Donegal refuse collector a serial environmental offender

Inside Rossbracken foul liquid bleeds into the nearby earth, feet from the river bank

In the High Court, Mr Justice Max Barrett threw the book at Jim Ferry, who controlled two companies, Ferry’s Refuse Collection Limited and Ferrys Refuse Recycling Limited

Jim Ferry cares about the environment. It says so on the black wheelie bins his company owns and that can be seen over much of Donegal.

“Caring for the environment,” say the bins, “Contact Jim Ferry” and there’s a phone number to call.

But to find out just how much Ferry really cares about the environment, one need only travel eight kilometres from Letterkenny on the Wild Atlantic Way, out along the N13 road towards Buncrana, before taking a left turn onto the L5494.

The narrow lane winds its way down and across part of the flood plain of the Isle Burn River which flows into Drongawn Lough, which opens up gradually to become Lough Swilly. On a fine summer’s day, its waters shimmer under a clear blue sky.


It is no surprise to learn this is a Special Area of Conservation. Quickly, however, it becomes clear that all is not well.

This is Rossbracken, an 11-acre site that houses the headquarters of two companies controlled by Jim Ferry – Ferry's Refuse Collection Limited and Ferrys Refuse Recycling Limited.

At the site’s most elevated point near the entrance made from unfinished breeze block walls and a galvanised cattle gate, there stands the grandly-named, three storeys tall, Rossbracken House, a modern construction.

The Rossbracken waste site complex with Rossbracken House top left, the red building Wonder Years Childcare day care pre-school (centre), and, bottom right, the retaining wall helping conceal a large illegal dump. Photograph: Peter Murtagh

While it has a roof and windows, the sweeping concrete staircase to the first floor entrance door is unfinished and local people say that no one actually lives there. It is, however, the epicentre of Jim Ferry’s operations.

On days, up to seven bin collection lorries can be seen parked there, some of them apparently undergoing engine service. Nearby, there are other lorries used to pick up skips, alongside several full skips. The contents of some spilled onto grass and hardcore.

Beside all this on an adjoining property is Wonder Years Childcare, a large day care pre-school centre that has a grassy playing area for the children, complete with a fort and wigwam.

Much of Rossbracken is a mess of plastic, metal and construction-site detritus strewn about, but Ferry’s dirty, and not so little secret, lies hidden from view behind a 50 metre long, six metres high concrete retaining wall.

Behind this wall, level with the top of it and spreading out for perhaps another 50 meters square, is an illegal dump Ferry has created, topped off with a layer of soil. Inside, tons of domestic garbage gave off a sour odour, bleeding liquid into the surrounding earth, a few feet from the river bank.

Up to 1992, waste collecting in Donegal was carried out by the county council. From then on, the council withdrew, as elsewhere, opening the way for privately-operated companies. In the two decades since, Ferry established a strong presence

Today, his companies have close to 40 per cent of the business in some parts of the county, informed sources say, collecting from nearly 11,000 homes and 500 businesses. But by the end of the 1990s, Ferry was emerging as a serial polluter.

Far from being penalised, however, Ferry continued to win three- and five-year permits from a regulatory system that appeared blind to his actions.

In January 2000, Ferry faced multiple charges at Falcarragh District Court relating to separate activities in January 1999, between March and April 1999, and between June and July 1999, plus five breaches of regulations throughout 1999.

The January charges, on which he was convicted, related to illegal dumping causing pollution at Lough Agher in Creeslough. The March/April charges, on which he was convicted, also related to illegal dumping causing pollution at Moyra Glebe. The June/July charges, on which he was likewise convicted, related to two separate incidents of illegal dumping causing pollution, also at Moyra Glebe.

The breaches of regulations, for which he was also convicted, related to his failure to maintain a register that listed the type and amount of waste collected; its treatment and its final destination.

