The owner of a closed down waste site which went up in flames, seriously disrupting road and rail services and forcing local schools to close has been given a suspended jail sentence and ordered pay almost £17,000 in fines and costs.
Clifford Shee, 58, from Bright Street in Roker, Sunderland, appeared at Newcastle Crown Court for sentencing on Thursday 26 January after previously pleading guilty to a series of waste and fly-tipping offences in a case brought by the Environment Agency.
The court heard that waste kept illegally on his site – Shee Recycling at Durham Road in Birtley – caught fire in February 2022, five months after the Environment Agency secured a court order to shut it down due to fire risk.
The blaze saw the East Coast rail line closed, schools shut down, residents told to stay indoors, and local businesses disrupted to the amount of hundreds of thousands of pounds as Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service deployed more than 250 officers and 10 appliances to tackle it.
Shee was also sentenced after accepting responsibility for large amounts of fly-tipped waste in Fencehouses, Sunderland, in a linked investigation carried out in partnership with Sunderland City Council.
Shee was sentenced to 30 weeks imprisonment, suspended for 18 months. He was also ordered to complete 200 hours of unpaid work and undergo 20 days rehabilitation activity work with the Probation Service. For the fly tipping offences, he was fined £5,000, and was also ordered to pay almost £12,000 in prosecution costs.
Prosecuting on behalf of the Environment Agency, Ben Thomas told the court that Shee Recycling was operating as an ‘exempt facility’ for low level waste activities which did not require an environmental permit, meaning a small amount of waste that was not mixed could be temporarily stored on site. Waste exemptions come with strict conditions.
During several visits by the Environment Agency and fire service between January and May 2021, Shee was told his site created a significant fire risk. Agency officers gave him a list of actions to bring his site back into compliance, including removing all unauthorised waste, separating the different types of waste, reducing the size of the waste piles and creating fire breaks between them.
In May 2021, after failing to comply, Shee was told that his waste exemptions had been deregistered, but he quickly registered new exemptions, actions which the court agreed showed the persistent nature of his offending.
During follow up visits officers saw evidence the site was still operating, and in September 2021 the Environment Agency secured a restriction order at court which closed down Shee Recycling. Shee was told he would only be allowed access to clear the waste, which he never did. The fire broke out in February 2022.
The court also heard that on 11 February 2021, 46 black bags of waste were dumped at Britannia Terrace in Fencehouses, and the entrance to a pedestrian tunnel at nearby Lambton Lane was almost completely blocked by fly-tipped bags of waste. Both were traced back to Shee Recycling, which had been subcontracted by reputable waste disposable contractors. Between 2018 and 2021 Shee received over £150,000 for these disposal services.
Andrew Turner, Environment Manager for the Environment Agency in the North East, said:
“Our officers worked tirelessly with our partners at the fire service to close Shee’s site after he consistently ignored official instructions to take action, disregarded our repeated warnings that a fire would break out and continued to have a blatant disregard for the law.
“The safety of the public and protection of the environment is our priority and the fire had a major impact on the community, infrastructure and air and water quality.
“Criminal behaviour like this undermines legitimate businesses that work hard to make a living within the regulations and hopefully this sentence will send out a message to others who flout the law they can expect action to be taken against them.”
The court heard that Shee had twice previously been convicted and fined, in 2016 and 2019, for environmental offences committed at his Birtley site. Some hazardous waste which he claimed he would clear, was still on the site and ignited during the fire.
On behalf of Shee, Simon Goldberg KC said that he had tried to comply with the Environment Agency’s requirements, hiring expensive equipment for his business and removing as much waste as he could.
Sentencing Shee, Judge Edward Legard said that he had been reckless and should have stopped operating when told to do so. He agreed that there had been a major impact from the fire, and despite Shee having been denied access to the site for several months beforehand he had to take full responsibility.
Paul Russell, Area Manager at Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service (TWFRS), said:
“We had worked together with the Environment Agency to support the enforcement action against this premises prior to the fire at the site. We always seek to work together with businesses but will take and support action when we believe public safety is at risk.
“Numerous fire safety risks were identified at that time and this incident could have been avoided if quicker action had been taken by the site owner to make the premises safe.
“The incident was declared a major incident by TWFRS and the response by our firefighters during the fire itself was incredible. They worked tirelessly to protect their communities and helped contain the fire, so it didn’t spread to nearby properties or the rail line.
“But fires of this magnitude do inflict damage on the environment and so we welcome this conviction and remain committed to continuing to work with our partners at the Environment Agency to keep our communities safe.”