A trucker is on his deathbed. He wheezes. He coughs. Then he tape-records the tale of one of the worst environmental crimes in UK history: the illegal dumping of a million tonnes of waste near Derry, in Northern Ireland.
This is the starting point for Buried, a new BBC podcast that looks at how the UK’s waste disposal industry is increasingly falling victim to a far-spreading criminal enterprise.
“We were completely stunned by it,” says Dan Ashby, half of the husband-and-wife production team behind the show – for whom the recording kickstarted a two-year investigation into the kind of gang-related activity that could come straight from a hard-hitting TV drama. “It was an awful emblem of what is happening to our waste across the UK, and how organised crime is getting involved.”
Buried begins in Northern Ireland, chasing clues from the deathbed tape to try to figure out how waste equivalent to about 20 Titanic ships in weight ended up secretly, illegally dumped at the Mobuoy Road site. “Welcome to Mobuoy, a scene of horror,” says local fisher and campaigner Dean Blackwood, as Ashby and Lucy Taylor roam the now closed landfill site.
Ashby describes the 46-hectare site – believed to be one of the largest illegal waste dumps in Europe – as apocalyptic and eerie. “The waste isn’t piled up any more, it’s all underground,” he says. “But the fact you can’t see it makes it more sinister.”
He remembers seeing pools that were “bubbling a horrible silver” and “looking toxically otherworldly.” For years, criminals posed as legitimate businesses to scam councils across Northern Ireland into paying them to illegally dump families’ recycling on the site – which is in a special area of conservation. The impact on drinking water and the nearby river worry the community, while a local vet has reported a sharp rise in cows getting sick and dying in the area.
“The toxins are in the groundwater and that is flowing into the river,” says Ashby. “Even the former environment minister says it’s a ticking timebomb and a crisis that could become a catastrophe.” Financially, it’s already a catastrophe. The clean-up of the site, which had everything from asbestos to arsenic, will cost an estimated £100m.
Shockingly, local officials might not have been completely in the dark about the illegality at Mobuoy. Midway through the series, Ashby and Taylor discover a summary of an Ombudsman report into government failings around the crime, which found that in 2000, those in power were made aware that the dump was being illegally extended, and did nothing to prevent it. Then comes the discovery of a missing internal memo: a briefing from an official to a top civil servant.
“What it says is, ‘look, we may have broken the law here in our handling of this awful crime,’” says Ashby, of the note which the Department of Infrastructure in Northern Ireland maintain they have no record of. The Department is also at pains to stress that they have focused on strengthening environmental checks and that eventual enforcement action did help shut down the site.
“The department may have broken the law. That memo did not appear in a Freedom of Information Act release, when it perhaps should have done. We have evidence that they failed in a really bad way. Campaigners say that is significant because they have been denied a public inquiry time and again. They are accusing the government in Northern Ireland of a cover-up. This is the first time a substantive allegation of a cover-up is being made.”
But Mobuoy is only the beginning. “It’s not just there, it’s everywhere,” says Taylor. “There are massive illegal dumps all over the UK.” From low-level criminals offering to take waste away on the cheap then dumping it on illegal sites, right up to organised crime operations infiltrating legitimate waste disposal companies and gaining contracts, the result can be top-to-bottom criminality that then meets in the middle.
“Councils need to deal with waste but have other problems that seem more urgent,” says Ashby. “So they’re often not checking very well what’s happening with waste. They sign a deal with a company and assume the company is doing what it says it’s doing, but it’s easy for it not to. Some dump on illegal sites and some, like in Mobuoy, are licensed operators dumping more than they should be in legal sites. It’s easy to break the law that way.”
Ashby and Taylor are skilled in uncovering such stories. In 2015 they left jobs at ITV and bought a one-way ticket to Tanzania, where they worked as freelancers, reported on the ivory trade, dynamite fishing gangs blowing up coral reefs and rosewood trafficking. “After what we saw, we became environmental,” says Ashby. “We felt like those stories weren’t being told and it became our passion.” After reporting on the world’s worst elephant massacre – 10,000 killed over 12 months in Ruaha national park – things became too dangerous for them and they had to leave quickly before heading to Moscow. Now settled in Sheffield, they have turned their focus to the criminal underworld’s involvement with illegal waste.
The breadth of the problem is huge. In the series, the pair meet an investigator who uses algorithms and satellite imaging to find illegal waste sites; they even found 10 or so in the nearby Peak District. So why is procuring and illegally dumping waste proving such a popular option for criminals?
“Just think about what you throw away,” says Ashby. “It’s a stunning amount. That waste has to be dealt with, and someone has to pay someone to deal with it. It’s low risk for criminals and you’re being paid to do the crime. It is an extraordinarily brilliant business.”
Such is the scale of the illegal dumping sites that the industry generates billions of pounds. As of 2019, the National Crime Agency was aware of 20 organised crime groups linked to waste crime in the UK, while the Environment Agency says that almost a fifth of English waste, at some point in the chain, is handled by criminals.
“Imagine if a fifth of cafes you went into were run by the mafia,” says Ashby. “Imagine the outrage. But because it’s waste, we close our eyes and throw it away.” The Environment Agency is shutting down these operations as quickly as it can, but is fighting a losing battle. In 2017-18 it stopped more than 800 illegal waste sites, but identified about 850 more, meaning more popped up than were shut down.
The series takes the pair to Italy, where this level of organised crime has spawned its own neologism: ecomafia. “We wanted to see what the worst-case scenario was,” says Taylor. “So we went to the outskirts of Naples to find out how bad it can get and the answer is: really bad. Many of the illegal dumps have been set on fire and the area has become known as the land of fires. Those fires have been really toxic, and we look at allegations that they’re causing cancer. Especially really high rates of cancer in children. So some very scary, dystopian outcomes.”
“We spoke to fearless campaigners,” adds Taylor. “A priest who is under armed guard because he has spoken out against the mafia – someone left a bomb outside his church. There are absolutely incredible people who are really fighting for this because there’s growing evidence of a correlation between human health and illegal waste dumping.”
Ashby worries the UK could follow suit. “What happened in Italy could happen here,” he says. “We’ve got this British exceptionalism where we think it’s an Italian problem, and we just have the dodgy man in a van, but there is an expert in our series who has begun to unpack that the waste mafia in the UK are also trafficking guns and drugs.”
Low-risk, high-reward crimes generate huge money and power, and with that comes concerns about systemic corruption. “It’s easy money that has allowed them to turn waste into gold,” Ashby says. “While we don’t have the same kind of history of the mafia in Britain, we worry that if this area of organised crime gets enough money and grows, then that could start to corrupt more of our institutions.”
While Buried is a true-crime podcast at heart, following clues and tipoffs from the deathbed recording that led to “a bombshell twist that left us so shocked we didn’t even know what to say”, it’s also an issue they want their audience to think about deeply. “We want people to look at their bins in horror,” says Ashby. “It’s like a dark, horrible Narnia.”
Buried is available now on BBC Sounds and broadcast weekdays on BBC Radio 4 at 1.45pm from 23 January.