Five years after raids during the Environment Agency’s (EA) biggest hazardous waste investigation, in which 10 people were arrested, two directors have been given suspended prison sentences at the conclusion of the case.
John Barcham and Lee Phelan were sentenced on 3 October on four charges, following a hearing at Bristol Crown Court in July. At that hearing the pair were cleared on a total of seven other charges.
At sentencing, their company Churngold Recycling was fined a total of £22,450 for four offences.
No action was taken against the eight other people held during the September 2012 raids.
Codenamed ‘Operation Durable’, the EA investigation relates to a period in 2011 when Churngold operated a waste transfer site at Hallen Yard on the Severn View Industrial Estate, Avonmouth, supplying soil and aggregate for the building industry.
In June 2011, Churngold was awarded a contract to remove hazardous waste from a site in Oxford, belonging to the car company BMW, to its Avonmouth yard for treatment prior to it being used as a building material.
Churngold had also been contracted to supply 60,000 tonnes of aggregate to the site of a new Co-operative supermarket distribution centre at Cabot Park, Avonmouth.
Building workers at the Co-op site complained that the Churngold material gave them “runny and sore eyes”. One worker said it smelt like “faeces and bleach” and “took his breath away”.
Waste from the Oxford site had undergone partial treatment to remove asbestos, but some of the material remained and was still hazardous when it arrived at Hallen Yard. The company was told the waste required further treatment. As operations manager, Lee Phelan would have been aware of the requirements of the transfer station’s permit conditions, the EA said.
Churngold’s environment manager became concerned at the hazardous nature of the BMW car plant waste and told Barcham and Phelan it was untreatable. They repeatedly ignored her warnings.
About this time, a former Churngold employee warned the Co-op that contaminated material had been delivered to Cabot Park. Analysis revealed the presence of asbestos in 47 of 60 samples, high levels of total petroleum hydrocarbons, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and significant levels of leachable lead, cyanide, copper, antimony and total sulphate concentrations that posed a risk to groundwater and nearby watercourses.
The company failed to inform the EA of the amount of hazardous material being stockpiled at Hallen Yard or where it had come from. The volume of materials arriving at the site made it impossible to segregate or treat properly and the site was in breach of its permit.
Work on the Co-op site was suspended in December 2011 following the analysis. The EA confirmed the material was illegally deposited hazardous waste and ordered it be removed for safe disposal.
Churngold Recycling statement in 2012:
”We regard the actions taken by the EA over the last few days as astonishing and will be defending our position and reputation extremely robustly. Churngold Recycling has been engaged in a technical dispute with the EA for several months concerning the categorisation of material as a product or a waste. The discussions are very complex and our legal team has been actively engaged to help resolve the issue.”
Judge James Patrick said that “the treatment of the waste was unscientific and amateur” and that the defendants showed a “flagrant disregard for the law”. He praised the EA for the quality of its professional investigation.
Adrian Evans, for the EA, said: “Churngold Recycling had a culture where commercial gain was given priority over environmental protection. We hope this prosecution sends out a strong deterrent message to others who flout the law.”
Phelan and Barcham resigned as directors in May 2013. The company changed its name to South West Recycling Limited earlier this year, and is currently a non-trading entity.
Summary of convictions:
- Between 1 July to 31 December 2011 – failed to comply with conditions of permit at Hallen Yard, Avonmouth, an offence under Reg 38(2) under the Environmental Permitting Regulations: £12,000 fine
- Between 1 September to 31 September 2011 – deposited controlled waste at the Co-operative Site, Cabot Park, Avonmouth without a permit contrary to Section 33(1)(a) and 33(6) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990: £3,000 fine
- Between 1 January to 31 December 2011 – treated, kept or disposed of controlled waste in a manner likely to cause pollution or harm to human health contrary to Sections 33(1) and 33(6) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990: £5,000 fine
- Between 1 June to 31 December 2011 – deposited controlled waste at Minors Farms, Hallen, Bristol, contrary to Section 33(1)(a) and 33(6) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990: £2,450 fine
- Between 1 July to 31 December 2011 – failed to comply with, or contravention of, a Waste Management Permit condition contrary to Regulation 38(2) of the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2010: six months suspended for 12 months and costs of £10,000
- Ordered to carry out 75 hours of unpaid work
- Between 1 July to 31 December 2011 – failed to comply with, or contravention of, a Waste Management Permit condition contrary to Regulation 38(2) of the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2010: six months suspended for 12 months
- Between 1 September and 30 September 2011 – deposited controlled waste on land without a permit contrary to Section 33(1)(a) and 33(6) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990: one month suspended for 12 months
- Between 1 January to 31 December 2011 – treated, kept or disposed of controlled waste in a manner likely to cause pollution of the environment or harm to human health contrary to Section 33(1)(c) and 33(6) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990: one month suspended for 12 months
- Ordered to carry out 100 hours of unpaid work