Cleansing Services licence suspended after fire

Environment Secretary John Prescott has requested a report into the regulation of a "special" waste treatment site owned by Cleansing Services Group (CSG), after a fire hit chemical drums, and flooding caused further pollution. Seven drums contained solvent contaminated with BSE - while another seven are missing.

CSG, one of the largest privately owned waste management firms, treats industrial and clinical wastes. It recently acquired the chemical waste business Lanstar. The Sandhurst site near Gloucester is authorised to transfer "special" waste, and for various treatments. It is located on the floodplain of the river Severn, close to both the river and Sandhurst village.

Early in the morning of 30 October a fire and explosion - with unknown causes - occurred in an open part of the site. The fire destroyed or damaged drums containing a wide range of chemicals, including cyanide, pesticides and solvents, as well as a small quantity of asbestos. According to the Agency, the firewater was "largely" collected and did not leave the site.

Together with the emergency services and the Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency launched an investigation. The waste management licence has been suspended.

Local residents evacuated during the fire later complained of stinging faces, sore throats and stomach pains. They were not given the all clear to return home until 17 November.

A few days later, the area suffered severe flooding. A drum damaged by the fire leaked aluminium selenide into the floodwaters before being retrieved. Later reports said arsenic had also leaked into floodwater from a damaged drum.

The floodwaters also damaged nearby houses, raising fears that homes had become contaminated with hazardous chemicals. Tests were carried out in homes in Sandhurst. Samples of air, floodwater and silt were taken and analysed for metals, volatile organic compounds, dioxins, furans and other chemicals. Preliminary results were consistent with flooding and did not suggest that properties had suffered significant pollution from the fire.

As part of its investigation, the Agency discovered seven drums containing solvent contaminated with BSE-diseased tissue. The waste consisted of veterinary investigatory samples used by the Ministry of Agriculture to test for BSE and was delivered to the site in 1996. The Agency is investigating where the drums came from. As ENDS went to press it was unclear whether CSG was allowed to store such wastes on the site.

The Agency has also served legal notice on CSG to confirm the whereabouts of seven other BSE drums delivered in 1995 and currently unaccounted for.

Two weeks into the investigation, Environment Secretary John Prescott asked for a report into the fire and regulation of the site by the middle of January. His interest may have been triggered by calls for a parliamentary debate on the incident.

On 23 November the Agency and HSE authorised CSG to start cleaning up the site. This work, taking around two months, will not in itself result in lifting the suspension of the site licence.

Earlier this year, CSG agreed to pay the Agency's legal costs following an investigation into a leak of powdered purple dye which had blown over the nearby village of Maismore, staining local property, in December 1997.

Following the incident, the Agency issued proceedings to prosecute CSG under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Initially, CSG denied any knowledge of the event but a later inspection revealed similar staining at the waste site.

On 24 July, before Forest of Dean magistrates, proceedings halted after the company accepted a formal caution from the Agency and agreed to pay costs of £21,000. CSG also paid compensation to some of the complainants.

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