July 11th, 2018
The intimidation of council staff and draining of resources through protracted legal battles are key issues thwarting the regulation of waste offenders, the Oireachtas environmental committee heard today.
The committee sat this afternoon to discuss issues of “illegal dumping and environmental destruction” raised last month in a documentary by RTE Investigates.
The six-month investigation looked at the problem of illegal dumping across the country and how councils regulate and prosecute waste offenders.
Gerard O’Leary of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) welcomed the findings of the RTE Investigates team that, he said, “highlighted some of the challenged we face”.
Two hundred of the 800-odd companies regulated by the EPA are in the waste sector, a large portion of which now comes from the private arena.
The EPA has “concerns” about the waste sector, Mr O’Leary said, adding most of the EPA’s achievements in tackling waste offenders has relied on “dragging companies through the court system”.
He said that the process is draining on the watchdog’s resources, adding, by way of example, that the EPA had to go to the High Court twice just to get one offending facility closed down.
Donegal waste issues
RTE Investigates found evidence of long-term illegal dumping at a facility in Co Donegal, where large amounts of commercial and household waste are buried and burned behind a quarry near Moville.
Uncovered material suggests the illegal dumping has been taking place since 2008, and there were complaints seven years ago that waste was being burned up to four times a week.
The EPA instructed Donegal County Council to investigate the facility responsible seven years ago. After it received the new evidence from RTÉ Investigates, the EPA again asked the council to investigate.
The Chief Executive of Donegal County Council, Seamus Neely, told the committee that excavations at the site took place last week, including the digging up of over 200 mounds that featured on the RTE Investigates documentary.
Mr Neely said that the Council found no evidence of large-scale general municipal waste dumping at the site and that the mounds were mostly shale rock.
Only around 10 tyres, as well as other plastic waste material, were found on site, he added, although other large materials such as construction and demolition waste are yet to be cleaned up.
RTÉ Investigates also analysed data from the EPA and the Department of Housing to see how effective councils are at handling waste offences.
The team examined rates of inspections, enforcement, prosecutions and staffing levels between 2014 and 2016, creating a ranking system of the best and worst councils at managing the waste industry per number of waste permits held.
RTÉ Investigates found that Donegal is the worst performing county for both its inspection rate of facilities and its investment in waste services. Donegal only had two members of staff to regulate the 44 waste permits in the area between 2014 and 2016.
Mr Neely said that there is currently 14 staff in place, with an additional five members of staff to be employed by the end of the year.
Mr Neely said that that the show was generally well received and led to the Council setting up a helpdesk. The Council has since received 35 calls related to 20 cases that would not have come in without the RTE documentary being aired, he said.
He disagreed, however, with some of the “metrics” used by RTE in its data analysis and argued that the figures do not capture the extent of the issues that the Council deals with on a daily basis
He said that council staff have received “insidious” threats on at least 10 occasions, including individuals being approached at social events and damage caused to the homes of staff.
The cases were reported to the police; however, there was not enough sufficient evidence to take the cases any further. The threaten staff were not deterred and even “tightened their resolve”, he said.
Brian Stanley, the Sinn Féin Deputy for Laois/Offaly, said that regardless of the metrics used in the analysis, the footage “doesn’t paint a pretty picture” of the waste problems across the country.