Northern Ireland

Toxic sludge clean-up in Louth costing millions

The last two years have seen a huge seven fold increase in the finds in County Louth of toxic sludge - the results of diesel laundering. BBC NI's Dublin correspondent, Shane Harrison, has been investigating what happened to one particular discovery that he came across.

Image caption Several of the 22 containers of toxic sludge dumped by fuel launderers

I got a tip-off that that 22 containers of toxic sludge had been found just outside Dundalk on the Armagh road.

The find was made behind a derelict house behind hedges on waste land now owned by Nama, the Republic's bad bank with its own toxic loans.

Some of the containers had spilt onto the ground and the smell of laundered diesel was overpowering.

Damage

Each of the 22 plastic containers could hold 1,000 litres of this hazardous waste.

Huge amounts of money can be made from this criminality.

For economic reasons farmers and some industries get diesel considerably cheaper that road users.

The price for a litre of coloured or marked diesel in the Republic, including taxes, is about one euro while the road diesel costs about 1.60 euro.

A red dye is put in the discounted fuel in Northern Ireland and green in the Republic.

The launderers remove the dye and then sell their now colourless diesel to some garages, who in turn sell onto motorists as normal fuel even though it can damage the engines of cars whose drivers unsuspectingly use it.

It's estimated those responsible for the mess I came across made nearly 1m euro profit from that one find alone.

A few hours later a team arrived to clean up the mess and remove the 22 containers containing left-over fuel and the sludge the diesel had been washed through.

The launderers appear to have become more ecologically conscious; they no longer use acid to remove the dye but other more environmentally friendly substances like bleaching earth.

But the dumped fuel can still cause major damage, particularly if it's left near running water.

The remnants of this find were then taken to a Louth county council facility in Dundalk behind the local Garda station.

There, a few days later, they pumped diesel out of the containers so that all that was left was a more dried-out toxic sludge.

Rare

It is then ready to be sent abroad for treatment.

But the cost to the Irish government, with its massive financial problems, and to the local council is considerable.

Frank Pentony, the director of services for the Louth local authorities, says: "We are hard-pressed for income with cutbacks to public services. Everybody is being asked to tighten their belts.

"Obviously the state would prefer not to lose income in terms of revenues and lost customs and excise duty. But the state is also having to recoup councils for having to deal with the clean-ups.

"In 2011 the cost to the state for Louth was over 1m euro."

Arrests have been rare and it's widely believed that people with past and present paramilitary involvement are involved in the laundering.

The authorities privately admit they are getting little help from the public in terms of information.

One possible solution to this cross-border criminal problem is not to put dye in the diesel either north or south; and to allow farmers and those industries that use the marked diesel to reclaim their taxes as rebate in much the same way farmers do for other EU or government payments.

But it's understood there is opposition to this idea because of the administrative costs and the paperwork involved.

The Dundalk toxic sludge is now on its way to Germany.

There it will eventually be recycled and used as fuel in furnaces to make concrete.