In an article entitled Explosion firm hit with six-figure fine the Lancashire Evening Post is reporting that Veolia has been fined £150,000 and ordered to pay £90,000 in prosecution costs “after a massive inferno which closed motorways and schools and brought Preston’s roads to a standstill.”

Passing sentence at Preston Crown Court, Judge Stuart Baker said it was “merciful” that no-one was hurt or killed. Burning missiles were thrown up to 200 feet in the air as over 132,000 litres of chemicals were set alight in the blaze on July 2 2007. As fire raged through the site almost 70 firefighters and 10 senior officers battled for more than eight hours to bring the 30 ft flames under control.

Veolia ES UK Ltd – which owns 15% of the entire UK waste materials market – pleaded guilty to two breaches of Health and Safety Regulations relating to the segregation of hazardous waste and the appropriate training of staff to handle flammable and combustible substances.

Fire broke out at the waste handling site on the Red Scar Industrial Estate at around 6am when lithium batteries shipped in from the Ministry of Defence in Northern Ireland spontaneously combusted, setting fire to oxidisers and organic peroxides which were being stored nearby.

Thick black clouds of smoke billowed across the motorway as the M6 and M65 were closed for three hours due to poor visibility and the risks of smoke inhalation.

Judge Baker is reported as saying:

The defendant’s breach of regulations created the potential for an incident of greater magnitude than that which actually occurred…Health and Safety Executive (HSE) guidance notes dating back to 1991 stated organic peroxides should be stored separately.
Oxidisers were also stored on combustible wooden pallets further adding to the fire hazard.

The fire was a “foreseeable risk” and that any fine imposed should reflect the serious breach of regulations and serve as a reminder to the directors and those in a similar line of business that the HSE regulations are to be complied with in the interests of safety of the employees and the public.

Linda Murray, HSE Principle Inspector for Lancashire, is quoted as saying:

Any businesses that have flammable substances on their premises need to take appropriate measures to minimise the risks of fire or explosions. Veolia clearly could and should have done more.

Peter Holland, Lancashire Fire and Rescue’s Chief Fire Officer said:

Our firefighters worked courageously in extremely hazardous conditions wearing chemical protection suits to tackle the fire at extremely close quarters when necessary. Thanks to their efforts the fire was prevented from spreading beyond the site perimeter.

Kevin Lodge, Investigating Officer at the Environment Agency, said;

This was a serious incident which had the potential to cause long-term environmental damage, as well as posing a risk to staff and members of the public.Any business handling hazardous waste must ensure they have suitable procedures in place to identify, store and transport this type of waste. Veolia – which in 2008 had an international turnover in excess of £9 billion must also pay £90,000 prosecution costs.

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