Suspected arson at former Sunderland waste plant Alex Smiles costs council £176,000

A blaze which broke out at Sunderland's former Alex Smiles waste site has cost the city council £176,000, a report has revealed.

Friday, 19th October 2018, 3:10 pm
Updated Friday, 19th October 2018, 3:18 pm
Drone footage of the Alex Smiles blaze.
Drone footage of the Alex Smiles blaze.

Smoke could be seen from miles around as the fire took hold at the abandoned waste plant site in May – with fears it could continue burning for months.

At the time, firefighters and other agencies, including Sunderland City Council, worked to tackle the Deptford fire which took three weeks to fully extinguish.

Drone footage of the Alex Smiles blaze.

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Investigations are still ongoing around the fire, which is being treated as suspicious by Northumbria Police.

A budget report, presented to the city council’s cabinet this week (October 17), has now revealed the “unrecoverable costs” of moving waste on the site and air monitoring as £176k.

And Sunderland Liberal Democrats on the council have now slammed city leaders over the “lack of action” around the site, despite warnings from the Environment Agency over safety risks.

Liberal Democrat group leader on the council, Niall Hodson, whose Millfield ward covers the site, said: “This was a disaster waiting to happen, and a lack of action in the three years the site sat empty prior to the fire has cost taxpayers dear.”

Firefighters were still working to dampen the blaze at Alex Smiles on Friday.

Coun Hodson added: “It’s really disappointing to learn that the fire has cost local taxpayers such a huge amount of money.

“I am still waiting for answers as to what steps the council took to avoid the burden of these costs being passed on to the taxpayer.

“It’s just so frustrating that local people are having to foot the bill for the cleanup, especially given that the risk of fire was clear long before it happened.

“It is over two years since a Lib Dem Freedom of Information request revealed the safety risks to the public of this neglected site – and the response from the Environment Agency specifically pointed to the risk of fire.”

On site at Alex Smiles depot.

The waste management firm that owned the site, Alex Smiles, went into administration in May 2015 leaving creditors out of pocket by £7.5million.

While council chiefs previously said they remained keen to bring the derelict site back into use in the long term, they admitted it would require major investment running into ‘several million pounds’ to bring it back into use.

A freedom of information request submitted to the Environment Agency by the Wearside Liberal Democrats in 2016 revealed the regulator had called for additional security measures.

While security was introduced, it added joint visits by the Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service and environmental officers identified arson as a potential risk.

Chief operations officer at Sunderland City Council, Les Clark, responding, said: “Alex Smiles was, and remains, a privately owned waste site which was abandoned when its owners went into administration.

“The council and others had been in negotiations about the future of the site, and the risks it posed, before the fire broke out.

“The council continues to work with partners with a view to bringing the site back into use.

“However, as has been mentioned previously, several million pounds will be needed for this.”

Environment manager with the Environment Agency in the North East, Jamie Fletcher, added the body took action to improve fire-prevention measures when the waste plant was active.

This included enforcement action and a legal notice to stop depot owners bringing more waste on to the site to prevent further risk.

The fire is still blazing at the Alex Smiles waste recycling plant.

Mr Fletcher explained: “The former operator of the site then ceased trading and entered administration in 2015 and we revoked their environmental permit, they did not have the funds at that time to clear the waste from the site.

“Clearing abandoned waste sites like these isn’t easy because of the legal complexities of land ownership and the costs.

“We continue to support Sunderland City Council in efforts to bring the site back into use.”

Up to 50 fire fighters from Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service were involved at the height of the blaze.

Following an investigation on the site, Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue confirmed that the fire was caused deliberately.

A Northumbria Police spokesman added: “Police are treating the cause of the fire as suspicious and enquiries are ongoing to trace those responsible.”

Caption: Fire at former Alex Smiles waste site in Sunderland.

Caption: Leader of Sunderland CIty Council’s Liberal Democrat group, Niall Hodson

Caption: Sunderland Civic Centre

Chris Binding , Local Democracy Reporting Service

Firefighters deal with the blaze at Alex Smiles. Picture by Barry Barraclough.
Firefighters dealing with the blaze at Alex Smiles in Sunderland. Picture by Glynis Ayers.