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... Press Cuttings
(The Guardian)
Press cuttings (Guardian).

Please select an article from the list below:-

Britain steps out of line on incinerators

Incinerator Cancer Threat Revealed

MPs accuse civil servants of hiding health dangers

Pressure builds on Meacher as waste strategy is held up - again

Radical Proposals for Waste Cleanup

Toxic fumes from refuse ovens could kill 9,000

Waste Watchdog Attacked By MP's

Watchdog admits ignorance of incinerator health risks

From the Guardian. Wednesday 29th November, 2000.


By David Hencke, Westminster correspondent

The environment agency admitted yesterday to MPs that it had no idea how dangerous Britain's new generation of incinerators will be to public health.

Paul Leinster, director of environment protection at the agency, told the Commons environment sub-committee investigating waste strategy that the evaluation of dangers of air pollution to public health "were at an early stage".

The admission came after pressure from Hilary Benn, Labour MP for Leeds Central, and Crispin Blunt, Conservative MP for Reigate. It comes as the Treasury confirmed to MPs that at least eight new incinerators will be built as part of new schemes approved under the government's private finance initiative.

The agency told MPs that a private consultancy, Entech, employed by them had made a major error on the number of the number of deaths and hospital admissions that would be caused by emissions from incinerators, and figures of 88 deaths and 168 hospital admissions every year were not accurate. No new figures are available at the moment.

Mr Leinster told Mr Blunt: "We are really at only an early stage at finding out how public health will be affected by the building of incinerators."

Earlier Lord Cranbrook, the chairman of Entrust, defended the private regulatory body which monitors 350m of environmental grants, which had been at the centre of an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year.

The body checks the probity of the cash which is donated by waste companies in lieu of paying 20% of the new landfill tax. Lord Cranbrook said the Guardian's allegations that Entrust was presiding over a flawed initiative dominated by the waste industry and to the benefit of some local councils were "unfounded".

He said that the paper's investigation had made the body "sharpen up its procedures - but it also proved that its system worked". He said that the Guardian had not uncovered anything that breached regulations.


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From the Guardian. Wednesday 1st November, 2000.


By David Hencke, Westminster correspondent

Civil servants were yesterday accused by MPs of a cover-up, after they suppressed information on plans to tackle a predicted rise in deaths and pollution-related illness caused by a new generation of waste-burning incinerators.

Ministers were furious that the information had not been highlighted to them - days after Lord Phillips, the law lord who headed the BSE inquiry, had condemned the secrecy across Whitehall.

Michael Meacher, the environment minister, said: "I cannot recall seeing these figures and as I have specifically asked civil servants to highlight any information and not hide it away in annexes I shall be taking this up immediately. As for not being consulted about whether this information should be released, I shall be demanding an explanation from the environment agency."

Last night, Christine Butler, MP for Castle Point in Essex, backed up Mr Meacher's stand, saying Whitehall's behaviour "resembled the secretive attitudes of civil servants in the way they handled BSE".

The disclosure of Whitehall's refusal to release correspondence between the agency and the ministry on plans to tackle the problem of deaths was revealed in evidence from Alan Watson, an engineer, and Keith Collins, an economist, of Public Interest Consultants, a not-for-profit consultancy, to the Commons environment committee.

It comes after the Department of Environment released figures showing that at present 88 people die and 168 people are hospitalised every year for lung-related diseases associated with emissions from the country's 12 incinerators. The detailed report also said people's lives will be shortened by cancer-causing dioxins from incinerators.

Plans to at least double or even triple the number of incinerators could see the number of deaths rise to 100 and possibly higher each year.

Mr Collins told MPs that Mr Watson had used the European Union open government code for environmental information - which is less secretive than the government's new freedom of information bill - to try to obtain the release of correspondence between the environment agency and the ministry.

Both have admitted to holding meetings and planning how they intend to tackle health hazards caused by new incinerators and how they could affect the environment and the food chain.

Confidential minutes of the latest meeting of the environment agency board on October 13 say: "The agency has been discussing with the department of the environment, transport and the regions and the department of health, the development of a national, rather than agency, policy on health impacts from incineration."

But officials from both ministries refused to release the correspondence to Mr Watson saying that it should be regarded as policy advice and "could adversely affect future working relationships and policy development with the department of health."

When Mr Watson appealed, officials said it would cost him 200 for the environment agency to conduct a full search and then claimed no such correspondence existed. This contradicted minutes sent to Mr Watson by the Department of Health showing a draft paper had been sent in July by the environment agency to the ministry on death and illness figures from air pollution from incinerators.

