St Albans man spared jail despite major toxic woodchip fire in Essex

PUBLISHED: 17:59 18 May 2016 | UPDATED: 17:59 18 May 2016

Firefighters spent days tackling a blaze in a large pile of wood in Mountnessing, Essex. Photo courtesy of Essex County Fire and Rescue Service

Firefighters spent days tackling a blaze in a large pile of wood in Mountnessing, Essex. Photo courtesy of Essex County Fire and Rescue Service

Essex County Fire and Rescue Service

A start-up recycling businessman from St Albans, whose massive stockpile of woodchip sparked off a major toxic fire which burnt for two months near the A12 in Essex, today (Wednesday) received a 15-month suspended jail sentence.

Firefighters spent days tackling a blaze in a large pile of wood in Mountnessing, Essex. Photo courtesy of Essex County Fire and Rescue ServiceFirefighters spent days tackling a blaze in a large pile of wood in Mountnessing, Essex. Photo courtesy of Essex County Fire and Rescue Service

The stockpile which self-combusted was ten times the maximum amount allowed and covered the whole yard at Thoby Priory, Mountnessing, near Brentwood in Essex.

Joshua O’Malley, 26, formerly of Doggetts Way, St Albans, and now of Vale Court, Wheathampstead, had leased a unit for his company Creative Developments and Construction Ltd for a waste operation to deposit, treat and store wood waste.

Nine fire appliances attended at the peak of the blaze on August 18 in 2014, and firefighters had to dampen down neighbouring businesses which had flammable material stored and where there was asbestos likely to shatter and explode, a judge was told at Chelmsford Crown Court.

Thick, choking toxic smoke enveloped the area. Contaminated water from the fire polluted ten kilometres of river and watercourses and killed 2,500 fish, the court was told.

Firefighters spent days tackling a blaze in a large pile of wood in Mountnessing, Essex. Photo courtesy of Essex County Fire and Rescue ServiceFirefighters spent days tackling a blaze in a large pile of wood in Mountnessing, Essex. Photo courtesy of Essex County Fire and Rescue Service

Clean up costs reached £250,000, and a 1.2km pipe had to be installed to take away the contaminated water to a private sewer, with £30,000 spent on tankers.

The Environment Agency (EA) spent £223,000 which included 40 officers working over 1,000 hours dealing with the incident. And Brentwood Council spent £3,000 on air monitoring.

The final Essex Fire and Rescue appliance left on October 20, 2014, two months after the start of the fire, but ash was still smouldering and burning nine months later, the court was told.

One nearby resident said she had headaches, streaming eyes and nausea “for months” as a result of the smoke.

Wendy Foster, prosecuting for the EA said: “She woke up with the smell and smoke and went to bed with it.”

O’Malley had originally pleaded not guilty to two offences.

They were: operating a regulated facility for the deposit, storage and treatment of waste otherwise than in accordance with an environmental permit between May 7 and October 16 2014; and for treating, keeping or disposing of controlled waste in a manner likely to cause pollution to the environment or harm to human health in that the waste was stored without effective fire prevention or protection.

He was due to stand trial next month but later changed his plea.

A prosecution against his company, whose address was Long Cut, Redbourn, and which also denied two similar offences to those O’Malley admitted was dropped and the judge formally entered not guilty verdicts.

O’Malley, now on benefits, was the company’s sole director. But the court was told that he no longer intended to trade under that company so it was not considered in the public interest to continue with that prosecution.

Judge Christopher Morgan QC imposed 15 months in jail but said he would suspend it for two years because O’Malley, a father of three, was a carer for a disabled son and his partner had mental health issues. In addition to the suspended sentence he also banned O’Malley from being a company a director for ten years.

He said O’Malley had ignored advice from both the EA and Essex Fire service about the potential risks and continued: “This is a deliberate flagrant disregard of the law.”

The judge added: “By an early stage of your business you had been told of your obligations. There were several thousand cubic metres of mostly treated wood - which contain those toxins which are so dangerous to the environment and human health, especially when they catch fire.”

He heard that O’Malley had rented the unit in April 2014 and had an estimated income of £100,000 in the few months he was operating. Police have seized £75,000 from him.

The prosecutor said O’Malley advertised under the slogan “We want your wood waste” and by August 18 2014 the pile covered the whole yard and had grown to a height of 15m and a width and depth of 30m by 30m. Its estimated volume was 13,500 cubic metres.

The maximum permitted height and spread was 10m by 20m by 20m and a volume of 1,370 cubic metres. The EA, which visited several times, told him to stop, deregistered the operation’s exemption certificates because it had breached the conditions and said he must apply for an environmental permit.

It had also ordered the dump to be removed but the fire started two days before that deadline.

Mitigating, Hector MacLean-Watt said O’Malley’s business was less than a year old and all its records were destroyed in the fire.

He said serious family difficulties “distracted” O’Malley from running the business and he had had problems with a faulty chipper several times before the fire.

Material was coming in faster than it could be shredded and the stockpile grew, he said.

“He is severely remorseful about this disaster which resulted from his neglect.”

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