Ministers accused of Camelford cover-up

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The Independent Online

The Government was accused last night of attempting a cover-up over the Camelford poisoning scandal by quietly removing the potentially embarrassing element of a new public investigation.

An inquiry into how the authorities reacted to the mass water contamination in 1988 – which might well incriminate the Department of Health – was promised on Monday and removed on Tuesday, despite assurances by the Environment minister Michael Meacher that the new inquiry would be a "transparent, independent and inclusive process".

An Independent investigation shows the inquiry's remit was altered to remove a key commitment – put in writing to the local MP, Paul Tyler, 24 hours before the launch – to hold a full investigation into the "adequacy and transparency" of how the affair was handled in the first place, in the 1990s.

When details of the inquiry's remit were made public, the commitment was withdrawn. The inquiry would simply cover possible health effects of the spill and the monitoring and research of the effects on residents, Mr Meacher said.

Mr Tyler, Liberal Democrat MP for North Cornwall, demanded assurances yesterday that the scientific inquiry would examine the handling of the affair – as he was promised in a letter from Mr Meacher dated 13 August and seen by The Independent.

The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the commit- ment to examine the "transparency" was removed because the handling of the incident had already been subject to an investigation which did not need to be repeated. The letter to Mr Tyler (sent a day earlier) represented "early thinking" about the inquiry.

The move has infuriated campaigners who insist that a wide-ranging, transparent investigation is needed to ease public concerns about the incident, in July 1988, when water supplies were polluted by 20 tons of aluminium sulphate, leading to complaints of long-term effects on victims' memories and balance.

They say the full consequences of the incident were covered up by the Conservative government of the time because it was in the middle of privatising the water industry and wanted no bad publicity.