'Walls of waste' defendants who caused 'misery' for residents finally sentenced four years on from major fires

An award winning business woman and her convicted fraudster ex-partner have been sentenced for waste offences after an incident nearly four years ago which saw a plastics recycling plant go up in flames.

The fire at Greenology (Liverton) Limited in Lantsbery Drive, Liverton Mines, on April 5, 2020 burnt for nine days and resulted in smoke billowing into the air which could be seen for miles around.

Laura Hepburn, 44, a former director of the firm, was handed a two year suspended jail sentence at Teesside Crown Court with 150 hours of unpaid community work and Jonathan Guy Brudenell, 54, a manager, received an immediate two year, 10-month jail term after both admitted more than 14 environmental offences, including depositing waste without authorisation and illegally operating a regulated facility otherwise than in accordance with an environmental permit.

A third defendant, Jonathan Peter Waldron, 42, a business associate of the pair, was given a suspended 20-month prison sentence, along with 150 hours of community work and ordered to pay £9,000 costs. The Environment Agency said warnings were persistently ignored by the trio that waste sites they variously operated at Liverton, Old Eldon Brickworks, in County Durham and in Sotheby Road on Middlesbrough ’s Skippers Lane Industrial Estate were a fire risk.

Judge Howard Crowson said Hepburn had “manipulated” environmental regulations for financial gain and had “shown little or no contrition”. He suggested her guilty pleas only appeared to have come about after she realised that she had exhausted all possibilities of delaying the outcome.

He said Brudenell had a “background in fraud” with his offending based on dishonesty. Judge Crowson also criticised a lack of adherence to fire regulations at the Liverton recycling facility which saw waste plastic piled up just yards from a main office building.

Plastic waste was tightly packed in and should have included fire breaks to limit the risk or spread of fire
Plastic waste was tightly packed in and should have included fire breaks to limit the risk or spread of fire -Credit:Environment Agency

Gary Wallace, an area manager with the Environment Agency in the North-East, said: “All of those sentenced have shown a complete disregard for environmental laws, which are there to protect people and the environment. They could have been in no doubt that the sites were operating illegally and posed a significant fire risk, but repeatedly ignored our officers’ warnings about bringing the sites back into compliance and making them safe.

“The walls of waste resulted in two major fires [at Liverton and Old Eldon], impacting on the environment and causing misery for local residents.”

The fire at Liverton Mines, which involved tightly packed bales of waste plastic, was originally investigated as a potential arson with Hepburn offering a reward for information, although the exact cause remains unknown with its ferocity obliterating any potential forensic evidence and no charges ever being brought. Because of the covid-19 lockdown restrictions at the time residents in the area were unable to be properly evacuated from their homes with an assessment also having been made that it was safe to remain and instead were told to stay inside and close windows and doors while the fire still raged.

Protests were later held at the site, which also suffered from a fly infestation, and led Hepburn, of Stonebridgegate, Ripon, to switch operations to Skippers Lane where another firm set up under her control Greenology (Teesside) Limited was to process plastics, which normally end up in landfill or being incinerated, into oil, bio-diesel and other by-products with a full-scale de-polymerisation plant. But despite attempts to secure public funding it never came to fruition with the site continually handling excessive volumes of waste tyres, breaching an exemption limit.

Protesters gathered outside the Greenology plastic recycling centre in Liverton Mines
Protesters gathered outside the Greenology plastic recycling centre in Liverton Mines -Credit:Evening Gazette

Another company owed money by Greenology took over the business in September 2022 in efforts to trade it out of difficulty and Hepburn handed over control of the company, and resigned as a director. Some improvements had been made to the site by the new owners, but it was subsequently liquidated in 2023.

Meanwhile, Brudenell, of no fixed address, but previously of Sandsend, North Yorkshire, and Waldron, of Hinton, Northallerton, first worked together as manager and director of Selective Environmental Solutions Limited (SESL) which operated from the Liverton facility between December 2018 and February 2019 until Hepburn set up Greenology (Liverton) Ltd as a sole director.

Prior to the April 2020 fire the Environment Agency had issued enforcement notices requiring the site to be cleared, only for it to quickly fill up again with waste plastic. They also advised Hepburn to stop importing waste - advice that was ignored - and told her to create ‘fire breaks’ to reduce the risk or spread of a fire.

By helping to run both SESL and Greenology (Liverton), Brudenell admitted breaching a bankruptcy restriction order which prohibited him from running a company and which had been imposed on him as a result of multiple fraud offences.

Separately, Waldron, as the director of another firm Falcons Two Limited, failed to comply with an enforcement notice at the Old Eldon Brickworks, near Bishop Auckland. This site was never in compliance with an environmental permit and was continually storing excessive amounts of waste with a large fire also breaking out here in August 2020.

