Critical criminology and the social sciences
Critical criminology and the social sciences

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Critical criminology and the social sciences

2.4 Sonae: an archetypal case study for critical criminologists

In this section, you will watch a video that explores some of the harms associated with a factory producing wood particle boards in Kirkby, near Liverpool (England), between 1999 and 2012. The film presents the stories of people who lived in the local area and were affected by the activities of the plant.

Activity 5

As you are watching the video, think back to what you learned about critical criminology earlier in this section, and try to explain why the case of Sonae might be of particular interest to critical criminologists.

It might help to think about who is involved in this case, for example, who are those alleged to be committing the harm, and who are those claiming to be victims. What problems does the film raise in relation to the ways in which such harm is (or is not) being dealt with by the criminal justice system?

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 5
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Transcript: Video 5

TRACEY MCNALLEY
I feel that local residents were poisoned. We had no choice. We had to breathe in the fumes, the toxic fumes, the wood dust from Sonae. When Sonae first came to Kirkby, I was alarmed. There was things on the internet and in the local paper. I was quite concerned about it. So what I'd done, I emailed my MP and asked him about it. He just sent me a big long email back, saying they'd be bringing jobs into the community.
DAVID WHYTE
The local authority quote was this was going to be a major contribution to regeneration of the area. And clearly, it was easy to say that because the ward that it set up in was one of the poorest in the country. It was seen as a kind of something that could precipitate a reversal of the fortunes of that area.
NARRATOR
But as soon as the factory opened, complaints started to be raised about the emissions from the factory, as well as the safety standards inside.
HILDA PALMER
There were problems with particular incidents. There were fires. There were incidents where people were- there was explosions. There were instances where people were crushed or badly injured.
DAVID WHYTE
In that first couple of years, we can see a fairly common pattern. I'm going to read out a few examples- September 2001, a large fire. December of that year, an explosion followed by a fire. June the following year, another dust explosion. And by the time we get to July of that year, there are five prohibition notices issued by the health and safety executive. Now, that means the health and safety executive is saying that the operation of the plant must change in some way.
TRACEY MCNALLEY
One of my children have asthma. We live in quite a polluted environment, anyway. But I found when Sonae was built, her asthmatic condition got worse. She was getting more symptoms. Also, people were getting- myself included- runny eyes and nosebleeds and runny noses and coughs quite often. There was one woman who wore contacts. And she couldn't wear the contact lenses because her eyes were feeling gritty and stuff like that.
HILDA PALMER
Something like this almost always follows a pattern. People complain. People can see the reality of their lives changing. They can see evidence of the harm, in terms of dust or fumes. They can smell it. They can see people getting ill in some way. And they complain. They complain to their doctors. And then they complain to their counsellors, to their MP, which they did, and then action is sometimes taken. It's raised to another level. The PCT, the Primary Care Trusts, and various other people, public health authorities, are then called upon to do something.
NARRATOR
Various studies were undertaken. And in 2008, the Knowsley Health Advisory Group published a report on respiratory disease and lung cancer in Kirkby in response to the complaints from local residents. The report concluded that there were no health impacts which could be attributed to emissions from the plant, although residents continued to maintain that their health had been affected since the factory opened.
HILDA PALMER
They looked at some of the health data they had about inhalers and the health data about admissions to hospital and about COPD and things like that. They looked at things lung diseases and so on. And then compared it to similar places with similar levels of deprivation and, of course blamed a lot of things on deprivation and on poverty. They did find that there was an increase. There was an increase in people using inhalers. There was an increase in lung diseases. There was some indication that they really should investigate this a bit more. They did find these sort of things, but still nothing very much was actually done about that. I don't think that any of these studies that were done looked at things properly or asked the proper questions or actually carried out any proper monitoring to see what was in those fumes- not just wood dust. Formaldehyde is in the panels. That's a carcinogen. Other sorts of chemicals- what was the size of the particles, and compare where the majority of the fumes and the dust were going to the sort of health impacts that people were complaining about.
NARRATOR
Despite the growing opposition to Sonae, media coverage was limited.
DAVID WHYTE
This was a company that had more than 20 regulatory notices against it. It had six prosecutions. And it was still difficult to get a public audience beyond the local area for this. I think this raises profound questions about how serious we take corporate crime. Things that happen in relatively poor communities don't tend to be reported. I think that if this factory was located in an area where there's are relative people with relatively high social status, you have a much higher chance of that being reported. But here's the rub. Those factories are never located in areas where people of high social status live.
HILDA PALMER
The decision to put a plant like Sonae in an area of residential housing was an illogical and irrational health-based decision. It didn't create a huge rift because of the sort of people that we're talking about, people who are poorer, people who don't have as much of a voice. I have said crudely and cynically, people who you can do dreadful things to and get away with it.
DAVID WHYTE
You criminalise a company, and nothing seems to happen, where do you go next? What do we do next? And I think the Sonae case raises profound questions about the way we organise production. If we organise it in a way that, when things go wrong, we prosecute and we prosecute at this rate and then nothing happens, then it seems to me we can't control those hazards. We can't control private companies committing hazards. So we need to think about how we reform the system in other ways that allows us to control those hazards.
ON-SCREEN TEXT
We asked Sonae for a comment on the issues outlined in the film. This is what they said: ‘In relation to the assertion that the plant has or may have caused ill health to the residents of Kirkby, we draw the following to your attention and ask that you include it with suitable prominence in all of the materials that you publish: 1. A Knowsley Health Advisory Group report in February 2008 concluded that there was no deterioration in the health of the residents of Kirky which was attributable to emissions from the plant. 2. A class action was brought on behalf of 18,000 odd claimants claiming damages for personal injury in the form of respiratory conditions linked to the fire at the plant in 2011. All the claims were struck out on the basis that they were not proven to have been caused by any smoke or other emission from the plant. The claim was rejected after rigorous examination of the evidence in court. 3. Outside of the class action no claim for personal injury attributable to the plant’s emissions has ever been received.’
End transcript: Video 5
Video 5
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Discussion

The case of Sonae contains many features that make it interesting from a critical criminological perspective. For example, the alleged perpetrator of serious harm is a wealthy company with access to high levels of economic and social capital. The victims of such harm, on the other hand, are community residents living in a socioeconomically deprived location.

This raises issues around the relative power of the alleged perpetrator(s) and victim(s). In the video, Hilda Palmer argues that the decision to build the industrial plant in a socioeconomically deprived location was taken because the plant owners would have known that residents living in this location would not be able to challenge the conditions, practices and harms associated with the plant. People living in a wealthy area, on the other hand, would have been far better placed to oppose the plant’s construction and harmful practices, given their access to greater resources and social capital.

The video also considers the difficulties and problems with addressing the harms generated by the industrial plant through the criminal justice system. For example, despite the health and safety executive issuing five prohibition notices to the plant, explosions and fires continued to occur. Dr David Whyte concludes by highlighting that powerful groups committing serious harms often seem immune to prosecution and punishment through the courts and criminal justice system.

The case of Sonae highlights the importance of power and inequality in understanding who is able to get away with committing serious harms, and who is likely to suffer most as a result of these harms. It also illustrates the limitations of the criminal justice system in terms of controlling harms generated by powerful individuals and groups. These things combined make Sonae an interesting case study for many critical criminologists.

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