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.
Beddington was the 14th fire at a Viridor plant in just four years.
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.
Officials at Kingston say that the report will available online “within the next 24 hours”, and that it can be accessed by clicking this link.
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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So shameful that Viridor misled the public about the gravity of this fire and that the Environment Agency have not so far prosecuted the company but just say it’s still under investigation. Some of us have had enough of breathing in the incinerator pollution without adding to it with seemingly unprotected toxic commercial waste which has a known history of catching fire.
What ever happened to the London Fire Brigade’s proposed fire training centre to be built at Croydon Fire station?
I recall suggesting in the columns of Inside Croydon at the time, that they should locate this training centre well away from places where people live , as the training would include (obviously) burning things that would give off toxic fumes, and would be better located at a real, big building–such as the incenerator. Pity the LFB don’t read Inside Croydon !
They could have been on the spot.
One year is an unfeasibly long period of time to prepare what should be a fairly straightforward report, and decide what corrective, preventive, and improvement actions are being, or more importantly, have already been implemented to forestall a recurrence. Maybe it’s got caught up in trying to put the best gloss on the Viridor turd before the sale to KKR?
Who can say, but it would be nice for the communities who are likely to be most affected by the fire incident and future operation of the incinerator – the residents of Croydon and Hackbridge – to be in the loop and assured that their health, safety and wellbeing is being properly safeguarded. We need answers, and quickly.
A flimsy report which excludes the crucial London Fire Brigade assessment! How is that permissable?! No apology for the pollution caused, no list of toxins we breathed in on the day, no apology for saying the fire was small. At the time the misleading press statement went out, four fire engines were working to douse a huge blaze with smoke billowing hundreds of feet into the Beddington sky!
Viridor claims there was a fire risk assessment on the building but they only had a single fire extinguisher at hand! And yet they haven’t produced this fire risk assessment. How could that get signed off and by whom? Still no sprinkler system planned for the waste transfer building. It’s standard practice to have passive systems in place instead of relying on people to actively respond, so a thermal imager in itself is insufficient.
This fire was a forseable event but Viridor list their future actions based on ‘lessons learned’. How come they hadn’t learned these lessons with the thirteen previous fires on their sites? And hundreds of others on waste sites run by other waste operators?
I hope the Environment Agency who say they’re still investigating the fire will mount a prosecution. Viridor deserves no less.
Recently, four people tasked by the government to look into the toxicity of the Grenfell fire held a virtual session with residents and interested people. One claim they kept making was that the Grenfell fire was not toxic. Which is extraordinary, considering that in many ways it replicated incinerator fires – for example, burning huge volumes of sofas and mattresses that contain large amount of flame retardant chemicals which produce massive amounts of toxic fumes when they burn in products, like hydrogen cyanide. Incinerators do not burn hot enough to destroy flame retardant dioxins etc – a fact admitted to me recently by an official at the Environment Agency: “What else can we do?” he bleated. In other words, for the government to admit that Grenfell was a toxic fire means there’s a real risk that people will find out that incinerators are daily reproducing the equivalent across the country.
I also contacted Viridor to ask what protection their works receive with regard to the fact that flame retardants are easily absorbed through the skin and via inhalation thereby leading to early cancers and other diseases. After being given the runaround for a couple of days, the obvious answer was none.
Interesting that incinerators don’t burn hot enough to destroy flame retardant chemicals. So we’re breathing in these toxins on a daily basis, as are people around the country! So the flame retardants in last year’s fire would certainly have added to the health risk of people downwind. So very upsetting that the Environment Agency do not act in these awful circumstances. Thankyou for your comment Terry.
Further to the above two comments, I think that scientists specialising in air pollution will tell us that the incineration process actually creates an unpredictable and lethal cocktail of chemical combinations and compounds, some of which have never been created before. We rely on the earth’s atmosphere and seas to miraculously dliute these horrible susbtances and gases, and render them harmless. Of course, once created, many of these things stay in the environment for thousands of years, in the process, causing unwanted effects on animal and human life, fertility included.
If we as a society, only used biodegradeable materials or materials that are recycleable without causing pollution in the process, such as sofas and mattresses, the amount of stuff getting burned would go down. Stuffing for sofas, and PVC sofas ? Melamine and chipboard furniture? We need the UK government to sponsor leading universities and their materials scientists to come up with modern options for such things.
Couldn’t agree more Lewis. We still have just as much plastic packaging on our goods and too much toxic and unrecyclable waste. Good idea to commission universities to work on that. But I think we have the answers already. We need a circular economy. That would increase employment opportunities while reducing pollution.