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Ian Burge

Legislation Doing Nothing to Prevent

The Danger of Toxic Waste

(January 1978)

From Militant, No. 388, 13 January 1978, p. 4.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

We are by now familiar with the type of disasters that can cause massive pollution: the mix-up between two types of bag which led to the wholesale slaughter of thousands of animals, and the possibility of permanent damage through poisoning of all 9 million inhabitants of Michigan; the explosion at a factory in Seveso, releasing poisonous fall-out which caused horrible skin sores and as yet unmeasured effects on the unborn; mercury poisoning of the sea from industrial effluent leading to a hideous disease of the nervous system and many deaths; massive oil pollution of the seas and coastlines following incidents with oil takers ... and so on.


There is, however, another type of hazard which has as much disaster potential, but which has not received a great deal of attention: toxic wastes disposal.

The dumping of toxic wastes has caused some deaths and injuries already. These are known about, but there may well have been other linked indirectly. It can only be a matter of time before a disaster occurs.

There are no official statistics specific to waste disposal and it is difficult to get a picture of the true extent of the dangers, but it has been estimated that between three and five million tonnes of toxic wastes are produced annually by British industry. Dumping on the land is the preferred technique for about 90% of UK toxic wastes, mainly because it is considerably cheaper than either chemical treatment or incineration.

Last year, the GLC produced a special report setting out details of ten major schemes bought for £27.6 million on which some form of industrial pollution had been found leading to the delay of housing schemes. These included, for instance, land at Thamesmead, contaminated with lead, copper, mercury salts, phenols, and sulphides from a former explosives factory (Guardian, 16.9.77).

Cyanide was once considered the ultimate in poisons, the tiniest amounts of which could cause instant death. Yet today it is commonly to be found in large quantities being taken to dumps. Cyanide and a host of other equally, if not more, toxic substances are the by-products of industrial processes.

Arsenic wastes which had been buried in Minnesota thirty years ago, recently contaminated water supplies, sending a number of people to hospital. Even plutonium has been discovered on a municipal landfill site in Germany. Re-use of a waste oil which happened to contain a high concentration of dioxin, a million times more potent than thalidomide, killed 60 horses, numerous other livestock, and affected ten people in Missouri.

Apart from these examples, numerous other accidents have occurred either on waste tips or during transit. One tanker arrived at a site in Essex minus its load which had escaped through a faulty valve. Several tankers have required the assistance of the fire brigade following runaway pressure rises. Several major fires on waste disposal sites have posed serious hazards to local residents, not only from the atmospheric dispersion of combustion products, but also from pyrolysis products, notably phenols, gaining access to public water sources.

What has been done to safeguard the population from these dangers? Not very much. A recent article in New Scientist (15.7.77) is very critical of the inadequate laws and lack of controls. It explains, too, that much of the information needed for an objective assessment of the situation is unobtainable “mainly because of the jealous way in which both government and industry guard their secrets about the production and disposal of waste.” There seems more concern to protect the manufacturers than to protect public health!


The Deposit of Poisonous Wastes Act was introduced in 1972 following publicity and public concern at the irresponsible dumping of cyanide wastes in the early 1970s. The New Scientist points out, however, that:

“The legislation, and the public feeling at the time, produced major changes, not in the methods of disposal but rather in the availability of disposal sites ... with the result that toxic waste was channelled into a much smaller number of sites. For example, the intake of toxic wastes to the Pitsea site in Essex increased by a factor of eight in the three years following the 1972 act.”

The Health and Safety at Work and the Control of Pollution Acts both appeared on the statute book in 1974. But, as the New Scientist points out:

“... unfortunately, the grim financial climate in local government at present mitigates against anything other than very modest expenditures ... Hence in some counties, particularly more rural ones that do not see themselves as having much of a toxic waste problem, the control staff is minimal and policing of actual deposits is non-existent. In these circumstances it requires no great flight of fancy to imagine the likely reaction of an unscrupulous individual or company with a tanker full of ‘something rather nasty’ to get rid of.”

The article correctly concludes that the legislation, national and European, does not provide sufficient protection.

“All these legislative innovations are examples of remedies being sought at the wrong interface ... Legislation so far has only an incidental effect on the volume and unpleasantness of the waste itself. The legislature would be rewarded with more success if it directed attention to the point of generation of waste.”

The experience of the workers trying to make use of the legislation, whether it be Health and Safety at Work, Equal Pay, or Employment Protection, is that employers always manage to find loopholes, or prefer to ignore the law and risk fines, usually not very great ones at that. Certainly, as far as health and safety considerations go, and that includes waste disposal, any additional expenditure on the part of the employer will cut into his profits. Even the government’s own departments cannot implement health and safety because of the cuts.

We must of course, as trade union representatives, make full use of existing laws in our members’ interests to improve working conditions, and the environment. We should also support any moves to strengthen these laws to our advantage. But we need to go further than this.

We should demand the tightest control and supervision of toxic waste disposal. We should insist on the closest scrutiny by local working class representatives, and by labour movement experts, of all plans for new industry. No processes should be permitted unless adequate safety is ensured and all waste products disposed of without danger to the health of present or future generations.

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