Stefan Carlyle, head of scientific and technical information service of the agency, also told him that ministers had not been consulted about the refusal to release the information: "I can inform you that Mr Meacher was not advised of our decision."

Andrew Bennett, Labour chairman of the environment committee, last night demanded to see the correspondence between Mr Watson and the ministries.


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From the Guardian. Sunday 29th October, 2000.


Government plans to burn household waste in incinerators rather than recycle it will produce so much toxic pollution it will cause almost 9,000 deaths.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is committed to building more than 70 incinerators, which its own estimates suggest will cause at least 350 deaths a year for the next 25 years.

There are now only 15 solid waste incinerators in the UK, but the Government will increase that to 87 in a bid to reduce the amount of rubbish that has to be buried as landfill sites are used up. The building programme is being subsidised with more than 200 million of public money, and has provoked dozens of local campaigns.

The incinerators - burning plastics, metal cans, food and packaging at very high temperatures - pump out a cocktail of hundreds of toxic substances. They emit fine particles of heavy metals, including cadmium, which causes lung and kidney disease, and mercury, which attacks the nervous system.

Dust particles from the burnt rubbish exacerbate asthma, chronic bronchitis and heart disease. The burning of plastics produces dioxins, some of the most toxic chemicals known. An American study to be published shortly will show that 7 per cent of cancers are associated with dioxins - around 80 per cent of which come from incinerators.

Research earlier this year suggested that, between 1974 and 1987, children who lived within three miles of an incinerator were twice as likely as others to die of cancer.

However, a DETR spokesman said the Government's independent scientific advisers had found 'no convincing evidence of a link'. 'The older generation of incinerators have already been replaced with new, cleaner technology,' he added.

However, the new incinerators - spread throughout the country - will produce 17,000 tonnes of nitrous oxides each year. A recent DETR report predicted that 50 tonnes of nitrous oxides would on average lead to one death.

In total, according to the Government's own figures, the new incinerators would lead to 349 deaths a year. The plants have a working life of 25 years, bringing the total of lives lost to 8,700. Deaths from other pollutants would push the total higher.

Rob Gueterbock, waste campaigner at Greenpeace, who analysed the figures, said: 'Government incineration policy is using taxpayers' money to bring thousands to an early death. Instead of expanding incineration, these cancer factories should be shut down.'

As most countries move away from incineration because of its dangers and concentrate on recycling, Britain has the lowest re-cycling rate in Europe. This country reuses only 9 per cent of its waste.

New techniques clean the worst poisons from the gas, but they remain in the toxic ash, which must be buried.

Vyvyan Howard, a toxico-pathologist at Liverpool University, said: 'You don't get rid of the rubbish, you just change its nature and disperse a lot of it to the wind. It's a dangerous process.'


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From the Guardian. Thursday 18th May, 2000.



Sarah Boseley, John Vidal and Julian Borger in Washington.

Dioxins, the highly toxic chemicals produced by waste incineration and industrial processes which tests have shown to be lingering in the bodies of people all over the planet, have been identified as the cause of many cancers in a new report from the US Environmental Protection Agency.

A draft of the EPA report, leaked yesterday to the Washington Post, has taken the US by surprise and is likely to send shockwaves throughout the world, forcing an upgrade in the assessment of the hazard posed by dioxins. It had been thought that the risk was diminishing because levels of the chemicals in the environment were dropping.

The report will fuel mounting opposition in communities across Britain to a new generation of some 160 major waste incinerators that the government is expected to encourage over the next 20 years.

Dioxins are chemical compounds released by incinerators burning sewage sludge and household, hazardous and medical waste. They are also released in industrial processes such as steel making.

Among the most poisonous man-made chemicals, they accumulate in fat and milk and work their way up the food chain. Even low exposure is known to interfere with the immune, reproductive and endocrine systems. The latter is involved in the secretion of hormones. Dioxins also affect the early growth and development of humans and animals.

By far the greatest dioxin producer in Britain, according to the Environment Agency, is Corus, formally British Steel, whose works at Llanwern, Port Talbot, Scunthorpe and Teeside pump out almost as many dioxins as the next 15 most polluting companies.

That dioxins are already widely present in the environment and food supplies of all industrialised countries is well known, but evidence has been slowly accumulating about how widespread and carcinogenic some are. Yesterday's EPA report is remarkably similar to a low-key report from a group of German scientists, which last year concluded that dioxins might be responsible for 12 per cent of human cancers in industrialised countries.

