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Environment Agency Shows its Asbestos Ignorance

February 05, 2006

When in 2004 workmen for Seven Trent water company dug up a few white asbestos cement pipes nearby, they carefully wrapped them in plastic and took them to their Ludlow depot for disposal. Officials of the Environment Agency went ballistic.

A recent case in Ludlow, Shropshire, has again highlighted the extraordinary hysteria over asbestos. When in 2004 workmen for Seven Trent water company dug up a few white asbestos cement pipes nearby, they carefully wrapped them in plastic and took them to their Ludlow depot for disposal. Officials of the Environment Agency went ballistic.

Did the company not know that, since their depot was not a "licensed waste transfer station", this was a serious breach of EC waste law? As for the asbestos itself, was this not deadly stuff, one fibre of which could kill? These were serious criminal offences, which should be punished with fines of thousands of pounds.

Fortunately Severn Trent's solicitor had the wisdom to consult Professor John Bridle of Asbestos Watchdog, the firm set up with the aid of this column to puncture the bubble of hysteria surrounding asbestos. When the case recently came before Ludlow magistrates, Severn Trent pleaded guilty to technically breaching the rules over the unlicensed transfer of special waste (although, if they had simply left the pipes by the road, instead of responsibly removing them, no offence would have been committed).

On the wider issue, the agency's barrister waxed rhetorical about the deadly dangers of asbestos. But the court then heard Severn Trent's solicitor explain that white asbestos cement poses no danger, since it is not possible for its fibres to escape. A sensible magistrate (whose name the Courts Service will not allow me to know) found in Severn Trent's favour.

The shock of this tale is that the Environment Agency's officials should be so babyishly ignorant about the nature of asbestos. This is serious, since we are now, as a nation, paying out £70 million a year to bury, as "hazardous waste" 360,000 tons of harmless asbestos cement. The sooner the agency gets proper, grown-up scientific advice, the better for us all.

Christopher Booker

The Sunday Telegraph

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