‘Reckless’ waste site owner sentenced after huge blaze results in school closures

The owner of a recycling company has received a suspended jail sentence after a huge blaze erupted at a site where he was keeping waste illegally, five months after it was shut down by enforcement officers due to the fire risk.

Firefighters at Shee Recycling. Photo from the Environment Agency.

Clifford Shee, 58, from Roker, Sunderland, who owns Shee Recycling in Birtley, appeared at 

Newcastle Crown Court for sentencing on 26 January after previously pleading guilty to a series of waste and fly-tipping offences brought by the Environment Agency (EA).

The EA shared that the blaze that broke out at the site in February 2022 had resulted in schools being shut down, residents having to stay indoors, and local businesses disrupted to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service (TWFRS) deployed more than 250 officers and 10 appliances to tackle the flames, the fire declared a major incident due to the risk posed to the surrounding area.

TWFRS said that the “incredible” response by firefighters saw the fire contained, and it did not spread to nearby properties or the rail line. However, TWFRS area manager Paul Russell added: “Fires of this magnitude do inflict damage on the environment and so we welcome this conviction and remain committed to continuing to work with our partners at the Environment Agency to keep our communities safe.”

Russell noted that “numerous” fire safety risks were identified by officers from the fire service and Environment Agency at that time, adding “this incident could have been avoided if quicker action had been taken by the site owner to make the premises safe.”

The court heard that Shee was operating an ‘exempt facility’ for low level waste activities, which does not require an environment permit but does require strict conditions to be upheld. Shee had allegedly been told during several visits by the Environment Agency and fire service between January and May 2021 that his site created a significant fire risk with officers giving him a list of actions to bring his site back into compliance.

This included 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.

The court heard that in May 2021, after failing to comply and being told that his waste exemptions had been deregistered, Shee quickly registered new exemptions. According to the EA, the court agreed that these actions showed the persistent nature of his offending.

In September 2021, after finding evidence that the site was still operating, the EA secured a restriction order at court which closed down Shee Recycling. According to the EA, Shee was told he would only be allowed access to clear the waste. Shee did not clear out this waste and the fire broke out in February 2022.

EA North East environment manager Andrew Turner said: “Our officers worked tirelessly with our partners at the fire 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 have a blatant disregard for the law.

“The safety of the public and protection of the environment is our priority and the fire had a major impact on the community, infrastructure and air and water quality.”

For this offence, Shee was sentenced to 30 weeks imprisonment, suspended for 18 months, and was also ordered to complete 200 hours of unpaid work and undergo 20 days rehabilitation activity work with the Probation Service.

The court also heard that a year prior, on 11 February 2021, 46 black bags of waste were dumped at Britannia Terrace in Fencehouses, and the entrance to a pedestrian tunnel at nearby Lambton Lane in fly tipping incidents that were traced back to Shee Recycling. 

The EA said that the company had been subcontracted by reputable waste disposal contractors to deal with this waste, and between 2018 and 2021 Shee received more than £150,000 for these services.

At the same sentencing hearing, Shee was fined £5,000 for the fly tipping offences and was also ordered to pay almost £12,000 in prosecution costs.

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

The court also heard that Shee had twice previously been convicted and fined for environmental offences committed at his site, and that some of the hazardous waste which he claimed he would clear was still on the site and ignited during the fire.

According to the EA, Shee’s defence Simon Goldberg KC said that he 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 Shee been “reckless” and should have stopped operating when told to do so. According to the EA, he agreed that there had been a major impact from the fire, and despite Shee having been denied access to the site for several months beforehand he had to take full responsibility.