Last reviewed 23 July 2019

On 3 May 2019, Cambridge Crown Court jailed a man for 12 months in his absence, for the illegal storage of wood waste. This follows a previous hearing when another individual received a suspended prison term and a company was fined and ordered to pay the victim £314,000 in compensation.

The Facts

The Court heard that in August 2014, Christopher Kerr, 74, of Vivian Close, Birmingham, leased the site on part of an old WWII airfield at Great Staughton, Cambridgeshire under the name ‘CGK Recycling’. Kerr informed the landowner the site would be used to process timber. He also registered a waste exemption which limited the amount of waste to 500 tonnes in any 7-day period.

Six weeks later the Environment Agency heard that the site was operating illegally and when officers investigated they found wood stacked 3-4 metres high, with some of it falling into hedgerows and a nearby ditch. Due to its size and the manner of its storage, the waste created a significant fire risk for the local area and an Emergency Fire Plan was drawn up by the local authority. The waste also exceeded the exemption, with around 1,000 tonnes taken there every week for 5 weeks. In total, around 5,300 of mixed wood waste was found illegally stored at the site.

Kerr told investigating officers that he had been asked to run the site by James Mervyn Williams, 38, formerly of Olton Road, Shirley, Solihull, who was sole director of a now dissolved recycling company (MT Recycling Ltd of Southam Warks). Kerr stated that he had no real involvement in the company, however he set up a business account in his name and a total of £116,638 was transferred into it by Williams’ company.

Williams ran a similar waste wood site and helped Kerr set up. Williams’ company was to broker all the waste wood to CGK Recycling, however, his company did not have enough customers to supply the site. As a result, he used the services of another waste broker, Derbyshire-based Biowood Recycling Ltd, which sourced all the waste wood that was taken to the site. Biowood paid Williams’ company £168,369 to deposit the waste, making a profit themselves of at least £38,000 from brokering the wood.

The Decision

At Cambridge Crown Court on 3 May 2019 Williams was sentenced in his absence to 12 months in prison for his part in setting up the site. He had pleaded guilty to knowingly causing the waste operation without a permit contrary to the Environmental Permitting Regulations and for failing to comply with the statutory duty of care under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to prevent a waste offence.

This follows a previous hearing on 15 March 2019 where Kerr pleaded guilty to knowingly permitting the waste operation without a permit, contrary to the Environmental Permitting Regulations. He was sentenced to 4 months in prison, suspended for 2 years. At the same hearing Biowood Recycling Limited, pleaded guilty to failing to take reasonable measures as waste brokers to comply with their statutory duty of care to prevent a waste offence. It was fined £12,690 and ordered to pay £314,426 compensation to the landowner, who had paid to clear the waste. Of the £314,426 compensation, £255,116 was ordered to be paid by Biowood under the Proceeds of Crime Act. The company was also ordered to pay prosecution costs of £20,000.

During the sentencing hearing of Kerr and Biowood on 15 March, Judge Jonathan Cooper said Kerr had acted at his own peril and “must have been wilfully blind to the risk of offending”. The Judge added that Biowood was “at least as reckless with its dealings with the other two defendants” and the exemption was “a fig leaf for an illegal operation”.

In mitigation it was accepted that Kerr had no previous involvement in the waste industry. Biowood had no previous convictions and had co-operated with the Environment Agency’s investigation.

Sentencing Williams in his absence on 3 May 2019, Judge Cooper said that Williams had committed the offence for financial gain motivated by his greed. Williams was also disqualified as a company director for 5 years. An application to confiscate the money he obtained from his crime will be decided at a later date. A warrant has been issued for Williams’ arrest.

After the hearing, Enforcement team leader Phil Henderson said:

The illegal and uncontrolled storage of combustible waste at this location gave considerable cause for concern to both local communities and the authorities alike so we are pleased with the penalties imposed by the court.

In cases like this the Environment Agency will relentlessly pursue not only those who actually dumped the waste but also others involved in or facilitating the crime.

We pay tribute to the affected landowner who acted to remove the waste minimising risk to the public and via proceeds of crime legislation has now been rightly compensated.

Biowood also issued a statement after the hearing. It said:

“The company had no grounds to suspect the site was going to be operated illegally…

Numerous checks were made prior to arranging the supply of material to the Great Staughton site, including a site visit, and ensuring that the operator had the correct lease and permits in place. These checks showed the landlord had agreed to the storage and treatment of waste wood on his site. They also confirmed that the operator had a permit in the form of an exemption which allowed waste wood to be treated by shredding.”

Comment

The prosecutions here highlight the importance of ensuring the entire waste supply chain is compliant with environmental regulations. The Judge was clearly unimpressed with Kerr’s claiming of ignorance, however the company’s sentence is perhaps more surprising. Biowood only arranged the supply of the wood material and paid the market rate gate fees which raised no red flags. They also conducted their own checks on paperwork and the landlord’s consent. Unfortunately for Biowood, the problem came in practice — where the accepted waste was double the exemption limit as it was not processed. The company, by pleading guilty, said it accepted that a further check would have revealed the site’s capacity was not enough to store the amount of waste that was being supplied. The company was also still fined, despite its proactive approach upon discovering the failure of processing and its cooperation with the Environment Agency.

Biowood’s case would not have been helped by the other defendant, Williams, being sentenced in his absence, rendering his proceeds of crime assessment more difficult, and less likely to be paid. However, it is clearly crucial that in all waste transactions appropriate checks, and follow up visits, are required to ensure legislative compliance.