Waste firm fined for ‘significant fire risk’ storage

4 February 2019

Winters Haulage Limited was fined £510,000 for illegally storing ‘tonnes’ of rubbish, with the baled combustible waste ‘posing a significant fire risk’.

The government reported on the prosecution of company director Liam Patrick Winters, regarding use of a site next to Royston Sewage Treatment Works (STW) on the Hertfordshire-Cambridgeshire border. Mr Winters’ company – now in liquidation – had operated under an environmental permit at its headquarters in Hitchin, but had operated the Royston site without a permit.
It was told to clear the site by the Environment Agency (EA), with some waste taken to a landfill site and some to Hitchin, one of two large waste transfer stations it operated. However, waste transfer notes were ‘either absent or incorrect’, with more waste left illegally at the non permitted site called Kings Ride, and some baled waste later discovered at that site close to the STW.
This was refuse derived fuel (RDF) that posed a ‘significant fire risk’, with Rebecca Vanstone – the prosecutor for the EA – stating that the ‘burial of waste would never have been permitted’, as the site is above a sensitive chalk aquifer. Landfilling of waste is only authorised under a specific permit, which requires a site to be engineered to ‘strict standards’ to protect the environment.
While there was no evidence of groundwater contamination, Ms Vanstone added that there would be a time delay whilst contaminants travelled through, so there was a ‘possibility of harm in the future’. In mitigation, Mike Magee stated that in early 2014 RDF production facility Seneca Environmental Solutions Ltd offered Winters Haulage a service to deal with baled waste for transfer to Europe, but was unable to take round bales.
These were produced at the Hitchin site, and so Winters Haulage used the Royston site to store the waste ‘as a temporary measure’ until its RDF contract ‘kicked in’. Mr Magee added that Mr Winters ‘never intended to undermine the statutory regime’, but the EA served a statutory notice demanding that the site be cleared – which the company failed to comply with despite having four months to.
EA officers then visited King’s Ride – a racehorse training site – and saw six long rows of an estimated 450 green wrapped bales, some of which were ripped and revealed contents as mixed waste. Both the occupier and Winters Haulage were told to remove the waste, the latter producing waste transfer notes saying these had been taken to Hitchin, but showing that 60% was RDF, 30% card and paper and 10% plastic.
Ms Vanstone noted that this was actually ‘mixed waste’ and no bales were found with separate waste, with RDF ‘often used as a fuel’, and its potentially polluting liquid often leaking. Discrepancies in waste transfer notes, tracking of lorry movements and officer observation found that the company was ‘acting illegally’, though Mr Winters claimed there were ‘several clerical errors’ on the notes that he was unaware of.
He argued he did not know a permit was needed for the Royston site, and did not think storing materials next to a sewage works ‘was a bad place’, adding that ‘there was no fire risk’. The company continued to move bales without transfer notes, and officers became suspicious once the Royston site was cleared, as the level of the land ‘appeared to have changed’ by up to 1.5m.
Excavation found that waste had been buried, and hydrogen sulphide (landfill gas) was found, while the chalk bedrock had been excavated by up to 3.1m. Mr Winters claimed no waste was deliberately buried but some ‘may have been accidentally buried after some bales had split’, with the ground ‘re-profiled to allow access due to the harsh weather conditions’, Mr Magee adding that ‘it was never his [Mr Winters] instruction to bury the waste’.
The site has still not yet been repaired, and will cost landowner Anglian Water Group £1.9m to restore, while Cambridgeshire Fire and Rescue Service assessed the fire risk and drew up a plan due to ‘the risk of dense acrid fumes from a fire posing a threat to public safety’. This necessitated an emergency plan from the council, as the site was 2.5km from schools, nurseries, sheltered accommodation, children’s homes and care homes that could have been at risk.
The risk of polluting groundwater ‘would have been moderate to high’ from firefighting water run off, an EA analytical chemist concluding that a fire could have produced toxic substances. At Cambridge Magistrates’ Court, District Judge Ken Sheraton said Mr Winters was ‘certainly reckless’, and that the company’s actions were deliberate, with no systems preventing offences from being committed.
Mr Winters was ordered to carry out 180 hours of unpaid work as part of a 12 month community order, and ordered to pay £8,850 in costs, while the £510,000 fine consisted of £450,000 ‘saved or avoided by committing the offences’, plus costs of £30,000.
EA team leader Phil Henderson stated: ‘Illegally stockpiling thousands of tonnes of waste in this manner has potentially devastating impacts on the environment, communities and transport infrastructure. This case highlights the growing problems being faced with waste across the country and the result in court today should reassure the public that the Environment Agency is committed to bringing waste criminals to justice.’
Waste firm fined for ‘significant fire risk’ storage