Following the discovery of the illegal waste site at Mobuoy, the then Environment Minister, Alex Attwood, commissioned an independent report from Mr Chris Mills, the former director of the Natural Resources Wales agency, to carry out a review of waste disposal at the Mobuoy site and the lessons learnt for future regulation of the waste industry.
The Mills report presented 22 recommendations, 21 of which have been accepted and implemented by DAERA, formerly the Department of the Environment (DOE), with the aim of creating a waste sector in Northern Ireland that complies with the law, protects the environment and underpins resource efficiency. The full report is available on the DAERA web page.
My Department has put in place a range of legislative, policy and process measures to ensure more effective regulation and enforcement to prevent illegal waste dumping. For example, legislative amendments have been made in the Waste Management Licensing (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015 to tighten the requirements around the technical competence required by operators to hold a waste management licence and to expand the list of prescribed offences to be taken into account when determining whether someone is a fit and proper person to hold a waste management licence. The only outstanding recommendation from the Mills report is recommendation 9, which relates to retrospective planning permissions, and that was transferred to the Department for Infrastructure in 2015, along with the planning function.
As the Minister knows, it took nine warning letters, 17 notices and 42 inspections before the entire Mobuoy site was forcibly closed. That was after two million tons of illegal waste was dumped there. Given that the site is adjacent to the River Faughan, which, as the Minister knows, is a major source of drinking water for Derry, and that the Assembly called, seven years ago, for a public inquiry into the allegation that a blind eye was turned to alleged criminal activity on that site, when will he advance such an inquiry?
We have the Mills report; a piece of work that was actioned by the then Minister to identify the issues, problems and solutions. We have followed the recommendations of that report. My focus is to ensure that we provide safety when it comes to drinking water in the River Faughan. Testing is carried out weekly to ensure that the water quality remains good, and it does. We are looking at developing a course of work that will ensure that the waste material that is there is made safe for generations to come. That is where our focus should be; on taking actions that actually deliver something, as opposed to having more and more retrospective looks at what went wrong. We know what went wrong. We have the report that identifies the problems. My focus is on actual delivery, not looking at what the problems were. We know what they were.
I do not have the figure for how many similar illegal dumps there are. There were none of the scale of Mobuoy. I know that there were some 20 dumps when I was previously the Minister in 2010. There were some 20 dumps then that involved illegal waste that had come across the border from the Republic of Ireland. I engaged with the Irish Government Minister at that time, Eamon Ryan, and we agreed to repatriate that waste. I was somewhat shocked when I came back into office to find that only around half of that waste had been dealt with and that, 10 years later, there were still around 10 sites where repatriation had not taken place. The Irish Government have a duty to honour the agreement that was made and repatriate waste that should never have been illegally dumped in Northern Ireland, because they did not do their job right in the first place. If it is not done, it is a matter for us to raise with the European Commission.
The agreement between the Ministers is that it is unacceptable. It would be unacceptable if waste were to travel from Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland as well. There needs to be a good information flow about its taking place. If it is identified that it is taking place, we need to crack down on the individuals who are involved. Waste crime is a lucrative business. People who engage in it are very often engaged in general criminality. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to ensure that we clamp down on that element of criminality. That involves cooperation with our neighbours, and I am happy to cooperate with neighbours on things that are of mutual benefit.
With regard to pollution closer to home, it has emerged to me through questions for written answer and other queries that the Environment Agency has taken Northern Ireland's sole water provider, Northern Ireland Water, to court 73 times since 2017 over pollution incidents. What urgent action is the Minister taking to ensure that that public body causes no further pollution incidents in this jurisdiction?
I suspect that, if you wanted to ensure that that is the case, you would need to give Northern Ireland Water a few billion pounds to spend on infrastructure. That is the reality. For years, we did not spend money on water and sewerage infrastructure. When the Troubles were going, we were paying for police officers' overtime and for rebuilding buildings that had been blown up. There was some investment in roads, schools and hospitals, but there was very little investment in water and infrastructure. I take this right back to the Troubles. We have been left with something that, as a consequence of the Troubles, is impacting on our environment and on those young people in particular who want to buy homes in that, in a lot of the towns they would want to buy those homes in, they cannot build the houses because there is not the infrastructure to support them.