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Tuesday, 14 August, 2001, 14:29 GMT 15:29 UK
Health probe into Camelford poisoning
Camelford waterworks in 1990
The health impact of the pollution will be studied
One of Britain's worst water poisoning incidents is to be investigated by experts but the government move falls short of demands for a full public inquiry.

Campaigners had been hoping for such an inquiry into the long-term health impacts of the contamination of the public water supply around Camelford, in north Cornwall, in 1988.

Environment Minister Michael Meacher said the sub-group of the committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment would examine all concerns.

"I have insisted that this will be a transparent, independent and inclusive process and interested parties will have an opportunity to comment on the sub-group's draft report at an open meeting," he said.


This will be a transparent, independent and inclusive process

Michael Meacher
Thousands of homes were affected when a lorry driver accidentally dumped 20 tonnes of aluminium sulphate into the wrong tank at a Camelford treatment works.

Mr Meacher said he visited Camelford last year and met many people, some in tears, who believed passionately that they had suffered long-term effects.

But Mr Meacher said there were two reasons why he had not agreed to a full public inquiry.

He said there was no argument about what actually happened, which could prompt a public inquiry.

And he said there had been a complete change in the organisation and regulation of the water industry since the incident, as well as major improvements in the NHS response to incidents of this sort.

Brain damage

"The aim is not to point the finger of blame, but to find a full, satisfying and convincing explanation of the long-term health consequences," said Mr Meacher.

"It must draw a line in the sand - there won't be another inquiry after this."

The committee will report back with a draft report in March 2002.

A total of 20,000 homes in the region were affected, and local people complained of a wide range of health problems ranging from mouth ulcers to vomiting and rashes.

Paul Tyler
Paul Tyler: Wants full disclosure of facts
At the time, a government health panel concluded that there should be no long-term effects.

Two years after the incident, about 400 people were suffering from symptoms, including loss of short-term memory, which they attributed to the pollution.

A study of 55 victims in 1999 suggested that the chemical did cause "considerable damage" to their brain functions.

Problematic

Nigel Mazlyn Jones, of the Lowermoor Support Group for people affected by the incident, said he was not happy that Mr Meacher had rejected calls for a public inquiry.

"We will want to look at the backgrounds of people on the committee to be satisfied they are independent," he told BBC News 24.


It is problematic from the start

Nigel Mazlyn Jones

Mr Mazlyn Jones said the fact that a local GP may be on the committee was not much compensation as local people felt most doctors in the area did not believe there were long-term health effects.

Group chairman Peter Smith disagreed that lessons had been learned after the incident.

"Agencies are still not looking after people affected," he said.

"In future people need to be protected. Apart from the health concerns we all share, that is why we have fought and fought."

Liberal Democrat MP for North Cornwall Paul Tyler said the offer on the table appeared a more preferential route than a public inquiry.

"Now at long last they are going to have official recognition that their health wasn't just in the mind - it was a real reaction to a real event."

In 1991 the South West Water Authority, which ran the treatment works, was fined 10,000 with 25,000 costs at Exeter Crown Court.

Three years later nearly 150 residents accepted out-of-court damages ranging from 700 to 10,000.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Richard Bilton
"This is a significant step on what has been a very long journey"
Environment Minister Michael Meacher
"We are holding what the people of Camelford actually wanted"
Nigel Mazlyn-Jones, Lowermoor Support Group
"It's problematic before we begin"
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