Something still stinks over Viridor’s Beddington Lane fire

CROYDON COMMENTARY: More than a year after the major fire at Viridor’s Beddington Lane incinerator plant, and the South London Waste Partnership – which is supposed to represent the public interest in four boroughs – is finally to discuss the incident this week. Only public pressure forced the SLWP to include the official Fire Brigade’s report among the agenda papers. Public questions will be strictly limited, and controlled.
Here DAN MAERTENS, pictured right, offers the incinerator apologists the benefit of his experience and expertise

The report is out!

No, not the Russia report, but the report into the fire at Beddington incinerator on July 11, 2019.

And I have to say that it poses more questions than it answers.

From the outset, as a Croydon resident, I was concerned that building a waste incinerator next to the most populous south London borough maybe wasn’t the best idea.

Last year’s fire showed how the incinerator puts at risk the Beddington Farmlands nature reserve

That focus now has to be directed to ensure that the facility is operated safely, responsibly and effectively, with due regard to the health and wellbeing of those living in close proximity, downwind (as I and my family do) and who may be affected by its emissions, as well as the environmentally sensitive receptors at the nearby Beddington Farmlands.

The report (which is contained within the agenda papers pack and can be viewed here) comprises a four-page overview to the South London Waste Partnership committee (which is meeting in Kingston on July 23), a one-page summary from the London Fire Brigade, two Environment Agency EPR – Environmental Permitting Regulations – compliance assessment reports (issued on September 30 2019 and March 4 2020 respectively), and Viridor’s own, long-delayed, 10-page incident report, including recommendations.

That there was a serious fire on site is no longer a matter of any dispute (though Viridor and Sutton Council had attempted, on the day of the fire and for many weeks afterwards, to claim that it was only a minor incident).

The report confirms most of the detail: fire was first noticed at or around 10.18 on the morning of the July 11 last year in one of the waste transfer station tunnels (either 2 or 3 – the report does not specify which) that were being used to store waste for shredding before being loaded into the incinerator. The fire quickly spread to the adjacent tunnel (2 or 3?).

As the name suggests the “tunnels” are roofed with plastic or fabric covering a steel frame. The fire destroyed the roofs and raged for hours with the burning waste in Tunnel 2 starting to be removed at 2.20pm before the fire was brought under control by the Fire Brigade, according to their summary report at or around 7.24pm.

‘Significant’ or ‘Major’, and a case for the HSE

In their report, Viridor have decided to classify the fire as a “significant incident” – one that falls short of being classified as “major incident” which would require it to be reported to the Health and Safety Executive as a “Dangerous Occurrence” (under RIDDOR 2013 – the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations).

For a fire to be reportable under Schedule 2.2.25 it would have to “result(s) in the stoppage of that plant, or the suspension of normal work in those premises, for more than 24 hours”. Obviously the whole of the Beddington facility was not out of action for 24 hours or more, nor was the waste transfer station, but “the premises” – the twin tunnels whose roof structures were completely burnt out – were. The Fire Brigade took photographs on July 12 that proves it.

The report doesn’t mention when the waste tunnels were returned to service, with or without their roof structures, as the Viridor “timeline” stops on the day of the incident  – conveniently.

The question that needs to be asked is when was the waste transfer station fully back in operation?

The fire destroyed two waste sorting tunnels – enough for the HSE to become involved. SLWP needs to determine when they were operational again

The incident could also be classified as a dangerous occurrence under a different part of the same RIDDOR regulations – Schedule 2.2.27 – as “Hazardous escapes of substances”.

This would be an “unintentional release or escape of any substance which could cause personal injury to any person other than through the combustion of flammable liquids or gases”.

What we know about the fire is that it resulted in the release of large quantities of potentially toxic smoke from combustion of solid waste (mainly mattresses and sofas). The guidance to the RIDDOR 2013 regulations explains “… most incidents require judgement. Various factors are relevant including: the nature of the substance and its chemical, physical and toxicological properties, the amount which escaped and its dispersal, and whether people were, or could foreseeably have been, exposed to a significant risk as a consequence of the escape”.

You can probably remember the clouds of thick black smoke. Have a look at the images from the blaze and decide for yourself whether it meets the terms of the HSE’s guidance.

Tellingly, on the day, Viridor failed to advise affected premises and households to close windows – should they have done so, something that Viridor suggested later could be improved in the event of a repeat incident?

Or would that be evidence that the smoke released as a consequence of the fire “could cause personal injury”, particularly to those with impaired respiratory function, and should then by direct inference have been reported to the HSE? Maybe those affected by the smoke from the blaze have a view?

Indeed, the report suggests that the people who were affected do have a view:

“…following feedback from members of the community liaison group, there was positive confirmation that the email to stakeholders in the early moments of the event was helpful to establish the situation, along with subsequent updates. However, there has been feedback focusing on the subjectivity of the scale of the fire, along with commentary that for any future events more detail reassuring members of the community around the potential health impacts of the fire would be appreciated, for example ‘residents near to the site should keep windows closed’.”

