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Firm guilty of sending toxic waste to VolkerFitzpatrick site

5 October 2017

Waste recycling company Churngold and two of its directors have been fined for supplying hazardous waste to a VolkerFitzpatrick site near Bristol. 

Groundworkers at the Co-op supermarket site said the Churngold material gave them “runny and sore eyes”. One worker said it smelt like “faeces and bleach” and “took his breath away”. Others described the clay-like material as “smelling like a hospital”.

Samples of asbestos, petroleum hydrocarbons, lead, cyanide and copper were among the toxic materials found on the site.

The sentencing follows a five-year Environment Agency investigation into the firm and directors John Barcham and Lee Phelan, which culminated in a nine-week trial at Bristol Crown Court earlier this year. Churngold and the two directors have been ordered to pay more than £32,450 in fines and costs.

The recycling firm had been appointed in 2011 to provide 60,000 tonnes of aggregate to the site of the Co-op’s 440,000 sq ft distribution warehouse at Cabot Park in Avonmouth, where VolkerFitzpatrick was main contractor. But the material supplied turned out to be hazardous waste that had been sourced from the Cowley vehicle manufacturing site in Oxford.

Churngold, which has its headquarters in Bristol, supplies soil and aggregate for the building industry from its waste transfer site in Avonmouth. The company operated under a waste management licence, issued by the Environment Agency. This controlled the types of waste accepted at the transfer station and the activities permitted at the site.

In June 2011, Churngold was awarded a contract to remove hazardous waste from a site in Oxford where the car company, BMW, discovered extensive contamination under a building during redevelopment of its Cowley factory. Trial pits and testing revealed high levels of heavy metals, hydrocarbons and asbestos-contaminated materials.

Churngold was paid £750 per load to remove the hazardous waste to its yard in Avonmouth for treatment prior to it being used as a building material. Between July to September 2011, a total of 31,000 tonnes of waste was brought from Cowley to Churngold’s waste transfer station. The volume of waste kept increasing and very quickly exceeded the transfer station’s limit of 6,000 tonnes.

“Churngold Recycling had a culture where commercial gain was given priority over environmental protection. We hope this prosecution sends out a strong deterrent message to others who flout the law.”

Adrian Evans, Environment Agency

Around the same time, Churngold was awarded a contract to supply aggregate to the VolkerFizpatrick’s Co-operative distribution centre site in Avonmouth. The aggregate would be mixed with inert material that had gone through a “stabilisation process” making it suitable for use as a building material.

On 7 September 2011, Churngold delivered the first load to the Co-op site. Over the next fortnight it transported a total of 64,000 tonnes to the new distribution centre site. 

Waste from the BMW site in Oxford had undergone partial treatment to remove asbestos materials, but some asbestos remained and it was still hazardous when it arrived at the Churngold’s Hallen Yard in Avonmouth. The company was told the waste required further treatment.

The Environment Agency said that, as operations manager, “Phelan would have been fully aware of the requirements of the transfer station’s permit conditions. Failure by Churngold to fully treat the waste, potentially exposed staff and visitors to Hallen Yard and ground-workers at the Co-op site to health risks from the asbestos”.

Churngold’s environment manager became concerned after discovering the hazardous nature of the BMW car plant waste. She told Barcham and Phelan it was “untreatable”. They repeatedly ignored her warnings.

On 22 September 2011 a former Churngold employee notified the Co-op that contaminated material had been delivered to its new distribution centre at Cabot Park.

Subsequent analysis revealed the presence of asbestos in 47 of 60 samples, high levels of total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) as well as significant levels of leachable lead, cyanide, copper, antimony and total sulphate concentrations that posed a risk to groundwater and nearby watercourses.

The Environment Agency said that “Barcham was described as a ‘domineering character’ who liked to micro manage. Nothing would happen without his say so or knowledge including where treated waste went after treatment. He once told the company’s environment manager, ‘We don’t tell the EA what we are doing, we do it and then tell them how we’ve done it’.”

The company failed to inform the Environment Agency of the massive amount of hazardous material being stockpiled at Hallen Yard or where it had come from. The sheer volume of materials arriving at the site made it impossible to segregate or treat them properly. This caused the site to breach its permit.

The Environment Agency had earlier advised Churngold that waste containing heavy metals remains hazardous even after it has undergone a stabilisation process. The court heard that while Phelan had worked in the waste industry, he had no qualifications or experience of treating hazardous waste.

Work on the Co-op site was suspended on 1 December 2011 following publication of the analysis report. The Environment Agency confirmed the material was illegally deposited hazardous waste and that it should be removed to a suitable waste facility for safe disposal.

The Environment Agency investigation revealed that Churngold had also illegally disposed of hazardous waste including asbestos, railway sleepers, plastic, metal pipes, vehicle tyres and foam pipe lagging at a second site, Minors Farm, Severnside.

Adrian Evans, for the Environment Agency, said: “Hazardous waste must be handled and treated with great care to safeguard human health and the environment. This case shows the Environment Agency will take serious action against people who fail to comply with the law.

“Churngold Recycling had a culture where commercial gain was given priority over environmental protection. We hope this prosecution sends out a strong deterrent message to others who flout the law.”

Churngold Recycling, John Barcham and Lee Phelan faced a total of 10 charges under the Environment Protection Act 1990 and Environmental Permitting Regulations 2010 at a nine-week trial that started in May 2017.

Judge James Patrick QC said “the treatment of the waste was unscientific and amateur” and that the defendants showed a “flagrant disregard for the law”.

The company was found guilty of four offences. John Barcham was found guilty of one offence and Lee Phelan convicted of three offences. There were three not guilty verdicts and the jury failed to reach a verdict on the two remaining charges.

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