‘Ireland’s Wild Waste’ shows us just how filthy lucre can be

Review: Our waste management companies are cleaning up, but not in the way they should be

RTÉ investigates Ireland's booming waste industry, and how it affects the environment. Video: RTÉ

 

It’s an extremely dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. All credit, then, to reporter Conor Ryan and his director David Doran who in RTÉ Investigates: Ireland’s Wild Waste (RTÉ One, Monday, 9.35pm) go digging into the scandalous behaviour of some of Ireland’s waste management companies and the bewilderingly loose oversight that make it possible.

The digging here is figurative – the investigation follows a paper trail of waste companies investigated by the Environmental Protection Agency for flouting Irish and European law – as well as literal: Ryan will rummage through illegal dumps of construction waste, 50m from a children’s playground in Clifden, Co Galway, and later scale the peaks of up to 200 man-made mounds of rubbish, with a pick axe, like a George Mallory of pure trash. And why? Because it is there.

Ryan introduces his subject with the grave urgency of somebody who knows you are just itching to change the channel. This is no small point, because for all the serious consequences of environmental contamination, this is not a sexy subject.

Early in the programme two things work against it. The first is the monotonous drone footage of waste plants and dumping grounds. The second is the ability of construction contractors, waste companies and county councils to hide behind dull equivocal letters in response to RTÉ’s questions, dutifully relayed to us in drab blocks of text on the screen.

Those who will talk to the camera are environmental experts and lawyers, and while they are certainly alive to the catastrophe, they are either too numbed or sobered by experience with serial offenders and vastly inadequate countermeasures.

Take Dublin’s Greyhound, issued more non-compliance notices by the Environmental Protection Agency between 2013 and 2017 than any other waste company, and fined an average €2,500 per offence.

“Important lessons have been learned,” Greyhound tells RTÉ, by letter. That may be true. I learned just how much you can get away with.

Take Oxigen Environmental, a government contractor, once in danger of losing its licence. Sued for illegally burying asbestos, leachate and putrid waste in a special area of conservation in Laois (just a car battery’s throw from the Barrow river), it was fined €2,500.

Or take any one of several examples the programme offers, amounting to a landfill of ignominy, most of it in Co Donegal. (That some of the most flagrantly abused counties are also the most beautiful is an irony touched upon briefly: “less witnesses, basically.”)

Here the programme uncovers illegal dumping to a stomach-churning degree in Bridgend, the trash mountains of Moville, and Rossbracken – whose proprietor, Jim Ferry, was described last week by his barrister in the High Court as guilty “of complete and utter stupidity”.

Against so much serial pollution, the roundly criticised Donegal County Council seems no more useful nor less rank than a working cesspool.

“This would almost make one feel sad about where society is heading,” says environmental consultant Fearghal Mee, watching RTÉ’s secret video of illegal dumping at Moville, which might be the biggest understatement in a show of understatements.

We should be angry. This dumping degrades the earth, poisons the groundwater, runs into the river and the sea, causing problems for generations.

But lucre is filthy. The “utterly stupid” Ferry, for instance, made €3.6m from illegal waste, and once proved so indifferent to one €3,000 fine that he recommitted the same offence in the same place a week later.

Without adequate penalties, which the show reminds us are utterly enforceable under the present laws, there’s only one definition of cleaning up that serial offenders understand.