Wood recycling company R Plevin & Sons Limited (PLEVINS) has been fined £200,000 at Sheffield Crown Court in a successful prosecution by the Environment Agency following a series of environmental incidents during 2014.
The company was prosecuted after a major fire at its Barnsley wood recycling centre in 2014 led to the pollution of a local river, the temporary closure of a sewage treatment works and smoke affecting homes 20 miles away in Sheffield.
Prosecuting for the Environment Agency, James Puzey told the court that PLEVINS has operated at the Wavin Complex at Hazlehead, Crow Edge near Barnsley since April 2013.
The company shreds up to 150,000 tonnes of waste wood each year to remove contaminants, for the purposes of creating a biomass fuel, which it is contracted to supply to EON’s biomass energy plant at Blackburn Meadows, Sheffield.
In PLEVINS case, its environmental permit required the company to have detailed working plans to manage the risk of environmental harm. This included obligations to comply with mandatory guidance on the maximum size of stockpiles of waste wood, which in sufficient quantities can self-combust if not properly managed.
After a fire in April 2014, concerns were expressed to the company by the Environment Agency about its management of the incident and its fire prevention and incident response plans. The Environment Agency subsequently demanded that changes and improvements be made to bring the site into compliance with the conditions of its environmental permit.
This included the requirement to produce a detailed incident management plan and limit the size of stock piles of waste wood, which were found to be in excess of the maximum limits allowed.
Failure to comply with the legal requirements of an environmental permit is a serious offence that can damage the environment, undermine those who adhere to the rules and cause misery for local communities and we welcome the sentence handed down today
Despite this, in June 2014 a second large fire occurred lasting 13 days. It was caused by self-combustion of the waste wood stockpiles. South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service described it as its largest resource commitment for over 11 years, using an average of 45 personnel at any one time, at a cost of over £500,000.
The large amount of water used to tackle the blaze drained into two off-site lagoons managed by the company. The Environment Agency instructed PLEVINS to take action to prevent this fire water run off entering Sledbrook Dyke and the River Don.
Despite this, appropriate action was not taken and two months after the fire, water contaminated with toxic pollutants, was allowed to escape into the gardens of nearby residents and the dyke. This led to pollution of the watercourse and caused the nearby Yorkshire Water sewage treatment works to be put out of action due to the pollution of incoming water from the combined sewer.
Representing the company, Andrew Thomas QC said that the company’s culpability for the incidents shouldn’t be determined by using hindsight, and he heavily criticised the Environment Agency for the delay in bringing the prosecution.
But in passing sentence, Judge Robert Moore said that the risks of self-combustion in stacks of waste wood were well known, and that the company had been guilty of a deliberate failure to put in place systems which would have avoided commission of the offences. He also ordered the company to pay £30,000 prosecution costs in addition to the fine.
A spokesperson for the Environment Agency said: “PLEVINS systems for addressing the known risk of a self-heating combustion on site were wholly inadequate. It received an unmistakeable warning with the fire that occurred in April 2014.
“The Defendant did not act on that warning before the second fire sufficiently or at all. Its response to the second fire was to look to the Fire Service and the Environment Agency for direction, initiative and resources. After the second fire it failed to address the polluted waters sitting in its lagoons and it failed to reduce its stack sizes as required.
“Failure to comply with the legal requirements of an environmental permit is a serious offence that can damage the environment, undermine those who adhere to the rules and cause misery for local communities and we welcome the sentence handed down today. It demonstrates that blatant disregard for environmental regulations will not be tolerated.”
On 31 July 2019, the company pleaded guilty to two Environmental Permitting regulation offences: operating in breach of their permit, and causing a polluting discharge to occur which was not in accordance with a permit.