A decade too late, even Sutton’s LibDems now turn on Viridor

No one wants the polluting Beddington incinerator to be allowed to increase its capacity for burning rubbish. So why is the Environment Agency ‘minded’ to approve the application? STEVEN DOWNES reports

Pollution plant: Viridor cannot manage its Beddington plant at its current capacity. So how can they be trusted to handle 10% more ‘fuel’

Tomorrow is the final day for submissions in a public consultation being run by the Environment Agency, surely the gummiest of toothless watchdogs.

Even before this stage of the consultation began, the EA said that “it is minded” to grant an application from Viridor to increase the burning capacity at their polluting incinerator on Beddington Lane, despite the plant breaking its existing licence conditions on more than 40 occasions over the course of the last couple of years.

In one episode in 2022, the incinerator went more than seven times over internationally recommended emissions levels for hydrogen chloride. Hydrogen chloride is the chemical normally used in the production of potentially deadly hydrochloric acid.

Viridor’s latest application to increase their capacity would allow the Beddington incinerator to burn close to double what the company’s clients – Croydon and three other south London boroughs – ever asked for.

Matters have become so bad with the Beddington incinerator that even Viridor’s enablers, the Liberal Democrats who control Sutton Council, have belatedly been raising objections, and have appealed to the EA to extend its consultation deadline. Holding a consultation, even for six weeks, during the peak of the summer holiday season is liable to be regarded, with some justification, as being a bit of a stitch-up.

The incinerator was built close to the Sutton-Croydon boundary and became operational in 2019 to service a £1billion, 25-year contract with the South London Waste Partnership, an arm’s-length, unaccountable quango established by Kingston, Merton, Sutton and Croydon to handle their boroughs’ rubbish.

Prescient: environment activist Gordon Ross created this illustration at the beginning of the campaign against the Beddington incinerator more than a decade ago. It has all been shown to be completely accurate

But burning other people’s crap is now such a lucrative business for Viridor and their US-based owners, global investment company KKR, that they want to truck in ever more rubbish from across southern England to increase their profits, and the volume of toxic pollution pumped into the atmosphere across south London.

SLWP had originally wanted a rubbish-burning facility capable of handling 200,000 tonnes of waste each year. Viridor insisted on upping that straight away, getting its initial licence a decade ago for 302,500 tonnes per year.

Bit-by-bit, Viridor have increased their capacity over the years: their latest 10per cent licence capacity increase if permitted by the EA would see them burning 382,286 tonnes every year.

Only Viridor wants the capacity increased. All four boroughs in the SLWP, including Croydon, have objected, as has the SLWP itself, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, the London Assembly, Elliot Colburn, the Tory MP for Carshalton and Wallington, various community groups and more than 500 local residents.

Less than green: LibDem councillor Barry Lewis

Barry “Biggles” Lewis, the sometime pilot and LibDem councillor who is supposedly in charge of Sutton’s contradictory stance on the incinerator, wrote to the EA to request a meeting “to understand why they are minded to issue the permit variation, despite significant local and regional opposition”.

Lewis wrote earlier this month, “There is no valid reason or democratic consent for this expansion whatsoever and the Environment Agency looks set to put Viridor’s commercial interests ahead of the wishes of the local community, with a complete disregard for the impact it will have on their lives and well-being.” If only he and his party’s leadership had woken up to such concerns 10 years ago…

It’s not just the whiff of toxic materials being burned that you can smell when downwind of Sutton’s Civic Centre. There’s the stench of LibDem hypocrisy, too.

Viridor’s latest application was undoubtedly emboldened by the LibDems pushing through a planning application to allow the polluters to increase storage capacity at Beddington for high-sulphur fuel on the site – over-ruling opposition from the Tories, Labour and independent councillors, some of whom predicted, accurately, that this was merely a precursor to Viridor looking to increase the incinerator’s operational capacity.

Some old habits never change. Lewis and his LibDem apologists for incineration still refer to the Beddington plant as an ERF – an energy recovery facility – even though the planned link-up with a local heat network, powered by the incinerator furnace, has never been completed, at massive cost to the Council Tax-payers of Sutton.

Most normal people call the incinerator an… incinerator.

Among some of the objections already lodged with the EA and published anonymously on its website, the comments include: “Enough is enough! This site should have never been built and most certainly not burn such waste as to cause serious air pollution over such a large residential area.”

Then there’s this: “I steadfastly oppose Viridor’s application to change its permit relating to the amount of waste that is burnt at the Beddington incinerator. I as a resident and a parent do not want the extra pollution that’ll be generated by the additional burning of waste and extra vehicles on the road.

“That this is being considered at all is shambolic.” That’s the EA they are talking about there…

And there’s this: “I am totally opposed to the increase in volume for the Beddington incinerator. The incinerator regularly emits toxic gases which is unacceptable.

