BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific Arabic Spanish Russian Chinese Welsh
BBCi CATEGORIES   TV   RADIO   COMMUNICATE   WHERE I LIVE   INDEX    SEARCH 

BBC NEWS
 You are in: Events: Newsnight
Front Page 
World 
UK 
UK Politics 
Business 
Sci/Tech 
Health 
Education 
Entertainment 
Talking Point 
In Depth 
AudioVideo 


Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

SERVICES 
banner
This transcript is produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

Why is contaminated ash heaped up in the East end of London? 21/11/01

PETER COLBY:
(Collease Ltd)
That ash, yes it's coming on to my site, on to my employees, but it's going straight over on to Dagenham as well. I think that's wrong.

ROBIN MURRAY:
(Environmental Consultant)
The figure that they regard as a safe level is 2.5 million times the level at which the Germans believe that contamination occurs.

RICHARD WATSON:
Would you let your children climb over that ash pile or be close to it?

KARL PETTIT:
(EUS Laboratories)
No, I would not, because of the indicative levels of dioxins in the ash.

RICHARD WATSON:
This is the cavernous waste handling facility at the Edmonton incinerator in north London. A tonne of rubbish per household every year. It's burned in giant furnaces, creating heat and power, the ultimate green solution to waste. But four months ago, we discovered that ash left over after burning the waste contained high levels of dioxins, one of the most deadly chemicals known to man, and we found out this potentially lethal toxic ash had been used to make construction materials, even blocks for house building. Newsnight has already discovered that toxic ash was being produced by Edmonton's waste incinerator until August last year, and been used in building products and road schemes. Tonight, we'll reveal that this pile of ash, 50,000 tonnes of it, in Dagenham in east London, is also the same toxic material, and it's being left here to blow in the wind. These are the east London premises of Collease Limited, a firm specialising in renting trucks. Their site near Dagenham docks is covered in choking dust. A few metres away lies the ash mountain. We now know it was delivered from the Edmonton incinerator, ready for use in construction schemes. On the night of our first broadcast in July, when we said that Edmonton ash, produced up to August last year was highly contaminated with dioxins, the company's owner received some unwelcome news.

PETER COLBY:
(Collease Ltd)
I had a telephone call from an employee who said, "Peter, we have a problem". I employ 10 to 12 people on this site, and I have a duty of care to my employees to do something about it. So we immediately got a solicitor to write to Dagenham and Barking Council, saying that we are concerned and would they do something about it.

RICHARD WATSON:
The Collease workforce say they remember the ash being delivered in fleets of trucks in the first half of last year. Drivers told them it came from the Edmonton incinerator, and it was rumoured to be contaminated. So when a number of employees fell sick, they were worried.

JOHN WALSH:
Three of us currently in the depot here are undergoing hospital checks for throat problems.

RICHARD WATSON:
What sort of problems?

JOHN WALSH:
I've got a lump in my throat, in the gullet, which they've done certain tests on. I'm waiting for a hospital appointment at the moment to go back and do some more tests on it. Two other colleagues are down here suffering from throat problems at the moment.

RICHARD WATSON:
Bad throat problems or a tickly cough?

JOHN WALSH:
One of my colleagues has got a persistent cough, which he's had now for six, nine months. Another has had what feels like a blockage in his throat. He's had the checks for that, the cameras, et cetera.

RICHARD WATSON:
Collease decided to collect samples from all sides of the mound and send them to a laboratory in Southampton. EUS is one of the few labs in the country accredited the extremely sensitive tests for dioxins. The results from the Dagenham ash pile were startling. Collease collected six samples. The average dioxin was 747 nanograms, that's billionths of a gram per kilogram of ash. Two samples were just under 1,200, that's 200 times the background level in soil. The key question that the public want answering is should it be left there in situ to blow around in the wind?

KARL PETTIT:
(EUS Laboratories)
On the levels we've found, no.

RICHARD WATSON:
Let me put you on the spot. Would you let your children climb over that ash pile or be close to it?

KARL PETTIT:
No, I would not, because of the indicative levels of dioxins in the ash. Given the current levels or the limits for ingestion in foods et cetera, they are well above those levels.

PETER COLBY:
That ash, yes it's coming on to my site, on to my employees, but it's going straight over on to the town of Dagenham. I think that's wrong. Either my chemist is wrong, and I don't think he is, and I've wasted my money by having it analysed, and I don't think I have, but if I can do that, the Environment Agency can have it done. Somebody can have it done, and they can say, "Peter Colby you were right", or "Peter Colby, you were wrong".

RICHARD WATSON:
The Environment Agency now accepts that this ash contains higher levels of dioxin, peaking at 1,000 nanograms per kilogram. But even at those levels they say the ash pile doesn't pose a risk to human health. They argue that the risk of ingesting it is very low, and in a letter to Newsnight, they said that dioxin levels in the Dagenham ash pile are "At least 1,000 times lower than the threshold which would classify the ash as hazardous or special waste". They added that "Dioxins would have had to constitute 0.01% of the total content of the Dagenham ash pile", before it could be classified as officially as hazardous.

