11:00 - 08 April 2002
MANAGERS of a controversial South Devon tip have hit back at claims that it is causing a stink for local residents.

The Viridor site at Kingsteignton was chosen to bury animal carcasses from foot and mouth infected areas. Protesters blocked roads and picketed the entrance, fearful that the dread disease could be imported into the district. People living in the area had complained bitterly about obnoxious smells which made them sick and pointed the finger at the tip, and the carcasses.

But before the foot and mouth crisis blew up last year, few people knew of the existence of the vast 200 acre "state of the art" site which can hardly been seen from the roads in the area. For years it quietly got on with the messy but vital business of burying household, commercial and industrial rubbish from Torbay, Teignbridge, Exeter and elsewhere.

However after the site had been in the news in recent months, Viridor felt it had been unfairly maligned and misunderstood and invited the Herald Express to have a look around and "put the record straight".

Manager, Mike Swiss, who has 32 years experience in the waste disposal business, pointed out that none of the animals dumped at Heathfield ever had foot and mouth.

"They were welfare culls of animals that could not moved or fed properly because of the restrictions. "We took 8,000 tonnes of carcasses, but to put that in perspective we have handled about 4.5 million tonnes of waste over 20 years. "We were an approved site by the Ministry of Agriculture, who actually wrote and praised us for the way we handled the situation."

Viridor spokesman Dan Cooke emphasised that the odours had nothing to do with the dead animals. "We did have a problem with smells from one of the areas, and brought in experts to find out why. "They found the main cause was the very wet winter, which meant so much water was going into the tip. It caused problems with trace gases and we took steps to remedy the smells, and the situation is now much better. We are sure that we will have solved it by later this year. "This was the first complaint about odours we have had in 20 years. We do value having good relations with all our neighbours."

Ian Franks, an environmental protection officer with the Environment Agency, pointed out that the pyres were built on farm sites as "an absolute emergency". They were probably not the ideal places for such disposal, and the agency was carefully monitoring for any signs of pollution.

Recently the site - called the Heathfield Landfill Tip for historical reasons though it is actually close to Kingsteignton - was again in the news when an Environment Agency report expressed concern about possible contamination of ground water supplies from infected foot and mouth burial sites around the country. Some Heathfield residents feared their drinking water from boreholes could be polluted. The agency quickly put out another statement, clarifying that it meant funeral pyre sites on farms, not properly regulated landfill tips, but the damage was done.

David Peers, a team leader in the agency's environment protection branch, took part in the conducted tour and showered praise on the Viridor tip, describing it as "state of the art".

He added: "They do not come any better than this, and from our regular monitoring we are sure there is no leakage of liquids into the ground water here. There is no cause for concern." The site is an old clay quarry, and the non-porous clay is the ideal material for a tip base. To make sure there are no leaks, an extra metre of clay is put on top, followed by a thick plastic membrane. When it is full, it is capped with a metre of top soil and sealed. All the liquids leaching from the tips are piped to a lagoon, and eventually fed into the sewerage system. "Even if you drank the leachite, it would make you sick, but would not poison you," was the assurance from Mr Cooke. "The risk of contaminating the groundwater is insignificant. The whole design of the tip is to stop that happening." Methane gas rising from the rotting rubbish is put to good use. It is collected and piped to feed a generating station that produces enough "green" electricity for the national grid to power a town the size of Chudleigh. The Viridor team are obviously proud of their tip, and claim their standards are among the best in Europe. "It is improving all the time. If we did some of things today that happened when I started in the industry, they would lock us up and throw away the key," added Mr Swiss.

"We have an open door policy here and there is nothing to hide. Any member of the public is welcome to come along and have a look for themselves if they contact us first." Parts of the site that are full have already been landscaped and "greened", and eventually the whole tip will revert to nature with few signs that millions of tonnes of junk is buried underneath.

It only has another five years of life left, and at the moment there are no plans for a replacement in the area.

"By then waste tipping will have changed with more emphasis on recycling," Mr Cooke believes.

"Rumours that we have bought up another quarry in this area are just not true. We are governed by the county council's waste policies, and cannot just open up anywhere.

"But we are always looking for business opportunities and will consider any site that becomes available and is suitable."