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The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste spacer The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste
The Waste Interview: Declan Allison, Campaigner, Friends of the Earth
by Ruth Graham
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Ruth Graham and Richard West talk to Declan Allison, Campaigner, Friends of the Earth
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RG: Can you tell me a bit about the Landfill story in Northern Ireland?
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DA: There's two things. There are Landfill sites which are Landfill sites but are accepting more waste that they are licensed to accept. Then there's the other situation where people just come along and dig a hole, fill it with waste and cover it up again, which is completely illegal. A Waste Disposal License dictates what type of waste a Landfill Site can dispose of e.g. builder's rubble, household waste, clinical waste, etc. and a Landfill operator has to keep to the conditions of his license. In the past, because it was cheaper to develop a site to take inert waste like builder's rubble that's what people were applying for then they'd go ahead and accept all kinds of waste. A site full of rubble doesn't need a lot of engineering but once you start to put other stuff into it, which is rotten and mixing together and building up leachate and methane gas you've got a problem.
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RG: Is it pretty widespread?
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DA: The more we look into it, the more we realise how widespread it is. Under the old regime, the Local Authorities had responsibility for issuing and regulating waste disposal licenses. The DOE (Environment & Heritage Service) would have had an overarching responsibility for making sure all the paperwork was in place. We've heard of examples where a Local Authority (because they also dispose of waste and run Landfill sites) opened up a Landfill site for inert waste, issued a license for themselves, then dumped their domestic waste into it as well. There was a huge amount of low-level corruption and complacency and Councils were often complicit in operating illegal Landfill sites by turning a blind eye. We have heard cases of council officials taking backhanders saying to operators 'you come and see me and I'll sort you out'. But at the end of last year all the licensing responsibility was transferred to the EHS. When they took over there was a huge backlog of illegal Landfill sites which they are struggling to deal with.
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RG: Are they getting stuck into it more than the Local Authorities were?
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DA: Well they claim they are. They have 149 or 150 cases pending and 50 of them are going to the courts. It will be interesting to see whether they've done enough to get the evidence to prosecute and if they have briefed the DPPs properly because there's a legacy of them giving out paltry fines a few hundred pounds which is nothing to someone who is raking in millions. There was a new Directive that came out in 1999 called the Landfill Directive and it had much stricter controls than the old legislation. There was a period from when the Directive came in to when the actual Landfill regulations came in where there was a bit of a free for all because EHS had said that they wouldn't regulate under the new Directive until 2004.
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RG: A lot of people were able to make their millions then?
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DA: A lot of people did make money or they'd say to themselves, 'we're running a Mickey Mouse operation here and we can't meet these conditions so we'll just shut down and say nothing.' Under the old regulations, all you had to do to shut down a Landfill site was go to the council who issued your license and hand it in. We've written to EHS and the Councils to find out how many sites have closed and they have no idea because they don't know many there were in the first place. Before they're closed they're meant to be capped and monitored because a Landfill site can continue to be a problem for 30 years or more depending on what's in it. Potentially it could be a problem for hundreds of years.
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RG: If farm land is polluted by toxic waste then people probably won't want to buy the stuff that's grown here.
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DA: Yes, farmers will often come to us if they have a Landfill site beside them which isn't being properly managed. They would complain about the 'run-off' coming into their land: polluting streams and making their animals sick. When the Landfill Regulations came in, if you wanted to continue operating a Landfill site, you had to produce a Conditioning Plan to explain how you were going to bring it up to scratch. I think they had to be in by February of this year or you would be closed down. We went to EHS to ask them how many Conditioning Plans they had received 46. Which means that no more than 46 landfill sites could continue to operate after February this year. But how many licenses are there? 273. 227 Landfill sites will be operating illegally because they won't have a Conditioning Plan.
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RG: That's not taking into account the hole in the ground dumps...
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DA: EHS have absolutely no idea what's going on. It wasn't until recently that they could tell us how many licenses there were. There was one guy we spoke to who had noticed some demolition work going on and followed the trucks because he knew that the waste was being taken to a dodgy site. He phoned EHS at the start of July and told them what was going on and exactly where it was happening. They phoned him at the end of July and said, 'Right we're going to go and investigate that.' But it was too late the job was done and the hole was covered up.
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RW: Is there a lot of money in it?
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DA: I don't have exact figures but it costs about £15 a ton to dump your builder's rubble in a Landfill Site. The truck companies are maybe getting paid by a contractor to dump it legitimately but to avoid paying, they go and dump it in a hole in the ground. On the Victoria Square demolition site we have heard that they are getting in freelance truck drivers and saying,' we'll give you £70 to take a load away, no questions asked.' There might be someone who can forge the paperwork you'll bypass the Landfill tax that way. They'll sign your papers and say you're dumping it in a legitimate site. Perhaps the big contractors don't know what's going on but the sub-contractors and truck drivers know.
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RW: Is there competition between the legitimate Landfill sites and these other ones who are taking their business?
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DA: That's the thing. If you have a legitimate site, you have your overheads, Landfill tax and gate charges you can't compete. So the only way to make it competitive at the moment is to do it illegally.
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RW: Are there other forms of waste disposal such as incinerators?
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DA: In Northern Ireland there is Clinical Waste incineration but no municipal waste incineration. By 2005 we have to have a 25% reduction of waste going to Landfill. Our fear is that because they're not going to meet the target by recycling they're going to introduce multiple incinerators as a quick-fix solution. The problem with incinerators is that they're expensive and require long operating periods (25-30 year contracts). They also need a lot of waste to make them economically viable. This means you have this waste maximisation for 25-30 years, completely destroying any hope of recycling or waste reduction.
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RW: Has anyone prosecuted Landfill operators?
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DA: In the not too distant past, EHS had only ever prosecuted one Landfill operator and I don't know what the result was probably some paltry fine? There was a site near Coleraine which was licensed as an inert landfill site but was taking animal carcasses, sewage, clinical waste and domestic waste as well. It was operating out of hours late at night, weekends, etc. Once summer came in there were infestations of flies and rats and kids were constantly sick. Anyway, after seven years of complaints by local people, the Council eventually did something about it and revoked their license. They then sold it to someone else who promised to clean it up. Now there's about 100,000 tonnes of illegal waste on the site and there's no sign of EHS prosecuting them.
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On that particular case we said in our Newsletter, 'The site was licensed to take builder's rubble and plastic but clinical waste, sewage and animal carcasses had been dumped in flagrant breach of the license.' EHS contacted us and asked us to back up our allegations. All our evidence was from the licensing appeal hearing but they wouldn't accept that. We even had photos of Anne Blacker, EHS Chief Scientific Officer, holding a bag full of syringes that still wasn't enough for them.
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RW: Any good news stories?
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DA: The EC are taking the Issue seriously and if EHS doesn't get its act together they'll be fined hundreds of thousands pounds a day so they're going to have to do something sooner rather than later.
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