A WOOD recycling firm has been fined £200,000 after a major fire at its site sparked widespread pollution and the closure of a sewage treatment works.

R Plevin and Sons was also ordered to pay £30,000 costs in connection with environmental incidents in 2014.

The Crow Edge company was brought before Sheffield Crown Court in a prosecution by the Environment Agency.

The blaze led to the pollution of a river, temporary closure of the treatment works and smoke affecting homes 20 miles away.
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The fire cost £500,000 to tackle and was the fire service’s biggest resource commitment for more than 11 years.

The court heard that the firm did not act on warnings about fire prevention, resulting in a second fire which lasted for 13 days.

Prosecuting for the Environment Agency, James Puzey told the court that Plevin has run the Wavin Complex at Hazlehead 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 in Sheffield.

Its environmental permit required 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, the Environment Agency expressed concerns to the company about its management of the incident and its fire prevention and response plans.

The agency subsequently demanded that changes and improvements be made to comply with environmental permit conditions. This included the requirement to produce a detailed incident management plan and limit the size of stockpiles of waste wood, which were found to be over maximum limits allowed.

The court was told that 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 environmental permit required this to be contained to prevent this fire water run off entering Sledbrook Dike and the River Don.

Despite this, appropriate action was not taken and water contaminated by the fire was allowed to escape into the gardens of nearby residents and the dike. 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.

Two months later, in August 2014, the Environment Agency told the company to take action to prevent further contaminated fire water entering the Sledbrook Dike. Despite this, an additional discharge occurred over several days.

Representing the company, Andrew Thomas QC said the firm’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 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.

‘Ignored warnings led to fire’

WARNINGS about safety at Plevin were not followed according to the crime officer from the Environment Agency.

Edward Betts, from the Environment Agency said repeated warnings were not heeded.

He said: “Plevin’s 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, which demonstrates that blatant disregard for environmental regulations will not be tolerated.”

In July this year, 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.