Durkan pledges ‘fundamental change’ in waste management

Northern Ireland’s Environment Minister, Mark H Durkan, has pledged a ‘fundamental change’ in how waste is managed in the country, following a ‘sobering’ report into illegal dumping.

The report by Chris Mills, the former Director of the Welsh Environment Agency, ‘A review of waste disposal at the Mobuoy site and the lessons learnt for the future regulation of the waste industry in Northern Ireland’, outlines the case of an illegal site in Campsie, where 516,000 tonnes of waste was discovered by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) in an area adjacent to the River Faughan in Mobuoy near Derry.

In June 2013, the then Environment Minister Alex Attwood, revoked the license of the operator following an investigation, and commissioned an independent report from Mills into how the illegal activities were able to come about.

Report details

The key finding from the Mills report is that the regulation of waste in Northern Ireland, as is the case in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, is ‘highly vulnerable to criminal infiltration’.

The report also highlights that, currently, the punishment for illegal waste activities does not ‘fit the crime’, making the waste industry ‘extremely attractive and vulnerable to criminals who can make vast profits with relatively little risk’. This reflects concerns voiced by the the Sentencing Council, Environment Agency and National Flytipping Prevention Group that ‘the levels of fines currently being given in the courts for environmental offences are not high enough and so neither reflect the seriousness of the offences committed nor have a sufficient deterrent effect on offenders’.

To counter this, Mills recommends becoming ‘more rigorous and robust in regulatory activity to stop criminals entering the waste industry’.

Potential to limit the number of waste authorisations in NI

The report reads: ‘The Regulatory Service in the NIEA needs to change in order to become more integrated and adaptive. Good intelligence will be vital in order to adopt the appropriate style of regulation. In order to achieve this, sufficient resources must be deployed by the Department and it must be able to recruit and retain staff with the right aptitudes in order to ensure that waste regulation activity can match the scale of the challenge faced.

‘Dealing mainly with the consequences of waste crime is costly and unsustainable. A more efficient and effective strategy would be to prevent it in the first place through more rigorous and robust regulatory activity and by stopping criminals entering the waste industry.’

Specifically, Mills said the Duty of Care provisions, Fit and Proper Person Test and systems for monitoring waste flows should all be ‘strengthened’, while ‘consideration’ needs to be given to ‘limiting the number of waste authorisations and developing new waste infrastructure that is easier to regulate and monitor’.

He concludes: ‘For all of this to happen will require strong leadership, a clear strategy and both structural and cultural change, as well as improvements to processes and systems. Some legislative changes may also be needed.

‘The NIEA cannot do this alone. It will need the support of the rest of the DOE including Planning, the Environmental Policy Division, the Police Service Northern Ireland (PSNI), other Enforcement Agencies, and the Judiciary.

‘Waste crime is not just damaging the environment; it is damaging the economy in Northern Ireland.’

NIEA ‘urgently’ preparing a ‘robust range of actions’

Speaking of the report, Durkan said: “I received the report on the 10th of December. It makes for sober reading. Mr Mills is clear in pointing out that we have serious problems right across our waste systems…

“Given the scale of the problems, the implementation of these actions must be done in a powerful way that creates and delivers fundamental change.

“I am determined that this will happen as quickly as possible so that we can start building a waste system that everyone in Northern Ireland can have confidence in.”

Durkan said he has directed the Chief Executive of the NIEA to ‘urgently prepare a robust range of actions’ for his consideration and will issue a formal response to the Mills reporting the ‘new year’ so that “everyone is clear about the actions that will be taken to fix the problems that Mr Mills has identified”.

He said that the report has been released now ‘so that everyone has access to [Mills’s] important findings and recommendations’ and its ‘significant implications for how we can protect our precious environment and underpin our economy with a reformed and well-functioning waste system’.

He concluded:
“I can assure you though, we have not been sitting on our hands awaiting the report. We have already allocated £1.5 million to NIEA to upgrade its waste regulation and enforcement activities. This marks the beginning of a major strengthening of NIEA’s regulatory activities.”

The report has been welcomed by the Environmental Services Association (ESA), with the ESA’s Director General, Barry Dennis saying: "ESA welcomes the report which echoes our long held position that there is a need for more concerted action and additional regulatory resources to crack down on waste crime. As the report highlights, waste crime harms the environment and local communities, as well as undermining legitimate businesses and defrauding the public purse. Northern Ireland and indeed the whole of the UK must have a ‘zero tolerance’ approach when it comes to waste crime.

"It is important to note that the vast majority of waste in the UK is handled effectively and lawfully by responsible waste companies in order to protect human health and the environment. It is however, vital that waste producers make the necessary checks to ensure they are contracting with legitimate waste management operators.

"ESA is pleased to be supporting work commissioned by the charity ESAET to assess the scale of waste related crime, and to evaluate its impacts on businesses, local communities, public finances and the environment across the UK.”

Read ‘A review of waste disposal at the Mobuoy site and the lessons learnt for the future regulation of the waste industry in Northern Ireland’.