In early March, Annette Flanagan saw, on the green outside her window, what she and some of her neighbours had been waiting for for years.
A flurry of news cameras. Several reporters. Irate politicians. All there to talk about the giant illegal dump that has grown up over as long as a decade, just a couple of hundred metres from where she lives.
It was triggered, she thinks, by a news report a couple of days earlier. “I thought, ‘Finally it’s out in the open,’” says Flanagan. “Maybe now they’re going to do something.”
Residents have raised concerns that the landfill could be affecting the health of people living in its vicinity.
“We just want it tested,” she says. “At the end of the day, we want to know what’s in there.”
Residents say they’ve flagged the presence of the dump numerous times with Dublin City Council over as long as 10 years. Some have gone even further to try to get the state to take notice.
Meanwhile, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) protocol says that illegal landfills located near residential areas “should” be remediated “at all times” in “the shortest practicable time”.
There’s only one exception: if it’s shown that an alternative solution “provides greater protection to the environment and the health of the local population”, the protocol says. Part of the process for dealing with it is an assessment.
But in response to a Freedom of Information Act request in April for any assessments carried out on the illegal landfill, a Dublin City Council official said: To my knowledge there was no technical report or assessment carried out for this removal.”
A Brief Flurry of Activity
In July last year, Dublin City Council paid the company Thorntons to clean up some of the waste here.
But that was only a bit off the top, say residents. “It should never have been let get to this stage in the first place,” says Flanagan.
There’s household waste and construction waste strewn amid the undergrowth beside the pedestrian footpath from Moatview Court to Cara Park.
Mounds of rubbish, covered in clay and growing vegetation, are as high as single-storey houses for about 170 metres, opposite the end of Moatview Court and the beginning of Belcamp Gardens.
On the other side of the road, in Belcamp Park, mounds of rubbish, with grass now grown on top, weighs against the green fence, part of which is charred. Litter is strewn on the ground around it.
Four months after the flurry of news cameras and grandstanding by politicians, there’s silence, says Flanagan. No timelines, or information, about when a clean-up might begin, she says.
“It’s like it’s brushed under the carpet again,” says Flanagan. “It was all forgotten about as if it never happened.”
Minutes for the council’s North Central Area Committee’s meetings show it was on the agenda for February and March.
After that, it dropped off.
Flagging the Dump
Flanagan can’t remember exactly when they first raised the alarm with the council about the giant illegal landfill on their doorsteps.
It was about seven or eight years ago, says Flanagan. When residents were putting in a rockery, at the edge of the estate.
Flanagan says she got a phone call from somebody at Dublin City Council, telling her they had to take the rockery back out.
“He said to me there was a meeting in the morning in the [Community Development Project] with a manager out of the parks [department],” says Flanagan.
As a counterpoint to the phone call, Flanagan brought up the landfill. She wanted the council to do something, she says.
When that failed, Gerry Jervis one-upped her. He went to the Department of the Environment.
He thought he’d be able to see the minister there at Custom House, he says. “I didn’t know any better. It was five, six years ago, maybe longer.”
“I had photographs and I wanted to show somebody in authority what was going on,” he says. “I can’t spit on the ground with chewing gum, if I do it’s a £150 fine. They’ve got literally hundreds of tonnes of stuff over there.”
But he got into a row with the porter, he says. The porter told him the minister wasn’t there, that he needed an appointment, that he should write a letter.
“I don’t write a whole lot,” says Jervis.
He told the porter he was illiterate. The porter said it wasn’t his problem, says Jervis. “At that moment, I really wanted to hit him.”
A sympathetic guy behind him, a suit with a black briefcase, calmed him down. He suggested Jervis try council officials at Wood Quay.
At Wood Quay, Jervis felt he was dismissed again, he says. The queue grew behind him as he showed his photos to the porter there, too. He tried to set up an appointment with the parks department – but nothing came of it.
His wife told him he had to slow down, that he was going to make himself ill from the stress, and the frustration. “I had to stop,” he says.
A Damning Judgement
The EPA’s code of practice for dealing with unregulated landfills came out of a major judgement against the Irish state by the European Court of Justice.
