Birchwood Industrial Estate Fire

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Local agencies should monitor Birchwood Industrial Estate `as closely as the law permits` according to District Councillors. Residents can help by keeping diaries and reporting problems to the Council and Environment Agency. Checks by the West Essex PCT have found no associated respiratory problems linked to the recent fires.

Asked about reduction in the amount of material kept on the site, better management in terms of security, fire breaks, water supply and other ways of reducing the impact of the site on local residents, Alex Chown of the Environment Agency replied that he was working with the operator to deliver these aims.

Councillors endorsed a joint letter from the agencies involved to residents of Nazeing setting out the issues with a list of frequently asked questions and answers.

Representatives of the Environment Agency and Council met at the Civic Offices of Epping Forest District Council in Epping on Thursday 23 July 2009 following the two Birchwood fires in Nazeing earlier in the year. Fire broke out at the wood recycling centre off Hoe Lane Nazeing in January. A second blaze occurred in May, leading to calls for the operation to close.

John Gilbert, Environment and Street Scene Director for Epping Forest District Council set the context at the Safer Cleaner Greener Scrutiny Panel. He outlined the history of the site including a wood-chipping operation for waste timber recycling. As a relatively small scale operation in comparison with other recycling facilities, he said that it did not fall within tougher regulatory powers.

Planning consent for the site had been granted by a Government Planning inspector against the wishes of the Council at appeal. The Council had had concerns about the operation including dust and the very large quantities of wood stored on site. Council Environmental Health Officers had visited the site on a number of occasions. Since the two fires, the Council has received a petition from local residents asking for the operation to be closed.

Alex Chown of the Environment Agency elaborated on how the chipping of wood on the site was exempt from the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2007. The Environment Agency began detailed investigations following the first fire which appeared to show the operation was running in line with the regulations. Following the second fire, the Agency considered removing the exemption and de-registering the operation.

The exemption has not been removed but the operation has been halted temporarily while the owner seeks to satisfy the requirements of the Environment Agency. De-registering remains an option.

When chipping and recycling wood, the company operated within the regulations. It could not be held legally responsible for the fires. However, it is responding to pressure by the Health and Safety Executive and Environment Agency. An Improvement notice has been served by the Health and Safety Executive to make the site more secure against unauthorised access.

The current national regulations are under review and central government may strengthen them next year. If that was to happen it is possible that the current operation at Birchwood would become subject to tighter regulations.

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