The fire at Averies Recycling has been raging for more than a month. So far, Lee Averies, the director of the company, has said little about it. Now, he gives an exclusive interview to the Adver

How did the fire start?

Neither we nor the fire authority know yet what caused the fire, but it was discovered by a member of staff who spotted a small fire next to a skip lorry late in the afternoon of July 21. Our staff did the right thing in calling the fire brigade and then tried to extinguish the fire themselves, without putting lives at risk.

Unfortunately, the fire service were taking industrial action on that day. There was a delay in the fire service getting to the site, and firefighters were unable to prevent the fire spreading because of the location of the fire and the fact that some firefighting techniques were not permitted.

Why is it taking so long to put the fire out?

The site is a waste transfer and recycling depot, which means significant amounts of waste from various sources are brought onto the site, sorted, and then around 95 per cent of the waste is recycled – that is, transported to customers in this country or abroad. The remainder is sent to Germany for energy recovery. We send very little waste to landfill.

The UK waste industry is one of the most highly regulated in the world, and as a licensed operator, we believe rightly so. But when fires do unfortunately occur, several agencies become involved and it can be difficult to agree a solution that doesn’t infringe any of those regulations.

So, for example, in the first week the fire services tried to put out the fire, and when that proved unsuccessful we spent the second week moving waste off the site to another of our sites, at the request of the fire brigade. However, the Environment Agency then said they believed there was some risk of water that had come into contact with the burnt waste escaping from the waste into the ground, and they stopped us moving any more waste off the Marshgate site.

At the beginning of the third week we had a call from Swindon Borough Council asking if we would be prepared to move any more waste away from Marshgate, if they were able to find us a temporary location. Of course, we jumped at that opportunity, and they offered us the Park and Ride site at Groundwell.

We were very happy to move the waste there, and to arrange and pay for 24/7 security at the site, but then of course that site was deemed unsuitable. At that point, we really didn’t have anywhere to take it, so it remained where it was, with the fire continuing to smoulder.

Averies has said very little to the media. Why is that?

Yes, we have been quiet, but that’s because we’ve been concentrating all our efforts on getting the job done as fast as possible. Since day one, I and my staff have been working tirelessly with the fire authorities, as well as cooperating as far as we can with the Environment Agency, to try to extinguish the fire.

I must say that, contrary to what some media have reported, we have had a very positive and constructive relationship with the fire authorities throughout, and have also cooperated fully with the council. It’s not a case of Averies sitting there and waiting for others to solve the problem – far from it. It’s been a serious joint effort by all of us.

It’s been said that you were continuing to bring waste onto the site last week. Is that true?

Absolutely not. That would be completely irresponsible – and, frankly, madness. There have been some routine movements of lorries on and off the site, but we are all trying to resolve this problem as quickly as we can. We wouldn’t do anything that might make it last a minute longer than it has to.

So what is happening now?

Once we’d run out of options as to where to clear the waste, the Environment Agency stepped in late last Friday afternoon and served a notice on us to start moving the waste the following day.

Given that we’ve been prevented from taking the waste to other sites – and at that point there was no alternative site on offer for us to take the waste to – this was totally unrealistic and unfeasible.

The Environment Agency has been quoted as saying that we didn’t want to come to a resolution quickly. This is just not true. They have chosen not to involve us in their high level discussions, but have told us that the waste can’t go to landfill as it might reignite, so with no temporary storage site available we had no options open to us. The Environment Agency has since arranged for the waste to be transported elsewhere.

What have you got to say to the people of Swindon?

I am truly sorry that this fire has had such a significant effect on so many people, and I am also very sorry that it has gone on for so long.

I completely understand that many people are angry and frustrated, and I genuinely regret the discomfort or inconvenience people have suffered.

What I would just like to add, though, is that we’re not a rogue operator with no sense of moral or community obligations. We’re a responsible, regulated company that is part of an industry that minimises environmental damage by recycling waste material.

I would also want to thank our fantastic hard-working staff who have been as devastated by this as I have.

Finally, I’d like to thank all our customers and others for their messages of support at this time. I know that has meant a lot to the people here who have been working so hard to come up with solutions.

Waste is on the move

Stephen Taylor, chairperson of the Strategic Co-ordination Group which is leading the multi-agency plan to deal with the fire, said: “Multi-agency partners have explored several options to get the operator to remove waste from the site.

“As the operators of the site, Averies Recycling (Swindon) Limited (ARSL) bears the responsibility to run its site, not to cause a nuisance to others. Agreement was not reached with ARSL to cover the costs involved in using a site to temporarily store waste and requiring the waste to be returned to the Marshgate site in due course.

“Accordingly, the Environment Agency served a notice on the site owner requiring the removal of the waste.

“Due to the risk of pollution the Environment Agency appointed a contractor to take the waste to landfill, which will create the essential space for firefighters to put out the fire faster.

“Contractors removed the first loads of waste on Monday, August 18. We are grateful for the ongoing co-operation of local residents and businesses as we continue to focus on the challenging operation in hand.”

It is believed the waste is being transported to landfill near Blunsdon.