Waste crime in the Italian city Naples and across the Campania region has been a deadly business for decades. The Camorra crime syndicate has earned a fortune through illegally dumping thousands and thousands of tonnes of hazardous materials, dangerous chemicals and asbestos.
This has led inevitably to an increase in serious illnesses such as cancer around the region, and an areas north of Naples has become known as the ‘triangle of death’. In the Eco Mafia 2012 report, published by environmental group Legambiente, it is estimated that Italian crime groups earned £13bn in just one year from illegal dumping and related offences.
This couldn’t happen here, could it? Don’t be so certain – the UK’s waste sector is by no means immune to infiltration by crime gangs. While we may not suffer the same outrages as Italy, let’s not forget that the Environment Agency (EA) closed around 1,000 illegal waste sites last year only to see a further 1,000 created. The Environmental Services Association Education Trust’s report, Tackling Britain’s Dirty Secret, estimated that waste crime cost the economy £800m in 2013. An update on this will be published on 2 May.
load of waste from water treatment
In 2013, a report for the Northern Ireland Assembly by Chris Mills into the 516,000 tonnes of waste dumped illegally at Mobuoy near Derry concluded that organised waste crime was prevalent throughout the UK. Mills warned that the industry was “extremely attractive and vulnerable to criminals who can make vast profits with relatively little risk”.
Since the Mills report, there have been a number of raids and prosecutions at sites that could be implicated in organised crime, but is this just the tip of the iceberg? And is it possible to gauge how much illegal activity is down to gangs?
Organised crime comes in many guises. It is technically defined as any criminal activity involving the co-ordination of more than one person. But it is clear that, at the higher end of the scale, with gangs working across international boundaries, it can be an effective business model that is hard to combat.
“One of the reasons it is very difficult to get a handle on current investigations involving organised crime is that these are ongoing offences involving some very unpleasant people,” says Mat Crocker, an independent consultant and former EA deputy director of waste and illegals. “Therefore the information you will get from agencies will likely be vague. I believe that in the criminal’s mind, organised crime is a sustainable business model – for them it is worth carrying on.”
Crocker also warns of the difficulty in getting a baseline measure of organised activity, making it even harder to work out if the problem is getting better or worse.
The EA, Natural Resources Wales, Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) were not initially set up to deal with organised crime. But each agency has been getting to grips with the emerging issues in recent years.
Scotland’s Serious Organised Crime Strategy, released in 2015, warned: “There have … been changes in the legitimate business sectors that serious organised crime groups have tried to infiltrate, eg the waste industry.” As a result, Sepa has created a dedicated waste crime division and works closely with the Scottish Crime Campus. The raid on Platinum Waste Solutions in Shotts – a cover for a heroin smuggling ring – is good example of the role regulators can play.
“We see organised crime in the waste industry as a real threat to the viability of the industry. We cannot tackle this on our own – it requires industry engagement.”
Willie Wilson is Sepa’s waste crime manager, having had the title of enforcement manager for the past three years. His team conducts investigations and carries out the intelligence function for the agency, as well as for Revenue Scotland and the SCC.
“Last year we conducted a perception study with the Scottish waste industry, with more than 250 respondents one of the largest of its type in Scotland,” he says. “That was done with the support of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management.
“The results are being drafted, but it is quite clear that the industry perceives waste crime as a significant problem and one that deserves serious attention and collective action.” In his role, Wilson is involved with the SCC’s mapping of organised crime.
“We have cited a significant number of organised crime groups who are actively engaged in the waste industry in Scotland. I am not in the position to give the numbers, but suffice to say that it has spurred us to increasingly work with SCC staff, and I am now a member of the Scottish Multi-Agency Tasking Group that meets on a monthly basis.
“We present on environmental crime issues, and in particular look to target the top 20% of organised crime groups in the environmental crime arena in Scotland.”
What does Wilson think attracts organised gangs to the waste industry?
“At the end of the day, whether it is drugs, firearms, human trafficking, cyber crime or waste crime, it is a commercially based enterprise. The waste industry appears to be vulnerable to criminals’ tactics. It’s a cash-rich environment and there is opportunity for tax evasion through misclassification of waste.
“There is a significant tax burden in terms of the standard rate of landfill tax. If you can change the identifying features of the material through falsification or some agreement, you can avoid that.
“Also, the infrastructure and engineering required to properly process waste is very costly. It involves a range of technologies and, if you can avoid that by conspiring with others, you can avoid those costs also.”
Wilson reflects the view expressed by all UK regulators that Government agencies need help from legitimate businesses: “Our message is that we see organised crime in the waste industry as a real threat to the viability of the industry. We cannot tackle this on our own – it requires industry engagement.”
“The waste industry appears to be vulnerable to criminals’ tactics. It’s a cash-rich environment and there is opportunity for tax evasion through misclassification of waste.”
He also warns that organised waste crime is international in scope. That is why he is getting involved this year with Interpol’s Pollution Crime Working Group, an international effort to lead on initiatives to combat illegal transport of waste and hazardous substances.
trailer containing waste material
The NIEA has also just carried out a restructuring in order to focus on waste crime, and Derek Williamson has become head of the enforcement branch. His team includes five financial investigators, 16 criminal investigators looking at the serious and organised side of things, and four looking at the lower level offences.
