The mafia, in partership with unscrupulous Russian businessmen, had created a pounds 300m a year business by smuggling CFCs into the US to feed the demand for repairing cooling systems in cars and freezers that still use the harmful gases.
That business has all but disappeared following the launch of Operation Cool Breeze, a joint initiative between the CIA, Customs and the Internal Revenue Service. Now industry experts fear that the Russian mafia will turn its attentions to Europe.
There have been a number of convictions in the US. A publicity campaign by the Environmental Protection Agency has encouraged a switch away from CFCs to a more ozone-friendly alternative. So successful has the twin- pronged attack been that the US is now faced with an acute shortage of CFCs, which has led to prices trebling in the last six months. Motorists who need to service the air conditioning systems in cars built before 1994 must pay $200 to have their systems refilled with the new gas, against $80 for a CFC refill.
Although Europe banned CFC production at the beginning of 1995, it has been much less rigorous in its attack on illegal imports than the US, which only banned production at the beginning of this year.
A Customs and Excise spokes-man said: "We do not see it as being a great problem."
However, Nick Campbell, regulatory affairs manager at ICI, which produces the alternative, said: "We estimate that the illegal trade is running at several thousand tons a year. That may not be significant in environmental terms, but while CFCs are readily available people will not change to alternative systems."
The Department of the Environment is now working with the chemicals industry to assess how the battle against illegal trade can be stepped up in the light of the threat of a flood of black market imports.
Customs have had difficulty securing the convictions of suspected smugglers. So far the authorities, acting on information received, have investigated six alleged CFC smuggling incidents. On each occcasion insufficient evidence has been found to mount a prosecution, because Customs have had to rely on documents rather than a physical check.
The illegal CFCs are shipped by boat, usually disguised as other products such as butane or replacement coolants such as HCFCs. Providing the documentation is in order and the goods appear to match the description on the paperwork then Customs is powerless to take any further action.
Once the CFCs are in the country, it becomes very difficult to track their progress. The illegal supplies are quickly merged with legally stockpiled and recycled CFCs.
Most of the demand for CFCs in the UK comes from retailers and other businesses that rely upon extensive refrigeration and deep freeze systems. Those systems are maintained by around 6,000 service engineers who secure their supplies from a variety of sources.
Many CFC users are small businesses that cannot readily afford the cost of refitting their equipment so that it can run on the new coolants. In the US, it is estimated that the cost of conversion for a retail outlet could be as much as $35,000 (pounds 23,000).
So far there has been no sign of any shortage of supplies of the old CFCs. Prices, which in the US have increased tenfold in the last couple of years, have remained static in the UK.
"If the ban on CFCs was effective, we would be seeing some shortages by now," Mr Campbell says. "Those shortages would be reflected in rising prices, but there has been no real sign of that."
All production of CFCs was banned in the developed world at the beginning of the year in accordance with the acceleration of the Montreal Protocol signed in 1987. The Soviet Union was a signatory to the protocol, but Russia has argued that in the light of the country's changed structure it should have developing nation status, which will allow it to produce CFCs at seven plants across the country until the end of the century.Reuse content