The British government is gradually accepting that dioxins pose real health threats. In 1994 the department of Health published a report saying that "despite insufficient evidence for clear causal links", it would be prudent to regard dioxins as possible human carcinogens.

Health Hazard

The proposed incineration plants will be needed, it is claimed, to handle the growing mountains of household waste that the EU is banning from landfill sites. In response to the EU directive, the government is expected to announce that by 2020 it will recycle a third of household waste and burn a third.

Some communities are already arguing that these incinerators will pose a health hazard and that the money should be spent on more expensive recycling and composting schemes.

Such alternatives, says Friends of the Earth, would be popular, provide more jobs and be easy for people to understand. It says that 250m collected yearly in waste tax could be used to build new recycling centres.

Chris Pilbury, who works with a coalition of 25 community groups in north-east Wales that opposes a massive proposed incinerator and cement kiln expansion scheme near Wrexham, said: "People will not tolerate these risks. Feelings are running high and this report confirms that we are right to be concerned."

The document of the US Environmental Protection Agency, nine years in preparation, says that for those that eat large amounts of fatty meat and dairy produce the risk - on top of any others they may be exposed to - of getting cancer could be as high as one in one hundred.

Yesterday the EPA said that at least one scientist involved disputed the statistic and that there was a possibility it would be amended before official publication in June. But there will be no dilution of the message of acute concern about dioxins in the report, which for the first time names the most toxic of the group, TCDD (the infamous "Agent Orange" of Vietnam) as a human carcinogen.

In 1997, the International Agency for Research on Cancer categorised TCDD as a "known human carcinogen" after analysing the epidemiological evidence.

In 1998, the World Health Organisation decided to slash the safe level for human exposure. Even at the new level of between 1 and 4 picograms per kilogram of bodyweight (a picogram is a millionth of a millionth of a gram) - the WHO were still anxious that "subtle effects may already occur in the general population in developed countries."

Cancer is not the only worry, and other health damage from dioxins has been slightly easier to substantiate. The EPA report will link low grade dioxin exposure to a variety of problems, including hormonal changes and developmental defects in babies. It states: "It is likely that part of the general population is at, or near, exposure levels where adverse effects can be anticipated."

Risk To Babies

Rick Hind, the legislative director for Greenpeace's toxics campaign, which yesterday wrote to the EPA demanding a dioxin emergency action plan, said: "This means that dioxin levels in the bodies of newborn babies are already at levels that put them at risk of serious illness."

There have been concerns for some time about high levels of dioxins in human breast milk, although environmental health groups continue to urge women that the risks do not outweigh the benefits of breastfeeding.

Experts from the Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) and the Cancer Research Campaign (CRC) in London yesterday agree that dioxins were a cause of anxiety.

"We know that dioxins are in general highly toxic and can cause cancer," said Tim Key of the ICRF cancer epidemiology unit in Oxford. But more is unknown than known.

"The whole area is full of uncertainty and particularly in relation to cancer," said Lesley Walker of the CRC. 


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From the Guardian. Thursday 18th May, 2000.


David Hencke Westminster correspondent

The leaked documents linking incinerators to cancer are a stick of dynamite under Michael Meacher, the minister responsible for announcing the government's new waste strategy.

The policy was to have been announced last month but was postponed for revision by the Downing Street policy unit after the Guardian revealed huge shortcomings in the  1bn landfill tax, Britain's first green tax.

Downing Street's other big concern was over the plans to build some 160 incinerators across the country, to replace the landfill dumping that has given Britain the reputation for being "the dirty man of Europe".  It wanted greater emphasis on recycling - and far fewer incinerators.

The policy unit also foresaw Labour facing growing protests, and many of the earmarked sites, in places including Moss Side in Manchester and Byker in Newcastle upon Tyne, are in "heartland territory".

Downing Street's top policy adviser on waste strategy, Geoff Mulgan, will find his fears justified by these revelations and Mr Meacher is already telling reluctant civil servants in the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions to get on with rewriting the report.

The minister is known to be expressing doubts about the excessive building of incinerators.  At one stage he promised to call in all plans for new incinerators for a public inquiry.  But he was swiftly overruled by Nick Raynsford, the planning minister.

Yet concern among ministers is growing, particularly among those who face having incinerators built on their doorsteps.   Nick Brown, the agriculture minister, whose constituency faces a major expansion of the Byker "energy from waste" plant, has demanded reports from the environment agency and the public health authorities on the dangers of dioxin emissions from the existing plant.

