Sir Giles, will come to speak in my constituency soon, I shall do my very best to ensure that you are not bitten by that little beast. Chemicals not unrelated to the subject of the directive, have been tested and Bacillus thuringiensis, a chemical which will, no doubt, be familiar to many members of the Committee, is effective in dealing with this pest. My constituents and I now want permission to use that chemical for the full-scale treatment of the water supply against the beast next spring. As tests have been successful, we hope that the local authority will be allowed to use the chemical to eradicate the vicious and nasty pest, the Blandford fly. I hope that I shall have the help of my hon. Friend the Minister when I talk to the Department of Employment and the Health and Safety Executive about the matter. I support my hon. Friend's views on sensible testing and proper analysis of the scientific evidence before chemicals are used in our water supply.

The Chairman: Before I invite the Minister to respond, I must point out to the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) that his comments stretched the motion a little far. I wish to discourage further discussion of the issue that he raised.

11.01 a.m.

Mr. Moynihan: I am aware of your intervention, Sir Giles, on the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North but I am grateful to him for raising them. I shall accede to his request and shall follow up the matter as soon as possible, preferably before your imminent departure for his constituency, so that he is well briefed to assist you on your arrival. In the United Kingdom trichlorobenzene is produced only at Grangemouth in Scotland, and I believe that only a short lifespan is expected for its production. The European Community as a whole, produces 180,000 tonnes a year. That underlines my comment that the four chemicals generally cause more concern because of their overall tonnage production in the Community. I understand that 1,2-dichloroethane is produced mostly on Merseyside. It is used in an intermittent stage of processing plastics: The Community produces about 10 million tonnes of EDCs a year and 12,000 tonnes of TCBs. The only United Kingdom producer of perchloroethylene is ICI at Runcorn, but as the chemical is used by a diffuse range of dry-cleaners, it is used widely throughout the United Kingdom and the Community. 11 No one expects me to pre-empt the details of the forthcoming Green Bill, but it will reaffirm specific and proper controls and advice on disposal and recycling of those chemicals, subject to agreement by the Commission.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this Committee takes note of European Community Document No. 8337/88 and the Supplementary Memorandum submitted by the Department of the Environment on 10th July 1989 relating to the 12 control of discharges of dangerous substances to water, and supports the Government's efforts to secure the future selection of substances for priority action according to clear, scientific criteria.

Committee rose at three minutes past Eleven o'clock.


Shaw, Sir Giles (Chairman)

Amos, Mr.

Baker, Mr. Nicholas

Bellingham, Mr.

Bennett, Mr. Nicholas

Blackburn, Dr.

Colvin, Mr.

Coombs, Mr. Anthony

Knight, Mr. Greg

Macdonald, Mr.

Martlew, Mr.

Moynihan, Mr.

Walley, Ms.