Council staff ‘face intimidation’ when tackling illegal dumpers

Donegal local authority reported 10 ‘insidious’ incidents over last three years

Donegal is the poorest performing council for its inspection rate, according to ‘RTÉ Investigates’. Photograph: Dave Meehan/Irish Times/File photo

Donegal is the poorest performing council for its inspection rate, according to ‘RTÉ Investigates’. Photograph: Dave Meehan/Irish Times/File photo

 

Local authority staff often face intimidation when dealing with those engaged in illegal dumping, according to the chief executive of Donegal County Council.

Over the past three years, the local authority had reported 10 “insidious” incidents to An Garda Síochána, Séamus Neely told the Oireachtas environment committee on Wednesday.

They include cases of individuals being approached and threatened, sometimes at social events or on private property. While the gardaí had not found sufficient evidence to bring a criminal prosecution, he was satisfied sufficient attention was paid by the authorities.

Most significantly, the people affected in all cases continued to do their job in tackling illegal dumping, he said – the committee is examining the effectiveness of efforts to counter illegal dumping and fly-tipping of rubbish.

‘Lives at risk’

Committee member Deputy Timmy Dooley (FF) said evidence of intimidation goes to the nub of the difficulty in dealing with illegal waste operators in Ireland. “If there are threats and intimidation, I can understand if a public servant is not going to put their life, or the lives of their families, at risk,” he said.

On the recent RTÉ Investigates television programme which identified Donegal as the poorest performing council for its inspection rate of waste facilities and investment in related services, Mr Neely said the metric used to rate local authorities “did not encapsulate all of what we are dealing with”.

The local authority had 14 people working on enforcement of waste and litter regulations, he added. That would soon be 19, which he believed was adequate to deal with the problem.

While the programme provided evidence of long-term illegal dumping at a facility operating under a waste permit from the council, it had since found municipal waste in only one of 200 two-metre high mounds on the site; the rest contained shale and rock, he said.

Sinn Féin TD Brian Stanley said the programme had shown “not all cowboys are riding horses and wearing big hats” and did not paint a pretty picture of Donegal. He questioned why the Moville site had its licence renewed when activity on the site was already of concern.

The programme fulfilled a public service purpose and confirmed the extent of weak enforcement in Government; in regulating the waste industry and at local authority level, said Green Party TD Eamon Ryan.

Waste sector

EPA deputy director general Gerard O’Leary said the agency, which regulates 200 large-scale waste operators, had concerns about the operation of the sector.

“Regrettably, it is the EPA’s experience that only the threat of prosecutions or suspension is driving compliance for some operators, rather than a voluntary or willing approach,” he said.

It had a lot of success in dragging companies through the courts system but it was costly and time consuming. In the period between 2009 and 2013 the waste sector accounted for 40 per cent of legal cases taken by EPA, despite holding only 15 per cent of licences issued.

“Given the potential financial gains involved, illegal dumping will always pose an opportunity for the small number of rogue operators willing to flout the law,” he said.

He welcomed the RTÉ programme as it highlighted the challenges the EPA faced. It had undergone dramatic changes since the sector was privatised, and had to change its enforcement strategies. All its waste documentation was now in electronic form which meant it was “getting intelligence much faster”.

In three reports, the EPA had found the performance of a third of local authorities in waste enforcement was poor, he said. But the establishment in 2015 of the three waste enforcement regional lead authorities had led to better outcomes.

A multi-agency approach was required involving local authorities, the EPA and the gardaí, and it needed to be fully resourced, he believed. “I would like to think the EPA would be asked to be lead agency because of our track record,” he added.

On revoking waste licences, he said they had some success in the courts but it was a big drag on resources. Often, in addition to a fine, operators were required to bring their sites “back to compliance”, when that was required under the terms of their licence in the first place.