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The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste spacer The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste
The Waste Interview: Environment & Heritage Services
by Ruth Graham
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Ruth Graham talks to Pamela Patterson & Liz Hurst of Environment & Heritage Services.
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RG: Would you tell me about the work you do for EHS?
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PP: I deal with the Operational side of things. The regulations come in and EHS has to implement and regulate them. The Waste Electrical and End of Life Vehicles Regulations are coming in at the end of the year. My section will be dealing with the Producer Responsibility part, to achieve EC targets. The EC are basically saying 'The Polluter should pay not the Government or the public'.
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LH: I work on the other side of the house and we're responsible for implementing the NI Waste Management Strategy, which is a policy framework to set the context for meeting the various EC standards. We work closely with the District Councils in implementing their Waste Management plans. We've also done a high profile information and awareness campaign the Wake Up To Waste Campaign which has been critical in getting the people aware of the Issue of waste and encouraging them to participate in the schemes that Councils are rolling out.
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RG: When did EHS start taking responsibility for Waste Management?
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PP: The first set of regulations that Waste Management took on board were the Special Waste Regulations in 1998. The other sets came through between 2000 and 2003. In a short period of time, we have changed from having an advisory role to all of a sudden taking on a major regulatory role for the Waste Management side of things.
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RG: Has the changeover been difficult? Have you had enough resources?
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PP: It happened very quickly so it was always going to be difficult to get properly resourced. It takes time to recruit and train people because we can't automatically send them out on the streets. When I first came into Waste Management in 1997, there was only my line manager and one other person. Now we have about 90 staff and we're looking to get in another 50, with the potential for another 40 or 50 shortly after that.
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RG: Is Northern Ireland behind the rest of the UK in terms of attitudes towards waste disposal?
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LH: Maybe not behind the rest of the UK but certainly behind Europe. They have been very wide awake to the issues behind waste for some time. Historically, Landfilling has been cheap in Northern Ireland and we've had plenty of space, so it was never seen as an issue. It's only since the introduction of the Waste Strategy that we've started to talk about how our waste is managed. Obviously, putting waste into a hole in the ground is not the best way forward. Since we introduced the Wake Up To Waste Campaign, the people of Northern Ireland have cottoned on to the ideas really quickly but businesses tend to be more reluctant unless they perceive it to be to their advantage.
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PP: Every business has a different take on the environment. Some will say, 'Environment? I'm trying to keep out of bankruptcy here if I have to do that I'll go under.' Some will do it voluntarily whereas others won't comply unless you threaten them.
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RG: Have you had to prosecute many businesses?
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PP: We've tried not to go down the road of taking businesses to court because it means an awful lot of paperwork and an awful lot of time and energy, perhaps to go to court and get a fairly paltry fine. At the moment we only have one packaging case that's going through the courts (there are quite a few on the licensing side).There are also quite a few pending within Waste Management & Contaminated Land. We are in the process of putting together the casework for breaches of the Packaging Regulations, but even at this late stage, if the company is willing to try to work with us, we'd much rather do it that way.
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RG: Why are the fines are so low?
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PP: It comes down to the magistrates and the judges who tend not to give the environment the priority it deserves. We hope the Courts will apply heftier fines then people might take it seriously. A £500 or £1,000 fine is nothing to a lot of businesses some of them could recoup that in a day.
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RG: In relation to the media coverage of the illegal dumping scandals, the EHS have been criticised for not acting quickly enough can you give me your side of the story?
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PP: Another unit within the Department is dealing with the illegal side, but it comes down to the fact that there has been a tightening of legislation in the Republic of Ireland. There's been a reduction in the amount of Landfill and, at the same time, the cost for Landfilling escalated so that, at this point in time, it would probably cost you double or more to Landfill waste in the South compared to what it costs here. This made it worthwhile for some unscrupulous operators to bring it across the border because they could see the transitional period with the new legislation coming in and that gave them an opening. You will always get 'Cowboy Operators' be it waste, fuel or cigarettes they'll take advantage of any gaps they find.
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RG: Why is it so hard to catch them?
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PP: Mainly because the border has a multitude of roads if they see someone using one particular route all they have to do is take a side road. The waste is brought over during the night then it's covered over so that if an inspector goes along the next day, all they'll see is a ploughed field.
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RG: Where do the police come into it? Would you have to let them know that there's a crime being committed before they take action?
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PP: We do liase with the police if we're going out to do surveillance or dig up a site or if we are going out to prosecute someone, we would usually have a police escort. But the police can't act alone because it's our legislation. They can only act within their powers.
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RG: Have there been many prosecutions for this?
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PP: There's a lot pending. Some are with the Director of Public Prosecutions ready for court and others are being finalised. It will get easier as the staff builds up and we seize more of their vehicles, because if we take the vehicles off them, it will hurt them in their pockets.
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RG: I've heard reports that some of the Landfill sites accept waste that they are not licensed to accept. They could be licensed for builder's rubble and take hazardous materials such as clinical waste how do you regulate that?
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PP: We are starting to look at all the licenses we inherited from the councils and these will either be modified or closed down. We have to make sure they are complying with the law. It's a matter of staff inspecting each and every one of them.
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RG: England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland have independent environmental protection bodies while Northern Ireland is run by a government agency. Does that makes a difference?
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PP: I don't think so. I work very closely with the Environment Agency and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency and when I have been over for meetings with DEFRA, no matter what they are working on, they have the Agency at the meetings. You could say they are separate but they're very much like ourselves in their ways of working.
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LH: I think it's a good thing to have that policy making strategic role in with the enforcement and regulatory side because the two are so closely linked. It's much more effective than having an edict from on high saying, 'This is the policy now go out and do it.'
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RG: What would you say to your critics?
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LH: To some extent, we have been victims of our own success with the Wake Up To Waste campaign. Waste is hot news now. Perhaps five years ago, people wouldn't have been as interested in the recent articles about the illegal dumps.
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