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The devastating damage caused by laundered fuel

In the second part of a special investigation into fuel smuggling in Northern Ireland, Chris Thornton examines the severe environmental damage which is caused by laundered diesel

It's a thick black sludge that waters the eyes, burns to the touch, and kills wildlife in its path. And you're paying for it.

Fuel laundering does more than earn a hefty sum of cash for the fraudsters who produce and sell it. It also turns out a dangerous by-product that is left by roadsides, dumped in remote locations or simply poured down drains, all left for the taxpayer to eventually pay for.

Councils along the border, the DoE and Northern Ireland Water are all bearing the charges for cleaning up the foul-smelling by-product. And what they miss is presumably still causing damage to the environment.

Fuel launderers try to beat high fuel taxes by purchasing red or green diesel — the reduced duty fuel for farms and quarries — and erasing the dye that distinguishes it. It means substantial profits: red diesel carries duty of 9p a litre and green is about 3.5p a litre, compared to more than 50p a litre for ordinary road diesel. That difference allows them to sell laundered fuel at a cut price and still pocket a tidy sum.

To make it look like ordinary fuel, the launderer “washes” the dyed diesel. They may simply filter it through cat litter or use a more effective system of burning out the dye with sulphuric acid. Most laundering plants found in Northern Ireland over the past few years use the acid.

It's still a crude system. The acid left in the fuel can wreck car engines and the greater amount of acid left over — thousands of litres for every laundering operation — can wreck the environment.

“The by-product is an oily waste combined with sulphuric acid,” said Mark Livingstone of the DoE's Waste Management Unit.

“It's the acid that does the damage. If it gets into a water course, it's basically poisoning all the bugs the fish live on, then the fish themselves. It's wiping out everything and it can take months to recover. If it happens during spawning season, the fish would take years and years to recover.”

The sludge can also be harmful to humans. Kevin Scullion, Newry and Mourne Council's assistant director of environmental health, says that when abandoned or spilled sludge is reported to the council, one of their first tasks is to check the threat to people, especially if children are in the area.

“Whenever this stuff spills out, there are greater risks,” he said. “It has a very high acidic content, so if you came into contact with hit it would burn your skin. It's often in confined space and then the fumes are a concern as well.”

There are costs as well: excluding manpower, Newry and Mourne has spent more than £110,000 over the past three years on cleaning up fuel laundering waste. The DoE spent £40,000 on water clean-up last year, and over the border where green diesel is cheaper and easier to get because of a Northern Ireland registration scheme, the costs are even higher.

Monaghan County Council estimates that laundering waste costs ¤1m a year.

“It's ratepayers' money we're dealing with,” said Kevin Scul lion. “Each pound that we spend on removing this waste is a pound we can't spend on other council activity.”

The sludge is usually stored in large plastic containers during the laundering process. If a plant is to be abandoned, the sludge may just be left there. Otherwise the fuel fraudsters cart it away on a stolen lorry and leave it by the roadside.

In Newry and Mourne's biggest single clean-up operation, two stolen 40-feet trailers were filled with 70,000 litres of the by-product.

The worst incident saw the acid waste spilled over road. “They must have been in a bit of a panic or weren't caring,” said Mr Scullion. “They tossed the IBCs (plastic containers) and they burst or the top came off, and the viscous liquid came out.

“A lot of stuff spilled, and that increases the cost because it then involves a clean-up operation. It took several days.”

In the worst cases, the sludge will reach a stream. Mark Livingstone of the DoE says the heavy diesel residue can often be caught and removed from water, but the acid quickly mixes in.

“If it goes into water course, the difficulty is that sulphuric acid will mix with water and we can't recover it,” he said. “The heavy stuff we can contain with booms and sandbags, but with the acid, only the volume of the water will resolve that issue.”

In one incident, the sludge was dumped below a bridge.

The DoE clean-up crew had to wear breathing apparatus.

“There's a fierce smell,” said Mark. “It will sting your eyes and burn your skin, even when it's in the water.”

Sewage treatment works falls victim to the toxic waste

Pollution from fuel laundering is already wrecking one of Northern Ireland's newest sewage treatment plants — damaging equipment that should last a lifetime and harming water quality. Aughnacloy's waste treatment plant has only been open four years, but it has failed environ mental tests over the past two because of acid poured into the system by suspected fuel launderers.

The acid kills bacteria used in the biological treatment process to break down human waste, and damages the equipment that holds the bacteria. Northern Ireland Water has already spent £16,000 replacing the corrugated plastic discs in the Co Tyrone plant, and the costs could rise to £80,000. Similar equipment at Derrygonnelly, Co Fermanagh, has already lasted

nine years. Michael McAlary, functional manager of Waste Water Services West for NI Water, said: “We have two areas of concern. The first is actually that the treatment process is dying. The chemicals come in and kill off the bacteria.

“We can reseed by bringing in sewerage sludge, which costs us money and time. But the second concern is that we have to replace these media discs when they're less than four years old. These discs should last a lifetime.”

Mr McAlary said damage has shown up in other border region waste water treatment works, but Aughnacloy has suffered the most damage.

“What we're finding now is that the discs themselves are collapsing. They're made of rigid corrugated polypropylene, but as the chemicals work on it, it softens and ... falls apart.” Mr McAlary said tests and the observations of his staff have indicated the material damaging the plant is similar to the acidic by-product from diesel laundering.

“We know these are chemicals not associated with domestic waste. There's also a strong odour, with smells of diesel coming through.” Mr McAlary said water quality in the border region has generally improved, but the Aughnacloy plant has failed environmental tests in each of the past two years because of the damage.

“This plant is four years old and it's failed the last two years. That shouldn't happen,” he said. “But we can't legislate what goes through the gate. These guys are pushing it down a sewer and presently we can't stop it and at the end of the day it's me and you paying for it.”

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