William Humphrey has given notice of a question for urgent oral answer to the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. I remind Members that, if they wish to ask a supplementary question, they should rise continually in their place. The Member who tabled the question will be called automatically to ask a supplementary question.
Mr Humphrey asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, given the health and safety issues arising from waste storage at Edenderry Industrial Estate, what action his Department and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) are taking to ensure that the offending material is removed urgently.
My Department has actively engaged with the site operator and representatives of the landowners and directed that the waste materials deposited at the site be removed as a matter of urgency. Subsequently, the landowner has engaged a legitimate waste management company, and works to remove waste from the Edenderry site have commenced today. My Department is present at the site and will continue to monitor progress daily. A full and thorough investigation is under way, and my Department will ensure that those responsible for the activity are vigorously pursued and face the maximum criminal sanction.
I thank the House for allowing the question to be asked today.
Minister, the communities in Woodvale and mid-Shankill have been plagued by rats and infested with flies and have had to endure dreadful smells over the past number of weeks. Belfast City Council and the Northern Environment Agency were far too slow to react. Assurances were given that clearance would start before the Twelfth holidays, yet attempts were made on Saturday to dump more material in the area. I ask the Minister whether his investigation will be robust and provide reassurance to the people living in the area.
I thank the Member for the question and for alerting me to the situation on Saturday afternoon. I can assure him that there will be a robust response. What has happened is unacceptable. It is not a registered site. Consequently, it is an illegal site, so NIEA's enforcement branch will be tasked with carrying out all the investigations and, on the basis of the information that it finds, with bringing forward a recommendation to the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) to take the matter to court. It is a matter for NIEA enforcement branch, but I assure the Member that it will be robustly investigated. If the appropriate information comes forward, the matter will be taken further.
I praise my colleagues William Humphrey, Councillor Kingston and Councillor Verner for the proactive and timely work that they have done.
To follow on from your answer to Mr Humphrey, Minister, do we need to look at having stricter laws and higher fines throughout Northern Ireland when it comes to illegal dumping, which has been extremely prevalent during the COVID-19 period?
Fines are a matter for the courts. Those fines can be high if the courts decide to make them high, and we encourage the courts to fine heavily. We have a principle that "the polluter pays", and, consequently, NIEA will always seek to get back all the expenditure that it has involved in a case so that there is no public expenditure as a result of someone's criminal activity. It is for the courts to identify the level of fine over and above that, and we will encourage them to fine quite heavily individuals who engage in illegal activity.
There are people who engage in waste activity who are registered and carry out those activities legally; there are others who appear to be doing it who are not registered and consequently are doing it illegally. I am happy to look again at the work that was done in developing the regulation and the legislation around this to see whether it needs to be refreshed or whether there are inadequacies. I do not believe that this will be a one-off case. I believe there to be other cases. Therefore, if we need to, we will have to take further steps to ensure that we clamp down heavily on this activity.
I concur with the Minister and the Members who spoke about the absolute disgrace of illegal waste being dumped on that site. What engagement has the Minister had with the local authorities, businesses and residents to urgently address the vermin problem associated with the illegal waste?
The vermin problem is one for Belfast City Council. As I understand it, Belfast City Council is putting down full baiting for the vermin problem. I say to the people who resisted the opening of household waste recycling centres that a lot of this waste is waste that would normally have ended up there. That is why I pressed, some time ago, for household waste recycling centres to open. It was evident that waste that was being collected in people's backyards and gardens was causing problems, and some people have turned to an illegal sector that has gained financially from that. I believe that, in various council areas, there are household waste recycling centres that have still not opened. I say this to councils where that is the case: "Would you please get your act together, get those recycling centres opened and provide the service that you are being paid to provide?".
I thank the Member for tabling the question. As has been said, it is completely unacceptable that residents in that part of north Belfast have had to put up with this appalling spectacle and illegal dumping.
In his previous answer, the Minister said that he suspected that this was illegal dumping by people who had paid to dump that stuff there. Is he aware of that happening on a more widespread basis across Northern Ireland? Have there been reports to his Department of it happening in a systematic way? He seems to have an indication that this has been paid for by a specific organisation. Is he aware of it happening on a more widespread basis?
The evidence is anecdotal as opposed to empirical at this stage. There is a bit of the "white van man" scenario, where he has been doing a bit of tidying up round people's homes, and they have asked, "Could you get rid of that for us?". Bits and pieces of that have been involved with fly-tipping, and we are aware of that. Some people may have set themselves up to handle waste when they are not registered waste-handlers. That may be going on. We need to be cautious in all of this to identify exactly what the situation is in this and any other case that is brought forward and to follow due process. Due process will bring results in taking those people to court and having them appropriately fined and the costs charged to them for the disposal of any materials.
