River Claw (Pollution)

Prayers – in the House of Commons am 12:20 pm ar 19 Mehefin 1996.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Miss Emma Nicholson Miss Emma Nicholson , Torridge and West Devon 12:20, 19 Mehefin 1996

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this subject, and I am glad that I have been called to introduce it a little earlier than I or the Minister expected. I raise an important matter regarding an incident that is crucial for my constituents. Although the Environment Agency and the farming family concerned have acted speedily and efficiently, the Minister may like to consider some points about the incident in planning for the future.

On Sunday 9 June, the Environment Agency received a telephone call from a member of the public who had been walking her dog along the banks of the River Claw near Holsworthy. Farming in that area is particularly difficult because most of the land around Holsworthy is classified as grade 4—the lowest ranking of land for agricultural use in our ranking system. Land categorised as grades 1 or 2 may be used to grow grain, but land graded 3 or 4 is much more difficult to cultivate. In the Holsworthy area, we are very grateful for funding for culm measures related to a rare form of wild grass that grows in the heavy clay. I am told by local bank managers that farmers in the Holsworthy area never borrow money as they cannot repay it. That demonstrates how slender farmers' incomes are.

The incident involved a local farm. A member of the public noted that five miles or so of the river had been turned a dark brown colour by slurry, which is poisonous. The Environment Agency later described the contamination as a category 1 incident. Its senior water quality officer called it a "very serious and regrettable incident". The source of the contamination was a small family dairy farm, and I pay tribute to the way in which the farmer reacted to the problem. He is anxious that I should not name him, and I shall not do so. The farmer had done the right things and he had the appropriate insurance cover. His waste management system was maintained to a high standard and was checked recently by the National Rivers Authority and identified as being 100 per cent. effective.

However, there was unusually high rainfall over the weekend of 7 June. As the water level in the farm's dirty water tanks rose, the automatic sprinkler system was triggered and the water seeped into an old, unidentified drainage pipe in a field. It then leaked into a tributary of the Claw. The clean-up operation continues. Thousands of gallons of a poisonous slurry and silage mix have entered the river, starving it of oxygen and resulting in the sad loss of trout, stone loach, salmon and bullheads.

I suggest that the incident represents a major test for the new Environment Agency, which began its operations on 1 May this year. Its handling of the clean-up has been good—even though the incident is far more serious than first thought. My main concern today is to ask the Minister: if such devastation can be caused by an otherwise well-maintained waste system, what are the chances of such devastation occurring again not just in Devon, but nationally? For example, is the Environment Agency working closely with South West Water, which must have known that the drainage pipe existed? The contamination was classified as a category 1 incident, which is the most serious. However, there have been five such incidents in the six weeks or so the agency has been up and running. That is a worrying statistic.

The Minister will no doubt refer to the decline in agricultural pollution in the south-west region. The record shows a welcome improvement in that regard. In 1995, there were 975 incidents—a decrease of 50 on the previous year. That represented 21 per cent. of total pollution compared with 24 per cent. in the previous year.

Farming is the main industry in my constituency and I represent in this place the views of just under 4,000 farmers. I try to protect their quality of life and their incomes. The low pollution figures are excellent, as food production, processing and distribution are very important to my constituency.

The considerable losses that dairy and beef farmers in my constituency face as a result of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crises may spread to the wider sphere of food production, processing and distribution. That trilogy forms the mainstay of the local economy and of productivity in my constituency. The Government have so far focused correctly on the plight of farmers, slaughterers and renderers, but perhaps they could look more closely at the needs of manufacturers.

One firm in my constituency, CPC (UK) Ltd., is concerned about the way in which several of the beef-related products across its wide brand portfolio have been affected by the crisis. For example, several countries are refusing to accept exports of Bovril. I would be grateful if the Minister would consider that matter and inform his colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

In my great farming constituency, farm pollution represented a lower proportion of the total pollution in Devon last year than in the previous year. That is an excellent result. The figures were due perhaps to an exceptionally dry summer and to the fact that in 1994 and 1995 dairy farming enjoyed a period of relative prosperity which allowed farmers to invest in farm pollution control. It is proper that the polluter should pay, but I draw the attention of the House to the fact that many farmers in my constituency have small net disposable incomes at the end of the financial year—some as low as £1,500.

Unfortunately, we cannot always rely on good weather to ensure environmental safety. There is now a real danger that, as dairy and beef farming incomes go into reverse as a result of the BSE crisis and its many ramifications, many farmers will find it increasingly difficult to afford that crucial investment. I do not suggest that the large numbers of cattle that are backed up on farms awaiting disposal are adding significantly to the present pollution load—after all, they are mostly out at grass. However, if significant numbers of cows are still awaiting disposal in the autumn, the incidence of environmental pollution from slurry will increase dramatically. That adds to the importance of speeding up the necessary disposal of cattle.

