The incident is the latest of several at waste treatment facilities. In December, Cleansing Service Group was fined £250,000 for a catalogue of offences at its site near Gloucester, which led to a serious fire in 2000 (ENDS Report 347, pp 59-60 ). In April 2002, Distillex's Tyneside solvent recovery operation was destroyed by a massive blaze (ENDS Report 334, p 56 ).
Shanks' site at Tofts Farm Industrial Estate near Hartlepool handles a wide range of chemical wastes including acidic and caustic liquids, flammable substances and laboratory chemicals. It carries out treatment processes and aggregates other wastes for treatment elsewhere.
The site is not currently regulated under the Control of Major Accidents Hazards (COMAH) regime, although it may fall under it as a result of recent amendments to the EU Directive (ENDS Report 349, p 58 ).
The fire started in the evening of 3 March in the waste transfer area and was finally extinguished the following morning. At the height of the blaze, 50 firefighters and 12 fire engines were on site.
The fire caused several explosions and emissions of thick, acrid, black smoke. As a precaution, alarmed residents in the town of Seaton Carew, more than a mile away, were warned to stay indoors, although weather conditions dispersed the pollution. Two firemen were taken to hospital for checks.
The fire consumed most of the flammable wastes stored at the site, along with several 10,000-litre storage tanks containing corrosive and oily liquid waste, although some areas of the site remain intact.
The Environment Agency says that, aside from smoke, the fire appears to have had little environmental impact. Firewater was largely contained on site, although there was some impact to adjacent land which Shanks is now cleaning up.
A joint investigation with the Health and Safety Executive is in its early stages. The regulators say that the immediate cause of the fire was strips of lithium metal, which can become reactive when exposed to water.
The Agency's investigating officer, Martin Swainston, said that it should be standard procedure to segregate different types of waste, such as reactive, toxic and flammable.
In 2002, the site was the subject of HSE enforcement action. A prohibition notice prevented it from taking laboratory wastes until the "poor condition" of storage facilities was addressed. A subsequent improvement notice instructed Shanks to address the storage of "incompatible" wastes at the transfer station. Shanks complied with both notices.