In this week’s Gossage, our columnist details the court case that is looming over Drax at the Crown Court.
I was gratified that so many of my devoted readers – especially those who are members of Unite the Union – were present at Leeds Magistrates Court on November 30. That is when Drax, whose power station in Yorkshire is the largest in the UK burning woody biomass, began facing criminal prosecution from the government’s Health and Safety Executive. This followed concerns that dust from its wood pellets is (allegedly) posing a risk to employees’ health.
The magistrates considered the matter of such importance that the case was referred up to be heard at Leeds Crown Court. Initially this trial was due to begin on December 31. But after representations from Drax to the effect that they required extra time to prepare their defence, the starting date was delayed a further six weeks. The fireworks will finally begin at 10am on February 10.
The company is also accused of breaching risk assessment obligations before allowing employees to work with these potentially ‘hazardous substances’. The charge is that it is exceeding a workplace limit on wood dust exposure, with insufficient control measures including dust extraction, respirators and skin checks.
Originally built to burn coal, Drax now survives via multi-million pounds worth of Government subsidies each year (£790m in 2019, £832m in 2020). Amid policies designed to phase out fossil fuels, biomass use in the UK is surging, generating 12% of UK electricity in 2020.
Even though burning biomass releases greenhouse gases, it is classified as ‘renewable’ because plants can suck up gases like carbon dioxide as they re-grow. In the early years of biomass, some hoped only waste products would be burned, which would have soon decomposed and released carbon anyway. However, a huge industry of harvesting trees for wood pellets has emerged – and this is how Drax sources much of its business. And much of the contentious impacts upon employees’ health.