A COUNCIL fined after workers were exposed to deadly asbestos five years after inspectors discovered the substance has issued a public apology.

An unknown number of staff at the North-East sports centre were allowed to work unprotected with the banned materials until last year - even though bosses had been given an official warning in 2001.

Inspection reports were ignored, no safety measures were put in place and none of the maintenance workers at the Woodhouse Close Leisure Complex, in Bishop Auckland, were told.

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Last week, magistrates fined Wear Valley District Council £18,000 after the authority admitted to six breaches of health and safety regulations. But the council's solicitor told the court that none of the senior officials in charge in 2001 appeared before the court because they had since left their posts.

Now, the authority's current chief executive, Michael Laing, and Councillor Neil Stonehouse, the leader of the council, have issued a personal apology to all members of staff.

In a statement emailed to workers yesterday, they said: "We feel that we should offer any current or former staff affected by this issue a personal apology for any distress. We are sorry."

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was called in to investigate after Jim Dawson - a maintenance worker based in the centre's plant room - made an official complaint.

Mr Dawson reported the council after finding out that management had known about asbestos in pipe lagging surrounding the complex's boiler, but had failed to tell him or his colleagues.

Richard Bishop, the inspector who led the case for the HSE, described the breach as the worst he had seen.

The council made no apology at that time, and refused to comment on the case until yesterday.

The authority's solicitor told magistrates: "There has been a complete change of directorate, management and responsibility."

Robert Batie, who worked in the boiler room for 13 years until 2003, said yesterday: "It is reasonable of them to apologise, but they weren't the people who were in charge when this happened.

"They were not really bothered about a few people's lives. It didn't matter much to the council then."

Mr Batie has been told the asbestos is likely to have posed a "significant risk" to his health. Prolonged exposure to the substance can lead to diseases, including lung cancer and asbestosis.

He said: "I have never worried about my health in the past because I have always been healthy, but I am very worried now. This will probably catch up on me in a few years' time."

Mr Batie said is considering legal action.

The council's statement issued added: "Making sure that customers, staff, councillors and contractors are safe is the absolute priority of the council.

"In recent years we have improved our approach to health and safety. However, starting in 2001 we had problems with asbestos-lagged pipes in the boiler room of the leisure centre.

"This led to an investigation by the HSE. The council has worked openly and honestly with the HSE. The HSE is satisfied with our current approach.

"Our legal advice was not to comment before the hearing.

"We accepted full responsibility and take the penalty the magistrates apply. We also told the magistrates how seriously we take this matter.

"The HSE do not believe any members of the public were put at risk.

"We will carry out further investigations and report these to councillors."

Lib Dem leader of the opposition at Wear Valley Councillor Tommy Taylor has called for the resignation of the authority's Labour leadership. He said yesterday: "This is basically shutting the stable door once the horse has bolted.

"It's alright saying sorry after the event, but the damage is done.