Ten-day blaze at South Yorkshire firm was biggest fire in 11 years

A ten-day blaze at a South Yorkshire recycling firm which failed to store waste wood correctly was the worst incident firefighters had tackled in 11 years, a court heard.

Friday, 17th January 2020, 3:34 pm
Updated Tuesday, 21st January 2020, 3:40 pm

At its height, smoke from the "self-combusting" fire in a huge pile of wood chippings at R Plevin & Sons' Crow Edge factory, in Hazlehead, could be smelled 16 miles away in Sheffield.

Around 45 firefighters - a third of South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service's total resources - were needed to battle the flames every day, between June 2 and 12, 2014.

Seven appliances, including one high-volume pump borrowed from West Yorkshire, were needed in the £566,000 operation.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Firefighters braved heat which could be felt 30 metres away from the 7,000 tonne pile and pumped thousands of litres of water from a nearby reservoir, said James Puzey, for the Environment Agency (EA), at Sheffield Crown Court, on Friday.

But their efforts were hampered by the lack of fire-breaks between the stacks, the court heard.

Contaminated “fire-water” was discharged into two lagoons on the 50-acre site, and escaped into a dyke which feeds into the River Don, he said.

A nearby sewage treatment plant, run by Yorkshire Water, had to be shut down at a cost of £45,000, because ammonia levels in the water soared to ten times the permitted level, and fish toxins from burned MDF were found.

Five weeks earlier, a blaze at the same site was described by the service as the “third worst for 11 years,” Mr Puzey said.

The company was warned by the EA to reduce the size of its stock-piles because of the risk of self-combustion, but stacks in the June blaze were estimated to be 18 to 20 metres tall.

"The company was well aware of the risk of self-combustion but took no action to address this risk," he said.

The company claimed it couldn't afford tankers to transport the polluted water and wanted to pump it into the dyke, but in the end this didn't happen.

Even three months after the fire, only 11 per cent of the stock piles were deemed to be compliant with EA advice.

R Plevin & Sons bought the site in May 2013, for £2.5m, and built the £5m factory creating 50 jobs, after signing a 25-year contract with E.ON, to process waste wood for the Blackburn Meadows biomass power station, near Sheffield.

Andrew Thomas QC, mitigating, said the firm accepted breaching permitted storage limits, and "there was no dispute this led to the June fire."

He said boss Jamie Plevin, finance manager Graham Hobson, and compliance officer Michelle Barnes, wanted to "express their regret for what took place."

He said a 95 tonne backlog of wood was caused by delays to the opening of the £120m Blackburn Meadows power station.

The company nearly went bust in December 2014, he said, and boss Jamie Plevin re-mortgaged his own home to meet the £800,000 clean-up costs the family business faced.

The pollution was aggravated by the “once-in-30-years event” of Hurricane Bertha, he said, and the firm later removed 30m litres of water from the lagoons.

Judge Robert Moore said if the EA had prosecuted and convicted the individuals involved, they would be starting prison sentences.

He fined the firm £200,000 with £30,000 towards costs.