Mr Brown - a longstanding sceptic of the once environmentally fashionable energy from waste policy - is worried that his constituents who live cheek by jowl to the plant could face health problems.

The removal of more than 2,000 tonnes of poisoned ash from the plant, which had been spread on footpaths and allotments by Newcastle council, has added to his fears.  The American findings make it worse.

Support for a limited programme of incinerators comes from Mr Raynsford, who has one incinerator in his Greenwich constituency.  He is sceptical of scientific findings suggesting health hazards, and believes that tough standards to be imposed by the EU to clean up emissions should protect the public.

As a former minister for London he clashed with Nicky Gavron, now Labour's deputy mayor, when she proposed a moratorium on all new incinerators for London.

In her new job she has made it clear she intends to implement that policy - and the US findings will give her ammunition against plans for new incinerators and an expanded incinerator at Edmonton in north London.


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From the Guardian. Friday 19th May, 2000.

By David Hencke - Westminster Correspondent.

Europe is moving to phase out the building of huge new incinerators just as Britain is planning a new chain across the country as part of the government's waste strategy, Ludwig Kraemer, head of the EU waste management directorate, revealed last night.

"In France, Belgium, Holland, Italy, Germany and Portugal no new incinerators are being built because the public will not stand for them.

"They are treated in the same way as nuclear power stations - people no longer want them," he said.

Mr Kraemer said concerns about public health and traffic congestion and pollution caused by lorries required to deliver hundreds of thousands of tons of waste to each incinerator had turned the public against them.

"Once they are built we are talking about creating waste streams for the next 25 years to keep the incinerators going," he said.

His warning follows revelations from the United States that Britain's new generation of incinerators could pose a cancer threat to local residents.

Mr Kraemer's comments will put more pressure on Michael Meacher, the environment minister to justify plans to build incinerators across the country.

He is already under pressure from the Downing Street policy unit and the Cabinet Office to modify a policy that could cost Labour votes in it's heartland seats and among many of the people who switched to Labour in the south-east of England.

Mr Meacher yesterday ordered the early publication of the governments revised waste strategy after a last minute tussle with his civil servants over increasing the amount of recycling programmes at the expense of the planned incinerators.

Civil servants have been lobbied by the waste industry to increase incineration, but Mr Meacher secured last minute changes before the paper went to the printers.

Mr Kraemer, who oversees waste policies across the EU, said he hoped Britain would adopt recycling as it's main way to dispose of waste. At present 70 per cent of Britain's waste is dumped in landfill sites and less than 9 per cent is recycled.

Britain's proposals are expected to split the disposal of waste three ways - through landfill dumps, recycling and burning.  


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From the Guardian. Saturday 20th May, 2000.


By David Hencke - Westminster Correspondent.

The 600m environment agency was lambasted by MPs today for "lack of vision, ineffective management" and for "punching below it's weight" on influencing public opinion on green issues.

A damning report from the Commons environment select committee accuses the agency of failing to act as an agent of "joined up" government and senior management of undermining its  own committed staff - creating a high turnover in jobs and low morale, and making it ineffective to tackle many issues.

The report says there is a "culture of fear" inside the agency with staff suppressing spontaneity and innovation, in case they get marked down by senior managers who disapprove of their initiatives.

The report also backs up the expose by the Guardian and Channel 4's Dispatches programme on illegal dumping to avoid the landfill tax.

The MPs say: "we are dismayed that this very serious environmental problem should have been effectively ignored for so long. The possibility that the landfill tax would encourage fly-tipping was a major concern for environmental groups, local government and the public from it's introduction in October 1996.

"Regardless of the concerns expressed at that time, and of our observations and recommendations on the subject in two subsequent reports, the government and the environment agency have failed to take the necessary action to prevent the illegal dumping of waste. In the meantime, untold damage may be being done to our environment. We recommend that the Environment Agency takes urgent steps effectively to tackle this very serious problem, and that the government provides it with the necessary funding to enable it to do so."

The MPs also back the Guardian's finding and complaints that the courts do not have enough powers to fine people for dumping or causing environmental damage. They call for the review of the sentences and fines imposed on companies, demanding much higher fines.

"It [the review] should...provide companies with a financial incentive to take the right environmental option rather than to cut corners to the detriment of the environment, by ensuring that the level of the fine is always more that any financial benefit from the offence."