Breaking the Environment Agency permit rules

So why did the fire occur where it did?

According to the Fire Brigade’s report, the cause is unknown. However, the activity that gave rise to it was in breach of the Environment Agency permit for the waste transfer station. Under its EA permit, the waste transfer station is to store waste for recycling, not to store waste for burning in the incinerator (what Viridor and their apologists continue to call an “ERF”, or Energy from Waste Facility).

By Viridor’s own admission:

“At the time of the fire Tunnels 2 & 3 were being used to complete residual bulky waste inspections of incoming material for the ERF and to store larger ‘bulky waste’ such as sofas and mattresses which require shredding before being processed in the ERF.”

This LFB image taken at the scene shows some of the 100 tons of mattresses and other waste that fuelled the nine-hour Beddington blaze

A cynic could argue that had Viridor not stored this type of flammable waste in the part of the waste transfer facility, in a clear breach of their environmental permit, then the fire would not have occurred, at least not in the location that it did and with a different potential to spread, particularly if storage at alternative locations follow waste industry guidance for limiting the size and routine checking of loose stockpiles.

Interestingly, the report also states that the waste transfer station (or WTS in officialspeak):

“… holds a valid Fire Risk Assessment, which is reviewed annually, noting management processes and mitigation measures for managing risks of fire at the site. There was no requirement under the permit for the WTS to have fire supression [sic] systems”

and:

“the Beddington WTS held a valid Fire Risk Assessment and operational management procedures for activities under its environmental permit”.

By “fire suppression systems” here, we’re talking about sprinklers. You might expect there to be some on the site where materials destined for an incinerator are being stored. There were no sprinklers fitted at the waste transfer station.

There wouldn’t necessarily be a need for “fire suppression facilities” for the storage and processing of materials for recycling. But shredding non-recyclable waste material for incineration would, in my view, have prompted at least a review of the fire risk assessment before that activity was commenced.

The day after the fire: an LFB image shows the damage done by the fire. These waste sorting tunnels were not operational again within 24 hours

But as we know, the activities being undertaken in the waste transfer station at the time of the fire were not in accordance with the environmental permit.

So what’s the get out?

“Viridor was obliged to notify its environmental regulator, the Environment Agency, ahead of any change of use to the WTS,” according to the report. And “Viridor verbally notified the Environment Agency in advance of initiating residual bulky waste reception during a previous EA site visit.” Though we only have Viridor’s word for that. There is no written record of any such notification.

If this was true, why was the “verbal notification” never followed up in writing? And why is this contention not supported by the Environment Agency in their EPR Compliance Assessment Report ID: 83441/0341154:

Permit Breach – we believe that the operation to assess the ERF waste stream in this location is a breach of permit condition 2.1.(a) – permitted activities – specified by permit.

Maintaining and complying with an environmental permit is an essential part of Viridor’s “duty of care”. It is a breach of regulation 38(1)(b) of the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016: “Knowingly cause or knowingly permit the operation of a regulated facility or carrying on a waste operation… except under and to the extent authorised by an environmental permit.”

Are we seriously to believe that no one with responsibility for the waste operations at the Beddington waste transfer facility knows what the process is for varying an environmental permit, and that any change to an existing permit has to be accepted by the EA before the activity to which it relates commences? I don’t think so.

What the Environment Agency says about changes of use and permits. Viridor never applied in writing to change the use of its waste sorting tunnels

Here’s a clue Viridor: just type “vary environmental permit UK” into the search engine of one of your £4.2billion company’s computers and with a couple of clicks of the mouse, you’ll have the forms that you need up on screen in no time. For everyone else please, remember that the SLWP and Croydon Council will be in bed with these guys for the long haul.

What could have prevented the fire?

Here, things get a little more complicated. But a clue is in the report which states:

“as part of the review of this incident, going forward it has been decided that the residual and bulky waste stockpiles will be removed from the [waste transfer station] at the end of each day to minimise the build-up of material. This material should be moved to the pre-treatment building within the [incinerator] complex or transferred offsite to an appropriate, licensed facility if the shredder is unavailable. If, for any reason, material must be left in the [waste transfer station] at the end of a day, this material will be thermally inspected throughout the storage period.”

What the report doesn’t detail is what “thermal inspection” systems had already been put in place – shown in the report recommendations as “Complete – July 2019”.

The fire at Beddington could be seen from Croydon and across south London last July

Thankfully there is plenty of industry guidance to turn to, including the second edition of WISH – the Waste Industry Safety and Health Forum – Reducing Fire Risk at Waste Management Sites.

It advises “to respond to a fire you first need to know that a fire may have started, or may be about to start. Unless you have employees in every part of your site/plant 24/7 all dedicated to watching for fires, detection systems are likely to be required.”

Look again at the last line of the report extract in the paragraph above – “If … material must be left in the [waste transfer station] at the end of a day …. (it) will be thermally inspected throughout the storage period”.

This suggests some form of sensing system, but doesn’t identify if this will be in conjunction with any other type of fire suppression systems, so that they are not reliant on “a worker with a fire extinguisher” next time around.

