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"Multiple arrests" made after UK's largest ever hazardous waste raid, EA says

Out-Law News | 05 Oct 2012 | 3:36 pm | 2 min. read

The Environment Agency (EA) has arrested 10 people following what it says is the "biggest ever" raid made in the UK as a result of hazardous waste offences, it has announced.

The regulator's Operation Durable is a "complex investigation" into suspected toxic waste offences by an unnamed Avonmouth-based company, its directors and senior management. The investigation, which it is expected will "take many more months to complete", involves the suspected illegal treatment, dumping and treatment of hazardous waste including heavy metals and asbestos.

Andy Higham, Head of the EA's National Environmental Crime Team (NECT), said that the regulator had worked with Avon and Somerset Police to carry out 'dawn raids' on several sites. The NECT has brought in 60 specialist staff from across England and Wales due to the "unprecedented scale" of the operation. The Health Protection Agency (HPA) is also "closely involved" because of the nature of the waste and will continue to assess any risk to public health.

"The Environment Agency targets gravely negligent organisations and organised criminals who risk damaging health, livelihoods and the environment," Higham said. "Following a covert [EA] investigation we worked with police to successfully bring in suspects. We take waste crime extremely seriously."

Dr Isabel Oliver of the HPA confirmed that the Agency had been "supporting" the EA's investigation in recent weeks. "As further information and data become available from the EA, other partners and the company involved, we will consider any potential risk to public health and provide relevant health advice where we can," she added.

According to its most recent Waste Crime Report (19-page / 1.2MB PDF), published last month, the EA closed down 670 illegal waste sites across England and Wales in the year up to the end of March 2012. "Intelligence" on sites and illegal operators developed by a new taskforce, established by the regulator in December, had resulted in the number of sites it had identified as storing, treating or disposing of waste illegally doubling from those identified in the previous year, it said.

The number of people sent to prison for committing serious waste crime offences has almost trebled in the last three years, the EA said; while fines served on offenders by the courts during 2011 had increased by nearly £800,000 over the course of the year, to £1.7 million. Last year 335 individuals and companies were prosecutes for serious waste offences, while courts also ordered assets worth £2.2m to be confiscated under the Proceeds of Crime Act (POCA).

Environmental law expert Simon Colvin of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said the Operation Durable raid was a "clear indication of the scale and complexity" of the EA's current investigations and evidence-gathering methods.

"These methods were previously reserved for the more established and sophisticated criminal agencies, and more recently the Competition Commission and financial regulators, but this is the first time we have seen anything of this scale by the EA," he said.

"Those operating in sectors regulated by the EA should sit up and take notice – it is a clear indication of the importance of having environmental incident and dawn raid management protocols in place so that businesses and their senior managers understand their rights and obligations when faced with such a raid," he said. "Often, immediate access to legal advice is not available and those answering the door and managing the response on the ground need to understand the basic 'dos and don'ts'."

Waste activities in England and Wales are regulated by the EA through the Environmental Permitting Regime (EPR), set out in the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2010. It is an office to undertake waste activities other than in accordance with the EPR.

The EA now has the power to issue civil sanctions for certain environmental offences, while retaining criminal prosecution as an option for the worst offences. However, the Government confirmed in March that it would not introduce civil sanctions for breaches of the EPR when the latest regulations took effect in April, citing the lack of a "cross-Government position" on the use of the sanctions and additional scrutiny requirements. It is now undertaking further work on "whether and when" these can be introduced, it has said.