Councillors have said Sutton Council is “treating residents with contempt” by continuing to support the Beddington incinerator, despite fears over past outages.

Opposition councillors have criticised a recent report published by the Environmental Agency (EA), which they say downplays the impact of the plant. 

The report focuses on the impact of an incident last October, in which black acrid smoke billowed from the incinerator’s chimneys.

Sutton Labour Councillor Dave Tchil was the first person to alert the EA of this incident after he noticed the smell whilst cycling to work.

Speaking to the local democracy reporting service (LDRS), Tchil said: “The pollution that day was very real, I reported it, I tasted the bitter smoke.

"Families reported children having breathing and eye complaints and local schools responded to protect children.”

While Viridor, the facility’s operators, are responsible for alerting the regulators of any outages, it was later revealed that the employee responsible for this was not working on the day.

The facility, operational since 2019, has now addressed this issue by appointing a deputy.

An investigation into the causes and potential damage done by the acrid smoke was eventually undertaken by the EA.

After six months of pressure from Sutton’s opposition councillors, the EA released their ‘compliance assessment report’ of the outages.

During a meeting with Fichtner, who conducted the third-party investigation into the outages, Councillors were told of the cause and extent of the outage.

The EA categorised it as a category 3 incident, “associated with a minor impact on human health, quality of life or the environment.”

The EA also instructed Viridor to take measures to ensure that outages like this do not happen again in the future.

However, Tchill and his independent colleague Tim Foster believe this report was a “whitewash” that attempts to downplay the incident.

Tchil believes Viridor did not take necessary precautions to account for a potential outage, and that their backup system (island mode) was not operational at the time.

Viridor acknowledged this oversight and said changes would be made.

However, Tchil noted that the plant operator stated: “This improvement has been rolled out across Viridor’s other UK installations.”

He said this “seems to imply that they were not doing this elsewhere.”

Councillor Foster shared this sentiment and explained that the outage was due to “a failure in the power line from UK Power Networks and subsequent failure of the plant to go into ‘island mode’,” which effectively allows self-powering the plant.

When he later pressed Viridor on how many outages have occurred since the October incident, they said there had been five.

Numerous high-profile incidents have occurred at the plant since its opening.

Viridor was appointed to operate the incinerator on a £1bn, 25-year contract by the South London Waste Partnership (SLWP).

This administrative body comprises councillors from Kingston, Merton, Sutton and Croydon councils and meets regularly to discuss the incinerator among other things.

Both Foster and Tchil also took aim at the Lib Dem-run Sutton Council the EA, which they criticised as being ‘powerless’ in the face of these ongoing outages. Tchil told the LDRS: “ “We’re just burning more and more and there’s no stopping it.

“On a national level, the EA are the most toothless organisation I’ve ever seen. That’s a government issue where they don’t give them a mandate to go further.”

Foster added: “The Beddington industrial area is surrounded by residential properties and the establishment of the plant was a construct of the ruling Liberal Democrat Group who stake reliance of environmental care on the EA and deny any culpability.”

Foster also acknowledged that the EA are “minded to approve” Viridor’s recent application to burn more waste on the site.

The incinerator, officially called an Energy Recovery Facility, was originally designed to treat up to 302,500 tonnes of waste but this application would allow it to take up to 382,000 tonnes.

A decision on whether this application will be approved it expected soon. The most recent SLWP meetings have been cancelled due to the general election.

When approached for comment, a spokesperson from the SLWP said: “SLWP welcomes this report from the EA.

"It is clear that the EA and Viridor have both conducted comprehensive and robust investigations into the causes and likely impacts of the incident that occurred on October 16, 2023.  

“The SLWP will continue to monitor Viridor’s response to the EA recommendations carefully.

"The Partnership boroughs will use all the contractual and regulatory mechanisms available to them to ensure the Beddington ERF operates at the highest possible standards and continues to provide a safe and environmentally sustainable waste treatment solution for residents of the four boroughs.”

A spokesperson for Viridor said: “The Beddington ERF is stringently managed and regulated by the Environment Agency. Following a power outage in October 2023, Viridor has worked with the Environment Agency to verify all data submitted by Beddington ERF post the power outage and has implemented key recommendations.”

Cllr Christopher Woolmer, Liberal Democrat Chair of Sutton Council’s Environment & Sustainable Transport Committee told the LDRS: “The Environment Agency (EA) is responsible for the safe management of the Beddington Energy Recovery Facility and the Sutton Liberal Democrats expect the regulator to take its responsibilities extremely seriously.

“In this case, the EA has considered the breaches to be minor and has instructed them to put in controls to ensure there is no repeat in the future. Nobody wants to see emissions breaches of any kind and so we expect the EA to take tough action if this happens again.

“Sutton Liberal Democrats support the ‘reduce, rescue and recycle’ approach as the best way of managing our borough’s waste and do not want to see a return to the environmentally-destructive use of landfill. Until we reach a zero-waste world, the EA must do its job as a regulator of this form of waste disposal properly.”