‘Northern Power Women’

Prior to becoming embroiled in criminal proceedings, Hepburn was hailed as a successful entrepreneur, spoke at environmental summits and was on a previously published ‘Northern Power Women’ list. She was also a regular on the Teesside business awards dinner circuit and further afield.

The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) can reveal that at one stage her name was put forward to be a representative on the board of the Tees Valley Local Economic Partnership, a non-statutory body responsible for local economic development, only for this vetoed at the last minute by then Redcar and Cleveland Council leader Mary Lanigan due to concerns about the Liverton blaze and her company.

Hepburn’s ambition involved creating sustainable fuel products from the use of “world class” technology to recycle plastics.

She combined fund raising for the Greenology project with a career in television and film production, working on shows such as Game of Thrones and Gentleman Jack, and spoke of upskilling former steel industry workers while creating jobs in “future proofed” green industries. In 2020, in an interview with the Yorkshire Post she said: “I like not to be a pigeon-holed person. I am not a woman in a white lab coat or working on a dockyard. I am somebody completely different with amazing ideas.”

The mother-of-three became involved - professionally and personally - with the smooth-talking Brudenell, moving in together, although they are no longer a couple.

Brudenell, who used a false name ‘Guy Barker’ enabling him to negotiate a lease at the Liverton site, claimed to have interests in aviation, hotels, restaurants and property companies based in the UK, the Isle of Man and the Virgin Islands. He was also previously the managing director of Middlesbrough-based Campus Lifestyle, a student accommodation provider, proposing at one stage a 375ft-high apartment block in the town which would have been five times the size of the Angel of The North.

In 2013 Teesside Crown Court heard how he persuaded three friends to part with sums of £600,000, £400,000 and £240,000 with the promise of quick profits on a variety of property and investment deals. But in reality he was using their money to service his own huge debts, said to have been caused by the credit crunch, and blew £15,000 on a Swiss ski break and a trip to St Tropez.

He admitted fraud charges and along with an offence of perjury for making a false statement during a bankruptcy petition hearing and was jailed for a total of five years, four months. Brudenell was labelled “selfish” and wanting to continue to lead a “luxurious life” through fraud by Judge Crowson - the same judge who sentenced him for the waste offences.

Bankruptcy proceedings

In December 2021 Waldron admitted operating a regulated facility at Liverton otherwise than in accordance with an environmental permit while it was being run by SESL. But Hepburn and co-defendant Brudenell later denied the charges brought by the Environment Agency against them.

A trial was subsequently pencilled in for February last year, but then delayed for 12 months after lawyers for Hepburn revealed she was facing bankruptcy proceedings and struggling to pay for legal representation. It also emerged that Hepburn had applied to change the Greenology name to LM South Yorkshire Limited, which the Environment Agency suggested was an attempt to “preserve the reputation” of the former.

The aftermath of the fire at Greenology (Liverton) Ltd which destroyed the site
Greenology director Laura Hepburn

Guilty pleas were eventually entered by Hepburn and Brudenell earlier this year with matters being decided over a two day sentencing hearing at Teesside Crown Court. This also led to fines totalling more than £103,000 being dished out against the three companies involved - Greenology (Liverton), Greenology (Teesside) and SESL who were all accused of keeping controlled waste in a manner likely to cause pollution of the environment or harm to human health

‘Toxic waste dump’

After the site in Lantsbery Drive was abandoned and left derelict it was bought by Teesside property developer Peter Hall with a view to bringing it back into use by erecting new commercial units.

Mr Hall and his company Loftus Developments Limited sought financial assistance from Redcar and Cleveland Council to help clear the site of molten plastic debris remaining after being granted outline planning permission to put 48 new commercial/light industrial units on the site. But in October last year the LDRS revealed Mr Hall’s frustrations with the local authority who it was claimed had failed to keep a promise to assist with the funding needed.

It was suggested that Mr Hall was considering housing as an option instead, which would need alternative planning permission.

Loftus ward councillor Tim Gray said nearby residents were living next to what was a “toxic waste dump” and the council should be trying to do something about it. The council said it had looked at options to see if it could assist Mr Hall with the costs of clearing up the site so it could be developed, but no suitable grant funding was available.

Reflecting on the outcome of the court case, Cllr Gray said he felt Hepburn had got away "scot free". He said: "Residents in the area have suffered massively and still have on their doorstep a fire ravaged, fly infested site. What about compensation for the residents and the damage that was done to them - the smoke was in people's homes, it was everywhere."

He also queried how the fines for the firms involved would be paid. Cllr Gray added: "They [the defendants] have managed to play the system and have got off lightly. I am still very bitter about this."