Businessman given suspended sentence after waste fire destroys firm

A 73-year old businessman from Middlesbrough has been given a six-month prison sentence, suspended for 18 months, after an out-of-control blaze caused by waste being set on fire next to oil drums resulted in over £500,000 in damages and the destruction of his firm.

Brian Hannon, Managing Director of Melbray Chemicals Ltd, a firm located in Eaglescliffe by Stockton-on-Tees that created and supplied chemicals to the oil and gas drilling industry, pleaded guilty to two waste offences in Teeside Crown Court on Wednesday (16 November) after the fire, caused by waste being burnt on the chemical site in a fire pit.

Businessman fined and sentenced after waste fire destroys firm

The court heard that Melbray Chemicals used to see raw material brought onto the Eagescliffe site for blending, while surplus stock, including corrosive, flammable and toxic substances, were kept outside.

Rather than rely on commercial waste collection, Hannon instructed staff to burn waste on site in a fire pit, near to some chemical drums.  

The firm’s production manager had no formal training during his 27 years at the company, and Craig Hassall of the Environment Agency said that the absence of a concreted surface at the site had allowed chemicals to spill into the ground with no barrier or adequate drainage to contain a spill.

The court was told that on 5 March 2015, staff at the firm started a fire to get rid of paperwork and wooden pallets, but did not ensure that the fire was properly extinguished once finished. Hannon then placed more materials in the fire pit, ignorant of the possibility of hot embers still being there.

After lunchtime, two chemical containers caught fire, emitting a billowing cloud of black smoke that was fed by the wind, meaning staff were unable to get the fire under control. The emergency services were called, and subsequently closed Durham Lane and evacuated several businesses, before tackling the fire for several hours.

During the blaze, and estimated 1,600 litres of formaldehyde spilled onto the ground, as well as industrial-strength sulphuric and hydrochloric acid, posing a health risk to fire-fighters and residents alike.

‘Reckless practices’ have a ‘high price’

The fire had a serious financial impact, with insurers paying out £1 million to clean up the site and make it and other properties able to function again, while Hannon’s firm went into receivership following the destruction of his site.

Hannon, who had never previously been in trouble with the law, said that he had been unaware of the illegality of burning waste on his site, and admitted that he had left the fire pit unattended on the day of the fire. On top of his suspended prison sentence, Hannon was ordered to pay £5,000 in costs as well as an £80 victim surcharge.

After the sentencing, Iain Barker-Jones of the Environment Agency said: “Hannon ignored environmental law because he wanted to cut corners and save himself the cost of running his business legally. His reckless practices had a high price though because his business went up in smoke and it was only due to the quick actions of the emergency services that there wasn’t a major pollution incident.

“This case demonstrates the need for all businesses to take their environmental responsibilities seriously. Like Hannon, failure to do so can destroy your business, have an immediate impact on people around you and pollute the environment for future generations.”

right Waste, right Place

A campaign run by the Environmental Services Association is this year trying to spread awareness of business’s responsibilities to safely and properly dispose of their waste.

The ‘right Waste, right Place’ campaign is seeking to reduce levels of waste crime in the UK, whether through ignorance or criminal intent, and is emphasising the Duty of Care, which requires all businesses to make sure their commercial waste is handled by licenced carriers.

Waste crime cost local authorities £69 million in 2014/15, with councils having to deal with over 962,000 recorded incidents, particularly those involving fly-tipping.

ESA research shows that 94 per cent of organisations breaching the Duty of Care are small and medium-sized enterprises, and that while almost 97 per cent of SMEs believe that they are complying with legal obligations, almost half are not.

More information and materials from ‘right Waste, right Place’ are available at the campaign’s website.

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