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Farmers Face £6bn Bill for Asbestos Clean-up

June 25, 2008

A group of senior farmers are battling to save their industry from a red-tape disaster which could cost it an estimated £6 billion, and which the country's leading independent experts say is wholly unnecessary.

The Health and Safety Executive, however, refuses to listen to their arguments, even though a study by its own experts confirmed that the farmers and their scientific advisers are right.

Bryan Edgley and his colleagues in the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire branch of the National Farmers Union have been concerned by the cost of new regulations governing the disposal of white asbestos cement, used in tens of thousands of post-war farm buildings. A succession of scientific studies have shown that white asbestos cement - not to be confused with the genuinely dangerous blue and brown forms of asbestos, a different mineral - poses no measurable risk to health.

Until two years ago white asbestos cement could still be disposed of by burying it or using it as rubble for farm tracks. But since 2006, farmers have had to pay up to £400 a ton to have it removed to a hazardous waste site (95 per cent of which have been closed down under an EU directive). A study has shown that more than 50,000 farms have buildings containing asbestos cement, many of which will have to be replaced in coming years. For an average quantity of 300 tons, the cost of disposal would be £120,000 per farm - and the total bill about £6 billion.

Thanks to this column's exposure of how contractors are exploiting asbestos legislation to create a colossal scam, Mr Edgley was able to contact the independent experts who have opposed it. At a seminar last month, shocked NFU members heard a presentation from Dr John Hoskins, a leading asbestos toxicologist, showing how the risks of white asbestos cement had been exaggerated by the HSE to promote the contractors' interests. His case was supported by a paper from another world expert, Prof Fred Pooley, of Cardiff University.

The HSE, which is closely associated with the removal industry (it even pays one big asbestos consultancy to run its official helpline), refused to attend. It would receive a delegation of NFU members - on condition that they did not bring their scientific advisers.

At this month's meeting, the farmers were told by the HSE's asbestos policy director, Kevin Walkin, that he was not prepared to discuss the science, only the law as laid down by EU directives. The farmers want an amendment to the HSE's interpretation of EU law, returning the situation to where it was two years ago, so that white asbestos cement need not be disposed of at crippling expense.

They cite as precedent a change of the law in 2005, when the Environment Agency allowed that road "planings", which are removed when roads are resurfaced, could be used to repair farm tracks instead of having, under EU law, to be landfilled.

The proposed amendment, as Mr Edgley points out, would not only save farmers immense sums of money, but would also save our last few hazardous waste sites from being stretched even further by the dumping of millions of tons of harmless waste.
The HSE remains adamant that white asbestos is far too dangerous for the law to be changed. Yet this position was comprehensively contradicted by a major study by the HSE's own statisticians, John Hodgson and Andrew Darnton, published in 2000.

After the most extensive review of the literature on asbestos ever carried out, they concluded that the risk of contracting mesothelioma from white asbestos cement was "insignificant", while that of lung cancer was "zero". It is hardly surprising, then, that the HSE is so reluctant to discuss the science behind that law with the £6 billion price tag.

• Farmers wanting advice on asbestos can contact Asbestos Watchdog via the contact us form.

Christopher Booker

The Sunday Telegraph

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