This week the Environment Agency published its annual waste crime report, which it says shows its efforts to identify and close illegal waste sites is paying off. The number of sites closed in 2012/13 increased by 70% on 2011/12 figures, with a total of 1,279 illegal sites closed last year. This is the equivalent to 25 such sites every week.
Legitimate waste operators are subject to a strict regulatory regime which is enforced by the Environment Agency. This requires waste operators to obtain an environmental permit and put infrastructure in place to protect the environment. Annual fees have to be paid to the agency, who carry out regular inspections to ensure the conditions of the permit are being complied with. This is all done to ensure that waste activities do not cause harm to the environment or human health. Enforcement action, often in the form of prosecution, is taken against operators who are found to be in breach of their environmental permit.
In contrast illegal sites undercut legitimate waste businesses because they avoid these costs. They offer waste collection, treatment and disposal at cheaper prices than legitimate operators, but in most cases there is no intention to dispose of the waste safely. Often these sites affect local residents due to ugly piles of waste, odours, fly infestations or smoke from waste being burnt on site. Illegal sites have no safeguards for the environment and can lead to serious pollution incidents.
Whilst the Environment Agency’s report proclaims success due to the dramatic increase in illegal waste sites closed last year, surprisingly there has been significant drop in the number of prosecutions. During 2012/13 the Environment Agency had 171 successful prosecutions compared to 249 prosecutions in 2011/12. This is a drop of almost 30% in just one year.
Surely there is a disparity here - if there has been a huge increase in the number of illegal waste sites being closed, why has there not been a corresponding increase in the number of prosecutions? I cannot help but wonder whether these illegal operators are actually being brought before the courts, or whether they are just disappearing and moving to another illegal site, elsewhere in the country?
By Julie Goulbourne, Environmental solicitor
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