The president of the firm that sold the highly combustible cladding panels used on Grenfell Tower has accepted that the company told “a misleading half truth” by concealing a “spectacular” test failure from the body that certified the fire performance of the product.
Arconic obtained a certificate from the British Board of Agrement (BBA), which said its Reynobond PE (polyethylene) 55 panels had “achieved a classification” of Class B under European standards.
In fact, this classification had only been obtained by the panel when it was attached to a wall using rivets, and a further test on the product when bent into a cassette shape and hung from rails had failed so seriously it did not receive a classification at all.
The inquiry saw reports yesterday that the panels burned 10 times as fiercely and released seven times as much heat when bent in this way, with the failure described as “spectacular” by counsel to the inquiry Richard Millett.
But Claude Schmidt, president of the French arm of the company since 2007, today accepted that this latter test had never been provided to the BBA – despite its certificate appearing to cover both means of attaching the panel.
The panels were bent into a cassette shape when they were installed on Grenfell Tower.
“Do you accept that in presenting the rivet test only to the BBA as representative of the fire performance of Reynobond 55 PE, Arconic was telling the BBA a misleading half truth?” asked Mr Millett.
“Yes, you can say it like that,” replied Mr Schmidt, speaking through a translator.
The inquiry was shown extracts from the contract between the BBA and Arconic, which obliged Arconic to disclose “any test data… not already included in the certificate”.
It was also shown the witness statement of Claude Wehrle, a member of Arconic’s technical team, who said the BBA never asked for further test reports, having been sent the test on the riveted system.
Mr Schmidt said the BBA could have requested the test report during its audit of the panels, or from the French test facility that carried it out, CSTB. However, he accepted that “according to the contract… it should have come from us”.
“Why was the BBA left to discover the existence of [the relevant test] instead of simply volunteering it in accordance with your contractual obligations?” asked Mr Millett.
“I can’t answer this question and I can’t put myself in the position of the person who was in contact with the BBA auditor,” replied Mr Schmidt.
“Do you accept as the voice of Arconic that not providing the [relevant test] was a deliberate concealment of what Arconic knew to be the true position, namely that the cassette variant of Reynobond PE 55 performed disastrously in a fire?” asked Mr Millett.
“No, when you say deliberately, that’s too much,” replied Mr Schmidt.
He denied that the test was concealed for “commercial” reasons, or because it would have “cast serious doubt” on the fire performance of the product. Yesterday, the inquiry heard that the firm had dismissed the test internally as a “rogue result”, but had not commissioned any further testing to confirm or disprove it.
Showing Mr Schmidt the line in the certificate that referred to the Euroclass B rating, Mr Millett said: “I’m suggesting to you it is positively misleading because it conceals the fact that the product which achieved Euroclass B was a riveted version and not the cassette?”
“Yes, it wasn’t sufficiently precise or clear,” replied Mr Schmidt.
The inquiry was shown emails that showed Mr Wehrle reviewing a draft and final version of the BBA certificate before its publication, without raising any issues about the Class B rating.
This is despite Mr Wehrle telling Mr Schmidt after the Grenfell Tower fire that he was not aware of the “precise details” of the certificate until after the tower burned.
Asked today whether this statement from Mr Wehrle was “wrong”, Mr Schmidt said: “Yes, you are right, but we must not forget 10 years elapsed in between.”
The inquiry also saw that the BBA was provided with a certificate which showed that a fire-retardant version of the panel had achieved a ‘Class 0’ rating under British standards.
But it was given no testing that showed this standard also applied to the pure polyethylene version of the panel, despite both variants being covered by the certificate.
According to government guidance in force when Grenfell was refurbished, cladding panels that met either Euroclass B or Class 0 could be used on high rises.
A previous version of Arconic’s polyethylene-cored PE passed a Class 0 test in 1997, but this was not submitted to the BBA.
The inquiry continues with further evidence from Mr Schmidt tomorrow.
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