Our environment correspondent, PAUL LUSHION, on a worrying sequence of fires at sites run by one of the country’s biggest incinerator operators which has prompted a call for an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive
The fire next to the Viridor incinerator on Beddington Lane earlier this month was the 13th occasion when the company has had to call out the fire brigade to one of its waste and recycling plants in Britain in little more than four years.
And fire No14 at a Viridor plant took place on the very next day after the Beddington fire.
This outbreak of dangerous and costly fires – especially costly for Viridor’s insurers – has seen the company become increasingly dependent on a “fourth emergency service”, their PR consultants, who are regularly being called out to act as their reputational firefighters.
Viridor execs turned to their spin doctors almost as quickly as calling in the fire brigade when the large fire took hold in Sutton on July 11.
The Viridor incinerator at Beddington Lane, just the other side of the borough boundary in Sutton, has been built at a cost to the public of £205million to burn the rubbish from four south London boroughs – Croydon and Sutton, plus Kingston and Merton – as well as thousands of tons of waste which will be trucked in HGVs through our roads from across south-east England.
Under Viridor’s contract with Croydon Council, the Beddington Lane incinerator could be used to dispose of radioactive waste.
Croydon, and the three other boroughs, will each pay Viridor £10million per year for the privilege of burning our rubbish, radioactive or otherwise, for a period of 25 years.
As Inside Croydon reported, the London Fire Brigade got the shout to the out-of-control fire at Beddington at 10.23am on July 11.
It took four fire engines and 25 firefighters to deal with it. Not until 7.24pm did the LFB declare that the fire was “under control”. No one was reported hurt in the fire, though residents nearby reported headaches and breathing issues through the day.
But that wasn’t the story that Viridor and their expensively hired spin doctors, PR company Madano, wanted out there.
The firefighters had been at the scene for barely an hour when Madano’s Andrew Turner was on the phone to stress that the fire wasn’t at the “ERF facility” (Madano Man never uses the nasty word “incinerator”), but instead claimed that the fire was in fact at a recycling centre that was “co-located” at Beddington Lane.
This, though, was not the case.
A reporter from specialist magazine ENDS was on the scene at the time and was told by Viridor staff that the incineration plant itself was on fire. This is what he observed and this is what was reported, with photographs to show as much.
ENDS (Environmental Data Services, since you asked) only amended its online report later after being contacted by a “Viridor spokesman”.
Viridor staff also blocked the ENDS journalist from taking more photos of the fire “and said police would be called if we did not leave”.
The ENDS reporter wrote: “Staff said there was ‘nothing to see’, despite the £205m site clearly being on fire behind them.”
The fire took place in a sorting shed adjacent to the incinerator.
The shed, which fire brigade photographs the next day showed was badly damaged by the fire, was used by Viridor to sort out flammable and non-flammable material before sending it into the furnaces. It is a “safety” practice the operators introduced soon after an unsorted gas canister exploded in their incinerator near Heathrow in 2009, which forced the closure of that plant for six months for repairs.
On the day of the fire at Beddington, with a thick black cloud of smoke still rising up from Beddington Lane, at around 1pm Sutton Council tweeted soothing platitudes from its official account.
They claimed that it was only a “small fire”; that it had already been put out by the fire brigade; that there was no risk or danger to the public or the environment; and that the fire was effectively caused by the public, because someone had carelessly included lithium batteries in their recycling.
The council’s attempt at managing the message appeared suspiciously similar to what was being pumped out by Madano, on behalf of Viridor.
Since the LFB didn’t begin their official investigation of the cause of the fire until nearly 20 hours later, it’s hard to know how Viridor, Madano or Sutton could have said with any certainty how the fire had started.
But the batteries alibi might have helped shift the blame from Viridor, who at Beddington managed to build their sorting shed next to an incinerator without incurring the costs of fitting a sprinkler system.
Viridor and their spin doctors must be getting used to all this by now.
Since January 2015, there have been fires reported at
Viridor plants. On each occasion, it has been necessary for the fire brigade to be called out.
In 2019 alone, there have been five fires at Viridor plants.
The latest fire at a Viridor-operated plant was at Runcorn on July 12, the day after the Beddington blaze.
Before this month’s fires, there had been call-outs reported at Viridor plants at Bargeddie, outside Glasgow, Crawley, Rochester, Bristol, Thetford, Bolton, Taunton, Ashford, Perth, St Helens, Lancing and Chichester.
The Chichester fire, in March this year, took firefighters seven days to extinguish.
But Viridor – part of the FTSE 250-listed Pennon Group which reported £221million net income in 2018 – does make the occasional donation of a couple of thousand quid to local firefighters’ charities. Which is nice.
Nick Mattey is the independent councillor for Beddington North, the ward in which the Sutton incinerator has been built, and has been an outspoken critic of the project.
“In my view, Viridor are a menace to local communities and the environment,” he told Inside Croydon.
“Viridor are becoming a major burden on the nation’s fire brigades. They need reporting to the Health and Safety Executive.”
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