A Teesside wood recycling company has been fined for an environmental offence in the aftermath of a blaze.
UK Wood Recycling (UKWR), sister firm of Manchester-based Hadfields, was fined £72,000, ordered to pay costs of £71,335 and a victim surcharge of £120 at Teesside Crown Court.
The company had previously pleaded not guilty but, earlier this month, it admitted to keeping waste wood in a way likely to cause pollution to the environment or harm to human health at its site on the Wilton International industrial estate near Redcar.
Prosecuting for the Environment Agency (EA), Christopher Badger told the court that the company had breached environmental laws because the size of its wood piles made spontaneous combustion highly likely.
They significantly exceeded the maximum sizes and lacked the recommended fire breaks as specified in the EA’s TGN7.01 regulations, a precursor to its controversial fire prevention plan (FPP) guidance.
According to the EA, officers from Cleveland Fire Brigade said the storage methods were as risky as those that had led to a fire which happened at the site in Christmas 2013 (pictured).
Between April and September 2014, wood levels began to increase, the EA said, and UKWR was instructed to reduce the size of the pile by August. But it failed to meet the deadline, blaming staff illness.
But Vicki Hughes, group business development director at UKWR, said the firm was not storing material outside the limits of its agreed permit and the wood was stored in much smaller stacks than at the time of the fire in 2013.
The EA suspended the company’s permit in September 2014, preventing it from bringing any more wood on-site. This was later reinstated when the company agreed to reduce stocks on site.
Steven Manchester of the fire safety group BRE Global concluded in a report that the manner of UKWR’s storage made it likely that it would cause pollution to the environment and harm to human health due to the increased probability of self-combustion.
UKWR also asked for a separate offence to be taken into consideration after it admitted during 2015 illegally depositing more than 8,200 tonnes of wood waste on an adjoining site which it was leasing.
The court also heard that the company was fined £200,000 in November 2013 following a fatality on its main site in 2008. The prosecution said this showed that the company had not paid proper attention to regulatory controls.
In sentencing, Judge Howard Crowson recognised that, since 2014, the company had shown commitment to improving its fire prevention and protection measures. He also observed that, until 2013, there were few criticisms of the company’s operations.
Tristan Drought, environment management team leader at the EA, said the sentence reflects the seriousness of the situation officers found on-site in September 2014.
He said: “The company had previously built up similar huge piles of waste wood that culminated in a large fire lasting 16 days, seriously impacting on the community, and needing a large amount of time and resource from Cleveland Fire Brigade.
“During this investigation, the company was given repeated opportunities to comply with regulatory guidance and the advice of the local fire brigade but chose to disregard this, once again building up large volumes of wood and putting profit before human health and the environment.
“This was a complex investigation and I would like to thank our investigating officers for all of their time, effort and resolve, and Cleveland Fire Brigade, whose support has been absolutely vital in this case.
“We are working together with the company to find a way it can operate as a profitable business while taking fire prevention and environmental concerns into account. The company has invested considerable funds on-site and we continue to work with them to find a satisfactory way forward.”
Hughes said: “We are very disappointed to have found ourselves in this position because we are a company that strives to operate to the safest and highest standards at all times.
“Since 2014 the FPP guidance has undergone further changes and we continue to work closely with the Environment Agency to ensure all possible risks are minimised.”
Many in the industry including the Wood Recyclers Association have criticised the latest version of FPP guidance, which they have described as unworkable.