I thank Mr Humphrey for asking the original question.
Given that we know that one of the sites is on the same piece of ground as a block of private apartments and immediately abuts other properties, is it clear whether costs incurred by residents thus far can be refunded to them through action taken against the illegal operator?
I am not sure whether that is or can be the case. Certainly, we are happy to look at that. Our primary focus, since I became aware of this on Saturday afternoon and worked with NIEA over the weekend and on Monday morning, was to get the material removed pronto.
Yesterday afternoon, we got agreement from the owners of the Edenderry site that they would pick up the bill for removing it. That agreement was signed off later in the evening, and operators are clearing it as we speak. That was our initial target. We can look at the issue raised by Mr Blair.
I am certainly happy to look at how we can strengthen laws and ensure that we can have the appropriate responses. For example, we still have waste that was dumped here that needs to be repatriated to the Republic of Ireland. When I was previously Minister, we got an agreement from the then Republic of Ireland Minister that waste would be removed from 20 sites. I was somewhat surprised, when I came back into office, to discover that waste from only nine or 10 of those sites had been repatriated. That is a matter that I will raise with the new Minister, now that I finally have a Minister to deal with in the Republic of Ireland. There was an absence of that for a period of time. They had a Government who were carrying on but, clearly, were not going to be the eventual Government. I will raise the issue of having that repatriation completed with my ministerial colleague.
There are issues around waste. Money can be made from it. Individuals engage in the waste business inappropriately because of that. A lot of good operators out there want to see the laws strengthened, because they are doing the job right. On a regular basis, NIEA calls with them to check that they are doing the thing right, and then these other people pop up and do things entirely illegally. We need to ensure that we can clamp down on illegal operators quickly, effectively and efficiently.
I thank the Member for his question, and the Minister for his responses. Most Members are very concerned to hear, yet again, about another illegal dump in Northern Ireland and the environmental consequences arising from that. I have concerns about whether the lessons have been learnt from the Mobuoy dump and the Mills report recommendations fully implemented. I do not feel that they have. I would be interested to understand from the Minister what his view is. Have the lessons been learnt and the recommendations implemented?
It appears that, in this particular instance, the material first gathered was cardboard, mattresses, pallets and things like that, but it then developed into other materials more associated with landfill. That got out of control very quickly. Once that material is dumped inappropriately, particularly with mattresses and so forth, rats and flies very quickly take up residence and cause all sorts of problems.
We need to be on the ball with illegal activity. I will be looking at this further, on the back of what has happened. Ultimately, it is absolutely essential that waste is dealt with appropriately. In Northern Ireland, we have reached our 50% target for recycling and we are going to push that up further. It is critically important that we ensure that the problem we create is managed appropriately. Consequently, we cannot have this fly-tipping, illegal dumping and all that taking place. The result of that is damage to the environment and other people's lives. We are considerably better than we used to be. However, there are still gaps. How best we fill them needs to be addressed.
I thank the Minister for his answers. Some folk have had to leave their homes, and people are complaining of being ill. This has caused major anxiety and stress in the local community, all in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Therefore, I thank the Minister for his intervention. Can he assure me, and more importantly, assure the House and my constituents, that the nightmare that they have had to endure over the last number of weeks will end this week? Work has started today, and we welcome that, but will the matter be put to bed this week?
I believe and have been given assurances that all the material that is attracting rats and flies will be removed by the end of the week. Some of the material, which is not of that type, may take a bit longer to be removed, but all the residual waste will be removed by the end of the week. In fact, I hope that it will be removed a lot quicker. I know that the companies that have been brought in are very professional and are good at handling that sort of thing. I believe that they will respond very quickly to the problem that exists. Hopefully, it will be done well before the end of the week.
That concludes that item of business.
Item 5 on the Order Paper is the Adjournment. Before I put the Question, I remind Members that the next sitting of the Assembly is currently scheduled for Tuesday 28 July. However, if it becomes apparent that an additional sitting may be required on Monday 27 July, the Business Committee will meet remotely tomorrow to agree an Order Paper, and Members will be duly notified. The Ad Hoc Committee on the COVID-19 Response will continue to be available to meet and to allow Ministers to make statements to the Assembly during the summer. There is no meeting scheduled at present. As soon as the Speaker's Office receives details from Ministers that they wish to provide an update, Members will be notified in the usual way.
Adjourned at 2.06 pm.