The NIEA deals at any one time with around 70 serious organised crime investigations, of which 22 are financial investigations. In 2016, it dealt with more than 840 reports. Around 60% will be more ‘moderate’ level cases while 25% go to the serious and organised crime section. The idea is that the new team will see patterns emerging that might previously been thought of as one-off dumping incidents.
“If you’re illegal, I will deal with you – everything from small to serious and organised crime” says Williamson. “This means I have an overview that, on one look, may seem relatively small but, when you start to link a series together, you get a different picture entirely.
“There were cases last year which, if we had looked at them in an isolated way, we certainly would not have made the links that transport companies were involved.”
Although there are now two divisions in Northern Ireland, the legal and illegal sides work hand in hand over crime prevention and disruption: “Criminals themselves do not produce waste, so [working with] the regulated industry, which does have the vast bulk of waste, is absolutely critical. Our links within the agency are also absolutely key in terms of education and prevention.”
Can Williamson pinpoint what proportion of waste crime is down to gangs?
“There is a subtle distinction between organised crime in the waste industry and organised gangs. I have a fairly good understanding of organised crime gangs, and what I don’t see in the Northern Ireland context is a lot of recognised criminal gang involvement. What I do see is an awful lot of organised crime.”
As well as dealing with cross-border issues with his fellow regulators in England, Wales, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, the NIEA has a strategic partnership with the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI). Williamson said he was “surprised” how good the links were when he took up his post. Sharing intelligence is key, and so is the on-the-ground support that police officers can offer the NIEA during investigations.
“Just as important is the ability of PSNI officers, who we have warranted and trained to act as our eyes and ears in the community and report incidents.”
Like Wilson, Williamson sees misclassification of waste as one of his biggest challenges.
“It is exceptionally difficult to get any coherent detail understanding around this. There are so many layers involved in waste movements and shipments. From waste producers to carriers, hauliers and transport, waste brokers, MRFs and so on – there are many veneers of legitimacy around a lot of the regulated and unregulated business. It is very resource-intensive to uncover.”
It may be unlikely that the UK will end up like Campania, but this is only because of the vigilance and efforts of our agencies. The cat-and-mouse fight against crime is never ending.
Fourteen bailed in HMRC fraud probe
Fourteen people arrested in connection with a suspected £78m landfill tax fraud have been released on bail pending further inquiries, according to HM Revenue & Customs. The service led a high-profile series of raids across a swathe of the north-east from the Humber to the Tyne on 23 September. It said the swoop followed an 18-month intelligence-gathering operation.
Record sentence for WEEE fraud
A Yorkshire operator has been jailed for seven-and-a-half years for waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) recycling fraud. Terence Solomon Dugbo of High Ash Avenue, Leeds, was handed the sentence, a record for environmental crime, at Leeds Crown Court following a major Environment Agency (EA) investigation and seven-week trial. Judge Clarke also disqualified Dugbo from acting as a company director for 12 years, stating that he was “a risk to the public”. He initiated the EA request to begin Proceeds of Crime against Dugbo for £2.2m.
EA investigates rural fly-tipping epidemic
The EA, police and local authorities are trying to track down suspected criminals who have dumped tonnes of waste disguised as hay bales in rural locations. Around 40 tonnes of waste was tipped into a field at Bishop Auckland in County Durham. Police prevented a second lorry from tipping waste. The vehicle has been seized, pending further investigations. Eighty bales of ‘old processed waste’ was also found left on land in Sadberge, near Darlington. On 7 September, 20 bales of waste were found dumped at a farm near Northallerton.
Waste firm acted as cover for drugs operation
A former director of a recycling company in Scotland has been sentenced for waste offences after his firm was used as a front for an illegal drugs ring. Platinum Waste Solutions in Shotts was set up by James Nisbet to mask heroin smuggling. Calum MacDonald, Sepa executive, said: “The Scottish Government’s Serious Organised Crime Strategy highlights penetration by serious organised crime groups in legitimate business sectors as a new threat, specifically identifying the waste industry as a target of this criminal activity.”
Bales dumped instead of expected road planings
Organised criminals in Lincolnshire have targeted farmers in a scam that will leave them with large clean-up costs. The EA has dealt with two incidents where farmers were asked if they wanted tarmac road planings to repair roads and farmyards. After paying cash, both found bales of landfill waste dumped on their land instead of the expected planings (pictured above), leaving them liable for the waste and a bill to transport and remove it to an authorised disposal site. In the bigger case, approximately 2,500 bales were deposited on the farmland, leaving a bill of approximately £300,000. In the other, 25 bales were dumped.
Scottish fly blight plagues residents
A massive hoard of waste uncovered at the former Netherplace Dye Works, south of Glasgow, causing widespread fly infestation, is being treated as a criminal act. Sepa is working with East Renfrewshire Council to ease the plight of nearby residents. The authorities said it will take time to deal with the illegal dump, with the volume and variety of wastes requiring a complex removal operation. Sepa said remedial measures can be taken in tandem with evidence gathering.
The Scottish crime campus
scottish crime campus
The SCC was set up in 2014 in Lanarkshire to provide a hub for Police Scotland, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, National Crime Agency, HM Revenue & Customs and the Scottish Police Authority Forensic Services. Regulators such as Sepa are also on the campus. Multi-agency investigations have spanned the world since the doors opened. The £73m site has also added state-of-the-art forensics capacity through the £6m development of a brand new forensics laboratory which now houses DNA 24, the most advanced profiling facility in Europe.