They also want companies to have to publish details of convictions for environmental offences in their annual reports.

Control of radioactive waste discharges by the agency is also attacked. The MPs say the rules are unclear, and the agency and industry do not seem to know what to do. They point out that talks have been dragging on for years to solve this problem "with as yet no positive outcome". They say the agency is working in a vacuum.

The report also criticises the agency for failing to take the lead on the growing of genetically modified crops and for not taking enough initiatives over flood defences.

Andrew Bennett, Labour MP for Denton and Reddish, and chairman of the committee, said yesterday: "we need the Environment Agency to be an effective watchdog and a leading campaigning organisation. At the moment, if you ask anybody who are the three leading figures and organisations on the environment, most people would say Michael Meacher, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. The chairman of the Environment Agency ought to be one of the top three people in the country but he is not."  


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From the Guardian. Wednesday 17th July, 2002.


By Joanna Collins

The government and many local authorities are in a deep hole over waste. With the amount of household rubbish set to double by 2020 to over 40m tonnes a year, and new European directives insisting that Britain significantly reduces its landfilling, the incineration option looks attractive, but is proving politically and financially difficult.

The government, which is currently conducting a full waste review, suggested last week that householders who do not recycle their rubbish would have to pay up to 1 a sack to have it removed. It hints that radical change is coming, but, in the meantime, many local authorities around the world are turning to a system called zero waste that would abolish landfills and reduce dramatically the need for incinerators.

Getting rid of waste altogether sounds pie in the sky, but is, in fact, quite simple. The premise is that everything we buy is, or eventually will be, made from materials that can be repaired, reused or recycled. So governments, councils and industry should be working together to find ways to turn waste into a profitable resource or designing it out of the system altogether.

Canberra, Toronto, California and, lately, New Zealand - where 45% of all local authorities have signed up to zero waste policies - are convinced enough to make it a target to be reached by 2015 or earlier. The UN and the South African government have agreed to green the Johannesburg summit by following zero waste principles.

Now the initiative has been picked up by Sue Doughty, Liberal Democrat MP for Guildford, who recently launched a charter and 10 commandments that call on government to get rid of household waste by 2020. "Councils are required to be financially risk-averse," she says, "so without government setting enabling regulations they don't have the empowerment to go as far as they might".

But Bath and North-east Somerset council is not waiting on government; it is the first authority to have adopted the zero waste vision. Colchester and Braintree councils, in Essex, are now following.

"Zero waste is, to me, a grassroots movement from local authorities and people," says Bath councillor Roger Symmonds. He was won over to the concept two years ago at a conference in Geneva, where New Zealand authorities that had taken the plunge recounted their experience. "Don't get too hung up on the zero bit," he cautions. "It may not be achievable. But if we get anywhere near, then the benefits for health and jobs will be enormous."

The early signs are good. Where Britain currently recycles 11% of household waste, burns 8% and dumps the rest, within six years of a change in policy Canberra is recycling 59% of its rubbish and Edmonton, Canada, has reached 70%.

Surprisingly, organic waste makes up the bulk of a bin-load and causes the nastiest health risk when it rots and leaches from landfill. Composting, according to the cities which have adopted zero waste policies, can immediately reduce the problem. In many cases, the high achieving cities and councils have introduced three-stream collection, separating organics, dry recyclables such as bottles and plastics, and tricky residuals such as batteries.

According to Robin Murray, a leading zero waste economist, as soon as this is done "they find suddenly that they are recycling more than 50%".

There's money to be made, too, say the zero waste proponents. In a recent US survey of high recycling programmes, savings were made in 13 out of the 14 cases. Resource recovery facilities and exchange networks were found to be turning waste into an asset, creating small business opportunities and employment in struggling communities.

This has been a key factor in New Zealand, where zero waste is regarded more as a driver of local economic development than a matter of environmental conscience. "It's very much a case of the people led and the government followed," says Warren Snow, of the New Zealand Zero Waste Trust. "It's a quiet revolution where non-profit community groups are turning waste into jobs."

Radical thinking about waste is seen to be essential. When it comes to the 15-20% of waste that is difficult or expensive to recycle, zero waste proposes a new way of looking at the problem: anything that cannot be recycled or reused should be designed out of the system. Here, industry is seen as a key player. "The multinationals are on to this far quicker than governments or environmental groups", says Murray. Many large companies, he says, already foresee the arrival of legislation that makes producers take responsibility for what happens to their products at the end of the life-cycle.


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