A matter that relates directly to the Under-Secretary's portfolio is Government support for waste water schemes. The current difficulties of the beef and dairy industry are compounded by the withdrawal of Government support for farmers who install waste water systems. The grants were originally 50 per cent. of the cost of an effective storage and control system for dirty water from farms. They were reduced to 25 per cent. and then abolished completely. Those grants were not intended to boost farmers' profits, slender though those are in my constituency, but were for the sole purpose of environmental clean-up. If the Government wish environmental clean-ups to continue, surely those grants should be reinstated.

I seek an assurance from the Government that they will not sacrifice environmental concerns in a quest to cut costs. My concern over the lack of Government resources allocated to protecting the environment also applies to the Environment Agency. Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution said in 1995 that it could find the staff for fewer than three out of five necessary site visits to ensure compliance with regulation by the industry. Staffing levels have not been increased in the new Environment Agency. The chief executive has pointed out that he has 1,200 fewer staff than was expected when plans were drawn up for the agency two years ago.

Surely those staff are essential if we are to ensure that waste storage systems are maintained and used properly and that regulations are understood and enforced. Perhaps the Under-Secretary should learn the lesson and understand the importance of ensuring compliance, especially if he looks sideways at the Ministry of Agriculture and the way in which the BSE crisis has been handled since 1985.

The Government's stated concern for the environment is also qualified, unacceptably, by a cost-benefit analysis laid down in the Environment Act 1995, under which the costs of actions by the agency have to be justified before they are implemented. It is therefore possible for someone to make a legal challenge on the costs and benefits of an agency decision that he should install expensive pollution equipment. That situation will lead to what is known as paralysis by analysis. The position is further complicated by the fact that non-financial benefits are difficult to measure against straightforward financial costs. Respect for economic effects of environmental protection is right and proper, but not to the extent of interfering with proper monitoring. I ask the Under-Secretary to consider that point.

A former Member of the House, Lord Crickhowell, who is also a former chairman of the National Rivers Authority, provided a forewarning of the problem when he said that there must be a mechanism for discovering what those costs are and for putting values on the environmental benefits. If that mechanism is not provided there is a real risk that almost all the Agency's decisions will be challenged to appeal, or worse, in the courts. I ask the Under-Secretary to comment on that point also.

The Government's promises on the environment, as they affect my constituency, are laid bare by a reluctance to provide the proper resources and are riddled with qualifications. The farmers in my constituency, especially the farmer to whom this unfortunate incident occurred on 9 June, and I need reassurance from the Under-Secretary today that everything is being done that can be done to prevent such incidents from happening again. At present, to me at least, the evidence for that seems uncertain.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment) 12:33, 19 Mehefin 1996

I can give the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Miss Nicholson) assurance on the points that she raised. I shall set out the important issues implicit in the incident and, especially, our understanding of the cause of the incident on the River Claw; the remedial and other measures that were taken by the Environment Agency in its aftermath; whether any longer-term effects will arise from the incident; what action may be taken as a result of the incident; and our policy on minimising the risk of water pollution from agricultural sources.

I should, however, like to begin by thanking the public-spirited member of the public, to whom the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon referred, who brought the incident to the attention of the Environment Agency and thereby allowed action to be taken at an early stage. I understand that the alert was given using the 24-hour free emergency pollution hotline which the agency operates and which was introduced by the National Rivers Authority in 1993. Last year, the hotline handled more than 30,000 calls, all of which were intended to allow prompt action to be taken to help protect the water environment. Once again, that initiative has shown its worth.

The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon gave a description of the River Claw, which is a tributary of the Tamar. The catchment is predominantly intensively farmed grassland, used for stock rearing. The origin of the incident appears to have been a stock farm in the upper reaches of the Claw near Holsworthy. The cause of the pollution, which the hon. Lady described, seems to have been liquid farm waste that contained some slurry. The hon. Lady called the liquid "poisonous" and I will describe its effects later, but it is important to clarify that it was liquid manure.

Slurry is organic waste. It is polluting not because it is persistent or contains toxic substances but because it has a high biochemical oxygen demand—in other words, it depletes oxygen levels in waters which it enters because micro-organisms have to absorb additional oxygen to break down the organic material. The biochemical oxygen demand of cattle slurry may be up to 12,000 mg per litre compared to perhaps 50 mg per litre for treated domestic sewage. Thus it has a severe, if relatively short-lived, impact. That is why we have measures in place to require slurries to be stored in a safe manner—measures to which I shall return later.

In the incident on 9 June, a large quantity of liquid waste appears to have drained from a store to a "low rate" irrigation system used for disposal of dirty water by sprinkling to land, as the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon mentioned. As a result, the polluted water was spread on to land by the irrigator and then entered the land drainage system and the river, resulting in the incident on Sunday afternoon 9 June.

