Chipboard manufacturer Sonae has said it is on track to start taking in recycled woodchip again at its Knowsley factory in the first quarter of 2012, despite another fire breaking out at the facility 12 days ago.
More than 20 firefighters tackled a blaze at the plant on the evening on January 26 2012. Merseyside Fire & Rescue Service was called at 6.33pm to reports of explosions, although the fire was extinguished by 11.34pm.
Sonae, which claims to be the largest recycler of waste wood in the UK, was in the process of ramping up operations at the Knowsley plant following a separate fire in June 2012. But, the company said that the latest incident had not impacted on its recovery timetable.
This will come as some reassurance to wood recyclers in the region, who have seen the market for recycled wood swamped since the June 2011 fire (see letsrecycle.com story).
Nigel Graham, managing director, Sonae Industria (UK) Ltd, said: “We have been undergoing an extensive commissioning process at the factory over the past month, which does have some inherent risks associated with it. A fire was detected in one of the silos on Thursday evening, however our safety equipment activated immediately, stopping the fire spreading and extinguished it with the deluge system. There were no injuries and no disruption to the production process.
“We are now carrying out a full investigation to establish the cause of the incident.”
A spokeswoman for Sonae added: Sonae is on schedule with its commissioning and ramp up operation and will be looking to start taking in recycled material towards the end of quarter one.
According to Merseyside Fire & Rescue, the latest fire started in a silo containing 10 tonnes of sawdust product. Around 150 cubic metres of the tank were severely damaged by the fire. At the height of the fire there were six fire engines at the scheme along with an aerial platform and a how layer unit. Fire protection staff at Sonae worked with firefighters to help prevent the fire from spreading.
The Health and Safety Executive said that it had carefully considered the circumstances surrounding the fire at the Sonae factory and concluded that it did not meet the criteria for a formal HSE investigation. Importantly, it noted that work had not stopped for more than 24 hours.
In a statement, it said: We are still working with Sonae to determine the causes of the incident, but our enquiries so far have found that the companys systems and procedures for dealing with this fire have worked correctly.
However, the HSE stressed that it was continuing its investigations into three, separate, incidents at the site involving the deaths of two workers in December 2010, the major fire in June 2011 and the death of a demolition worker in August 2011.
It said: We will decide at the end of each of these investigations whether there is sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against a company or individual in a prosecution.
“We are still working with Sonae to determine the causes of the incident, but our enquiries so far have found that the companys systems and procedures for dealing with this fire have worked correctly” – HSE
Concern about the number of incidents reported at the Knowsley factory was also expressed by Knowsley MP George Howarth, who has long been calling for the plant to be shut down.
Following the latest fire, he said: Sadly, the latest incident at Sonae shows that the process is unstable, unsafe and that the plant is badly managed. There is strong and irrefutable evidence of odour nuisance, dust and poor safety which, in my view, should be sufficient to close the plant.
Mr Howarth identified three areas in which he said authorities should be encouraged to take firm and decisive action. Mr Howarth is petitioning for Knowsley council to rescind its environmental licence for the plant as well as turn down an application lodge by Sonae for planning permission following the June 2011. He also claims the HSE has been far too slow and ineffective in their assessment of previous incidents and last week wrote to the minister responsible for the HSE, Chris Grayling, to put a stop to the string of disasters at Sonae before it is too late for the companys employees and the surrounding neighbourhoods.
A spokesman for Knowsley council said it was in active discussion with the HSE about the future of the factory.
He said: We take extremely seriously the latest incident at Sonae and are currently in discussions with the Health and Safety Executive about the future of the factory. Whilst we are not able to comment in detail on that at this present time we can confirm that we are currently reviewing Sonaes Environmental Permit and looking at all options available to us.
The priority here remains the safety and well-being of our community and we will take every action possible to safeguard that, both now and in the future.