CSG lands record fine for waste mismanagement

Cleansing Service Group, one of Britain's largest privately owned waste businesses, has received the largest ever fine for waste offences following a serious fire at its waste treatment site at Sandhurst, near Gloucester, in 2000. Official investigations into the incident also revealed that CSG illegally buried thousands of tonnes of hazardous waste under the site.

At Gloucester Crown Court on 5 December, CSG was fined £250,000 and ordered to pay £400,000 in costs. The company pleaded guilty to 15 health and safety and waste management offences:

  • Failing to protect both employees and the public from risks arising from the storage of wastes, in contravention of sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. A third charge related to a breach of regulation 8(1) of the ionising radiation regulations. Fine: £30,000.

  • Three breaches of section 33 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 relating to keeping controlled waste in a manner likely to cause harm to human health and the environment, failing to comply with waste management licence conditions and failing to comply with the site's working plan. Fine: £60,000.

  • Two breaches of the waste management duty of care, contrary to section 34(1)(b) of the 1990 Act, by failing to prevent the escape of selenium and solvents contaminated with BSE. Fine: £40,000.

  • Contravening regulations 15(5) and 18(1) of the special waste regulations, by failing to maintain a complete register of special waste consignment notes. Fine: £10,000.

  • Breaching section 3(1)(a) of the Control of Pollution Act 1974 by knowingly permitting the illegal deposit of controlled waste at the site. Fine: £50,000.

  • Three breaches of the Radioactive Substances Act 1993 relating to keeping unauthorised radioactive sources. Fine: £30,000.

  • Two other breaches of waste licence conditions, contrary to section 33(6) of the 1990 Act, at CSG's site in Exhall, Warwickshire. On 10 April 2002, CSG failed to have a chemist present on site. Fine: £30,000.

    The fire occurred on 30 October 2000 at CSG's waste treatment facility near Sandhurst in Gloucestershire. The site took a wide range of hazardous and non-hazardous wastes, many of which were highly flammable, including gas cylinders and acrylic resins, for treatment prior to disposal (ENDS Report 310, p 15 ).

    At about 2am, a fire broke out in an area used to store drummed and other wastes. Weather conditions were extremely poor, with gale force winds and driving rain, which helped spread the fire. The blaze reached its height at about 3.15am when there were numerous large explosions sending fireballs 100 feet into the air. Some 135 firefighters attended.

    A dense plume of black smoke blew towards Sandhurst from where 60 residents were evacuated. The smoke and fumes, which contained toxic compounds, including phosgene and hydrogen chloride, affected residents and police who reported sore eyes, coughing, chest pains and diarrhoea. One resident later developed asthma and has become incapacitated.

    On 3 November, the site, which is located on a flood plain, suffered severe flooding. The floodwaters showed extensive red coloration which was later shown to be toxic selenium. Officers also found seven 25-litre drums containing BSE-contaminated solvents.

    The Agency told the court that its investigation of how these wastes came to be on the site "laid bare the management failings" which were responsible for the incident.

    CSG had taken delivery of three drums of selenium-bearing wastes in March 2000. Jason Lee, a member of the CSG sales team, prepared a quotation for the consignment which was "wholly inadequate" since it did not identify the risks posed by the waste and therefore failed to comply with the company's licence. Neither Mr Lee nor two other members of staff were adequately qualified in chemistry - another licence requirement.

    Mr Lee described the waste as being suitable for treatment at the site, which it was not, since it reacts in air and water to produce extremely poisonous hydrogen selenide gas. The transfer station supervisor rejected the selenium as being too hazardous to treat. He expected the sales team to arrange for disposal elsewhere, but instead the drums remained on site for seven months until the fire.

    The selenium should have been kept in a lockable store reserved for reactive wastes, which was unaffected by the fire. Only one of the three drums was recovered.

    The drums of BSE-contaminated solvent arrived at CSG in 1996 from the Veterinary Laboratory Agency. CSG intended to transfer the waste for disposal by incineration. Dr Ian Carnell, the then site manager and now an associate director of CSG, sought a quotation for the removal of the waste but did not pursue the matter further.

    The solvent waste was then stored in an area meant for reactive wastes only. The transfer station supervisor knew of the existence of the waste but omitted to record its existence in an inventory. Dr Carnell claimed that he had "no direct hand" in the storage of the BSE waste, despite evidence that he had approved its presence on site.

    During the clean-up operation after the fire, the Agency also discovered that CSG had four drums containing radioactive material on site. The company has never been authorised to take such materials. The investigation revealed that this was not an isolated incident.

    The most likely cause of the fire was CSG's storage of incompatible wastes in close proximity in its waste transfer compound. Officers found 12 bulk containers containing isopropanol, a highly flammable solvent, next to 60 drums of laboratory wastes containing a cocktail of chemicals at risk of spontaneously combusting, especially if disturbed - for example by being knocked over in a high wind.

    The Agency told the court that official guidance on the storage of dangerous substances, in particular on the segregation of incompatible wastes, had not been followed. According to the Agency, "the plans devised by CSG for the storage of substances appeared to be developed purely as a convenience to operations on the site."

    Dr Carnell explained at interview that to comply with the guidance "would require a site the size of an airfield...and that in certain cases the site could not comply with the published guidance on separation distances because of its size."

    During the investigation, an interview with a former CSG employee led the Agency to uncover the illegal burial of waste and contaminated soil under what became the waste transfer station. The Agency said that the £400,000 cost of its investigation was due largely to its work on this issue.

    After a preliminary investigation using imaging equipment and boreholes, a number of trial pits were dug in 2002. Among the wastes retrieved were a large number of drums, many of which still contained liquid wastes such as paints and resins which poured from them as they were removed.

    Soil contaminated with tars and oils was also uncovered, as were pharmaceutical waste and asbestos. The Agency estimates that the total mass of contaminated material amounted to 5,900 tonnes. This included over 13 tonnes of PAHs, 238 tonnes of oils and about 100kg of chlorinated aliphatics. The Agency will shortly publish a full report on the investigation.

    The burial took place during a site development programme which CSG began in 1990. As part of the process, a number of storage tanks were demolished. Sludge from the tanks was mixed with soil in a purpose-built lagoon. Some further wastes brought onto the site during that time, including paints and solvents, were dumped into the lagoon.

    As the development proceeded, the lagoon waste was moved into the area which became the transfer station. Waste was then piled into large heaps, and further wastes, including 45-gallon drums containing batteries, were mixed with it.

    Initially, some of the waste was taken off site for disposal to landfill, but this was discontinued. The waste was instead spread out and concreted over.

    When interviewed about the buried waste, Dr Carnell accepted that some of the wastes were of the sort that CSG would have received for treatment, but he suggested that contractors had been responsible for the site development, not CSG. However, several witnesses gave evidence that instructions for the burial of waste came directly from CSG's then site manager, John Rutherford.

    CSG has now been ordered to conduct an assessment to establish whether the contamination should be removed or treated in situ. Stuart Baker, who managed the investigation for the Agency, says that data from groundwater monitoring boreholes had not yet revealed any significant contamination. CSG will be required to conduct one year's extensive further monitoring.

    The case is significant because of concern about the effectiveness of the Agency's regulation of the site. In January 2001, a report by the Agency ordered by the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledged that inspectors had failed to take enforcement action against the company despite no fewer than 56 breaches of its licence in the run-up to the incident (ENDS Report 312, pp 22-23 ).

    Counsel for CSG told the court: "The company would like to take the opportunity to apologise to the public for the distress caused by the events and wish to express their sincere regret and remorse for what happened."

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