Sandycroft chemical companies fined after workers poisoned by gas leak

Published date: 16 December 2013 |
Published by: Staff reporter
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TWO chemical companies ended up with a bill of £120,000 after a court heard how workers suffered life-changing conditions by being exposed to a poisonous gas.

The gas was used in the manufacture of a chemical for an globally-marketed angina medication, which also escaped into the atmosphere.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers Archimica Chemicals Ltd, of Prince of Wales Avenue, Sandycroft, admitted six charges brought by the Health and Safety Executive and Euticals Ltd, which later took over the site, admitted two charges brought by Natural Resources Wales of failing to comply with notices, allowing chemicals to escape from the site and failing to notify the authorities when it occurred.

Both are in liquidation. The liquidator had entered guilty pleas to all charges on an earlier occasion at Flintshire Magistrates Court at Mold.

Judge Philip Hughes, sitting at Mold Crown Court, imposed total fines of £120,000 after rejecting arguments on behalf of the liquidator that nominal fines should be imposed.

Archimica was fined £80,000 and its agent company, Euticals, £40,000.

The judge said personnel had been poisoned by leaking chemicals. “These individuals suffered serious, incapacitating life-changing injuries, the scars of which they continue to carry and will carry for the rest of their lives. It is very serious,” he said.

Not only was harm caused but there was a potential of harm to other people, he said, and while no actual environmental damage could be shown, the potential was there.

Lisa Roberts, prosecuting, said the failings led to considerable harm and life-changing injuries to workers and potential harm to the public after an escape of poison into the atmosphere, although it was not known how much had escaped.

“Serious injuries have occurred to a number of employees and serious and as yet unquantifiable pollution has taken place,” she said.

She said an agency worker Nigel Verdon had been in intensive care due to the effects of methyl iodide (MI), had suffered a life-threatening pulmonary embolism and had significant difficulties with his speech, memory and mobility.

It was not know what level of MI he was exposed to because of a failure to monitor high risk areas.

Mr Verdon, of Brunswick Crescent, Great Sutton, Ellesmere Port, had been put into an induced coma for a month and was in hospital from July to October last year. 

Previously a fit and sporty individual, he now relied on walking sticks. He could not navigate stairs, could only eat small portions or a liquid diet, his speech was poor and he suffered from epilepsy, she said.

Employee Lee Jones was the first victim who had been hospitalised with MI poisoning and continued to suffer the effects including speech difficulties.

He had not been used with a chemical suit, gloves or boots and when later given a face mask, it did not have a MI filter.

Mr Jones became ill after finishing his shift in February last year. In hospital his liver was enlarged and he suffered hallucinations, one of which caused him to jump out of a window and injure his face.

Miss Roberts said Mr Verdon continued to suffer the effects of MI poisoning including speech difficulties and was no longer able to go to the gym, or go cycling, fishing or do DIY. He was incapable of work and is under the care of three consultants.

Terence Lyons, another worker, was said to have attended hospital on three occasions after exposure to the gas and suffered breathing and other difficulties.

After one shift he found himself covered in a red rash and blisters to his right wrist and both ankles. He became ill a second time but it was not investigated and no action was taken.

On the third occasion he struggled to breathe, was vomiting and feeling cold and when he returned to hospital for the third time, he was advised not to return to work.

It emerged that he had not been instructed how to remove his protective clothing to prevent contaminating his skin.

Terry Jones lost consciousness and had recurrent problems with breathing and dizziness following a release of methylene chloride and others including agency worker Louis Banlin were also exposed to the gas when they went to his aid.

There was no evidence of preventative training, maintenance, testing or examination and an inadequate and unsafe system to collect leaks.

The company base, which has been used as a chemical site since the 1930s, came under the top tier of COMA, the control of major accidents and hazards regulations, aimed at preventing major accidents involving dangerous substances and which demanded high standards.

By 2010 Archimica Ltd, a German company, was operating the site and in February 2011 Euticals Ltd, an Italian company, acquired the site, although the management remained the same.

In recent times production focused on Isosorbide Mononitrate OSNM, an angina medication, for which it enjoyed access to the global marker, licensed in both the UK and the US.

It was charged by the HSE with four charges of exposing workers to risk of exposure to hazardous gas, contravening an improvement notice and failing to provide a safe system of work between February 2012 and November last year.

Natural Resources Wales charged the company on two counts – breaching emission levels and failing to notify “fugitive emissions” in November 2011 for a number of days.

On November 30, 2011, an estimated 500 kg of MI had mistakenly been sent to a caustic scrubber, which was released into the atmosphere.

Miss Roberts said it was not known how much was released but in short, it should never had been released into the atmosphere.

When on December 2, 2011, some 36 hours later, it was realised that a release had taken place it was not reported to the authorities for 16 days when it was claimed that about 500 kgs had been lost over a period of about 10 hrs 10 mins.

The failure to notify the authorities promptly had hampered their attempts to quantity how much MI was released and therefore, its impact on the environment.

Miss Roberts said that the HSE and the former Environment Agency had harboured serious concerns regarding the operation of the site since 2010.

In July 2012, the company was fined £100,000 with £8,000 costs after it admitted failing to comply with three improvement notices.

No one from the companies appeared in court.

Archimica was said to have estimated deficiencies of £6 million and barrister Julia Kendrick, for the liquidator, suggested a nominal fine.

She argued a significant fine would not be a punishment for the company but would simply affect what would be available for creditors including  former employees who were owed redundancy pay, suppliers, and HM Revenue and Customs.

“If punishment was required, then they should go after the directors personally,” she said.

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