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Northern Ireland moves beyond waste crime

Eighteen months ago, an estimated half a million tonnes of waste were found in an area stretching nearly a mile near Derry, Northern Ireland (NI).

Some five months later, an independent review returned a damning verdict: the country lacked an “overall strategy for preventing, deterring and combating waste crime”.

A year later, the man in charge of dealing with waste policy and enforcement tells me the wind has changed. Terry A’Hearn, chief executive at the NI Environment Agency (NIEA) and deputy secretary of the Department for Environment (DoE), is not only working on closing the bureaucratic holes that have made the system vulnerable to waste crime, but also creating a regulatory framework for a “sustainable and prosperous society”.

The illegal dump discovered in July 2013 in the townland of Mobuoy was the result of a sophisticated operation which had been carried out over a number of years. It left authorities, the public and the industry appalled.

“It was an absolute shock,” says John Quinn, chief executive at arc21, one of three waste management groups in NI, and president of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management (CIWM).

“It wasn’t so much of a shock to know there was criminality, but the extent of it, both in terms of how it happened and the potential environmental impact. It was a shock that required the type of response we got from the NIEA.”

The incident added pressure on the need to reform the agency, says A’Hearn. The NIEA’s immediate response was to bring the “right people” on board. Chris Mills, author of the independent report, became director of resource efficiency.

Mark Livingstone, who A’Hearn describes as the agency’s best enforcement manager, was moved from water to head the waste regulation team.

The NIEA is now working on improving communication between various Government and agency departments.

“We have the advantage of having everything in one organisation,” says A’Hearn. “I do the waste policy and I’m in charge of the waste enforcement, of the system’s programmes. We should have the ability to have one integrated system. But when I came in [in 2012], it was clear to me that we were a very siloed organisation.”

The NIEA intends to increase collaboration with councils, especially in light of the local government restructuring that will take place next year. “Chris [Mills] and I have met all the [future] chief executives of councils and said ‘let’s look at waste strategically when you set up the new authority’.” A waste co-ordination group has been set up with A’Hearn as its chair.

The strategy to tackle waste crime has been condensed into an Operational Plan for Managing and Regulating Waste in Northern Ireland, which was launched at the CIWM presidential inauguration in October by environment minister Mark H Durkan. But the changes to the DoE and NIEA operations are part of a bigger picture. In May, A’Hearn introduced a four-principle approach which has now been applied across the agency’s operations. It pledges to:

  • make it easy for people to do good business and difficult for people to do bad business
  • help create a resource-efficient NI
  • help people to see the environment and heritage as an opportunity, not a barrier
  • be a customer-focused and people centred organisation.

Looking at the “entire jigsaw” besides waste regulations is a strategy welcomed by industry, Quinn points out: “It has to be an evolution. There needs to be a short-term reaction to criminality, but there also need to be an effort to look at organisational design and effectiveness.”

Building on the expertise he gained at the Victoria’s Environmental Protection Agency in Australia  A’Hearn has introduced ‘prosperity agreements’, voluntary commitments through which the NIEA, companies and third sector organisations can explore opportunities for reducing their impact on the environment.

“Your first job is to get everyone to full compliance,” he says. “[But higher up] is a full, sustainable and prosperous society, which is beyond [the remit] of the law.”

The first companies to sign up for the initiative were the agri-food firm Linden Foods and its energy partner Linergy. They have pledged to cut their carbon emissions by 25%, reduce their water use and production of waste, and have committed to work to influence their supply chains to improve on-farm sustainability and finished product logistics.

A’Hearn says that innovative approaches such as the prosperity agreements can help NI become a leader in sustainability.

“We are not a huge, powerful jurisdiction,” he says, “but if you are small, you can get your act together and be more agile to pursue innovation. We hope that, in the whole waste game, people will no longer be able to say that we are following up.

Terry A’Hearn

A’Hearn joined the NIEA in October 2012. He moved from Australia to the UK in 2010 when he became a consultant for WSP Environment and Energy in London. Before that he worked for the Environment Protection Authority in the state of Victoria for 17 years in a range of executive and senior management roles.

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