Buried beneath the lush green countryside, somewhere in the UK, lies a gargantuan waste dump made up of hundreds of thousands of tonnes of putrefying rubbish. No one knows exactly what's in it, although scientists have warned that the toxic soup seeping from it will pose a significant threat to local wildlife and the nearby city's water supply for years to come.
This hidden site, the location of which cannot currently be revealed for legal reasons, is one of scores of large, unauthorised, polluting dumps discovered each year across the UK. The more the authorities look, the more they find: huge conglomerations of everything from tyres and nappies to chicken carcasses and hazardous chemicals, dumped in conservation areas, disused quarries, fake recycling sites and even nestled amid the sprawl of major city centres. And the deeper they dig into those reaping the profits from these environmental time bombs, the more they uncover organised crime.
Around 16m tonnes of waste is illegally dumped in England and Wales every year, 1m tonnes of which are hazardous materials, such as chemicals and asbestos. Between 2013 and 2014, the Environment Agency dealt with 137 illegal waste sites it deemed to be "large, serious and organised". But these are thought to be the tip of the iceberg. Every year new waste sites are discovered, but for every one that is closed down, another is revealed.
It's their illegality that makes these waste dumps so poisonous to the environment. Left unmanaged to fester, and without proper drainage, they pose a risk to wildlife and the general public. Leachate from these sites can flow into local water supplies, clean water boreholes and onto farmland. They are often situated in places they should be miles away from. Around 41 percent of these illegal dumps are less than 50 metres from housing, water supplies or wildlife conservation areas.
In 2009, the residents of Triangle, a village in the foothills of the Pennines in West Yorkshire, noticed that all the fish in their local pond had bobbed up to the surface, dead. They called in the Environment Agency to investigate. A discharge of foam in the river led to a plot of land where 180 tonnes of lead-contaminated waste—in bags labelled "toxic", "harmful to the aquatic environment" and "soluble lead compound"—had been illegally stashed. The hazardous waste had mixed with rainwater to form a leachate, which trickled through the soil into the River Ryburn that feeds into the village pond in Triangle.
Dumping waste where it shouldn't be dumped, the proverbial shitting on your own doorstep, has been going on for centuries. In the UK, it was only during the Victorian era that strict regulations came into force. Then in the 1990s, the green movement resulted in a further tightening of laws governing the waste trade and encouraging recycling by in- creasing the cost of putting waste in landfill. This revolutionised the way we dispose of waste. The amount of rubbish recycled rose six-fold. It also breathed life into the illegal waste market.
The cost of dumping waste lawfully in landfill sites rocketed, creating a huge opportunity for criminals. By dodging these costs, criminals can make substantial profits. Firms are willing to turn a blind eye in order to get rid of their waste on the cheap, although the real winners in the illegal dumping game are those who have made a business out of it.
Over a two-year period, businessman Phillip Slingsby earned upwards of £440,000 in unpaid landfill tax after charging people for taking away waste and then dumping it. In total he dumped 200,000 tonnes of rubbish, including asbestos, at three illegal sites in Yorkshire. An accomplice owned the land on which the waste was dumped and received cash rewards for his complicity. During the trial, in which Slingsby received a short jail term, the judge said the highly profitable dump posed a "serious risk" to the public, being only 20 metres from local drinking water boreholes.
"The illegal waste trade is a twilight world of gangs, rackets, men with dogs, tax evasion and ultimately environmental damage," says James Fulford, the author of a 2014 investigation into the grubby underbelly of the rubbish trade. Commissioned by the environmental industry, his report, "Waste Crime: Tackling Britain's Dirty Secret", concluded: "Waste crime is widespread and endemic. There is a culture of criminality invading the waste sector [...] with criminal gangs attracted by the high rewards and relatively low risk of substantial penalty."
Some of Britain's environmental criminals seem to be blasé about getting caught. Most of those prosecuted for waste crime have a long history of warnings and wrist slaps, often swatted away like a fly from one of their mouldering tips. When Gary Doonin, director of Doonin Plant Ltd, was branded Scotland's worst polluter and fined £200,000 for dumping hundreds of tonnes of waste, including car tyres, food packaging and clothing at a disused colliery, some may have had a sense of déjà vu. Two years earlier, Doonin had been fined £90,000 for burying tonnes of household rubbish under two metres of soil on the same land. He just ignored the fine and carried on regardless. Like a lot of waste criminals, Doonin expressed surprise that he had been arrested at all. Outside court he moaned: "I've done nothing wrong. There's nobody dead and nobody lost any limbs."