And what of any changes to fire risk assessment and fire response strategy for the facility?

Until more is disclosed about the fire prevention arrangements, I’m afraid that the report as presented by Viridor falls some way short of what is required to provide the necessary assurance to the SLWP that the facility is capable of being properly managed by Viridor.

My personal view is that Viridor have been given an easy ride by their regulator, the Environment Agency. The EPR Compliance Assessment Report dated September 30 assessed the storage of waste not in accordance with the permit conditions as a “non-compliance which could have had a minor environmental impact”. This may be true, but as a consequence of storing and sorting the waste, Viridor’s actions did have an environmental impact (the fire and the resulting pollution), and the effect was significant, not minor.

I’ll explain, adding italics for emphasis.

The protocol that the Environment Agency uses for reaching a determination says:

8.2.2 Minor breach “We will normally choose to give advice and guidance to help bring a business back into compliance where a minor breach has been committed. We consider a minor breach to be where there is no impact on the environment.”

This is at odds with the regulatory guidance for EPR Compliance Assessment Reporting:

Principle 6: assess the category of non-compliance – There are 4 risk categories of non-compliance.
Risk category 1 non-compliances score 60 points. They are associated with a major impact on human health, quality of life or the environment.
Risk category 2 non-compliances score 31 points. They are associated with a significant impact on human health, quality of life or the environment.
Risk category 3 non-compliances score 4 points. They are associated with a minor impact on human health, quality of life or the environment.
Risk category 4 non-compliances score 0.1 points. They are associated with no impact on human health, quality of life or the environment.

The risk category and score we give is usually the most severe non-compliance we have identified.

Duration of impact – If there is a link between duration and exposure, then we take into account the length of a continuing non-compliance when we determine the risk category and score. This is because the duration may increase the reasonably foreseeable impact. Or in the case of amenity conditions, the actual impact.

For example, if a fire occurs which cannot be extinguished within 4 hours and as a result people in the local community are exposed to toxic smoke. We would assess this as at least a risk category 2, or significant breach, under the relevant permit condition and appropriate sub-criteria on the CAR form. We would award this a score of 31 points for a category 2 or 60 points for a category 1.”

It is not known whether the Environment Agency is considering any further sanction for Viridor over the Beddington fire. It could be quite some time before we find out. It seems unlikely that the SLWP, or the councils it represents – Kingston, Merton, Sutton and Croydon – will be lobbying the Environment Agency to be more strict with a contractor who is being paid at least £10million a year by each of the four local authorities.

For more on this subject: Cancer warning over radioactive waste plans for incinerator

  • Dan Maertens lives in Addiscombe. He works as an advisor to corporate clients, following a 30-year career in construction and civil engineering, including environmental and health and safety audit and compliance roles
  • Croydon Commentary is a platform for all our readers to off their personal views about what matters to them in and around the borough. To submit an article for publication, just email us at inside.croydon@btinternet.com, or post your comment to an Inside Croydon article that has caught your attention

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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 inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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2 Responses to Something still stinks over Viridor’s Beddington Lane fire

  1. Jim Duffy says:

    Spot on, as usual Inside Croydon!

    As a member of the South West London Air Quality Monitoring Group, I have been following this incident from the beginning and your article matches everything I’ve seen and read.

    I would add that a local architect had said he’s concerned by the safety factors in the design and maintenance of the waste transfer building which STILL has no fire alarm, sprinkler system or crucially no partitioning to prevent fires from spreading to adjacent buildings.

    Also the London Fire Brigade Investigation Report had a very narrow scope which excluded looking at the Fire Risk Assessment or Fire Safety. This seems wrong, to say the least.

    All requests to view the required Fire Risk Assessment for the burnt building have come to nothing. Which is also extremely concerning.

  2. Lewis White says:

    Excellent article from Dan Maertens. It begs many questions about the seriusness of the oversight of both Environment Agency and South West London Waste Partnership, and their relationship with Viridor.

    Who is managing whom ?. Toothless watchdogs should either get a set of teeth, or replaced by someone who does.

    The photos in the article speak volumes. The one of the smoke plume shows how close the plant is to the tower blocks of Croydon, where thousands of people are living, right at the level where the smoke drifts sideways. This is why the air in the town centre often stinks of burning plastic.

    If the plant is burning properly, the smoke is still there, just a lighter, less visible colour of grey.

    The LFB photo should bring home an uncomfortable truth. We, the people, have bought and thrown away the stuff in the huge heap of “unrecyclables”.

    My simple point is this………….. if we can’t buy it, ( the unrecyclable mattress or what ever) we can’t throw it away, and it won’t have to be burned.

    Everything we buy needs to be be recyclable –and then needs to be recycled. Then there is no need to burn it.

    To make a less polluted post covid future, Government will have to suppress their laissez-faire attitudes, and set up some product approval scheme that stops the manufacture and importation of such products that can’t be recycled, so get burned, then affecting our health. If it can be done with lead in petrol, and in paint, it can be done with mattresses and plastics.

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