2 March 2007

Fire leads to closure of Sonae chipboard plant

One of the largest wood recycling operations in the UK has closed for a month following a fire last week, writes Caelia Quinault.

Sonae UK Ltd's chipboard factory at Knowsley, Liverpool, which normally takes in over 300,000 tonnes of recycled wood each year, has shut its doors until March 26, after a fire broke out in the oil pump room.

Sonae is making modifications to its plant in Knowsley in the light of the fire

Dave Chapman, sales and marketing director at Sonae, said that the main plant had not been damaged, all recycled woodchip suppliers were being kept directly informed, and the disruption would be as “brief as possible”.

However, industry sources say that the incident has already created a surplus of waste wood in the North West and, without alternative export markets, this could lead to some landfilling of wood.

The incident at the Knowsley plant, the only one in the UK capable of using 100% recycled wood to make chipboard, has sparked an outcry from Knowsley council, which passed a unanimous resolution last week stating that it had “grave concerns” and called on the Health and Safety Executive to carry out an investigation.

Local MP George Howarth has also raised the issue in Parliament, during a debate on Tuesday. Mr Howarth, whose constituency covers Knowsley, North and Sefton East, claimed that the incident was one of four in the last year, and called for the HSE to shut the plant down.

He said: “Unless and until the HSE can be satisfied that the plant can safely reopen, and guarantee the health and safety of the workforce and residents, I believe that the plant needs to remain closed.”

However, junior government minister Anne Maguire said an investigation was already underway. The parliamentary undersecretary for work and pensions also said a number of safety measures been introduced to the Knowsley plant since an explosion at the site in 2002 (see letsrecycle.com story)

Ms Maguire explained: “According to our information, the fire was quickly notices and emergency plans were put into operation. The plant was safely shut down and evacuated without injury to any member of the work force. The fire was contained to a small section of the plant, but heat and smoke from it cause damage to a control room and to some of the cladding of the building.”

Responding to the claims within the Parliamentary debate, Sonae UK insisted that there hadn't been four fires at the plant in the last year. Mr Chapman said other fires in the Knowsley area had been wrongly attributed to the Sonae site.

Part of the confusion has come, he explained, because the Fire Brigade refers to the general area of Knowsley surrounding the 50-acre Sonae site as “Sonae”.

Mr Chapman said: “The claim of four fires in the last year is an inflammatory statement as, because of the size of the plant, it is used as a reference point by the Fire Brigade for fires in the local area.”

He added: “We are heavily legislated by the HSE, local council and industry. We would not be able to operate the plant if it was not deemed fit and safe.”

Mr Chapman said that, although Sonae would not be taking in recycled wood for the duration of its closure, demand would go straight back to normal as soon as it opened.

“The HSE have been on site and there will be modifications to the site in light of the incident and we will make every effort to ensure this type of thing does not happen again,” he said.

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