British Customs said one UK broker of the valuable chemicals had been involved, but he had not known they had been smuggled into Europe with false documentation and therefore faced no charges.
For the past two years, industry and governments have suspected that some CFC users have been evading the Europe-wide ban on consumption and production of the chemicals. Widely used in refrigeration and air conditioning, they are being phased out because they are highly damaging to the earth's protective ozone layer.
Now, after co-operating for more than a year, customs officials and the commission's anti-fraud unit have had their first major breakthrough.
Taifun, a small German company based near Frankfurt, is alleged to be behind the smuggling operation.
The Brussels-based anti-fraud unit said 80 containers, each containing 12 one-tonne steel cylinders of the chemicals, had been imported through Rotterdam from China and their contents distributed around the Continent over the past year. They had been falsely labelled as a non-CFC chemical, and had invalid Chinese certificates of origin.
When the CFCs were re-exported to other EU nations, the accompanying paperwork said they were recycled CFCs. These can still be legally traded along with any CFCs stockpiled before the 1995 ban, but by now there should be only small quantities available.
Heinrich Kraus, CFC expert in Germany's federal environment ministry, said: ``This is the breakthrough we've been waiting for. For some time we have believed there has been considerable smuggling, but we've not been able to detect a specific case.''
Under the Montreal Protocol, an international green treaty, developing nations like China can still produce CFCs until 2010. But they are banned from exporting the chemicals to developed countries.
The refrigeration industry had been expecting the price to rise rapidly after the 1995 ban due to stocks running down. But the market price has remained flat or risen only slowly, indicating ample supplies of CFCs - much to the fury of chemical giants like ICI which have invested heavily in developing ozone-friendly substitutes.
Malcolm Horlick, Secretary of the Institute of Refrigeration, said: ``There is still a huge amount of concern about the quantity of CFCs still available and the low price.''
The remaining CFCs are traded at pounds 6 to pounds 18 a kilogramme. David Brown, of the Environmental Investigation Agency, a green campaigning organisation, said: ``Small, fly-by-night companies pop up, bombarding companies which still use these chemicals with faxes offering them at rock-bottom prices.''
Since the early 1980s, an ozone hole has been opening above the Antarctic each spring, allowing dangerous ultraviolet radiation to reach the surface. Thinning of the ozone layer has also been detected over northern latitudes.Reuse content