Last weekend (Sunday 5th October 2014) residents of Portsmouth awoke to see a huge plume of smoke billowing across the city, reaching an altitude of 100 ft. The source of the fumes was quickly identified as the European Metal Recycling (EMR) depot located in the north east of Portsea Island where a fire had broken out early that morning.
Rapid action by the emergency services enforced roadblocks to prevent traffic from getting too close to the scrap yard and source of potential explosions. The fire brigade arrived at the scene to find 500 tonnes of scrap metal alight along with tyres, oil and fuel and it has been reported that the core temperature of the inferno reached more than 1000£°c. The fire burned for more than 8 hours, taking 50 firefighters and at times, 15,000 litres of water a minute to extinguish it.
Thousands of similar metal processing sites are located across the country and have the potential to result in severe contamination. Through the processes of storing, dismantling and cleaning metals, harmful substances such as arsenic, lead and asbestos can be dispersed on site. Liquid and gaseous contaminants such as hydrocarbons, are often highly mobile and migrate through the soil. There are many variables affecting the potential levels of contamination of a metal processing site, including the type of metal handled and pH levels in the soil. To combat this, The Control of Pollution Act was introduced in 1974 and since then disposal sites have been subject to stringent regulations in order to reduce the impact of sites on the surrounding environment. By implementing simple measures such as covering the site in hard standing and controlling drainage, modern sites can dramatically reduce the severity of potential contamination.
Burning of waste metal used to be common pre-legislation however, is no longer legally practiced by licensed sites largely due to the possibility of harmful fumes being released. Earlier this year a scrap metal dealer based in Chesterfield was successfully prosecuted and fined £16,000 for illegally burning waste in several incidents.
During the fire at EMR’s Portsmouth site no one was injured by the blaze and the authorities are not currently considering the fire as suspicious however, investigation is underway to discover the source. Public Health England were consulted in the early hours of the fire and stated that the fumes were not thought to be harmful. Despite this, local residents were advised to stay inside and close their windows. EMR state their environmental management mission statement is to’ set industry leading standards and promote a culture of environmental responsibility’ so it is considered likely that the clean-up of their Portsmouth site will be dealt with conscientiously, hopefully with as little impact on the surrounding environment as possible.