Who dares bins? Councils in England use ex-SAS soldiers to catch

Special forces war veterans are being deployed undercover to help tackle the increasingly violent criminal networks moving into fly-tipping and the dumping of dangerous waste.

Former SAS and special reconnaissance regiment (SRR) service personnel, who specialise in surveillance and “close-target” reconnaissance and who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, are being drafted in to collect evidence against organised crime groups that use collusion, corruption and the threat of violence to profit from environmental offences.

Criminal networks are increasingly exploiting the waste industry in massive fraud and fly-tipping schemes involving household recycling and the dumping or burying of toxic and dangerous substances to evade landfill charges and other taxes.

Security specialist the Subrosa Group, which is hired by councils and waste management companies to crack down on such offences, said it now employed a full-time unit of former special forces “surveillance operatives” to tackle environmental crime, amid concern there was such little government action in the area that such offences were effectively becoming decriminalised.

A senior manager at Subrosa, who asked to be anonymous for security reasons, said covert teams were “secreted in the undergrowth” around waste sites along with cameras hidden in rocks, planks of wood and traffic cones to document criminal behaviour.

Subrosa’s chief executive, Niall Burns, added that experience of clandestine operations in conflict zones, like building covert hides to monitor enemy movements, was ideal for tracking criminal networks engaged in waste crime.

“They bring all those military skills of building hides in hostile environments into this commercial world,” he said. “They [the criminals] come out with new ideas all the time, they’ve got the money, they’ve got the resources, they’ve got the wherewithal. We need to act radically in order to build a case against them.”

Any gathered evidence is passed to police and prosecutors, and has resulted in a number of convictions.

Attracted by significant profits but also paltry fines if caught, organised criminal networks are increasingly taking advantage of measures such as the landfill tax, which was introduced to encourage recycling but has actually increased incentives to fly-tip.

Recent analysis by the National Audit Office reveals how criminal networks are moving into the sector. Of 60 organised crime groups monitored for environmental offences in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, 70% were also involved in specialist money laundering and two-thirds in the drugs trade.

More than half were engaged in “violent criminal activity” and a quarter involved in “organised immigration crime and human trafficking”.

Burns added: “Individuals who might have once been armed bank robbers are the type going into waste crime. There’s a lot of reward for less risk.”

The deployment of former special forces against waste crime, some of whom served in a plainclothes surveillance unit created for operations in Northern Ireland, follows claims that the government is not doing enough to tackle a crime worth about £1bn a year in England.

The Commons public accounts committee recently described the government’s attitude to waste crime as “close to decriminalisation” because fines were so low. MPs warned that organised criminals viewed the relatively minuscule fines as a business expense.

However, an Environment Agency spokesperson said it was “determined to disrupt and stop criminal waste activity through tough enforcement action and prosecution”. They added: “We now share intelligence on criminals with our partners, resulting in more than 2,500 illegal waste sites being shut down permanently in the last three years.”

However, Burns said that corruption and collusion were endemic in the trade, with criminals often using insider help at waste depots in a similar way that drugs syndicates paid officials in ports for turning a blind eye or assistance in helping shipments navigate security.

One of the most lucrative forms of waste crime is “misdescription”, taking advantage of different tax rates for the disposal of different materials in landfill sites. A lower tax – currently just over £3 a tonne – applies to less polluting materials, such as soil, compared to almost £99 a tonne for household residual waste.

Using collusion and corruption at a landfill site, wrongly labelling the waste gives criminals a huge profit at the expense of long-term damage to the environment. With some sites receiving more than 200 lorries a day, each holding up to 40 tonnes, the scope for making money is obvious.

The Environment Agency added that its joint unit for waste crime, which incorporates organisations such as the National Crime Agency, was making inroads into the gangs. “Since its inception in 2020, the unit has worked with more than 102 partner agencies and taken part in 175 days of action which have resulted in 51 arrests.”

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