“There has been a huge increase in… lorries transporting the waste to the incinerator which only adds to toxic fumes in the local area, which is contrary to all efforts to reduce these due to the climate emergency.

“I urge the Environment Agency to refuse this application.”

Having the incinerator operating has had a damaging effect on the environment in other, less obvious, ways too, with recycling rates at all four SLWP boroughs dropping since the incinerator fired up its furnaces.

Sutton LibDems had set a recycling target of 70per cent of household waste by 2025. Since 2020, Sutton’s recycling rate has fallen from 50per cent to 39per cent.

Dodgy: Ruth Dombey, the LibDem council leader, has spent a decade supporting Viridor and its polluting incinerator

And Lewis and his boss, Sutton council leader Ruth Dombey – one of the prime movers to get Viridor to operate in her borough – have faced awkward questions of late about why they have suppressed an important report on the health effects of the incinerator, which the council commissioned last December.

With no immediate response from the EA to Lewis’s request to extend the consultation deadline, anyone wishing to lodge an objection had best get a wiggle on. It’s not as if there are not plenty of valid grounds to raise.

For a start, there is no need for any more incineration capacity in south London or in the region as a whole, an argument that is as valid today as it was in 2014, when the LibDems were ushering Viridor towards Beddington.

Then there’s the evidenced reservations about Viridor’s inability to manage the Beddington plant properly even at its existing capacity. “This has been exemplified in a high number of recent emissions exceedances,” Lewis wrote recently. “The site also has limited bunker capacity for the size of the facility.”

Local roads, which include the always busy A23 Purley Way and the residential streets around Waddon and Broad Green in Croydon, struggle to cope with the increased traffic caused by lorries trucking in rubbish and leaving full of the incinerator’s ash by-product.

“Road transport is one of the principal contributors to poor air quality and residents understandably are concerned about the impact on the local area,” Lewis wrote, regurgitating complaints from the incinerator’s opponents which Sutton’s LibDems managed to ignore for 10 years.

Lewis also states that the Environment Agency has “failed to adequately resolve concerns raised during the first consultation”.

If you want to raise any of these matters with the Environment Agency (slogan: “We Asked, You Said, We Did”. Apparently seriously), their consultation page can be found by clicking here.

Read more: Viridor incinerator fined for multiple pollution permit breaches
Read more: ‘People will die’: Dombey accused of Viridor ‘Faustian pact’
Read more: Viridor incinerator breaks its toxic VOC permit for 40th time
Read more:
Viridor breaking rules over incinerator’s pollution reports
Read more: Drage-Net: Complaint filed to police over incinerator lobbying

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7 Responses to A decade too late, even Sutton’s LibDems now turn on Viridor

  1. The Conservatives, who happily let water companies pour raw sewage into our rivers and onto our beaches, and are condoning criminal damage in support of their opposition to the ULEZ applying to the whole of London, are not going to let mere public opinion and scientific evidence stand in the way of Viridor’s expansion plans

    • Mark Gale says:

      The Environmental Consultants that Viridor have used to back up claims that burning more isn’t bad for everyone’s health has their office located next to the (I’m not making this up!) River Piddle, a report that the useless Environment Agency has read and has no problems with. Not sure how far down River Piddle Shit Creek actually is but I think the Government has managed to ban any paddle.

  2. chris myers says:

    We can thank the EU and their ‘Landfill Directive’ of 2020 for the incinerator boom. Sadly there is nom other practical way of getting rid of all the rubbish we produce other than incineration. It’s been proved to be as safe as it can be if done responsibly and, clearly, Viridor have shown themselves incapable of doing that..

    • Er, no.

      The Landfill Directive of 26 April 1999 was to be implemented by EU Member States by 16 July 2001.

      Directive (EU) 2018/850 amended the 1999 directive with effect from 5 July 2020.

      Britain left the EU on 31 January 2020.

      The best way to get rid of all the rubbish forced upon us by the packaging, manufacturing, retailing and food industries is to take steps to force them to own their waste.

      For example, we used to have returnable glass bottles in this country where there was a financial incentive to take them back. Now we have streets littered with discarded single use plastic containers, which we have to pay to clean up

    • “Incineration is the only solution” is not even anything that the professional PR shills working for Viridor would dare try to get away with

  3. Jim Duffy says:

    The government recently brought in a law called ‘Growth Duty’ which compels regulators to support the economic growth of industries they regulate. An extension of the Deregulation Act, it hampers regulators who otherwise might impose fines eg for pollution. So which EA manager is going to lose their job by stopping Viridor’s expansion?

  4. Gavin Palmer says:

    Would the agency government employees and regulators be liable for misconduct in public office and become criminally liable with costs , damages and incarceration?

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