ROBIN MURRAY:
(Environmental Consultant)
The figure is two and a half million times the level at which the Germans believe that the contamination occurs.

RICHARD WATSON:
Two and a half million?

ROBIN MURRAY:
Two and a half million. Even if it was half a million, even if it was 50 times, this is no possible way in which that could be defended. That again is a subject which it needs to be opened out, because any member of the profession or the public who saw those figures would completely lose confidence in any agency who could be so firm in defending a pile of ash.

RICHARD WATSON:
Let's say that the Environment Agency were right and the dioxin levels in Dagenham were 0.01% of the total ash there, what would that mean?

KARL PETTIT:
Let's look at the calculation. 0.01% dioxin is the same as 100,000,000 nanograms per kilogram of dioxins.

RICHARD WATSON:
How does that relate to any perspective, and what sort of perspective can you put on that?

KARL PETTIT:
It is reported that after the Vietnam conflict, the agent orange, there was 1,000 nanograms per kilogram of dioxin remaining in the soil, which equates to 100,000 times higher in the soil than what was left at the Vietnam conflict.

RICHARD WATSON:
Surely that is not credible, is it?

KARL PETTIT:
It's not credible.

RICHARD WATSON:
And we have established there may have been further problems with their approach. In June last year, Michael Meacher reassured the Commons that "Processed ash entering the construction market has dioxin concentrations of between 20-50ng/Kg, which falls within the range of urban soils". Yet the ash at Dagenham contained dioxin levels of up to 12,00ng/Kg, and that was the ash used for road making and construction blocks. Mr Michael Meacher has already apologised for unintentionally misleading Parliament on this issue once, prompted by our last programme, when it emerged he'd been badly advised. On the question of the levels of dioxins in ash recycled into construction materials, it looks as though it has happened once again. Shouldn't you now clarify that position?

MICHAEL MEACHER:
(Environment Minister)
If it needs to be, I will. I can only rely on the figures which are given to me, but I think it is wrong to assume, by quoting figures like 1,100, which are the maximum levels, and taken from certain readings of the ash mound, that all of the ash which was used in the construction market was at this level. It plainly wasn't.

RICHARD WATSON:
It was above 20-50, though, that is the point?

MICHAEL MEACHER:
It would be very interesting to know, you don't know and I don't know, how much of the breeze blocks do contain levels of 20-50. Maybe that is the average amount, maybe most are of that content, some may be higher. I agree, it would be important to know that.

RICHARD WATSON:
Mr Meacher says the main source of dioxin intake is not from construction materials but through food, so the risks to public health at Dagenham are minimal, and the Environment Agency says its independent health assessment supports that view. But no one now argues that the toxic ash should be left in piles or used to make bricks. These are the lightweight blocks used for house building. We now know that contaminated ash at levels far higher than those quoted by the minister were used to make blocks like these for several years. During our research we received an anonymous call at the BBC. The former employee at Edmonton, who contacted me at Newsnight anonymously, said that contaminated ash had been used in block-making plants across the country. He specifically mentioned this site at Arundel near the south coast. It is run by Tarmac. When I approached Tarmac for an interview they declined, but they did confirm that, unwittingly, they had used the ash over a ten month period, until August 1999. That means that ash of elevated levels of dioxins went into Britain's housing stock. But where? The Environment Agency is carrying out an audit of where the ash has gone, and is due to report in two months. The Agency told us they didn't know that construction blocks were being made from contaminated ash at Edmonton. But once again, there is a glaring inconsistency. The authorisation to make the blocks appears on their own headed paper in the public register. Alan Dalton believes that raising concerns about errors like this have proven his undoing. He says he fell out of favour for criticising the Agency's handling of the dioxin issue at another incinerator in Newcastle, where he was the Agency governing body's representative, until he was sacked. Now he fears that his views are going to get him the push from the national board as well.

ALAN DALTON:
(Environmental Agency Board)
I believe the Agency is far too secretive. A lot of what we do, the Agency, in terms of protecting people around incinerators, landfill and chemical plants, factories, is based on trust. People have got to trust us and say "The Agency is somebody we trust, we trust their results, we trust their figures, we trust them to protect us and out children". I can't say that. What my report said to Michael Meacher was, as a board member, "I can't trust the Agency".

MICHAEL MEACHER:
The kind of issues that Alan Dalton was raising are important public issues. What did arise from the conversation I had with both him and the Chairman, Sir John Harman, was that many of these things were being fully investigated, as I think perhaps even surprised Alan Dalton, and that the results of those investigations should be made public, certainly discussed within the board, and for any of member of the public who wished to come, to see the results.

RICHARD WATSON:
Back at Dagenham, the Environment Agency is now bogged down in a legal battle to try to get the ash removed, because waste licensing laws have been breached, not on grounds of public safety. Admitting that would come with a hefty bill when all the contaminated ash is finally traced.


Links to more Newsnight stories