Spreading dirty water to land to dispose it under controlled conditions is generally an acceptable method, but in this case the effects were disastrous. I understand the points made by the hon. Lady, but at this stage it remains unclear to the Environment Agency why the polluting matter drained from the store to the dirty water disposal system and why there was such a rapid loss of liquid from the store. It seems that the irrigator itself may have been operated in a manner that does not accord with the guidance given in the Government's code of good agricultural practice.

Photo of Miss Emma Nicholson Miss Emma Nicholson , Torridge and West Devon

The farmer's waste management system had been cleared 100 per cent. favourably by the NRA only weeks previously. I remind the Under-Secretary that, of course, in normal circumstances slurry is not poisonous to humans, but at the time of the BSE scare we have to be especially careful with all waste products from animals that may be cull cows.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

I am sure that the hon. Lady will accept that I was trying to be precise when I described the exact effects of slurry. The important point, as I am sure she will agree, is the effect of slurry on fish and other wildlife. The hon. Lady's description of the incident is based on the information she has, but the matter will be subject to further investigation and I will describe that later. I hope that the hon. Lady will understand if I am somewhat circumspect in my remarks about the incident.

Whatever the cause, the effects of the entry of the polluting matter were severe. Oxygen levels in the Claw fell from 88 per cent. saturation, which is about what would normally be expected, to zero. About 3 km of the river turned dark brown. As a result, there was considerable fish mortality in the stretches affected before remediation began. The agency estimates that between 2,500 and 3,000 fish may have died, of which perhaps about 400 were brown trout.

The agency took remedial measures and initially focused on providing information to other relevant bodies and assessment of the polluting impact of the incident in order to concentrate remedial action in the most effective manner. The closest abstraction point for potable supply is about 45 km from the incident, so there was no threat to drinking water supply.

One of the main strands of remedial action was to save as many fish as possible. That was achieved with considerable success, I am pleased to say. About 1,700 fish were saved, of which over half were either trout or juvenile salmon. These fish were transferred to waters downstream of the incident. The second strand was to remove the polluted water from the river through pumping. Again this proved successful. The third was to re-oxygenate the river as rapidly as possible. This was achieved through the insertion of a mechanical whisk in the polluted stretch that re-aerates the water, as well as the use of other aeration equipment at other strategic sites in the Claw, to assist re-oxygenation. In addition, hydrogen peroxide—it is a strong oxidising agent—was used to introduce oxygen at strategic sites.

These remedial measures were undertaken between 9 and 12 June. By 12 June the oxygen levels in the Claw had recovered to the standards before the incident and remediation ceased. The incident was declared closed by the agency on 12 June.

The longer-term effects of the incident will be of concern. Slurry is biodegradable and the pollution was therefore primarily transient. The Claw is categorised as a class 2 river under our river ecosystem classification system, which requires, among other things, a dissolved oxygen level of better than 70 per cent. saturation. It is unlikely that there will be any longer-term diminution in the high quality of the river as a result of the incident. The agency will, however, be monitoring the manner in which the river recovers from the incident.

The main longer-term effects will be in relation to biological communities in the river. It may take up to 12 months for the invertebrates to recover. For fish, the recovery period will be even longer. The agency will be considering whether there is a need to improve spawning grounds to assist the development of fish populations. An alternative would be to introduce new stock to the river. As I have said, the incident had no consequences for any public use of the river, including drinking water supply.

The agency made use of its powers under section 161 of the Water Resources Act 1991 to undertake remedial work. It is now open to the agency to seek to recover the costs that it has incurred from any person who may have caused or knowingly permitted the polluting matter to enter the river, so that the polluter pays for the costs associated with his actions. I understand that the agency intends to take such action. I noted the hon. Lady's support for the important principle that the polluter must pay.

The agency has been gathering information that might be used to support a prosecution for an offence of polluting controlled waters under the 1991 Act. A decision on whether to take such action will be a matter for the agency. It is, however, the agency's policy to prosecute major pollution incidents where there is sufficient evidence and it is possible to do so as the person concerned can be identified. For the reasons I gave following the hon. Lady's intervention, I do not wish to say any more on that subject. I have set out the general legal framework that applies to this incident and to all others.

It has long been an offence under water pollution law to cause or knowingly permit the entry of poisonous, noxious or polluting matter to fresh waters. This approach has been successful in ensuring that those who undertake actions that are potentially polluting do so in the knowledge that they are liable for the consequences to the water environment of their actions. We should all recognise, however, that, although it is important to be able to take action where pollution has occurred, it is better to prevent that pollution in the first place.

