Lessons were learnt from the waste station fire in Hollingdean – but residents want the depot moved.
At a public meeting last night (Wednesday 26 February) for people living near the Veolia waste transfer station, in Upper Hollingdean Road, residents raised their concerns about the location after years of campaigning.
About 20 people from the area attended the meeting at Downs Infant School to discuss the impact of the fire on Sunday 25 August last year.
Hollingdean Residents Association secretary Ian Beck praised the fire service and criticised the site location as people in his area had suffered breathing problems after the fire.
He said: “It’s in the wrong place. There should be sprinkler systems to try to stop these fires before it gets to this stage.
“Seventeen years ago we argued against this site opening. We had 17,000 signatures to state that the transfer depot is in the wrong place. We were totally ignored.
“What we feared would happen has happened. That depot should not be next to a built up area.”
Rachel Attwell, a former governor at Downs Infant School who campaigned against the site, said that public meetings against it were so full that they could not fit everfyone in the school hall, such was the strength of feeling.
She said: “We were promised a state-of-the-art facility. We were promised our fears about fire and smell and noise were completely unfounded.
“That is what we were promised. By the council, by Veolia, by environmental health. It’s there. There’s nothing we can do about it.
“We have not got a state-of-the-art facility. You’ve had to make improvements. Why the hell weren’t those improvements there at the start?”
Councillor Pete West, who speaks for the Greens on the Environment, Transport and Sustainability Committee as well as representing the Round Hill area in St Peter’s and North Laine ward, said that the public were assured about the safety of the site in the past when they had to accept it.
To applause from the audience, he said: “It is important we look at the past because assurances were made and they have not been kept.
“The odour is a horrendous problem. The odour issues shows how much of a failure it has been to live up to the expectations.
“To be fair to Veolia, they have tried to stop that odour but at no point have they been successful.
“We’ve had residents filling in logs and telling the Environment Agency and Veolia about it and we’ve got nowhere.
“The reason we have got nowhere is because that building is not fit for purpose.”
He said that no one knows what goes into the litter bins and that it was disingenuous to say that the fumes from the fire were not toxic.
Councillor West said that the incinerator in Newhaven burnt waste in controlled conditions because of the unknown elements in burning rubbish.
Veolia’s general manager Allan Key told the meeting that a new more sensitive alarm system was now in place.
Mr Key said that the high ceilings in the waste transfer station meant that alarms went off at 10.49pm, 12 minutes after the first flare was caught on CCTV and more than half an hour after the first hot spot appeared at 10.16pm.
Once the alarms went off, firefighters were at the scene to tackle the blaze within eight or nine minutes.
Mr Key said: “In terms of the regulations and guidance that apply to waste transfer stations, the fire system we had in there was deemed appropriate system at the time.
“Obviously since the fire, we have reviewed that.”
He also said that Veolia was looking into installing sprinklers at the site by June.
Material recovery facility manager Steve Usher said that the changes made to the site, including changes to create more bay walls inside the building to compartmentalise the waste.
A new quarantine bay with fire retardant walls had also been built to improve on the existing quarantine area for potentially risky loads.
There was criticism about the lack of communication during and after the fire from Brighton and Hove City Council which had published much of the information on social media.
One resident told the panel at Downs Infant School that many older people did not have access to social media.
The council’s executive director for the economy, environment and culture Nick Hibberd said that the lessons were learnt quickly and used as part of the emergency response to the fire in flats at Pankhurst Avenue on Friday 20 September.
He said: “We did change the way we responded to those residents to make sure we were communicating with them quickly by different means and more regularly.
“We could have been a bit quicker but we want to make sure the information is correct.
“We know for council tenants there are other means to communicate with you.
“We could have put posters up and used text messaging – and those sorts of lessons we have committed to doing better.”
Upper Hollingdean Road resident Robert Deas said that people who lived in the local area had their domestic fire alarms set off due to the smoke.
Mr Hibberd that the depot fire happened on a hot night during the August bank holiday weekend and many people had had their windows open.
He added: “In that context it must have quite anxious for people to wake up to smoke.
“This is what we have been looking at – what we could have done differently with communications.”
Mr Hibberd said that knocking on doors was not possible but the possibility of a siren could be considered.
East Sussex Fire and Rescue business safety manager Andrew Gausden said that firefighters cut their way into the site as the information about where the keys and risk information was stored was mislabelled in their own systems.
He said: “It did not delay our entry because we just cut the lock off.
“If we’d had that risk information, we would have unlocked the gate rather than chop the lock off.
“We got on to the site and quickly made an attack on the fire.”
He told the gathering a fire safety assessment two months before the fire found it to be “fully compliant”.
Since the fire, East Sussex Fire and Rescue has now trained specialist tactical advisers for refuse and rubbish fires.
Roundhill Society chair Miriam Stephens asked about a review of the waste transfer station location and was told that it would be carried out this calendar year.
She asked about food waste collections and said: “The one thing that is the bane of my life is the smell.
“It’s just horrific. I live a kilometre from it and it’s just not fit for purpose.”
She strongly requested the council not to consider Hollingdean as a suitable location.
Mr Hibberd said that the government was currently considering a bill on food collections and the council’s corporate plan also commits to bringing in food waste collections in the future.