PAUL LUSHION on how a company worth £4.2bn looks set to get away with another crime against the environment
Don’t hold your breath, but Viridor might just be about to get around to delivering a report on the massive fire and air pollution incident at the Beddington Lane incinerator more than a year ago.
The fire took place on July 11, 2019, starting in a sorting shed next to the incinerator plant. It took four fire engines nine hours to get the fire under control.
The incinerator has been built at a cost of £210million for the South London Waste Partnership – formed by Croydon, Sutton, Merton and Kingston councils.
On the day of the fire, huge plumes of black, noxious smoke hung over large parts of south London for hours.
Despite feeble concerned-sounding bleatings from public representatives, such as Croydon councillor Stuart Collins, who was chair of the SLWP at the time, and assurances from the Environment Agency, the government watchdog which is supposed to guarantee public health and safety from such industrial-scale pollution, Viridor have so far escaped any kind of sanction for the incident.
Last month, there was a fire at another Viridor plant in south London, at Sidcup. Yet still the Environment Agency has taken no action.
Viridor has been accused of deliberately misleading the public over the seriousness of the Beddington blaze, and of being more concerned with “preserving the company’s reputation” than the real risks posed to public health. In a preliminary report submitted ahead of a meeting of a SLWP meeting last September, Viridor tried to minimise the incident, calling it a “small fire”.
This was at odds with the London Fire Brigade, whose own report described it as “a serious incident”, and which suggested that the fire was able to burn with such fury for hours because it was fuelled by hundreds of discarded mattresses, destined for the incinerator, but which caught light and burned in an uncontrolled manner.
Viridor had failed to install any sprinkler system in their waste sorting sheds. Next to an incinerator. It remains uncertain whether Viridor had even bothered to fit any smoke alarms, either.
An official compliance report stated that “between 50 to 100 tonnes of waste was involved in the fire”.
Among the poisonous mix which seems likely to have been released into the atmosphere during the 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 been released into the south London skies, unchecked and uncontrolled by Viridor.
The Environment Agency and SLWP have said that they could not take any further action until they had received Viridor’s full report – effectively allowing the operators to mark their own homework. And hand it in late, too.
Last week, the £4.2billion sale of Viridor to New York-based investment firm KKR was completed. So it would be reasonable to assume that were the Environment Agency to enforce hefty fines for the pollution caused by fires at the multinational’s plants, they might have a few bob to meet the penalty charge.
And it seems that Viridor have finally got round to submitting their own version of the events of July 11, 2019. The matter is on the agenda for the SLWP’s first meeting since the coronavirus lockdown, a virtual event on July 27 to be hosted by Kingston council, who are now chairing the organisation.
One Sutton-based environmental campaigner told Inside Croydon, “This fire may have been entirely preventable had a simple sprinkler system been fitted to the building – and that’s surely a prerequisite when storing such a combustible mixture of materials?
“The fire required the day-long input of fire crews from Wallington, Croydon and Norbury to get it under control. As the company had experience of existing risks, they surely had a duty of care to install sprinklers and alarms, and it must have been Sutton Council’s and the Environment Agency’s duty to ensure that Viridor’s new incinerator plant met these most basic of safety standards?
“There’s a large group of residents now who continue to fight through Sutton Council’s bureaucracy and deal with disengaged Sutton Councillors to get answers and changes made to the unsafe storage of hundreds of tons of flammable material.”
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