For the illegal dumping, Ferry was given two separate jail sentences of two months each, with both suspended for five years, and was also fined IR£1,000 (€1,270) and IR£1,000 costs. For failing to keep a register, he was fined IR£300.

If these convictions were meant to be a deterrent, they failed.

In January 2005 at Letterkenny District Court, Ferry was again convicted of illegal dumping in 2003 and 2004, and failing to operate according to his permit. He was given a six month prison sentence, suspended for five years and fined €4,000 plus €2,532 in costs.

In October 2013, Ferry was convicted yet again of illegal dumping in June 2010 and this time was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment, suspended for two years and fined €3,000 plus €30,750 in costs.

At the same sitting, he was convicted of a separate incident of illegal dumping and breaching the terms of his permit, also in June 2010, and was likewise sentenced to six months, suspended for two years, and fined €3,000.

He was further convicted of failing to comply with orders issued by the Council under the Waste Management Act 1996 and was fined €3,000.

None of these convictions led to him being banned as a waste collector. Neither did his run-in with the Revenue Commissioners in August 2012 over using agricultural diesel in his trucks, nor the multiple road traffic convictions involving his trucks.

In November 2012, Donegal County Council granted Ferry's company, Ferry's Refuse Collection Limited, a permit to operate the facility at Rossbracken.

When Ferry did use landfill sites run by Donegal County Council to dispose of waste legally, he frequently did not bother paying the bill. In October 2006, the council got a High Court judgment against him for unpaid bills.

By April 2015, he owed €227,750. Ferry agreed to pay €800 a week. For a time, he kept his word, making 83 instalments until, on November 15th, 2016, payments suddenly stopped.

It may be coincidence, but November 15th last was a date of some significance for Ferry’s waste business.

By dumping waste illegally, by not paying landfill charges and by not telling Donegal County Council where he was disposing of his waste, Jim Ferry was saving himself a lot of money.

While costs vary, the price for legally disposing of a ton of black bin waste is around €120. It costs €60 to collect it. The total costs facing the company run to €180 a ton.

Outside of Dublin, households in rural areas and large provincial towns produce a ton of black bin waste a year. Ferry’s currently charge house-owners €240 a year, suggesting a profit margin of some €60 – if the waste is disposed of legally.

But, if the landfill charge is not paid, because the waste is tipped into an illegal landfill, Ferry’s profit rises by a further €120.

This is the uneven playing field that for years has faced reputable waste collection companies operating in Donegal. By 2014, they had had enough. A number approached the Irish Waste Management Association (IWMA), urging action against Ferry.

Helicopters were used to take surveillance film of the Rossbracken lands, a private detective was also engaged. Soon, evidence began to emerge of illegal dumping of waste on an industrial scale in a Special Area of Conservation.

Rossbracken was the centre of Jim Ferry’s illegal waste activities. Rossbracken House is in the centre. Waste has been concealed under soil in the top left and top right of this aerial photograph taken recently

Before September 2014, there was no six-metre tall retaining wall at the north end of the Rossbracken site.

By September 7th, 2014, a six-metre high retaining wall was erected at the north end of the Rossbracken site. Behind it, a growing and rapidly spreading stack of bales, their contents wrapped tightly in plastic sheeting, grew.

Inside the bales were plastic bags, glass, timber, clothes, metal, rope, canvas, newspapers, plastic food containers, and household waste in various stages of decomposition. Within five months, the mass was solid enough to bear the weight of a digger that spread soil over the top.

Throughout 2015, a long narrow strip south of the retaining wall and beside the Isle Burn river appears also to have been turned into a dump.

Further south again and between two large sheds on the site, yet another area, originally strewn with metal construction site-type debris, was commandeered for domestic waste dumping before it too was concealed under soil.

One of the two sheds held a baling machine used to compress and wrap waste. A permit allowed for 250 tons of waste to be stored awaiting baling. When eventually inspected, far in excess of that amount was found.

(In June 2013, a shed on the site burst into flames. Waste industry sources say they are unaware of any investigation of this fire.)