On 20 April 2005, the European Court of Justice ruled that Ireland had infringed on the European Union’s Waste Framework Directives “by generally and persistently failing to fulfill its obligations various articles under that directive”.
“That was a really groundbreaking judgement,” says Owen McIntyre, a law professor at University College Cork.
To support their case, the European Commission had looked at a number of sample breaches, like with a landfill in Waterford built beside the tidal estuary, he says.
“The court looked at these and said what we have is systemic non-compliance. It was the first time to my knowledge that they had ever come up with that,” says McIntyre.
The court’s judgement listed how Ireland was failing to fulfill its obligations, and said it believed a “tolerant approach existed which was indicative of a large-scale administrative problem” and a lack of resources dedicated to environmental enforcement.
To comply with the EU’s judgement, Ireland had to take a series of actions to correct the highlighted structural and administrative “deficiencies”.
Among these actions were: setting up the Office of Environmental Enforcement and bringing in a code of practice on the proper remediation measures to be carried out at historic and illegal dumps.
The EPA had to make an enforcement policy to “encourage and promote systematic and consistent enforcement actions against illegal waste operators across the state”.
In 2010, an additional letter of formal notice was sent by the commission to the Department of the Environment, with concerns regarding the length of time that elapses between the detection of an illegal waste site and its remediation.
Steps to be Followed
Under the EPA’s code of practice – which “is primarily aimed at providing guidance for historic unregulated waste disposal sites but it shall also be used in relation to illegal landfills” – the landfill at Moatview falls under “Category 3”.
That’s because it’s an illegal landfill operating since 1997. For all Category 3 sites, a risk assessment has to be carried out by “an experienced person”. After this, a risk ranking is assigned to the dump, before the council decide what action to take.
The Minister for the Environment directs local authorities and the EPA to pursue sanctions against illegal waste activities. The cost of the risk assessment is supposed to be borne by the person, or persons, responsible for the dumping.
Has Dublin City Council carried out any risk assessments on the site?
A spokesperson said last week: “The City Council has arranged for the clearance of the illegally dumped waste on a number of occasions and the Waste Operator carrying out the removal has on each occasion assessed the waste to be removed and dealt with it in accordance with regulations.”
Last May, in response to an FOI request on any assessments carried out on the illegal landfill, a Dublin City Council official said they were not aware of any assessments being carried out on that site.
Dublin City Council didn’t respond to detailed queries around whether specific parts of the code of practice were followed.
One requirement of the EPA’s code is that the individual overseeing the risk assessment is carried out by an appropriately qualified person “to a satisfactory standard”. This is to be overseen by the local authority.
McIntyre says that although the code of conduct is not statutory, it should be followed.
“Put it this way, it may not be a legal requirement but the law does identify and designate the EPA as the expert authority for environmental matters in this country,” says McIntyre.
That means the EPA has expertise, resources, experience and mandate to develop precisely these kinds of codes, he says. “The least we should be entitled to expect is that the local authority at the very least should have regard to that code of conduct.”
“If you don’t even know what’s in the site you could do much more harm by possibly disturbing it than leaving it there,” says McIntyre.
Last year, Dublin City Council paid €191,726 to Thortons for the site to be cleaned.
According to emails between the council and Thorntons, the cleaning of the site finished on the 19 July 2018 as the “max funding was reached” by the end of that day.
In an email to Richard Cleary of the Public Domains Unit, Thorntons state that “We had a look at the costs on the job last evening” and gave an estimated cost as to the clean up costs.
There was no mention of any assessments carried out in the emails.
Residents say Thorntons cleaned a small section in the centre of the build-up of the landfill over a period of a week and a half, using diggers to take off the surface waste, and put it into two tipper trucks.
“They stayed on one part and they didn’t move anywhere else and nowhere else was touched,” says Flanagan.
Some local residents say they’ve seen sheets of asbestos on the dump in the past and are worried about what else might be in there.
That’s one reason they want the dump assessed and for a proper environmental study done of the area.
Dublin City Council didn’t address a query as to whether asbestos has ever been found at the site.
