Why I launched a legal challenge against the incinerator

By - Wednesday 12th February, 2014

In an in-depth report, Croydon’s ‘Green Knight’ explains why he feels the planned Beddington Lane incinerator is an unacceptable threat to Croydonians’ health

In the summer of 2008, I contributed to a 5,000 word document submitted to the first public consultation organised by the South London Waste Partnership, made up of the councils of Croydon, Sutton Kingston and Merton.

In May 2013 Sutton Council’s Development Control Committee approved application D2012/66220. The application has been described, throughout a lengthy planning process, as an Energy Recovery Facility. The reality is that the facility is an incinerator. The successful contractor, Viridor, through a questionable procurement process, has received a permit to incinerate from the Environmental Agency (EA). It is important to note that officers from this government quango are unequivocal in the type of permit required. The facility will burn domestic, commercial and industrial waste from the four aforementioned councils, and beyond, on Beddington Farmlands.

In between the summer of 2008 and January 2014, I had (is have more appropriate) spent much of my available activist time trying to stop the incinerator on Beddington Farmlands from starting. Peculiarly, despite having a sense with my colleagues in the Green Party that Beddington was a likely location for the incinerator, I had never actually visited the site. This is unsurprising because the 400-acre site, owned by Thames Water, does not have public access.

There are individuals who do own a much sought after key to the site, and they belong to the Beddington Farmlands Birdgroup. It was through an invitation from the birdgroup that coincided with a visit from BBC birding expert, David Lindo – known as The Urban Birder – that I finally had the chance to make a pilgrimage to the holy land. I use the words ‘holy land’ unreservedly because those of us who went along to the site last month, for the first time, have spent an unhealthy amount of time fighting the incinerator. You could argue our efforts have been at times close to a religious devotion.

The incinerator has enough capacity to burn 302,000 tonnes of domestic, commercial and industrial waste a year, and a 25 year contract has been signed between the South London Waste Partnership and Viridor to send their waste to this facility.

Shasha signing the papers for the legal challenge, with Sue Willman (left)

On Monday January 6th, I signed a ‘Conditional Fee Agreement’ with Central London solicitors Deighton Pierce Glynn to challenge the way the decision to approve the incinerator was taken through judicial review.

Application D2012/662200 is not wanted nor needed. In 2011, at the end of the South London Waste Partnership’s consultation, I blogged ten reasons why the planned incinerator should be stopped. Even in 2011, there was no official mention of an incinerator and Beddington Farmlands was one of dozens of potential sites. Reading back that top ten is like reviewing the top ten films or chart singles from 2011. Some of the ten selections appear less relevant, almost outdated and are easily replaced by more current and anthemic reasons that will stand the test of time. Below are my current top reasons:

The first thing to note is that not all the waste is broken down into gases and emitted via the chimneys. Around 75,000 tonnes a year, or 28% of what goes into the furnace, remains as toxic ash and this has to be taken away to be managed further. 10,000 tonnes of this waste is considered extremely hazardous and has to be transported 285km to Wingmoor Farm in Gloucestershire where it can be landfilled safely. Given that there will be already 55 truck journeys per hour bringing waste to the site, the pollution caused by truck journeys should be enough to consider a more sustainable local option.

Air pollution is a silent killer. A paper by the Health and Environment Committee at the London Assembly reported that up to 9% of deaths in London are caused by air pollution. The location for the incinerator is already an Air Quality Management Area. Emissions or pollutants from the chimney according to Viridor’s own Air Quality and Human Health Assessment report include: nitrogen oxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, arsenic, mercury, lead and carbon monoxide. This incinerator will have two 95m chimneys. Modern incinerators have scrubbers and bag filters in the chimneys that are supposed to neutralise and capture all hazardous emissions.