Accordingly, in the agriculture sector, the Government have adopted an approach that employs both regulatory controls and advice and guidance to farmers and growers on how to carry out their activities in a manner that reduces the risk of water pollution. That is important. The guidance is found primarily in the code of good agricultural practice produced by the Ministry of Agriculture, which is being revised. The code has proved highly successful in setting out for farmers, their staff and contractors who handle, store, use, spread or dispose of any substances that could pollute water, the causes and results of water pollution, how best to minimise the risk of such pollution through their operations and what to do in an emergency.

The code includes extensive guidance on the principles of storing and applying livestock wastes and other organic wastes to land as well as the storage of slurry and the operation of dirty water systems. The guidance supports the regulatory requirement which we have introduced for the storage of slurry via the control of pollution regulations of 1991. The regulations specify that slurry must be kept in a reception pit or slurry storage tank, whether this is a pit, lagoon or above-ground store. They set out minimum requirements for the design and construction of such facilities.

We have recently consulted on changes to the 1991 regulations, but none is concerned with the basic standards that are applicable to the stores in question. For example, bases must be impermeable. Bases and walls must be protected against corrosion and must be capable of withstanding characteristic loads. The storage tank must have a life of at least 20 years. Failure to comply with these regulations is an offence.

I am pleased to say that the measures to which I have referred have led to some considerable successes. Farmers are certainly among those who are most concerned about the environment. They are naturally anxious to do all that they can to avoid polluting incidents.

Photo of Miss Emma Nicholson Miss Emma Nicholson , Torridge and West Devon

I am glad to hear the Minister's description of the code of conduct. He knows, however, that farmers are subject to many different Government guidelines and, possibly, grants to assist them. Will he consider suggesting to his colleagues, or putting in place himself, a one-stop shop for farmers, to which they could turn to obtain advice on improving their land, on environmental matters and on available grants? It is difficult for a farmer, who is a one-family man these days, to be able to plug into all the different rules and regulations to gain proper advice and grant assistance without a one-stop shop.

Photo of James Clappison James Clappison Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Environment)

I note what the hon. Lady says. In context, the important issue is that advice has been made widely available to farmers. There is clear evidence, to which the hon. Lady adverted, that the process has been successful. The number of incidents has been falling. There is an improving picture of pollution from the sources that we are discussing. The total number of substantiated pollution incidents reported in 1995 reflected a fall of 8 per cent. Within that total, the number of incidents attributable to agricultural sources fell by 18 per cent. The number of agricultural incidents was the lowest since the formation of the NRA in 1989. Moreover, the number of major agricultural incidents—that is the highest category showing a serious effect, such as substantial fish kill—fell from 239 in 1989 to only 32 in 1995.

That is a pleasing development that reflects the efforts that the NRA and now the agency have been making in visiting farmers and undertaking anti-pollution campaigns. I know, for example, that the agency has been working with farmers in the upper Tamar on how to manage farm waste to reduce the risk of pollution. I am sure as well that it is a good reflection on farmers in the area which the hon. Lady described.

The proportion of major pollution incidents attributable to agriculture has fallen from 36 per cent. in 1989 to 17 per cent. in 1995. There is still room for improvement, but considerable strides have been taken in the right direction. As a recent agency report on pollution incidents concluded: This has been achieved by a combination of publicity, pollution prevention, regulations and farm waste grants. It clearly demonstrates that the risk of pollution can be significantly reduced if a sufficient co-ordinated approach is taken. It should be clear from my explanation of the incident and from the background of our general policy that the Environment Agency should be congratulated on its prompt reaction, which averted some of the worst consequences of a major incident. The hon. Lady accepted that the agency had performed well. The incident is now over, in the sense that oxygen levels in the river have returned to normal, but the agency will consider whether further action is needed to assist the recovery of fish populations.

I hope that this explanation puts into context the results of what seems to have been a failure to comply with requirements and guidance that, generally, have been successful in limiting pollution by slurry and other farm wastes. There is still room for improvement, but such incidents are, thankfully, very much the exception rather than the rule. I am sure that the hon. Lady and the House will join me in hoping that improvements will continue and that the number of such incidents will continue to fall.

I listened carefully to the wider points that the hon. Lady made about the costs and benefits implicit in the approach of the Environment Agency. She will know that the agency, which was the product of the Environment Act 1995, was widely welcomed and supported. I imagine that the hon. Lady herself would have supported the Environment Bill, which applied well-established principles, including that of best available techniques not entailing excessive cost, which has been successful and widely welcomed. Some measure of the success of that principle can be seen in the fact that it has been adopted implicitly in European directives covering this subject, and that our system of integrated pollution control has also served as a model for such directives.

On those issues, we are on the right lines, and I am sure that the hon. Lady will join me in hoping that the improvement in the reduction in the number of incidents of agricultural pollution will continue.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse Mr Geoffrey Lofthouse , Pontefract and Castleford

As the Minister who will reply to the next debate is not present, the sitting is suspended until 1 pm.

Sitting suspended.