Environment Committee Chair Anna Lo MLA has suggested illegal dumping on an unprecedented scale at Mobuoy Road could have been stopped six years ago had there been a proper investigation at the time.
Mrs Lo made the comments during a Ministerial briefing of the Committee from Mark H. Durkan on February 6.
Referring to Mr Chris Mills’ independent report into the illegal dump, she commented: “The report says that, in 2007 or 2008, people were already informing the NIEA about the illegal dumping and that, had there been proper investigation, the whole thing would have been stopped at that stage.
“Are you investigating that whole process?”
Mr Durkan replied that he was and said that his Permanent Secretary would provide him with recommendations.
He said he was “particularly perturbed by some of the reading in the report.”
Mrs Lo was referring to an, as yet, unverified incident reported to Mr Mills about noxious smells at Mobuoy Road having been detected as far back as December 2007 - over six years ago.
Mr Mills explained: “The first incident was reported to have taken place on December 7, 2007, when a member of the Environmental Crime Unit (ECU) stated having made a site visit to Mobuoy to check out a complaint of noxious smells which it is believed was reported by Derry City Council.
“A further site visit was made on April 20, 2008. Two gas tests were carried out in an area outside of the licensed site where subsequently waste was found to have been illegally dumped.
“The readings were high and, in the opinion of the officer concerned, confirmed the presence of landfill gas which it was concluded could only be caused by degrading organic material.
“The officer brought this matter to the attention of the line manager and recalls suggesting an intrusive survey. However, for reasons unknown to the officer, the investigation was not progressed beyond this initial site investigation.
“At the beginning of 2009, the officer concerned moved to another section of the ECU. However, the validity of this report has been questioned by a senior staff member in the ECU and no Incident Report has been located to confirm it.”
Two other verified reports of incidents at or near the site were reported in December 2008 and April 2009.
Oversight of the local waste industry was placed firmly in the spotlight this week following an investigation by the BBC.
And during the Committee meeting two weeks ago SDLP MLA Colum Eastwood suggested that perhaps officials should have been aware of what was happening.
Mr Eastwood stated: “I am reluctant to say too much when a criminal investigation is going on, but this was a bolt from the blue and people did not know it was happening.
“Maybe they should have known it was happening. It was a huge site on the outskirts of Derry with lots of illegal waste dumped in it.”
He asked Mr Durkan what was being done to stop illegal dumping happening elsewhere.
Mr Durkan responded: “Some more of the £1.5 million that my predecessor managed to secure was used to employ 10 new waste enforcement experts in the NIEA’s environmental crime unit.
“That has helped us to set up a major waste crackdown through what is known as Operation Toothfish.
“Operation Sycamore is the big one up in Derry, but Operation Toothfish is dealing with other issues.
“It is being led by the environmental crime unit with the PSNI and currently involves 25 investigations across 31 sites. So, it is a very widespread and worrying issue.”
Mrs Lo warned that such activity could result in multi-million pound fines from the European Commission aside from the clean-up bill, which as the Sentinel this week reported, has already cost you £800k.
The Environment Chair commented: “It could also lead to us breaching directives and targets for landfill. We need to bear that in mind. We could be facing millions of pounds of infraction fines from the EU.”
Mr Durkan responded: “It is important that we get the message out as often as possible that it is far from a victimless crime.”