What is important to remember is that these emissions contain ultra-fine particles that are smaller in size and thus evade the most sophisticated filtration systems.  These ultra-fine particles, known as PM2.5, include toxins which cause cancer, strokes, asthma and heart disease. They are so small in diameter they can get into the bloodstream from the lung and even break the blood/brain barrier. Private Eye reported that the Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs had sixty-two PM2.5 Monitoring stations in the UK, but none of them are near incinerators. Additionally, the report in Private Eye confirms that the bag filters in the chimney are not effective and a whistleblower who works for private company testing PM2.5 said that if an incinerator fails safe PM2.5 emission levels, they “have no duty to report this to the Environment Agency”. The Health Protection Agency continues to maintain that modern incinerators cause “very little public health damage.” Many observers feel that with a massive EU fine looming for continuing to send waste to landfill, the government is financially relying on a stream of new incinerators to come online. In the USA, incinerators are required to continuously measure PM2.5 by law.

The site for the incinerator is Beddington Farmlands. Within the site is already a functioning waste management facility owned and run by Viridor. The principle method of disposing the waste on the site is by digging landfill cells. The rest of the Farmlands area is an urban nature reserve. 250 species of migrating birds and indigenous birds, including rare tree sparrows, can be found on the site. The site is Metropolitan Open Land and Site for Metropolitan Importance for Nature Conservation. Over 20 years ago the local people were promised that once the landfill license would expire in 2005 the space would be made available to the community as a country park. BBC wildlife and birdwatching expert, David Lindo, also known as The Urban Birder, states the site is London’s sleeping giant, and has the potential to be as popular as the London Wetlands Centre in Barnes. As a sweetener, sorry, I mean ‘mitigation’, Viridor has agreed to restore the country park in 2017, six years earlier. However, a country park with a health damaging incinerator belching harmful emissions in the middle of it is not what was promised to the community.

Councillors on the Development Control Committee were advised there was a “very strong business case” for Viridor to utilise the waste to heat a local estate. The message from both the council and Viridor that the waste heat would be used to heat a local estate was on heavy rotation. However, the incinerator application also said that the “delivery of heat to local homes cannot be guaranteed.” The cost of installing piping to heat local homes, running into millions of pounds, has always been prohibitive for energy from waste contractors. The Beddington Farmlands experience is not unique. Commissioned in 1994, the South East London Combined Heat and Power Plant (SELCHPP) is still to provide heat to local homes and there countless other examples.

The contract to incinerate waste lasts for 25 years. To date, the contract has not been made public due to commercial confidentiality. It is not clear what price per tonne of waste the four councils will pay. What is known is that the price for recycling waste has improved dramatically since 2011. Councils that signed contracts with companies that built materials recovery facilities (MRFs) actually received on average £26 per tonne rather than paying out! MRFs recover all the recyclables that end up going to black bin bags. It is important to note that this incinerator will burn recyclables. Examples across Europe show that incinerators stagnate recycling because you need to find the stock to feed the incinerators. Denmark is a prime example of having to burn recyclables. Germany has resorted to importing waste to meet their contractual obligations. The European Commission has warned the UK of overcapacity of incineration instead of reuse and recycling.

The whole process from start to finish has been an exercise in duping a vulnerable community into accepting a decision that only benefits big business and, in the short term, the local council. A flourishing democracy is reliant on the independence of the judiciary. Our solicitors state that there are “good grounds” for judicial review. The risk is that we, the people, will be priced out of justice. Readers can help us by donating towards the legal challenge via the www.stoptheincinerator.co.uk web site.

Shasha Khan

Shasha Khan

Shasha Khan, aged 41, resides in Selhurst with his wife and daughter. He has lived in the Thornton Heath area of Croydon for over 30 years. He is the co-leader of the Croydon Green Party. He has stood for the Green Party in Council, London, General and European elections. In the run up to the 2010 General Elections a reporter noticed he is always trying to save the people of Croydon from something. She dubbed him Croydon’s Green Knight, which has now been coined by other local journalists.

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  • Y Bachgen

    Well done to you. I think you’ve got more integrity than any of the other leaders of the local political parties. I wish you all the best.