A report by campaigners has called for an overhaul of waste storage regulation after claiming that action taken by the Environment Agency (EA) and fire services to deal with a Kidderminster recycling plant fire was inadequate.
It criticised the Government’s ‘light touch’ approach to regulation and said: “The effectiveness of the EA in monitoring waste companies is questionable when considering the consistently high levels of fires at regulated sites.”
Campaigners also questioned cuts to fire services budgets that could lead to fewer inspectors examining waste management facilities. The report called for a “review and strengthening” of existing legislation governing waste storage.
The blaze at Lawrence Recycling broke out on 16 June 2013 within bales of refuse derived fuel (RDF) and it took seven and half weeks for it to be extinguished. There were reports of people suffering respiratory and eye problems and garden plants and pond fish dying in the aftermath.
Stephen Brown, of Wyre Forest Green Party, and Phillip Oliver, of Wyre Forest Friends of the Earth, wrote a report on the fire and presented their findings to local MP Mark Garnier.
The report warned that an increase in storage of RDF, in order to supply overseas energy-from-waste markets, added to the risk of fire breaking out.
It said: “Two factors have led to the present situation. The Environment Agency has been blamed for delays in issuing of export permits.
“More significantly, some exporters of RDF have been storing the material until the value of the Euro is at the most advantageous price.”
It also warned fire services will have to reduce their budgets by around 30% by 2017/18, leading to a possible reduction in staffing of about 40%.
It said: “Fire safety inspectors have been reported to be on the list of redundancies. This raises serious concerns that a reduction in inspections will lead to more fires at waste processors.”
The campaigners added: “The decision to allow the [Lawrence Recycling] fire to continue burning was based purely on avoiding costs and not for health and wellbeing grounds of local residents and businesses.”
They added that this was “due to the lack of an effective decision making process within the agencies involved”.
The report claims that as a result the costs of putting out the fire escalated and caused severe inconvenience to local business. It also questioned communications to residents over the potential health impacts of the fire.
“The fire and its effects shows how unprepared the various agencies were for dealing with this type of fire,” they said. The EA has been asked by MRW for a response.
Following the fire, Garnier gave a keynote address to the Fire Futures Forum on waste fires, an event held in November last year between the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA), waste industry members, Defra, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the EA.
He told MRW he agreed there was poor communication of the potential health impacts of the fire and that advice given to the recycling industry was “not in layman’s terms”.
However, he did not agree that the agencies involved were unprepared to deal with the Kidderminster fire.
“An emergency is just that – unforeseen and dramatic. Assessing the situation is part of what goes on and in a huge fire I can easily see that there are large numbers of variables that need dealing with, such as water run-off and collapsing buildings.”
Friends of the Earth’s Oliver told MRW the report findings related to the whole waste industry and he cited cuts in fire services as a major issue.
A report of the Fire Futures Forum event, issued in March, set out a ‘roadmap’ for industry and fire services to help reduce the number of fires.
But Simon Jenkins, product manager for smoke detection company FireVu, told MRW although the report recommended setting up an industry code of practice it did not go far enough. He said there was an argument for “strong precise mandatory measures” and that it was an “incredible omission” that legislation was hardly discussed by the forum.
He added: “If the self-regulation approach does not work we will have to face harder decisions sooner or later. It would be better if those decisions are made sooner.”
Extract from Mark Garnier’s keynote address to the CFOA’s Fire Futures Forum on waste management facility fires:
I was pleased to note that the Environment Agency has written to some 8,000 UK Waste Recycling Centres, with a range of ideas on how to prevent fires and reduce their impact; however it strikes me that his guidance seems a tad simplistic and limited purely to advice?
There seems to be a number of difficult questions that I feel could and should be addressed by law makers and I would therefore like to be in a position, at the end of this forum, to present the House with those questions alongside some possible answers.
The economics of running a recycling centre appear to incentivise the on-site storage of waste products – a waste depositor pays to drop it off and whilst there is a cash value to the recycled product, there is also a cost of residual waste going to landfill.
Therefore, does this cash flow incentive drive large accumulations of waste and in so doing increase the risk of fire? - Can legislators change the payments process to drive earlier removal of waste and in so doing accelerate the process of transmission through recycling centres?
Similarly, if there are limits on how long certain types of waste can be stored at any given centre - is the process of enforcement sufficient to ensure that the time limits are adhered to? And - what is the process of enforcement and is it sufficient across the whole range of measures and licensing?