Waste crime comes in many forms: illegal land- fill sites, illegal recycling operations or licensed sites that act as fronts for illegal dumping and money laundering. There are sites that deliberately misclassify materials to benefit from lower tax rates. Sometimes ghost lorries arrive on sites and tip their load without any record of doing so. Criminals will earn a quick buck by collecting waste, dumping it and running off with all the cash to start off a new scam in a different area, leaving a massive clean-up bill. Failing that, they will set the whole lot on fire. Every year there are hundreds of fires at waste dumps, suspected of being started deliberately to avoid paying landfill fees.
If it costs money to dump, there will be someone out there who's dumping it for nothing, on a large scale. In 2011, Carl "Million Tyre Man" Steele was briefly jailed after illegally dumping nearly one million tyres across the English countryside, a scam that earned him £2.5m in unpaid dumping fees.
Driven by the serious prospect of profit, organised crime gangs have been sniffing around the waste trade, adding multimillion-pound "waste management" contracts to their existing portfolios of drugs, fraud, security and protection. It's a trade that has proved a popular stomping ground for the mafia in Italy and America for decades. It's no coincidence the writers of the Sopranos made waste management the lifeblood of Tony Soprano's firm.
The Environment Agency has handed a list of several sites it suspects of being run by organised criminals to the National Crime Agency, and Scottish police have identified ten organised crime groups that have muscled in on the waste trade. Detective Chief Superintendent John Cuddihy, Head of Organised Crime and Counter Terrorism at Police Scotland, told a conference on environ- mental crime in Edinburgh last year: "Organised crime gangs are driven by supply and demand, and environmental crime is one of the areas they are diversifying into. By avoiding paying tax, or dealing with the health and safety costs associated with the responsible disposal of waste, their profit margins are huge."
There were whiffs of the underworld when Princeston Valentino Green, a former member of male stripper group the Chippendales, was found guilty last year of running a rat-infested illegal waste site in the centre of Manchester, funded by Wayne Barker, the late bare-knuckle fighter who was once charged with attempted murder. Green helped run the dump, containing 12,000 cubic metres of rotting waste. By evading the usual costs of running a legitimate site, those behind the scam were able to offer cut-price rates to companies to dump rubbish. By the time the Environment Agency shut the tip down, after many warnings that were ignored, the toxic chemicals seeping from it into the ground had become a risk to the city's water supply and to wildlife.
This March, six members of a gang suspected of dumping tens of thousands of tonnes of rubbish at sites across southern and central England were arrested. Investigators from the Environment Agency, who had to wear breathing apparatus because of asbestos on the sites, found 17 migrant workers who were suspected of being forced into labour.
The organised gangs behind these dumps can prove elusive. Moreover, it's hard to prevent them from successfully tendering for new waste con- tracts, because they use front companies headed by directors with no criminal records or simply pay people to find suitable dumping grounds. One outfit paid Alan Priest £20,000 to rent out some land in Dudley in the West Midlands, onto which 400 tonnes of rubbish was dumped and left to rot. Priest was jailed in 2013, but the judge called him "a man of straw", adding that the principal people behind the scam had got off.
The situation has got so bad in Northern Ireland, nicknamed the "dirty corner of Europe", that the region faces bankruptcy because of potential fines from Europe over its track record on waste. "Northern Ireland is turning into one giant tip. The countryside is littered with illegal landfill sites," says Dean Blackwood, a town planner and Green Party campaigner in Derry. "Clinical waste and animal carcasses have been dumped in a site licensed to take builders' rubble. Local people have to live with infestations of flies, unbearable stench and ill-health."
Friends of the Earth says that a £20m anti-waste crime task force set up within the Environment Agency to hunt down and close illegal sites across the UK has failed to stem the problem over the last four years. Far from being eradicated, illegal waste sites keep on appearing, in the hundreds. "It's tragic for the good guys who are trying to run recycling and recovery businesses. They can't compete with cowboy operators whose cheap disposal of recyclable rubbish has serious health and environmental impacts," says Craig Bennett, the CEO of Friends of the Earth. "British waste and resource efficiency policy is an absolute mess and it's a major concern for business, as well as environmentalists."
The waste produced in the UK is not just being dumped here illegally. The Environment Agency estimates that approximately 11,500 shipping containers full of our junk, 200,000 tonnes worth, is illegally exported each year, usually to west Africa and Asia by organised criminals, causing untold damage to drinking water supplies, farmland and ecosystems abroad.
This green and pleasant land is storing up trouble if it does not offer more of a challenge to the sophisticated criminals who have taken it upon themselves to lend a hand in the odorous business of waste management.
While the UK is not facing the Italian calamity of organised criminals dumping radioactive materials and contaminating the food chain with a cocktail of nasty poisons, our waste management industry seems to be at risk of sinking further and further underground.