Instead, a spokesperson said: “The site in question has been the target of illegal dumping over a number of years. The city council has liaised with the Gardaí on monitoring and enforcement, most recently in the last few months and enforcement proceedings are being taken in connection with the illegal dumping.”
“There are also plans in place to secure the site and prevent further dumping. This process has however to take into account the residents living in the area and the need for pedestrian access to and from their homes,” they said.
Could the council give an expected timeline for when the site would be cleared?
Said the spokesperson: “The council is currently in the process of assessing once again the volume of waste and a plan for the removal of the waste in a regulated manner will then be put in place to remove the waste and remediate the site as quickly as practicable.”
Minutes from meetings of the council’s North Central Area Committee show that councillors flagged the need to deal with the illegal dump at least as far back as May last year.
In May 2018, Sinn Féin Councillor Larry O’Toole put a motion calling for An Garda Síochána and others to step in to solve the issue.
In February 2019, Labour Party Councillor Alison Gilliland put a motion looking for the local area committee to recognise the illegal dumping that was going on there and proposing the possibility of building houses.
“I think they have always been aware of it being there,” says Gilliland. “I won’t say there’s been an avoidance of the situation but they know the difficulty that the whole situation presents.”
In March and April 2019, minutes list updates from Elaine Mulvaney, assistant area manager in the council’s North Central Area, on the status of the site and the formation of a forum or steering group that was brought together to deal with it.
“Now we haven’t had an update in a while,” says Gililland. “At the last [Joint Policing Committee] it did indicate that it had been brought to the attention of the Gardaí. Now they didn’t say that a DPP case would open but it would be along those lines and that there would be prosecution.”
The Garda Press Office didn’t directly address a query as to what stage the investigation is at.
“This matter would come under the remit of the county/city councils. You would be best assisted forwarding your query to the relevant council,” they said.
There are a number of difficulties for local authorities when it comes to dealing with illegal landfills like this one, says Ian Lumley, heritage officer at An Taisce.
Local authorities, says Lumley, have to bear a cost “that can be very difficult to recover against the landowner”.
Even though under the Waste Management Act, local authorities can recoup costs against landowners, this can be easier said than done, as it can involve a long, drawn-out process within the courts, says Lumley.
Then there’s the problem that those operating illegal landfills are engaged in criminal activity.
It shouldn’t be part of a local authority environmental inspector’s job to have to subject themselves to intimidation on their job, says Lumley.
“Their normal daily job is meeting licensed waste operators and just giving them a check. So imagine if you’re meeting with some fairly tough – semi-criminal people, operating in a shadowy world,” says Lumley.
One councillor was reluctant to speak to us on this story due to fears of threats or intimidation to them and their family.
The powers of local authorities are civil rather than criminal, says Lumley, “and that’s the problem”.
“So they can inspect the site, they can initiate proceedings in whatever court it may be, Civil Court for something like littering, Circuit Court for something more significant and then the Supreme Court for something higher,” says Lumley, but this is a civil prosecution and not a criminal one.
This means the Gardaí don’t step in.
For Lumley, the best way to tackle this would be to ensure that such situations are made into criminal matters.
“This is happening because people are profiting because this is waste that should be going to licensed, waste-transfer sites, somebody is profiting from this financially so that should be a Criminal Assets Bureau matter,” says Lumley.
The EPA also has an important role in ensuring that the illegal landfill is dealt with.
Through Section 63 of the Waste Management Act, the EPA can step in and issue direction as to how Dublin City Council deal with the waste on the site.
According to a spokesperson for the EPA, “We have not issued any statutory notice to Dublin City Council in relation to this matter but we are working with [the council] in relation to this matter.”
The EPA only became aware of the site in February, according to a spokesperson and they have been liaising with Dublin City Council since then.
Was the EPA concerned that the council did not follow its code of conduct on the site prior to remediation last year?
The EPA spokesperson said they could not comment further while investigations were ongoing.
For residents who live near the site, it is imperative that the massive illegal dump is assessed and cleaned-up sooner rather than later.
“Most of the people that are in this situation here are fighting with one arm and one leg,” says Jervis, to get rid of the landfill.