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Tuesday, 1 October, 2002, 18:28 GMT 19:28 UK
Chemical fire firm admits safety errors
Flames and smoke from Distillex
More than 500 residents were evacuated
A chemical company has pleaded guilty to safety lapses which caused a major fire on Tyneside.

Senior officials from Distillex admitted two safety breaches when they appeared before North Tyneside magistrates on Tuesday.

But magistrates immediately referred the case to a crown court judge after deciding the maximum 40,000 fine they could impose was not enough.

More than 500 people were evacuated after a series of explosions at the plant in North Shields in April.

Smoke from Distillex fire
Smoke from the fire could be seen 20 miles away

The hearing was told sparks from a small hand-held angle grinder cutting steel frame caused the fire, which cost Distillex more than 1m.

Following a lengthy Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation, Distillex, based in Leyland, Lancashire, was charged under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

The two charges were failing to ensure the safety of employees and failure to ensure the safety of non-employees - a charge relating to nearby residents and businesses.

Managing director Adrian Jones admitted both charges when he appeared before magistrates.

At the time of the fire, the site held about 400,000 litres of chemicals, mostly those used in such substances as paint thinners.

More than 300 firefighters attended the compound as burning oil drums were blasted 150 metres from the site as they exploded.

The site was was totally destroyed along with a neighbouring building.

During the fire, people on the south of the River Tyne were ordered to close windows. Metro rail services were disrupted and the busy Tyne Tunnel crossing was closed to vehicles.

The fire took almost five hours to bring under control and it was a further 15 hours before fire crews successfully damped down the site.

Paul Stanworth, prosecuting, told the court: "As the steel frame was being cut it ignited and within minutes the site manager gave the instruction for the site to be evacuated.

"It may appear on the face of it the fire resulted from the actions of one individual but this was not the case.

"The investigation found flaws on behalf of the company in the way the site was managed and this allowed the incident to occur."

'First prosecution'

Distillex takes waste chemicals from industry and separates reusable products from waste and supplies them back to the industry as raw materials.

Simon Catterall, defending, told the court: "The site had contracts, clients, customers and work and the company has lost it all.

"It's the company's first prosecution in more than 20 years and we thank God nobody was injured. I don't know how, but that at least is something to be thankful for."

No date was set for the sentencing hearing.

The BBC's Chris Stewart
"The company said it was sorry"
The BBC' Chris Mason
"Magistrates said the fines they could impose were not enough"

Click here to go to Tyne
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13 Apr 02 | England
12 Apr 02 | England
30 Jan 02 | England
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