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Backbench MPs warn environment minister “ambiguity is not an option” on Government incineration policy

Labour, Conservative and Plaid Cymru MPs have demanded a clear explanation of Government incineration policy, warning environment minister Richard Benyon that “ambiguity is not an option”.

In a Commons debate on waste reduction, MPs rounded on the environment minister, voicing concerns about the health effects of incineration and the Government’s policy towards the technology.

Plaid Cymru MP for Arfon Hywel Williams said: “In the south-east [of Wales], an incineration plant caused tremendous worry to local people for many years because of the release of polychlorinated biphenyls. As I understand it, there are proposals to place a large incinerator in Merthyr Tydfil. There is also talk of an incinerator in the Wrexham area, which is upwind from large English conurbations and could have implications for people outside Wales.”

The comments were echoed by Conservative Loughbrough MP Nicky Morgan, who said: “Members from all parties will know constituents who feel passionately about that issue once an incinerator is proposed on a nearby site—I am thinking of Shepshed in my constituency, where Biffa wants to place an incinerator. A couple of weeks ago, an article in the Sunday Express stated that the Health Protection Agency (HPA) is going to work with researchers from Imperial College London to look at the health effects produced by incineration and the health worries felt by those who live downwind from an incinerator.”

Health concerns were also raised from the Labour benches. Hayes and Harlington MP John McDonnell urged the Government to use the forthcoming waste review to support further research into the effects of incineration technology.

He said: “I would welcome additional funding going to primary care trusts, or whichever body results from the health legislation, to assist them in undertaking research in areas with incinerators where pollution could have an impact on local communities.”

Copeland MP Jamie Reed added: “Many members have mentioned it, but can he [the environment minister] be clear about what, specifically, Government policy on waste incineration is? Ambiguity is not an option.”

In response to the criticisms, environment minister Richard Benyon was forced to issue a fresh defence of Government incineration policy, following a Commons debate in February about incineration technology (‘Benyon defends Government incineration policy over growing Radlett incinerator opposition’, MRW 25 February).

Benyon said: “[Government incineration policy] will be clearly defined in the waste review; that is its purpose. However, I can say today that incineration is part of the mix and part of the waste hierarchy, as all members will know well.

“The question a lot of people ask about incineration is on the public health aspect. I can tell the member for Copeland that in 2009 the HPA reviewed the scientific evidence of the health effects of modern municipal waste incinerators. I want to emphasise the word ’modern’ because there have been problems in the past with incinerators.

“The HPA’s report on incinerators is available on its website. It concluded that, although it is not possible to rule out completely any adverse health effects from incinerators, any potential damage from modern, well-run and highly regulated incinerators is likely to be so small as to be undetectable.

“The fact remains that modern incinerators are highly regulated. They are not monitored monthly or weekly, but all the time. The Environment Agency is extremely strict in ensuring they are safe. They are a very important part of how we deal with waste, in a society that simply cannot afford to bury it any longer.”

The minister’s comments have been criticised by Friends of the Earth. Resource use campaigner Julian Kirby said: “The minister responded with glowing examples of sustainable waste policy, but ducked many questions and made an extremely worrying commitment to incineration – hardly reflecting a commitment to save precious resources and fight climate change.”

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