FIRE safety at recycling plants should be urgently reassessed following a recent spate of serious blazes, including one at used tyre plant in North Yorkshire which started on Thursday and is expected to burn for a week.
The calls for vigilance followed a fire at Newgen Recycling at Sherburn-in-Elmet which saw around 15,000 tonnes of old tyres go up in smoke and which will burn for several more days yet.
There have also been serious fires in the last 12 months at recycling plants in Dewsbury, at a site near Redcar and in plants near Stockport, at Smethwick in the West Midlands and in Scotland.
Yesterday public health officials in Yorkshire did not believe there was a great risk to the public because the smoke from the Sherburn fire was spreading over a wide area, although people in local villages could expect the unpleasant smell to continue.
Peter Hudson of North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service said crews will remain on site but the plan was to allow the tyres to burn out.
This was so toxins created by the fire were not washed into local waterways, but would be spread over a much wider area, perhaps out to the North Sea, carried in the plume of smoke.
He said: “We have been talking to the Environment Agency and we would rather it burnt away to virtually nothing. If we did put it out, we would have much more sludge and mess to put somewhere afterwards.”
No cause has been established but a full investigation will begin next week when firefighters have got access to the seat of the fire, he said.
The smoke plume is still heading in a north-easterly direction and local councils in Ryedale and Scarborough have reported that there are no issues in those areas.
Superintendent Richard Anderson, of North Yorkshire Police, said: “I would like to reassure residents that the fire and rescue service has the fire contained and under control.
“While the vast plume of smoke looks dramatic, the risk to the public’s health remains low at this time and I urge people to continue to follow the advice of Public Health England to ensure that they don’t suffer any ill-effects from the smoke.”
All local schools have remained open.
Calls for safety improvements at all recycling plants came from fire safety expert Brian Gregory, a former firefighter who is managing director of a fire risk assessment company, Safety Management UK.
He said: “The recent spate of large-scale incidents at recycling plants and sites across the UK has emphasised the need for all operations involved in this kind of work to urgently re-assess their fire safety procedures and take a more pro-active approach.
“The use of ‘Emergency Responders’ within industry is a practice that has been dramatically reducing for years. There was a time when many hazardous sites would have their own in-house ‘trained’ firefighters, fire engine and equipment.
“Efficiencies and improvements in processes have allowed this practice to be cut back in all but a few industries. However, it is still vitally important that companies continue to examine and question their processes and their response to fire risks. It is about continually looking at the processes being used to store and filter materials.”
The Environment Agency re-issued guidance last year urging waste site operators to step up fire prevention measures, following a series of fires at recycling and waste storage depots.
Mr Gregory added: “Organisations need to examine their machinery to ensure it is fit for purpose and to see that management practices are suitable and are being enforced with the required vigour. They also need to look at their fire prevention measures and examine if they need to be beefed up in any way.
However, in the case of the Sherburn company, the Environment Agency said it had a good track record on fire safety.
An EA spokesman said: “We permitted the site in 2011; they mostly recycle tyres on this site. As part of our routine regulation work, we have visited the site on four occasions and found them to be a good operator. The firm has a good environment management system in place, that includes fire risk management.
“We are monitoring the watercourses downstream. Today we have discovered a thin oil film on a watercourse to the north of the site. This has likely been affected by surface water run-off from the site.
“There is not a massive flow from the surface water outfall, however we are looking at using booms to limit the impact of the pollution. We are also looking at the possibility of damming off the surface water outflow. There are no drinking water abstractions downstream of the affected watercourse.”
Newgen Recycling could not be contacted for comment.