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North East waste site owner prosecuted by Environment Agency

06 February 2023

THE OWNER of a closed down waste site which went up in flames has received a suspended jail sentence after a successful prosecution brought forward by the Environment Agency. Clifford Shee (aged 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.

Newcastle Crown Court heard that waste kept illegally at the site – Shee Recycling on the Durham Road in Birtley – caught fire in February last year, five months after the Environment Agency secured a court order to shut it down due to fire risk.

The blaze resulted in the East Coast rail line being closed, schools being shut down, residents told to stay indoors and local businesses disrupted to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds as the Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service deployed upwards of 250 firefighters and ten appliances to tackle the blaze.

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 of rehabilitation activity work with the Probation Service. For the fly-tipping offences, Shee was fined the sum of £5,000 and ordered to pay almost £12,000 in prosecution costs.

Significant fire risk

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 do come with strict conditions.

During several visits conducted by the Environment Agency and the Fire and Rescue Service between January and May 2021, Shee was told that his site created a significant fire risk. Environment Agency officers gave him a list of actions to bring his site back into compliance, including the removal of 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 with these requests, 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, Environment Agency officers saw evidence that the site was still operating and, in September 2021, the Agency secured a restriction order at court which closed down Shee Recycling. Shee was told he would only be allowed access to the premises to clear the waste, which he never did. As stated, the fire broke out in February last year.

Newcastle Crown Court also heard that, on 11 February 2021, 46 black bags of waste were dumped at Britannia Terrace in Fencehouses, while 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 sub-contracted by reputable waste disposable contractors. Between 2018 and 2021, Shee received over £150,000 for these disposal services.

Officers worked ‘tirelessly’

Andrew Turner, environment manager for the Environment Agency in the North East, said: “Our officers worked tirelessly with our partners at the Fire and Rescue 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 show a blatant disregard for the law. The safety of the public and protection of the environment is our priority. The fire exerted a major impact on the community, infrastructure and air and water quality.”

Turner added: “Criminal behaviour like this undermines legitimate businesses that work hard to make a living within the regulations. Hopefully, this sentence will send out a message to others who flout the law that they can expect action to be taken against them.”

Newcastle Crown Court heard that Shee had twice been convicted and fined on previous occasions, in 2016 and 2019, for environmental offences committed at his Birtley site. Some hazardous waste, which Shee claimed he would clear, was still present at the site and ignited during the fire.

On behalf of Shee, Simon Goldberg KC said that his client 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 the defendant 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. Despite Shee having been denied access to the site for several months beforehand, he had to take full responsibility for what transpired.

Fire safety risks identified

Paul Russell, area manager at the Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service, commented: “We had worked together with the Environment Agency to support the enforcement action taken 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.”

Russell continued: “Numerous fire safety risks were identified at that time. This incident could have been avoided if quicker action had been taken by the site owner to make the premises safe.”

Further, Russell observed: “The incident was declared a major one by the Fire and Rescue Service and the response by our firefighters during the fire itself was incredible. They worked tirelessly to protect the community and helped to contain the fire such that it didn’t spread to nearby properties or the railway line. We welcome this conviction and remain committed to continuing to work with our partners at the Environment Agency to keep the community safe.”