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Full force of the law - at last

Those in favour of the widespread use of CCTV cameras as a crime-prevention tool often argue that if a person isn’t doing anything wrong, they have nothing to worry about. The only people who should fear surveillance, so the argument goes, are those who have broken the law, or plan to do so in future.

A similar argument has characterised the debate over the new specialist taskforce launched by the Environment Agency at the end of last year, as the regulator ramps up its efforts to combat organised waste crime.

The EA has identified approximately 600 active illegal waste sites in England and Wales – more than half of which are estimated to be within 50 metres of schools, homes or sensitive environmental sites.

Identifying the sites and closing them, according to the EA, can “often involve complex investigations and legal action.”

The new taskforce, which includes former police detectives, will work closely with enforcement partners to gather intelligence and “act quickly” to close illegal waste sites. And it will be supported by up to £5m of EA funding for the first two years.

Launching the taskforce, Environment Agency chief executive Dr Paul Leinster warned: “If you’re involved in illegal waste activities, you should be looking over your shoulder and expecting a visit from our enforcement officers.

“We will press for the strongest possible penalties – including prison – for those convicted of these crimes against communities.”

Most legitimate waste operators will correctly assume that the primary target of the taskforce will be rogue individuals and cowboy firms, rather than themselves.

Summoning up the attitude of the pro-CCTV campaigner, many in the industry will no doubt say: “I’m no cowboy – my operation is compliant and therefore this doesn’t affect me.”

It is true that the vast majority of today’s waste operators and consultants have an extremely sound grasp of the regulatory framework in which they operate.

That’s doesn’t mean, however, that the creation of the taskforce can be ignored.

Indeed, it marks a significant evolution in the regulator’s approach to enforcement, tackling head-on the fundamental flaw that has dogged it to date: a lack of joined-up thinking both internally and externally.

For example, communication between the EA’s permitting and prosecution departments has historically been less than perfect.

More significantly, and more worryingly from the EA’s perspective, has been its lack of coordination with partner agencies – particularly local authorities.

The fact is that a local authority will be, in the vast majority of cases, the first port of call for a member of the public looking to lodge a complaint about an illegal waste site.  

Local authorities therefore represent a huge, and hitherto often untapped, source of intelligence for the regulator. By building closer links with local authorities and other agencies, the EA will become a more effective investigator. The decision to include former police detectives in the new taskforce is also noteworthy, and will add significantly to the EA’s teeth.

The EA stopped, or brought into regulation, 1,195 illegal waste sites and took over 400 waste-related prosecutions during 2010/11. Recent cases include that of a Leicestershire company prosecuted for illegally burning waste and affecting local air quality. Nearby residents’ homes were affected by smoke and the defendant was fined more than £10,000.  

In November 2011 a contractor was fined more than £22,000 in relation to an illegal waste site near Pontypridd in South Wales. EA officers found illegally treated and stored waste at the site including asbestos, stone, soil, wood and metals as well as general household waste. Expect the volume of such cases to increase as the taskforce gets to work.

Responsible operators should be reminded that, for a business to operate a waste activity, it requires both planning permission from the local authority and an environmental permit and waste carrier’s licence from the Environment Agency.

 Without these permits and consents, the activity is unlawful and the operator could be in breach of both the Environmental Protection Act and the Environmental Permitting Regulations.

Both attract fines of up to £50,000 in the Magistrates’ Court or an unlimited fine in the Crown Court, together with custodial sentences and confiscation orders.

By strengthening the EA’s hand as an investigator, the creation of the taskforce should be seen as a force for good and welcomed by the industry.

After all, a rogue operator – in deciding to ignore the law by handling waste without a permit or planning permission – stands to save thousands of pounds and many hours on paperwork and site visits.

Through heightened awareness of the law and an increased respect for the EA’s enforcement powers, it is likely that an increasing number of ‘cowboys’ will be encouraged to become legitimate operators.

Instead of constantly ‘looking over their shoulder’, these operators will become part of the mainstream, and be governed by the same rules and regulations as the legitimate operator. This will have the dual benefit of protecting the public and ensuring a level playing field for all waste operators.

Claire Petricca-Riding is a partner and environment and waste law specialist at commercial law firm Aaron & Partners LLP

EA prosecutions

Million tyre man

Carl David Steele from Spalding in Lincolnshire dumped more than a million used tyres across England and was jailed for his troubles for 15 months in November last year. He’d stashed used tyres at locations across Essex, Norfolk, Yorkshire, Worcestershire and Lincolnshire. EA head of Waste and Illegals Mat Crocker said at the time: “Huge tyre dumps are not only an eyesore, but also present a serious risk to the environment and human health. Stockpiles are a significant fire risk, as they can burn for several years, releasing dangerous gases such as hydrogen sulphide, hydrogen cyanide and sulphur dioxide.”

Contaminated farmland

William Mathew O’Grady of Caeathro near Caernarfon, in North Wales, who ran Gwynedd Skip Hire was found guilty of five charges last November. He convinced a local farmer to spread 70 tonnes of paper and wood waste on his land to improve the soil. However, the waste was contaminated and contained treated and untreated wood, plastic, rubber and paper, which was then spread across 16 acres. Most of the material was ploughed into the land before EA officer arrived to stop the work. The contaminated material caused long term damage as it could contaminate future crops and enter the food chain, and harm animals. It will cost the landowner a huge amount to restore the land.

Haulage companies skip waste regs

Five West Cornwall haulage firms found themselves facing a £100,000 bill in fines and costs, last August, for illegally tipping thousands of tonnes of waste.Around 9,000 tonnes of C&D waste was illegally dumped at Trenoweth Farm in Gweek, near Helston. The firms were also ordered to pay back the profits they made under the Proceeds of Crime Act. One of the main offenders, for example, Michael Leah received a 12 month prison sentence suspended for two years and was ordered to pay £50,000 under Proceeds of Crime plus £4,000 costs. One of the sites where waste was illegally dumped was the Boswens Farm, Newbridge, St Just, which lies within an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on a stretch of Heritage Coastline. English Heritage showed that the illegal tipping had damaged ancient field boundaries including ancient hut circles. A number of highly invasive Japanese Knotweed plants were found growing from freshly-imported waste material at the farm.

Transporting used tyres to Vietnam

In January Andrew Revell from Hasland in Chesterfield was prosecuted for illegally storing thousands of used tyres and transporting some to Vietnam. He admitted five charges in relation to an illegal waste operation called Revco Recycling. He was sentenced to a 12 month prison sentence suspended for two years on each of the five charges and ordered to do 200 hours unpaid work and pay full court costs of £9,578.75.

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