Magazine Issue 8 - Spring 1999
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Noxious Emissions...

In February this year the DTI released a report entitled "The Competitiveness of the UK Waste Management Industry". It highlights a number of weaknesses in the £3.5 billion industry including inadequate education and training, a lack of innovation, and poor public perception. It is surprisingly quiet on reasons for the poor public's perception. The DTI might do well to send their researchers to Sarp UK's plant at Killarmarsh near Sheffield for first hand experience of waste management in action. Chris Grimshaw rakes over the muck.

Situated uncomfortably close to the local school and Rother Valley Country Park, the toxic waste reprocessing and incineration plant operated by Sarp UK Ltd has had a long history of leaks and noxious emissions. For years the plant has been a source of ill health and anxiety for the villagers, but their patience finally ran out in May of this year. In the early hours of the morning on May 14th a road tanker was offloading nitric and sulphuric acid delivered from Sarp's client British Aerospace. The tanker sprang a leak from its corroded valves releasing the highly poisonous chemicals into the open air. A plume of bright orange gas over 300 ft high drifted out from the plant and over Killarmarsh. “It just seemed to erupt from the plant,” said birdwatcher Mark Reeder, who was watching from the Rother Valley Park.

Police were rapidly mobilised to seal off the area and an evacuation was considered, and then rejected on the grounds of complexity. Using a loudhailer the police helicopter warned residents to stay inside and to avoid inhaling the gas. Luckily there were no fatalities. Immediate injuries were limited to sore throats and asthma, though in the long term no one can say what effects the gas may have.

Double Trouble
It was only two weeks later, on May 30th, even as Environment Agency inspectors were examining Sarp's operations, that a second very similar accident occurred. A storage tank on the site ruptured, leaking acids. Another orange cloud drifted slowly over the village and was carried by the wind as far as Sheffield.

Disturbingly, gate men refused the fire brigade immediate entry to the site, saying that the company's own internal operations had the emergency under control. The first fire engine to arrive at the scene had to wait for permission to enter. Sarp was unable to provide any convincing explanation for the hold up, putting it down to poor judgement on the part of the gate keepers.

A Troubled Past
These were not the first major accidents to occur at the plant. Leigh Environmental, the previous site operators, were no strangers to controversy. In 1986 thousands of aerosol cans exploded in a fire on site. The incident caused £150,000 worth of damage, and 16 people were rushed to hospital. Residents feared they were living next to a “time-bomb”.

In 1988 the toxic waste carrying cargo ship Karin B roamed Europe, searching for a port where it could offload its lethal cargo. It was Leigh that finally took pity on the Karin B and accepted the contract for disposing of the waste. Rumours persist that some of that waste ended up at Killarmarsh.

As Leigh Interests, its plant at Brownhills, Walsall, was renowned in the area for releasing noxious orange fumes day and night and causing asthma and other respiratory problems amongst the local population. Protesters against the site sometimes had to call off blockades of the gate, driven back by noxious gases. In October 1990, Leigh was found guilty of breaching its waste disposal license for the site. That same October a further leak occurred from an acid-filled tank at the company's plant in Caerleon, Gwent. 68 locals were evacuated from their homes as orange nitrous oxide fumes spewed from the plant.

Sarp UK Ltd came into being in January. After the successful takeover of the Leigh group of companies by Compagnie Generale des Eaux, The Leigh group was broken up and reformed. Sarp UK Ltd emerged as the UK arm of Generale des Eaux subsidiary, SARP Industries Inc. It works very closely with Onyx Leigh Environmental: together they operate Total Waste Management for corporate clients. Then on 15th May, the day after the first leak at Killarmarsh, Generale des Eaux changed its name to Vivendi. With its new name the corporation aimed to present itself as a progressive, green industry. Recently it has taken out full-page advertisements in the UK national press, in order to greenwash its image. The ads ask us to consider the absurd idea of a world without pollution - brought to us with the help of Vivendi.

The Locals Organise
In spite of the company's assurances that "safety is our number one priority at all times," residents have organised themselves under the name RASP (Residents Against Sarp Pollution) and are campaigning to have the plant shut down for good. The campaign has organised marches, pickets, site occupations, a 7000 signature petition, confrontations with the management, and has even taken its concerns directly to parent company Vivendi's headquarters in Paris. There is no sign of the campaign tiring. Indeed as the campaign grows and more attention is focused on the company, yet more incidents are coming to light.

Embarrassing Leaks
Further embarrassing emissions from Killarmarsh occurred in July when two separate leaks occurred. During one leak RASP protesters were forced to abandon their picket at the gate when foul-smelling fumes caused retching and nausea. The public announcement of these incidents was left to the Environment Agency, in spite of Sarp's earlier commitment to full public disclosure. The July incidents coincided with the visit of, environment minister, Michael Meacher. Mr Meacher claimed to take RASP's case very seriously and promised to be in touch. As yet he has failed to do so.

August brought the revelation that 184 drums of rocket fuel were being stored at the site. Although for safety reasons the highly inflammable fuel should be stored underwater, it emerged that the drums had been in dry storage since 1995. Dr John Dale warned: "It does not need a spark or a flame to ignite. It can be done by other chemicals including nitric acid - the one that escaped… recently". When one of the drums developed a leak later in the month management did not consider it necessary to inform residents.

Also in August, Yorkshire Water threatened to prosecute Sarp for excessive pollution of the sewers. Meanwhile Sarp's sister company Onyx Leigh Environmental, who operate a tip at the same site, offered a £100,000 donation to the parish in the same week that an unmarked package from the plant leaked hazardous waste in the back of a TNT courier van. On August 11th the A1 had to be closed for several hours at the Lincolnshire/ Nottinghamshire border, due to leaks from one of Sarp's road tankers.

Shut it for Good
All operations at the plant were shut down after the second gas leak. However only the acid treatment process is to remain closed indefinitely - probably due to the excessive cost of cleaning it up and making it safe. The secondary liquid fuel plant, where waste solvents and other chemicals are mixed into a toxic industrial fuel, re-opened only a few weeks later in June to public outrage. The incinerator was also shut down due to its appaling record of excessive emissions, but may now have restarted (see below). In spite of promises to bring it up to the very highest safety standards the incinerator still lacks the necessary equipment to prevent the formation of dioxin (one of the most lethal toxins known) and screen out all possible emissions. Sarp is now seeking independent environmental assessments of the plant from well-known environmental do-gooders ICI. Further new safety measures include a siren that is apparently inaudible in the village, and a community information hotline.

The most recent revelation confirms residents’ long-standing fears that illegal fly-tipping has been commonplace at the site for years, allegations that Sarp has always avoided answering. It came from an anonymous informant who had worked at the plant several years ago. He alleges that somewhere on the site there are forty or fifty drums of waste buried illegally eight years ago. Although no record of the event could be found, a team from Bradford University is now assisting Sarp in finding the drums, whose whereabouts are apparently unknown.

Sarp celebrated its first birthday on 6th of January. We trust it was not the happy occasion that it might have been as they had to appear at Chesterfield Magistrates Court the following day to face charges relating to the leaks in May. To the frustration of the residents and the gathered media, however, they obtained an adjournment until 23rd Feb. Although Sarp promised to wait until reports by the University of Sheffield and themselves were completed, residents believe that the incinerator has now started up again, operating only at night, under cover of darkness. The Sarp local hotline, set up to keep residents informed of developments, claimed not to know whether it had restarted or not.

For more info see RASP’s web-site at: