Michael McLanaghan, 44, pleaded guilty at Newcastle Magistrates’ Court in July to disposing of controlled waste in a manner likely to cause pollution or harm to human health. However, after taking into account the potential harm caused by burning mattresses, the proximity of a school and a previous conviction for a similar offence in 2017, magistrates felt their powers were insufficient and sent the case to the Crown Court for sentencing.
McLanaghan appeared before Newcastle Crown Court in August, where he was sentenced to three months in prison, suspended for 12 months, and ordered to carry out 100 hours of unpaid work. He was also ordered to pay £300 in costs.
Magistrates had been told that at around 3.35pm on Tuesday 20 April, a Newcastle City Council environmental protection officer was off-duty, walking through Denton, when he saw a plume of dark smoke rising. As Roy Harris approached the property, he witnessed a large fire, with flames as high as the semi-detached home’s first-floor windows, filling the air with the smell of smoke and burning synthetic materials.
Not feeling safe in approaching either McLanaghan or the fire – for which he would have needed protective equipment to go any nearer – the officer withdrew and called the police, who dispatched a crew from Tyne and Wear Fire and Rescue Service to extinguish the blaze.
Interviewed under caution by council enforcement officers the following week, McLanaghan admitted burning four or five mattresses, said that the smoke was black, and agreed there was no control over the emissions and that the smoke had drifted over other houses. He also consented to an inspection of his back garden, the fences of which were badly damaged by fire. Officers found a large pile of burnt mattress springs, some with plastic residue, bits of charred metal and wood and, at the far end of the garden, a stack of seven further, unburnt, mattresses.
Environmental protection manager Harris told EHN: “A former chief EHO used to insist that everybody was always on duty when it came to black smoke, so when I saw it, I thought I’d better deal with it. We have had a problem during the lockdown periods with an increase in bonfires. We've been working with the fire brigade to develop a consistent message that burning is generally illegal as well as unsafe. It’s a particularly selfish thing to do when people could have COVID, are isolating at home or are simply trying to enjoy their gardens while restrictions were in place.
“As a council we want everyone to be a good neighbour and to that end we discourage the burning of any waste. In most cases, it is not only illegal but it can be exceptionally dangerous, with toxic gases like hydrogen cyanide and other poisonous pollutants released. To do so in the middle of a residential area, knowing how damaging it could be to others in the community, is quite shocking. I’m glad the courts took a dim view of the crime.”