Howard slammed over go-ahead for clinical waste incinerator

The rash of incineration projects around the country is continuing to draw criticisms of Government policy in the House of Commons. In an adjournment debate on 24 June, the Labour MP for Gateshead East, Joyce Quin, accused former Environment Secretary Michael Howard of acting unreasonably in overturning a planning inspector's recommendation and giving the go-ahead to a clinical waste incinerator on Tyneside.

The debate was the Commons' fourth on incineration in less than 12 months. The other three concerned operations run by ReChem International, Coalite Chemicals, and a Blue Circle subsidiary, Clinical Energy, which was fined £6,000 for five disposal licence offences at its clinical waste burner in Hillingdon, north London, in May (ENDS Report 220, p  38).

Criticisms of the enforcement record of HM Inspectorate of Pollution (HMIP) were aired in all three debates, but it was largely HMIP's powers to control emissions on which Mr Howard relied when he gave planning permission to Northumbrian Water for a clinical waste incinerator in Felling, Gateshead, in May.

Mr Howard's decision had "outraged" local public opinion, Ms Quin told the Commons. Gateshead residents had been "looking forward to a cleaner, brighter future" following the recent closure of two plants in the locality, a dirty municipal waste incinerator and the Monkton coke works, which had been linked to a childhood leukaemia cluster in the area. The life expectancy and health of people in the area is also poorer than the national average.

For those reasons, said Ms Quin, 16,000 people had registered their opposition to Northumbrian Water's project. And they had been "particularly angered" by Mr Howard's decision to overturn the recommendations of his planning inspector following a public inquiry - the first time this has been done in connection with a clinical waste incinerator.

Mr Howard's decision was "astonishing" in its dismissal of local fears that the project would discourage much needed job-creating investment in the area, the MP said. The Food and Drink Industry Federation had told the inquiry that the incinerator would make a proposed industrial estate "completely unsuitable" for any food and drink operation "because of the perceived risks to the safety of food." Similar concerns about food tainting were prominent among the reasons why proposals for an incineration complex in Manchester and a chemical waste incinerator near Doncaster were turned down in 1990 and 1991 (ENDS Reports 187, pp 8-9, and 202, pp 16-20).

Ms Quin also alleged that Mr Howard had "an incomplete grasp of the facts" when, in overruling the inspector, he had justified the project as an important regional facility. According to Ms Quin, the regional health authority favours a number of smaller clinical waste incinerators rather than one large facility, and on this count Mr Howard had not acted reasonably - a point, she said, which may feature in any appeal against his decision.

Incineration is necessary, Ms Quin conceded, "but the building of what is supposed to be a regional facility should be approved only after a proper regional assessment and a democratic decision has been taken in the region."

Replying for the Government, junior Environment Minister Tony Baldry devoted almost all of his speech to an explanation of the relevant regulatory regimes. But it is clear that the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution's report on incineration, published in May (ENDS Report 220, pp 13-15 ), has come as something of a Godsend for the Government.

"Alas," the Minister lamented, "concerns about incineration plants are often founded more on perceptions of the less efficient operations of the past than on the high technology of the present, with extremely tight regulatory standards firmly enforced by HMIP." The Royal Commission, he added, had concluded that while there were some uncertainties about the health effects of emissions from some older incinerators, "they are not relevant to the future use of incineration because emission levels in some older plants were far higher than will ever be allowed in the future."

On the question of need, Mr Baldry said that if the regional health authority "would rather have a number of smaller incinerators instead of a single incinerator for clinical waste, that is a decision for the authority." But that issue had not affected the Secretary of State's judgement that Northumbrian Water's project was a "possible solution" for the region, and that it had not been premature for him to allow the company's appeal.

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