In January 2015, excavations began at the southern end of the site, apparently readying it to be used as yet another area for illegal dumping. By last May, the level of much of this site had risen by several metres; what lay beneath, invisible from the air.

The efforts by Donegal’s legitimate waste collection companies and the IWMA to take on Ferry came at the same time as the National Waste Collection Permit Office (NWCPO) appears to have had similar thoughts.

Local authorities license waste depots, but collection permits are issued by the NWCPO. On July 1st, 2014, the NWCPO refused to renew the permit held by Ferry’s Refuse Collection Ltd, deeming Ferry to be no longer a “fit and proper person” to run such a business.

It was the first time such an action was taken, according to Leo Duffy, the NWCPO manager. Eight days later, however, Ferry activated a hitherto dormant company, Ferrys Refuse Recycling Limited, from which he resigned as a director to be replaced by Carol Elliott, who shares the same home address as Ferry himself and is understood to be his life partner. The other director is Louise Ferry, Ferry's daughter.

This company, which shares an address, all related facilities and staff with the company that had been refused a collection permit, applied for one. The NWCPO granted the licence on June 5th, 2015, despite industry objections.

“So Mr Ferry remained in charge of the waste,” said one investigators, speaking on condition of anonymity. “If he’s not a fit and proper person to collect waste, and deemed so by the courts, why is he a fit and proper person to control the waste at the site? The council should have withdrawn his [facility] permit immediately.

“There were loads of opportunities lost along the way to take action if they had wanted to take action.”

Action was in the pipeline, however.

In April, 2016, the Environmental Protection Agency asked Donegal County Council to explain what it was doing about Rossbracken. In July, and apparently unaware of the EPA's request to Donegal, the IWMA complained formally to the agency, sending a nine-page report and a sheaf of aerial photographs.

The same information was sent to several other official bodies and regulatory authorities, including the Department of the Environment, Donegal County Council and the NWPCO.

At this point, a little-known body, the Waste Enforcement Regional Lead Authorities (Werla) took a hands-on role. There are three Werlas: Southern (led by Cork County Council), Eastern and Midlands (led by Dublin City Council) and Connacht/Ulster (led jointly by Donegal and Leitrim councils).

Werlas are part of the European Union-ordered regulatory rules. In effect, local authority officials assigned to Werlas are there to breathe down the necks of councils. If they are found wanting, information is fed to Department of the Environment.

The EPA's request was taken in hand by Donegal's new Waste Regulation Officer, Matthew Byrne, encouraged by Sean Scott, a Leitrim-based official and the Werla officer for Connacht/Ulster. Byrne "got stuck in", said a Werla source.

Environmental consultants RPS and Blue Rock were commissioned to supply site reports about Rossbracken. Byrne carried out a “preliminary walk over and visual inspection” at Rossbracken, chaperoned by a Ferry employee described as a “litter warden” and who was accompanied by another Ferry employee.

Byrne noted the shed over-filled with waste, a covered mound apparently concealing household waste, and discarded mattresses and furniture. Byrne told the Ferry staff that there were problems and that he would be back.

The next day Jim Ferry contacted the council and asked for a meeting. What was the planned inspection about, he wanted to know. He was given limited information by Byrne but told that plant and machines would be brought onto the site.

The full-scale inspection, involving the digging of 16 trial pits and boring inspection holes into suspect mounds, took over two days, starting at 8am on Tuesday, November 15th, 2016. Later that day, Ferry stopped making his €800 a week debt repayments. He has paid none since.

The shed that was supposed to hold only 250 tons of waste was so packed, Scott later remarked, that “you couldn’t fit a rasher in there”.

Apart from tons of municipal waste hidden all over the 11 acre site, Byrne and colleagues – Sean Scott from Werla, Niall Mitchell of Blue Rock and Joseph McGrath of RPS – noted the stench from rotting waste and gas bubbling from liquid near the huge concealed dump behind the retaining wall.

