THE GRENFELL inquiry heard that Arconic’s US based headquarters ‘was probably told’ of the issues relating to its cladding, according to French subsidiary president Claude Schmidt.

Debbie French, the company’s UK sales manager from 2007 to 2014, gave evidence at the inquiry last week, and admitted she ‘knew’ the cladding could burn but ‘did not tell customers’, with the company providing the ‘more flammable’ panels ‘by default’ as part of a marketing strategy. Ms French said that the marketing strategy recognised the fire retardant version that ‘drastically increases fire resistance’ was ‘less likely to secure contracts on price’.

She knew the PE version of the Reynobond product ‘was and is flammable’, and it was also reported that Arconic sought to ‘keep secret’ differences between the polyethylene (PE) and fire retardant versions, with a report from a 2004 test in a French laboratory seeing the panels in a cassette form, as they were used in Grenfell. This test was stopped after 850 seconds because ‘it was emitting too much heat’.

Later last week, she revealed she ‘failed to tell’ customers about a report that showed it was ‘unsafe for use on high rises’, the inquiry hearing that in early February 2014 the company’s former technical manager Claude Wehrle – one of three Arconic executives refusing to give evidence at the inquiry – sent colleagues including Ms French a test report showing that the PE cladding only achieved Euroclass E – until then, it had used a 2008 report to claim it met Euroclass B.

This was the basis upon which the British Board of Agrement (BBA) had issued it a certificate stating the product ‘may be regarded’ as meeting the UK’s Class 0 rating, which ‘effectively cleared the product for use on high rises’ including Grenfell. Mr Wehrle’s email said that ‘the previous “B” class reported done for Reynobond PE in riveted system[s] can no more be used from now’.

However, the inquiry heard that Ms French ‘made no attempt’ to inform buyers about this update, and sent the ‘by now defunct’ BBA certificate to cladding subcontractors at Grenfell two months later. Most recently last week, she confirmed that Arconic continued to sell the PE cladding ‘despite concerns about its safety’, due to ‘cost implications’.

Her replacement in the role - Vince Meakins – took the stand next, and said late last week that he believed the company had a Class 0 test report for the PE product ‘right up until’ Grenfell caught fire. During Mr Meakin’s evidence, it was revealed that Arconic had told French salespeople to ‘recommend a more fire safe product from 2016 onwards’, but ‘did not do the same’ in the UK.

After his evidence concluded, Mr Schmidt started giving evidence, including admitting that more tests ‘should have been carried out’ on the panels used on Grenfell, but that it was not his ‘priority’ to understand tests or certificates, and that they were ‘flammable but not necessarily dangerous’. Most recently, the inquiry heard that Mr Wehrle had told colleagues that ‘poor’ fire test results on its Reynobond cladding needed to be kept ‘very confidential’.

The Guardian and Inside Housing reported on Mr Schmidt’s continued evidence, in which he said he was ‘practically sure’ he had sent an assessment of the PE cladding’s performance to ‘one of the most senior US executives’ at Arconic’s global headquarters, namely that the panels were ‘unsafe for buildings above’ 12m in height and two years before Grenfell.

In June 2015, the inquiry heard, the company’s French subsidiary produced an assessment of the cladding panels’ safety at the request of Arconic’s global building and construction system business president Diana Perreriah, which found that the PE panels were ‘flammable’, had limitations ‘given by the smoke production and flaming droplets’, and could only be used on buildings up to 12m.

Ms Perreiah sought this assessment from Mr Schmidt, who told the inquiry he was ‘practically sure’ he had sent it to her, which the news outlet said ‘brings the US headquarters of Arconic into the spotlight’ at the inquiry, which has ‘so far focused’ on the French subsidiary. Last year, a US court rejected a product liability claim for damages against the company brought by the survivors and bereaved ‘on the basis that it should be heard in the UK’.

In response to this revelation, Arconic said ‘it is not appropriate for us to comment while the inquiry is ongoing and before all evidence has been presented in phase two’. After this, the inquiry heard that shortly after the US request, Mr Wehrle emailed colleagues to say ‘PE is DANGEROUS on facades, and everything should be transferred to FR as a matter of urgency’, but this did not happen until after Grenfell.

Inquiry counsel Richard Millett asked ‘if it was dangerous, why were you still selling it’, before asking if the management of the company ‘chose simply [to] ignore’ Mr Wehrle’s warning ‘and substitute his view for something more commercial?’. Mr Schmidt disagreed, and said that the company ‘did nothing’ to stop sales of the cladding despite two high rise fires in the Middle East ‘involving similar materials sparking internal concerns’.

