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Sunday, 17 November, 2002, 10:14 GMT
Chemical fire firm fined
Distillex chemical fire from one mile away
Plumes of thick smoke could be seen for miles
A chemical company responsible for one of the biggest fire emergencies on Tyneside has been fined almost 40,000.

In April, 300 firefighters struggled to contain a huge fire at the Distillex plant in North Shields.

The company later pleaded guilty to failing to ensure the safety of the public and its own employees.

At Newcastle Crown Court on Friday, Judge Peter Bullock fined the company 39,000, saying there had been a "gross failure of the management".


The question is what caused a residential area of a town to become like a war zone

Judge Peter Bullock
The fire was caused when an angle grinder was used to cut up a chemical container - an unsafe practice which produced sparks.

More than 500 people were evacuated after a series of explosions at the plant.

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.

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

The building was gutted along with a neighbouring site.

'Flying containers'

The fine was made up of a 17,000 for failing to ensure the safety of employees and 22,000 for failing to ensure the safety of the public.

Ordering Distillex to pay costs of 7,975, Judge Bullock added: "The question is what caused a residential area of a town to become like a war zone with flying containers and drums raining down on nearby businesses.

"It's really, simply human error, with an operator using an angle grinder."

Jeremy Freedman, representing the company, said the company had not deliberately broken the law.

"It was an unfortunate set of circumstances rather than a flagrant breach by Distillex."

After the hearing, HSE inspector Alex Keddie, said: "This case should be a reminder to all employers and operators of similar sites of the need for a very high standard of fire prevention and the serious consequences of getting it wrong."

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The BBC's Chris Stewart
"The company apologised to the people of North Shields"

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See also:

13 Apr 02 | England
12 Apr 02 | England
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