Waste dumped secretly on motorways turns Britain into dustbin of Europe

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN IS regarded as a "soft touch" by criminal gangs from Germany and Holland who are coming here to dump cocktails of toxic chemical waste, according to Interpol UK.

Lorry-loads of liquid chemical waste have been deliberately leaked on to the M25 by drivers who circle the motorway at night until their tanks are empty, then drive back to Dover.

Containers full of waste have been discovered dumped at big east coast ports, including Harwich and Felixstowe, where they can remain undetected for years, hidden among other freight.

Paul Andrews, environmental crime specialist at Interpol UK, which is based at the National Criminal Intelligence Service, said: "British law enforcement in this area is not as high-profile as in other European countries, which all have specific police departments to deal with environmental crime. The criminals know that."

A Government working party on Transfrontier Shipments of Waste has been set up, comprising the Environment Agency, Interpol, the Home Office and the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions.

The waste being dumped is typically a dark mixture of contaminated solvents like carbon tetrachloride and acetone, which cannot be broken down. Leaked into a sewer, the waste would destroy the biological activity of sewage treatment works, meaning that other sewage went untreated.

If the chemical waste escaped into a fresh-water sewer it would kill fish and seep into sediment, causing long-term damage to river ecology.

The criminal waste dumpers are arriving in Britain with false documentation declaring their load to be harmless "green list" waste or a legitimate chemical product. Customs officers face difficulties in distinguishing toxic waste from other substances and rarely call in Environment Agency inspectors to test the material.

Mr Andrews said: "Very few officials would know if it was toxic. As Interpol, we would like to see people at the ports with better training on what to look for."

He said that police environmental specialists in other European countries had told him Britain was the weak link in the fight against illegal dumping of toxic waste. "They have asked us to increase our efforts," he said.

The disposal of toxic waste, particularly from the chemical factories of former East Germany, has been identified by German criminals as an effective method of money-laundering.

In Britain, responsibility for policing toxic waste dumping falls to the Environment Agency, which admitted there were difficulties identifying the smugglers.

Alex Tovey, international waste specialist at the agency, said: "Because the importers know we are thin on the ground and not really looking at environmental crime the way we should be they are getting away with it."

Inspectors recently foiled some east German drivers who made repeated attempts to dump cargoes of wooden railway supports soaked with the pesticide DDT.

Part of the problem is due to the difficulties of detecting illegal waste shipments among the traffic of waste that is brought to Britain to be disposed of lawfully.

The Environment Agency is also concerned about lawful applications to import contaminated waste. Dutch importers have asked to bring in contaminated concrete for use on new motorways. Irish firms have applied to import soil contaminated with hazardous waste for use in Millennium projects.

Greenpeace is concerned that PVC waste from Germany is being delivered legally to Britain to be used as a cheap surface for horse-riding schools or to be recycled into traffic cones.

Independent environmental consultant Alan Watson said there was no need for Britain to be importing any chemical waste.

"Each country has its own facilities for handling such material and there is no reason why we should have any expertise in treating it," he said.

A Toxic

Litany

Chemical/Industrial

Sometimes dumped in unidentified drums or leaked from tankers. Highly damaging to sewage treatment works and river ecology. Now being dumped in Britain by criminal gangs from Germany and Holland.

Clinical

Includes severed limbs and other body parts from hospital operations as well as syringes, swabs and other medical waste. The Environment Agency has caught unscrupulous contractors, hired by NHS trusts, dumping the material in warehouses.

Asbestos/Construction

Stripped from factories, or the results of building demolition it requires high-cost disposal at specified landfill sites, encouraging rogue firms to dump it in rivers, country lanes and cul-de-sacs.

Household

Skip companies who are reluctant to pay for landfill disposal empty unwanted furniture and other waste at fly tips. Tyres, which are unsuitable for landfill sites, are dumped by their thousands in empty warehouses.

Farm Waste

Silage and slurry which seeps into rivers after spillage. Some farmers make heavy use of pesticides, especially sheep-dips, and inorganic fertilisers which are blamed for polluting soil and rivers.

CFCs

Banned ozone-depleting gases formerly used in refrigeration. Linked to the death of two council workers who were exposed to toxic fumes in a sewer in south Wales in 1996.

Radioactive

Imported from Eastern Europe in scrap metal. Difficult to detect, and carriers may not realise it is radioactive. Some caught by Customs officers at ports but scrap dealers have dumped it illegally.

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