Jim Ferry’s illegal waste dump at Rossbracken, near Letterkenny in Co Donegal, on the banks of the Isle Burn river of the Lough Swilly Special Area of Conservation. Behind the retaining wall is some of the estimated 14,000 tons of illegally dumped waste which is being covered over by a soil-spreading digger

They concluded that Rossbracken held “very serious environmental law breaches” and that Ferry and the two companies were operating a “wholly illegal waste landfill”. Apart from that, Byrne concluded in an affidavit sworn subsequently for the High Court, Ferry’s actions “represent a breach of trust with customers. . . [and] also cause a distortion in the private waste collection market”.

By Byrne’s estimation, Rossbracken holds 28,000 and 36,000 tons of illegally-dumped waste that will cost between €4.5 million and €5.8m to clean up. Last November, during a meeting at the council’s offices in Lifford, a seemingly contrite Ferry promised to bring no more waste to Rossbracken, but would transfer collected waste to the Greyhound facility in Dublin for legal disposal.

But if he was chastened by the November raid and inspection, his subsequent actions proved otherwise. Within days, Byrne was hearing of another illegal dumping site being used by Ferry, this time at Bunnagee, a place he visited with Ferry’s “litter warden”.

A follow up visit to Rossbracken in January, 2017, indicated that Ferry was not living by his earlier commitment: fresh waste, including animal waste from Donegal Meat Processors, was being brought onto the site. Furthermore, a pipe had been laid directly into the Isle Burn river, apparently to siphon away the toxic liquids oozing from rotting waste.

On Friday, March 31st, IWMA’s private investigators emailed the association, saying that work was carrying on as before at Rossbracken but now under cover of darkness.

One of the problems attending enforcement of waste operators in Donegal is intimidation, according to numerous sources.

Asked what they mean, one source gives examples of what happens.

“Bullets in the post,” he replies. “Phone calls in the middle of the night, 10 in a row. Tyres slashed. ‘Do not go there, pal, we know what you’re at, where you live’, that sort of thing. Following their trucks, you know, shady looking guys driving behind a guy for a day, just fuc*in’ rattling the cage.”

On Monday, April 3rd, the IWMA investigator’s intelligence was shared with Sean Scott of Werla. That night, Scott, accompanied by three local authority colleagues, including Matthew Byrne and Con McLaughlin, a Donegal engineer, together with four Donegal detective gardaí drove in two council vans to make a lightening inspection at Rossbracken.

The vans stopped at the entrance gate. Someone from inside the site came over. What did they want? Scott and Byrne explained what they were about, with a curt explanation as to their legal status and the authority under which they were acting.

“They tried to stop them entering,” said an industry source, “and four or five [other] people landed within a few minutes.”

Scott, Byrne and the others entered nonetheless, and began looking around. All the time, they were filmed on mobile phones.

However, when they returned to their vans, their tyres – all eight – had been slashed by persons as yet unknown. The detectives got on to uniformed colleagues who came to the scene. A transport company was called and the stricken vans taken away.

“The [Garda] investigation hasn’t proved anything. They have suspects, but no leads,” said a source. Three days later, on April 6th, Donegal County Council went to the High Court armed with a 23-page affidavit sworn by Matthew Byrne which laid out Rossbracken’s story in compelling detail.

The council was given leave to apply for orders against James Ferry and the two companies. In a largely unreported decision on April 25th, Mr Justice Max Barrett threw the book at Ferry.

The court prohibited any further waste being brought to Rossbracken, banned waste vehicles from entering, directed that all over-ground or surface waste be removed for lawful recovery or disposal within three weeks, and ordered that any waste collected by Ferrys Refuse Recycling is disposed of safely and legally.

The operators were also ordered to comply with council orders about the buried waste within two months. Neither Donegal County Council, Werla nor the Department of the Environment would comment. Jim Ferry was asked to comment. A response is awaited.

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Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times