A YEAR after a waste depot fire terrified residents they still fear for their safety, writes Laurie Churchman

GRAHAM Ennis was asleep on the night of the Hollingdean waste depot fire. He woke with his eyes burning and his face covered in ash.

The 75-year-old had taken sleeping pills, and breathed in smoke for more than an hour before he realised what was happening.

A blaze had broken out inside the Hollingdean Lane waste transfer station in Brighton.

Fire crews battled to bring it under control for 12 hours on August 25 last year, as fumes from burning rubbish billowed into the neighbouring Dudeney Lodge tower block.

Graham remembers stumbling over to his window and seeing flames around the depot.

“All hell was breaking loose,” he said. “Our block got the full blast.”

He inhaled so much smoke he had to go to hospital, and was diagnosed with a chemical lung condition.

In the aftermath of the fire, Dudeney Lodge residents were furious. They had campaigned for years against allowing the plant to be built so close to their homes.

Now, more than a year on, they still feel they are not being listened to. They are angered by the length of time it has taken to install sprinklers at the plant, and worry not enough has been done to keep people safe.

Like many of the residents, Graham is frustrated with Veolia – the multinational waste management company that operates the plant – and Brighton and Hove City Council, which issued the private company a 25-year contract to process the city’s waste in 2003.

He said: “They’re hoping everyone will forget. But I’m not going to – and the people who have suffered from this won’t forget either.”

In the wake of the blaze, public meetings were held with representatives from the fire service, the city council, and Veolia.

In September 2019, Veolia’s General Manager Allan Key admitted that no sprinklers had been fitted in the building where the fire broke out.

When asked if his company had been negligent, Mr Key said it would be “inappropriate” for Veolia to comment.

At a meeting in February this year, Mr Key said Veolia was looking into installing sprinklers at the site by June – more than nine months after the fire.

Approached for comment by The Argus this week, Veolia and the council say the sprinklers are now in place.

But those living in Dudeney Lodge say they have struggled to get hold of information about works to improve safety at the plant.

Tony Graham, chairman of the block’s residents’ committee, said he had still been trying to find out if the sprinklers had been installed this week.

He said while progress has been made, many living in the tower block do not feel reassured, and are worried they could still be at risk.

Residents are unlikely to see the waste transfer station moved any time soon. The council has told The Argus that the coronavirus pandemic has delayed discussion – and now, a report on moving the plant will not be shown to councillors until next year.

A council spokesman said: “Work to consider possible options for moving the waste transfer station to another location following the fire has unfortunately been delayed due to the pandemic.

“A report on this will not now be presented to councillors until next year. In the meantime a sprinkler system has been installed at the site. This will significantly reduce the risk of another fire.”

A spokeswoman for Veolia said: “The safety of our staff and the community is our number one priority.

“An improved detection system and fully automated sprinklers have been installed across all areas of the Hollingdean site and our team receives regular training to respond quickly and effectively in the case of an alarm.

“We have an established contact process with the local community to address any issues or concerns directly.

“We are also working with Brighton and Hove City Council and the wider community to promote safe disposal of items such as batteries and barbecues that can cause fires when mixed with waste streams.”

Graham said the two comments display a “careful avoidance of anyone taking responsibility”.

“We have no reason to think it’s safe now except their word,” he said.

He said residents should be allowed to inspect the plant, and called for the council’s report to be made public.