After the 2012 fire at the Tamweel Tower in Dubai, Arconic continued to sell the PE panels and ‘did not warn customers’ of the possible risks, while Mr Schmidt noted he had read a news report on the fire that said the cladding ‘may have been the culprit behind the blaze’s fire spread’. This was circulated internally via an email titled “Cladding blamed in skyscraper fire – sounds like something our customers make”.

Mr Wehrle also emailed colleagues to state that while the Dubai tower used a rival version of the paels, ‘all PE composites react in the same way’. After another tower in the United Arab Emirates in 2013, competitor Alucobond told clients it would no longer sell PE cladding panels, adding that ‘the perils of using cheap ACM alternatives have been exposed’, and that it would only sell its own FR panels.

Mr Schmidt said he ‘did not believe’ Alucobond had ‘actually stopped sales’, and was asked by Mr Millett why Arconic did not attach warnings to its own panels. He responded ‘I can’t answer’, adding: ‘I don’t believe our competitors did it. Ten years later it is a legitimate question to raise, but at the time it wasn’t so obvious.’

Asked why the fact that the cladding had achieved Euroclass E did not make ‘the need for a health warning obvious’, Mr Schmidt said ‘I don’t have an answer’, and stressed that the Dubai fire had not spread inside the building. Arconic had also allowed a reissued version of its UK certificate for the cladding to ‘repeat a false claim’ that it met European fire standards after the fire at Grenfell, with new emails and documents from after the fire disclosed.

This related to the BBA certification, and showed that Arconic ‘failed to release’ such documents to the board even post Grenfell, allowing a new certificate to ‘continue to falsely state’ the panels were Euroclass B, and not Euroclass E as they had been tested to be. Mr Millett said that the BBA only found out about the full details of the Arconic tests when they were disclosed by the inquiry.

Mr Schmidt said that Arconic ‘halted the sale’ of the product for high rises from 26 July 2017, and only because it had ‘certain characteristics’ which ‘if used incorrectly can increase the risk of a fire spread’. However, the company had written to the BBA saying it was ‘not discontinuing the production and sale of [the PE cladding], however, because it has non-high rise and other uses’.

The company was then sent a redrafted BBA certificate for the product, containing a new clause saying it ‘should not be used over 18m, and which only applied to the riveted system. A list of the tests carried out on the product however said the PE version had obtained Euroclass B, which Mr Millett said was a ‘very significant and obvious misstatement’; Mr Schmidt agreed, stating ‘yes, I think it’s an error, it is very simply a mistake’.

He added that at this point, Arconic had stopped producing the PE product to ‘standardise its process’, so there was ‘no need for the sentence to have appeared at all’. Mr Millett pressed him, saying ‘that’s not a very complete answer is it […] what about somebody who wanted to know’ if the PE already on their building ‘went to look at this certificate […] do you accept such a person would be misled into thinking PE had a Class B when in fact it did not?’.

Mr Schmidt agreed, and later emails shown saw the BBA seeking fire test data in March 2018 from Arconic after a BBC News journalist ‘alerted them to serious test failures on the product’. However, Arconic did not provide the results, Mr Schmidt stating this was ‘on the basis of legal advice’, and in May 2019 the BBA told Arconic it was withdrawing the certificate ‘as we have still not received the key technical data that we have requested’.

Mr Millett added that the BBA discovered ‘all the test data’ via inquiry expert Dr Barbara Lane’s supplementary report, which Mr Schmidt said he ‘did not know’ had been the case. Another email from Mr Wehrle was shown from June 2015 in response to other staff asking about PE’s correct fire rating, where he said the PE product was ‘dangerous on facades’ and should be replaced by the FR product ‘as a matter of urgency […] this opinion is technical and anti-commercial, it seems :)’.

Asked if he knew Mr Wehrle believed the product was dangerous before the email had been sent, Mr Schmidt said he did, and Mr Millett asked ‘if it was dangerous, why were you still selling it?’; in response, Mr Schmidt said: ‘Well, I go back to something I have already said… There are lots of products on the market which are sold every day and maintain dangers or risks and these risks can be contained in various ways.’

Mr Millett asked “was it that Mr Wehrle was a lone voice in Arconic who was trying to tell senior management that PE was dangerous on facades, but he was being ignored for commercial reasons?’, to which Mr Schmidt said ‘no’.