Distillex penalty too lenient - MP

THE PENALTY imposed on the factory which sparked off a huge toxic blaze in North Tyneside was branded "wholly inadequate" this week.

Chemical firm Distillex was fined 39,000 at Newcastle Crown Court on Friday for causing the fire which destroyed its plant at East Percy Street, North Shields, and brought chaos to both sides of the river on April 12.

But Tynemouth MP Alan Campbell slammed the sentence yesterday, describing it as "far too lenient".

He told the News Guardian: "I was there on the day of the fire and saw the damage and disruption it caused to North Tyneside. It was a huge risk to public safety.

"This is another example of the law being clear, penalties being available and courts failing to use the powers available to them."

Managing director of Distillex Adrian Jones was fined 17,000 for failing to ensure the safety of employees and 22,000 for failing to ensure the safety of non-employees, a charge relating to nearby residents and businesses. He also has to pay almost 7,000 costs.

Jones pleaded guilty to both charges and was convicted at North Tyneside Magistrates Court last month. But magistrates sent the case to crown court for sentence, claiming the 40,000 maximum penalty they could impose was "inadequate".

"It was referred to the crown court because magistrates felt their powers were insufficient, so it's ridiculous that the judge imposed such a lenient sentence," Mr Campbell said.

Over 300 residents were evacuated, the Metro was suspended and Tyne Tunnel closed as 300 firefighters battled the toxic blaze.

It was caused by sparks from a metal-cutting device which ignited a drum of flammable chemicals, an investigation by the Health and Safety Executive revealed.

Judge Peter Bullock said the blaze had a "devastating effect" on North Tyneside, turning a "fairly peaceful industrial area into something that resembled a war zone".

"The use of equipment that produced sparks in an area with a large amount of chemicals is bordering on reckless," he added.

But he noted the company, which has another factory in Lancashire, lost half its capacity when the North Shields plant was destroyed and had already lost a large amount of profit.

He also said the firm had a previously clean record and had not breached safety guidelines as a "short-cut to making profit."

Commenting on the sentence on Friday, Alex Keddie of the HSE said: "This case should be a reminder to all employers and operators of similar sites of the need for high standards of fire prevention and the serious consequences of getting it wrong."

Managing director of Distillex Ltd Adrian Jones said: "We apologise again to the local community for the incident that occurred at its North Shields plant in April, and the directors are thankful that no one was injured.

"The decision of the court is accepted and the company now wish to draw a line under the events and carry on with its normal business.

"The operations will not be re-instated on the existing site or on Tyneside and we believe most of the former employees have found alternative employment.

"The company would like to thank the emergency services and other agencies who assisted for their prompt actions at the time of the incident."