Recycling centre boss spared jail and must pay £17k after fire at Birtley site

More than 250 firefighters were deployed to tackle the blaze in Birtley in February 2022. Credit: TWFRS

The owner of a recycling centre on Tyneside which went up in flames has been given a suspended jail sentence and ordered to pay almost £17,000 in fines and costs.

The fire at Shee Recycling on Durham Road in Birtley in February 2022 led to road closures, suspended rail services and forced local schools and businesses to shut.

Clifford Shee, 58, of Bright Street, Roker, Sunderland, appeared at Newcastle Crown Court for sentencing on Thursday 26 January after previously pleading guilty to a series of waste and fly-tipping offences.

The court heard that waste kept illegally on his site had caught fire five months after the Environment Agency secured a court order to shut it down due to fire risk.

The aftermath of the fire at Shee Recycling. Credit: TWFRS

More than 250 firefighters were deployed to tackle the blaze, with the sheer scale of it leading to the closure of the East Coast rail line, residents told to stay indoors, and local businesses disrupted to the amount of hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Shee was also sentenced after accepting responsibility for large amounts of fly-tipped waste in Fencehouses, Sunderland, in a linked investigation carried out in partnership with Sunderland City Council.

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

For the fly tipping offences, he was fined £5,000, and was also ordered to pay almost £12,000 in prosecution costs.

Andrew Turner, environment manager for the Environment Agency in the North East, 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. 

“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.”

Shee was told his site created a significant fire risk during several visits by the fire service and the Environment Agency. Credit: Environment Agency

The court heard that Shee had twice previously been convicted and fined, in 2016 and 2019, for environmental offences committed at his Birtley site. Some hazardous waste which he claimed he would clear, was still on the site and ignited during the fire.

On behalf of Shee, 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 that he had been reckless and should have stopped operating when told to do so. 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.

Piles of fly-tipped waste were traced back to Shee Recycling. Credit: Environment Agency

Paul Russell, Area Manager at Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service (TWFRS), said: “We had worked together with the Environment Agency to support the enforcement action against this premises prior to the fire at the site. We always seek to work together with businesses but will take and support action when we believe public safety is at risk.

“Numerous fire safety risks were identified at that time and this incident could have been avoided if quicker action had been taken by the site owner to make the premises safe.

“The incident was declared a major incident by TWFRS and the response by our firefighters during the fire itself was incredible. They worked tirelessly to protect their communities and helped contain the fire, so it didn’t spread to nearby properties or the rail line.

“But 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.”

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