Thursday, December 17, 2020

Grenfell - The Price of Profit

 Adrian Williamson QC, counsel for the bereaved and survivors of the Grenfell fire disaster, said the evidence revealed “an industry in which Arconic, Celotex and Kingspan were content to push hazardous products into the marketplace and sought to market them dishonestly”.

In 2013 Celotex executives had known that “in the event of a fire [its insulation] would burn”. In 2007 Kingspan’s tests had also caused “a raging inferno”. In 2009 an Arconic executive had shared images of a burning tower fitted with similar panels to those it sold to Grenfell “to show you how dangerous PE [polyethylene] can be when it comes to architecture”.

Kingspan altered the foam’s chemical mix. When tested in 2007 the new formula had become a 600C “raging inferno”. Despite the new formula, Kingspan had stuck to using the 2005 test pass to help sell the foam boards. Ivor Meredith,   a technical manager for Kingspan, had run more tests “to get the technology to pass, to justify our lie”, he said. Meredith’s job was to maintain the impression that the material could be used in line with building regulations. More full-scale tests failed in 2007 and 2008 but the results had not been communicated to clients, Meredith said.

The British Board of Agrément (BBA) rules on a material’s performance; Local Authority Building Control (LABC) decrees if a material meets regulations; and NHBC, a warranty and insurance provider for new homes, assesses risk. They are supposed to guarantee safety but product manufacturers at Grenfell treated them as “mere marketing tools”, the inquiry heard.

It was “great news” in 2009, when  technical manager Philip Heath  told colleagues that LABC had awarded K15 a certificate for use on high-rise buildings, saying that it was “limited combustibility” based on a certificate acquired the previous year, which had made no mention that it related only to testing of a specific use of the material against a masonry wall. Heath told a colleague they had thrown so much data at the LABC certificator “we probably blocked his server”. In 2014 the NHBC called the LABC certificate “all garbage”. Brian Martin, the government official responsible for building regulations about fire, had also heard about foam insulation being used on high-rise residential towers and had emailed NHBC with “a friendly warning” that such foam insulations were not of limited combustibility. But Kingspan had pushed back saying there had been two successful tests, even though the inquiry heard one of these had been a fail. It was “a deliberate lie”. When the NHBC had warned it might advise builders not to use K15, Kingspan had threatened legal action.

Nor had Kingspan told the BBA about the change in the foam’s chemistry making it burn like a “raging inferno”. when the BBA had been alerted to concerns about its certificate, Heath had told his colleagues to “let the file gather dust”. The reason for stalling, Meredith explained, had been that if changes were made “it could limit sales”.

In October 2014 Kingspan hired the engineering consultancy Arup to ratify its test data. Its expert was “deeply concerned”, she told NHBC. “The use of highly combustible materials in residential buildings is now simply an accident waiting to happen.” But sales on high-rises had continued.

Celotex had watched Kingspan’s success with envy, the inquiry was told. Its method had suggested a path to seizing part of a £10m-a-year insulation market. It had called it “the Kingspan route”.

Kingspan “do not have a piece of paper that states they can specifically be used behind any cladding panel”, Jonathan Roper, who was then an assistant product manager at Celotex had told his colleagues. Roper had cautioned they might “take the view that our product realistically shouldn’t be used behind most cladding panels” because it might burn. But they had pressed ahead anyway, copying Kingspan. Celotex provided most of the foam insulation on Grenfell. 

Roper, a 23-year-old business studies graduate in his first job, had spotted a crucial fact: “Contractors do not know enough about the fire test to challenge it.” The firm’s first test in February 2014 had failed in 26 minutes. So Celotex had tried again, this time concealing a thin sheet of fire retardant magnesium oxide board behind the main cladding panel to reduce the chance of flames reaching the top of the test rig and triggering a fail. Celotex executives knew it had been “unreflective” of how cladding was actually used, Roper told the inquiry. “The rig was being over-engineered to achieve a pass,” he said. After the system passed, his boss, Paul Evans, had told him the product would be sold and “the decision had been made to omit the magnesium oxide from any reference going forward”.  Celotex’s action had been an “intentional, deliberate and dishonest” attempt to mislead customers, Roper agreed.

A new product manager, Deborah Berger, asked to see the BRE test report after the product launch in October 2014 and was so alarmed at the picture of the test rig showing the fire-resistant magnesium oxide panels she scrawled “WTF?” in the margin.

“I thought Celotex was a good company that prided itself on doing the right thing, on being honest,” she said. “I was really shocked.”

 The inquiry heard that for years before that Claude Wehrle and his colleagues at Arconic had known of the danger they posed. Just 18 months before the Grenfell fire, the technical manager at the French division of the US materials giant had emailed the sales team about a fire at a building beside a tower which used the same material as Grenfell. In 2013, there had been a fire in a high-rise in Dubai using aluminium composite material (ACM) panels. Arconic’s representative in the UK, Richard Geater, had emailed fabricators to say that the cladding “is like a chimney which transports the fire from bottom to top … within shortest time”. He added: “We have taken random samples and done a live test in Bangkok in front of architects, they almost fainted. Indeed, this panel is a whole cheat and burns fiercely.”

Arconic had pressed on selling. In May 2013, Deborah French, a UK sales executive, had emailed customers saying: “We supply both PE and FR [fire retardant] core and can control and understand what core is being used in all projects.” But FR was not proposed at Grenfell. By the Summer of 2015 Wehrle had emailed colleagues with what he admitted as an “anti-commercial” opinion: “PE is dangerous on facades, and everything should be transferred to fire-resistant as a matter of urgency.” Arconic gave the instruction to no longer use PE on projects in France in May 2016, said Barwise. But no warning had been given to Grenfell.

Kingspan apologised for “process shortcomings and unacceptable conduct”.

Celotex said it was not a manufacturer’s responsibility to meet building regulations, but admitted “unacceptable conduct on the part of a number of former employees”.

Arconic said it was entitled to expect the UK regulatory regime to maintain safety, that its product had been “misused” and “the principal cause of the Grenfell tragedy was the failure by those responsible for the refurbishment of the tower”.

'A raging inferno': testimony reveals how deadly cladding ended up on Grenfell Tower | Grenfell Tower inquiry | The Guardian

None of which is much consolation for those who died, their families  or the survivors that money and profit justified gambling with people's lives.

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