A DARLINGTON pair have appeared in court following a fire involving about 50,000 litres of diesel which was being illegally stored.

Malcolm Smith, 68, and his daughter Lisa Palmer, 38, both avoided jail after admitting to breaching rules around the storage of fuel.

The hearing followed a major blaze in Evenwood, near Bishop Auckland, which raged for more than eight hours on June 14, 2018.

Firefighters from County Durham and Darlington Fire and Rescue service attended the blaze at the Ramshaw Storage removals firm on Swan Street, Evenwood, following a report of a small amount of rubbish on fire in a metal container.

Read more: Firefighter suffers burns and concussion in Evenwood haulage firm fire

Read more: Families forced to leave homes after Evenwood haulage fire

But when they arrived there was a significant fire at one of the steel shipping containers being kept at the site.

The Northern Echo: SCENE: Four fire appliances are tackling a blaze in Evenwood

They were told they were used for storing furniture  but it quickly emerged they were being used to illegally store about 50,000 litres of diesel.

Black smoke could been seen for miles, while nearby homes had to be evacuated and seven properties on Newholme Crescent remained unoccupied for six months due to diesel contamination, odour, and firewater run-off.

Smith, of Norwich Grove, Darlington, and Palmer, of Eggleston View, Darlington, appeared at Peterlee Magistrates’ Court on Tuesday.

Smith received a 23-week suspended sentence while his daughter received a suspended sentence of 18 weeks.

Both were each fined £500 and ordered to pay a £128 victim surcharge.

Magistrates found both to have acted recklessly and were wilfully blind to the risk of what could happen when storing such large quantities of oil in close proximity to residential property.

The fire had repercussions for neighbours, with asbestos from a building at the yard found in adjoining gardens.

Contaminated soil to a depth of one metre had to be removed from the affected gardens to make them safe and the ground floor of the properties had to be stripped away to enable diesel to be pumped from under the floorboards.

Investigations found the incident had caused significant levels of hydrocarbon pollution to land and groundwater, and huge volumes of oil had entered the sewerage network.

This meant Northumbrian Water had to undertake a massive operation to make sure the local water supply was safe.

The Northern Echo:

They recovered 18,000 litres of oil and 7.2 million litres of oil contaminated effluent from the local sewage treatment plant, which was transported away for recycling.

The filters were re-seeded and flushed with at least £66,000 spent on tankers, disposal and staff overtime. They also replaced the water supply pipework as a precaution.

Smith and Palmer admitted failing to comply with the Control of Pollution (Oil Storage) Regulations 2001, which set out how diesel must be stored to prevent the risk of harm to people and the environment.

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They also admitted responsibility for causing groundwater pollution, as a result of the illegally stored diesel escaping and polluting the environment.

Palmer also admitted a third charge related to illegal waste burning, which sparked the fire.

A third family member who denied the charges, was acquitted after the court found that they had not had any custody or control over the stored diesel.

A spokesperson for the Environment Agency said: “Businesses must take their environmental responsibilities seriously. We welcome this judgement and hope that it sends out a strong message to others that they will be held to account if they fail to meet their environmental obligations. Thanks to the swift response from the various agencies who attended the incident, even more widespread damage to property and river pollution was averted.

“We will continue to collaborate with businesses to help them to make the best choices for water quality, but anyone caught breaching environmental laws faces enforcement action, up to and including prosecution.”

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