Call for Viridor prosecution over health risks from toxic fire

The Environment Agency has been asked to consider bringing a prosecution of Viridor over the fire at their incinerator on Beddington Lane last month, as there is mounting evidence to suggest that toxic fumes were released into the atmosphere during what the London Fire Brigade reported as a serious incident.

According to Viridor, the incident at their incinerator last month was ‘a small fire’

The blaze released into the summer sky above Beddington a pall of at first dense black smoke which could be seen from miles away, and which drifted across over some of the most densely populated parts of northern Croydon throughout the rest of the day.

Among the poisonous mix which seems likely to have been released into the environment during the eight-hour blaze, it is suggested that hydrogen cyanide, carcinogens such as nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, ammonia, carbon monoxide and dioxide, PM2.5 and other particulates, chromium and arsenic, will have all gone up in the black smoke from the Viridor incinerator.

Viridor is accused of deliberately misleading the public over the seriousness of the blaze, and of being more concerned with “preserving the company’s reputation” than the real risks posed to public health.

A community-led air quality monitoring group has called on the Environment Agency, the government quango which is supposed to oversee the operation of polluting plants such as the incinerator, to investigate the fire because of “mismanagement of the incinerator’s waste-sorting building”, “failure to instal a sprinkler system”, “for misleading the public and the local authority over the source and the seriousness of the fire”, and “releasing copious amounts of toxins into the environment which may have put public health at risk”.

In their letter to the Environment Agency, the South West London Air Quality Monitoring Group seems to suggest that Viridor has made false reports about the severity of the Beddington Lane fire on July 11.

Viridor’s monthly pollution report, they note, “only mentioned a ‘small fire’ and gave no estimate of how much material had burned or how much of which sort of pollution had gone up in the plume. July 11 was reported as not exceeding any pollution limits”.

The London Fire Brigade, in fact, sent 25 firefighters and fire engines from four stations to cope with Viridor’s “small fire”, which took them nine hours to get under control.

As first reported by Inside Croydon, there have been 14 fires at Viridor-operated waste plants in little more than three years.

The air quality monitoring group’s letter notes that on the day of the Beddington fire, “Dense black smoke was immediately reported… and the plume was visible for miles around. The Environment Agency was notified about the incident.

Thick plumes of smoke were visible from miles away from Beddington

“Viridor blamed the fire on electronic gadgets with lithium-ion batteries which may have been discarded in people’s domestic waste.

“It turns out that no sprinkler system was built into the building. It is not clear whether a smoke alarm was fitted.

“As an air quality monitoring group we are concerned that toxins will certainly have been emitted into the air from nine hours of burning many tons of mixed waste. This was an open fire, not subject to any filtration so toxic particles would have gone into the air unhindered and undiluted.

“At Sutton’s full council meeting which convened on Monday evening July 22 and discussed the fire, Councillor [Tony] Shields declared that he had previously been a firefighter and was aware that burning mattress foam, which comprised some of the waste, would give off poisonous hydrogen cyanide.

“Burning plastic will give off toxic furans and dioxins. Other waste will give off poisons and carcinogens such as nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, ammonia, carbon monoxide and dioxide, PM2.5 and other particulates, chromium and arsenic to name just a few.

“As Viridor made us aware of electronic equipment in the waste stream, we must assume that various other chemical toxins in the components would have been in the plume.

“This fire may have been entirely preventable had a simple sprinkler system been fitted to the building, surely a prerequisite when storing such a combustible mixture of materials, which required the day-long input of Wallington, Croydon and Norbury Fire Brigades to control. As the company had experience of existing risks, they had a duty of care to instal this simple preventative measure…”.

Viridor’s reliance on PR ‘firefighters’ is highlighted in the latest Private Eye

The air quality monitoring group is very critical, too, of Viridor, and their mates on Sutton Council, for their efforts to issue disinformation to the public about the severity of the fire and the health risks and environmental damage it caused. Viridor’s use of expensive London-based PR “firefighters” has been reported on in the latest edition of Private Eye magazine.

“In an attempt to minimise the gravity of the fire and keep the public in the dark about it, Viridor’s public relations company described the fire as ‘small’ in their press release, while London Fire Brigade described it as ‘serious’,” the monitoring group’s letter states.

“This seemed to be more a matter of preserving the company’s reputation than providing straightforward information to the public. It was also misleading that the fire was said to have been in a ‘recycling centre’, when it was a waste sorting building for the incinerator, and that it had been put out by lunchtime not seven in the evening.”

The Environment Agency, however, has a well-earned reputation as a toothless and dozy watchdog.

The air quality monitoring group’s letter was submitted to the Agency, as well as to London Mayor Sadiq Khan, the Health and Safety Executive and to Ruth Dombey, the leader of Sutton Council, on July 28.

According to one of the letter’s authors, Jim Duffy, by the weekend they had received no response from the HSE, while the Mayor’s office appeared to wash its hands of the incident, saying that the matter was not in its jurisdiction as it concerned air quality. The Environment Agency is continuing to research the incident, according to Duffy.

About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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