Northern Ireland

Clean up on illegal waste from the Republic gets under way

clearing up illegal waste dumped near Ballymartin, County Down
Image caption The waste was dumped illegally in a site at the foot of the Mourne Mountains

Thousands of tons of illegally dumped waste are being repatriated to the Republic of Ireland.

It had been secretly buried in a large abandoned sand quarry at the foot of the Mourne Mountains in Northern Ireland.

Bringing the waste north and avoiding paying government landfill charges earned the criminals involved millions of euros.

The first of what will be hundreds of lorries filled with rotting domestic, commercial and industrial rubbish headed off to a legal landfill site near Dundalk, just across the border in the Republic of Ireland.

The illegal dump is at Ballymartin, near the County Down fishing town of Kilkeel.

No suspicions

Local people seemed to be oblivious to the endless lorry traffic bringing the illegal waste to the site several years ago.

Even though much of the movement took place at night, it seems no suspicions were raised.

On Tuesday, staff from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency were moving carefully through the first of the waste brought to the surface.

They calculate that there are around 10,500 tons buried there. Already clues to its source are visible.

Piles of unused fertiliser sacks from a processing plant in County Wexford or plastic bags from a store in Cork.

Both are as far south as you can get from the border with the north.

Retrieving this waste is a dangerous task.

"It's very hard to tell what is down there until we dig it up," explains Stephen McLaughlin from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

"There will be lots of toxic chemicals. The water percolating through this waste pollutes the ground water, pollutes local waterways, surface waters and streams."

There is also a risk from poisonous gas on the site and everyone has to wear gas detectors.

Emergency evacuation procedures are explained to any site visitor.

Image caption Some of the waste that was found buried in the quarry

Cost to taxpayer

This is the third waste site in Northern Ireland to be cleared and sent back across the border.

Although the waste may have come from the south, the taxpayer in Northern Ireland still has to pay 20% of the total cost.

It will cost hundreds of thousands of pounds to clear this site.

The illegal movement of waste into Northern Ireland was at its height around 2003 - 2004 but has since been all but stopped by tighter legislation in the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland's environment minister, Alex Attwood, is also pleased to see more waste going south.

"I welcome the fact that illegally deposited waste has started to be removed from another site," he said.

"I am in ongoing contact with my counterpart in the Republic of Ireland, Phil Hogan over this issue. I want the whole process to be completed as quickly as possible."

The arrangement to send the waste back across the border was reached in 2009 but seems to be a complex and slow process.

Nineteen sites have been identified, but so far this is just the third one to be tackled.

And so far its been a modest task compared to what is still to come.

One site is thought to contain around 70,000 tons. It could take half a year to clear.

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