Clearing 100 illegal waste-dumping sites in Northern Ireland could cost the taxpayer more than £250 million, a new report has found.
The Stormont-commissioned probe investigated the discovery of more than half a million tonnes of waste buried without permission in and around the site of a licensed recycling site at Campsie near Londonderry earlier this year.
But report author Chris Mills, a former director of the Welsh Environment Agency, also provided an overview of the problem across Northern Ireland.
He claimed criminals were exploiting opportunities within the waste industry and blamed a lack of effective sanctions for polluters for the fact that very few previously discovered illegal dumps in Northern Ireland had been cleaned up.
Based on an assumption the clearance work was required at 100 locations in the region, Mr Mills estimated the cost to the state would be in the region of £250 million.
But he said further penalties for non-compliance with EU regulations could see the bill rise higher.
“Even with a risk based approach, the cost of dealing with this historic legacy could run into hundreds of millions of pounds and failure to do so risks infraction under the EU Waste Framework Directive,” he said.
In regard to the specific site he investigated at Mobuoy near the River Faughan, where the majority of the illegal landfill was buried in old sand and gravel excavation pits, he said clearance costs could be “tens of millions of pounds”.
He said £600,000 had already been spent on removal work.
In the wake of an operation by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), the owner and operator of the recycling site had its licence revoked and a criminal investigation was launched into the illegal dumping, with two people arrested.
Mr Mills was commissioned by then Environment Minister Alex Attwood to examine the case.
Publishing the findings today, the author said there had been a history of non-compliance with regulations at the licensed site, but said it was still not known who deposited the illegal waste.
“However this was a sophisticated operation which had been carried out over a number of years,” he added.
The 1.4km dumping site was in and around the material recycling facility.
Moving from the specific case in Derry, Mr Mills gave a wider assessment of the problem of illegal dumping across Northern Ireland.
He claimed a number of factors were enabling criminals to enter the waste industry and use it to carry out illicit activities.
Among failings identified in the system, he cited:
:: Inadequate fit and proper person tests to screen people seeking licences;
:: Ability to dig sand and gravel pits without planning permission;
:: A sentencing regime that provides little deterrent.
Mr Mills stressed the crime was not unique to Northern Ireland, but also prevalent in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
“Waste crime is not just damaging the environment, it is damaging the economy in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“Currently, the punishment does not fit the crime and the waste industry is extremely attractive and vulnerable to criminals who can make vast profits with relatively little risk.”
Responding to the report, Environment Minister Mark H Durkan pledged fundamental change in the waste management system.
Mr Durkan said Mr Mills’ findings made for “sober reading”.
“Mr Mills is clear in pointing out that we have serious problems right across our waste systems,” the minister said.
“Mr Mills provides a set of recommended actions to fix these problems.
“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.”
The minister said he had asked the NIEA to prepare a range of actions for his consideration.
“I will issue my response to the Mills Report in 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 added.
“In the meantime, I am releasing Mr Mills’ Report so that everyone has access to his important findings and recommendations.
“I know that many people are keen to read this important report which has significant implications for how we can protect our precious environment and underpin our economy with a reformed and well-functioning waste system.
“I can assure you though, we have not been sitting on our hands awaiting the report.
“We have already allocated £1.5m to NIEA to upgrade its waste regulation and enforcement activities.
“This marks the beginning of a major strengthening of NIEA’s regulatory activities.”