Northern Ireland has struggled to control illegal waste dumping since 2002 when landfill regulations were tightened south of the border in the Irish Republic.
Between 2002 and the end of 2004, up to 250,000 tonnes of household waste was illegally dumped in the Province after crossing the border. Sixty illegal landfills have been discovered containing such waste.
Earlier this year, the European Commission warned the government that it has not taken "necessary measures" to control dumping in the Province and was in breach of the EU waste framework Directive (ENDS Report 377, p 44 ).
The problem is not getting better, according to figures provided by Environment Minister David Cairns in answer to parliamentary questions in November. The number of incidents of illegal dumping has risen slightly - 1,206 in the first ten months of 2006 compared with between "1,000 and 1,200" for 2004 and 2005. The figures do not include fly-tipping incidents.
According to Anne Blacker, head of the EHS’s environmental crime unit, one fifth of the incidents involve cross-border dumping. The rest involve commercial and industrial waste produced in the Province. She could not provide details on tonnages involved.
In spite of these figures, Ms Blacker said the EHS was dealing with the problem. "I think we’re successfully tackling large-scale dumping," she said. "We’re seeing a lower number of incidents and they are smaller in scale."
The number of people prosecuted for illegal dumping in the Province has increased from four in 2003 to 86 in the first ten months of 2006.
Jim Moriarty of the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claimed the level of illegal movement across the border "is a fraction of what it was" and that the authorities are now dealing with waste dumped between 2002 and 2004.
In October the two countries agreed a joint plan to tackle cross-border waste dumping. The EPA is "actively investigating" 11 cases passed to it by Ms Blacker’s team during the past six months. The investigations could lead to four prosecutions against hauliers and transfer stations.
Northern Ireland is also returning dumped waste to Ireland for disposal. In January the authorities hope to repatriate several hundred tonnes of waste from an illegal landfill in Armagh at a cost of about £20,000.
The EPA has also clamped down on firms sending waste for sham recovery in Northern Ireland. Some have contravened regulations on the transfrontier shipment of waste by sending mixed refuse for "recycling".
The main barrier to further progress, said Ms Blacker, is a lack of resources at the environmental crime unit. "I won’t publish the amount of staff we have, but I’m operating on a third of the number we forecast as being required," she said.
This situation is exacerbated by the increasing number of prosecutions the EHS is involved in. The average case takes two to three man days to prepare. Crown court trials can require several staff to be present for their duration.
The unit will be able to use its limited resources more effectively when the EHS gains powers to stop, search and seize vehicles believed to be involved in waste dumping (ENDS Report 379, p 46 ), she said. These are expected to come into force in March.
It is also training officers to be financial investigators and referring cases to the Assets Recovery Agency in the hope of confiscating earnings from illegal dumping under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. Ms Blacker hopes this will deter dumpers.
However, such powers could prove ineffective, said Ms Blacker, because dumping operations are becoming more sophisticated. "Operators are now shredding waste and dumping it in smaller sites so we’re having a problem identifying where it comes from".
This trend has grown even though the EPA has stepped up enforcement at waste treatment sites that have shredders.
The EHS intends to use enforcement notices "more effectively" to tackle dumping of commercial and industrial waste, said Ms Blacker, and to carry out education programmes with trade unions. The government may also put "monitors" on its own building sites.