New device helps put down a marker against fuel pirates
A new device to combat fuel laundering will make it almost impossible for criminal gangs to sell illicit diesel.
Fuel launderers cost the taxpayer around £50 million each year by removing dye from red diesel - which is used for agricultural vehicles - as it is cheaper than regular fuel.
In a bid to stamp out the laundering techniques, HMRC has introduced a new marker that it says will be "virtually impossible" to remove.
New hi-tech roadside fuel testing equipment takes just 90 seconds to detect whether the marker is present by placing a micro-litre sample into the testing machine.
Fuel laundering is widespread in Northern Ireland, but since the new measure was introduced in April last year, HMRC has shut down just 12 plants, compared to 27 in 2014.
Pat Curtis, an officer from the HMRC fraud investigation service, said while he accepted that no marker was infallible, this one was "robust" against any attempts to remove it.
He said: "Since the launch of the new marker we have seen a significant reduction in the detection of laundering plants and dumping of waste material associated with laundering activities.
"We looked worldwide for any fuel marker that would combat the organised criminal gangs' activities to remove it. We accept there is no marker that is completely 100% foolproof but this one is really robust against any of there attempts to remove it."
He said early indications suggested the marker had been successful and that his team was not seeing the same amount of laundered fuel as before.
"I wouldn't like to say the fuel laundering plants have all disappeared, but a lot of them have evaporated after we introduced this," he added.
Justice Minister David Ford put the device to the test yesterday at a HMRC roadside checkpoint in Belfast. The Alliance leader, who is chairman of the Organised Crime Task Force, said criminals who continued their attempts to launder fuel also generated large quantities of waste by-product.
"This is toxic and requires costly processing before it can be disposed of," he added.
"It presents real dangers to people, animals, wildlife and water courses if it is dumped carelessly.
"There is also a significant cost to the public purse to clean up not only the waste, but also to address any contamination issue.
"I would urge anyone buying fuel to think seriously about where they are buying it. They could be funding other forms of organised criminality such as drugs and people trafficking."
HMRC roadside officers have also flagged online social media accounts which alert the general public to the 'dipper' teams.
Some pages, including the 'Red Diesel Alert Northern Ireland' account often posts photographs of HMRC officers carrying out their job.
Mr Curtis said that the pages caused concern for staff, as they were identified.
"It's very difficult, as in theory they are not doing anything wrong," he added.
"Anyone can come and take a photo of us, and they can do it, and while Facebook have removed some pages, it's very easy to set up another one. It does cause us concern."