Waste traffic in Finland feeds lucrative illegal industry

A car repair shop is suspected of dumping more than 1,000 litres of oil in a storm drain in 2016. Much of it ended up Helsinki’s Maunalapuro stream. (Antti Kolppo/Yle)
Finland’s environment ministry says there are insufficient monitoring resources to combat mounting environmental crimes in the country.

“It’s a clear fact that there’s been a reduction in the number of officials working to supervise [compliance with] environmental laws. Hopefully the government programme will rectify the situation,” said environment ministry legal affairs director Riitta Rönn.

Rönn’s comments follow estimates by the National Police Board that environmental crimes will soon rival the illicit drug trade in terms of the ill-gotten gains they provide.

The organisation said that there are no firm estimates quantifying the cost of environmental degradation because the offences largely go undetected. However an international research programme, the BlockWaste study, put the value of Finland’s illicit waste trafficking activity at up to 60 million euros annually.

However that study noted that the illegal export of waste from countries like Finland is just one type of environmental crime.

Superintendent Arto Hankilanoja of the police board said that the value of Finland’s drug trade is around 100 million euros annually.

“We estimate that the illicit proceeds of environmental offences in Finland are on nearly the same scale as the drug trade,” Hankilanoja added.

Meanwhile the environment ministry’s Rönn said that environmental crime is becoming more closely linked with the grey economy.

“We’re talking about big money here,” she declared.

Government promises more environmental action

The new government programme has pledged to “increase resources for environmental management” and to “examine a system for the prevention and more efficient sanctioning of environmental offences”.

However Rönn noted that so far government has not produced any concrete plans or timetables for achieving its goals. The pledge relating to environment crimes will be on the agenda of a joint government working group this autumn, she noted.

This year the University of Eastern Finland and the Police University College began a research programme to investigate the financial gains of environmental crimes and how effectively the state recovers the ill-gotten earnings from these offences.

The institutions also aim to determine how much of the money that companies obtain from circumventing environmental laws can be used to prevent further crime. The study is expected to be completed in autumn 2020.

Batteries, construction waste shipped to Baltic States

As the number of environmental offences reported to police has grown in recent years, so too has the amount of money the state has been able to recoup from offenders.

According to Hankilanoja, improved inter-agency cooperation and a general rise in firms failing to comply with the law has seen police receive more reports of alleged crimes.

“Waste management rules are stricter and treatment has correspondingly become more expensive. This has increased the potential for financial gain from non-compliance,” he explained.

Hankilanoja noted that the motive for environmental offences is almost always money. The stricter environmental regulations have become, the more companies try to save by bypassing permits and recycling charges and illegally dumping waste.

The police board member pointed out that waste is often illegally exported to the Baltic States in particular, for example, used batteries and construction waste.

Leila Suvantola, a former prosecutor specialising in environmental crimes and Eastern Finland university researcher, said that waste exported to Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia may not be processed at all.

“If, for example, we export batteries to the Baltics without the required paperwork, some of the heavy metals are recycled and the rest is dumped,” Suvantola explained.

Plenty of illegal dumping grounds

The bulk of illegal dumping takes place inside Finland’s borders, however. Offenders avoid paying huge charges arising from major projects such as the demolition of shopping malls, by not properly disposing of the concrete and other dangerous waste.

“It’s easy to dump things in this country because there’s so much space,” Suvantola remarked.

She said one trend emerging in recent years has been to establish a sham recycling company to supposedly deal with the waste. The company then goes bust and the untreated problem material remains on the property, as no one is responsible.

“It’s up to people to conclude whether or not there was any criminal intent at the outset. When you receive a large amount of waste and there is no waste management process in place, you get a strong feeling that there never was any intention to treat it.”

Inadequate sanctions encourage violations

Suvantola said that lax punishments and fines are behind many environmental offenses.

“The consequences are minimal, if you compare it to the penalties related to drug offences,” she noted.

Imprisonment is rare, as fines for violating environmental regulations are much more common.

There are provisions for long prison sentences in the legislation – for example a sentence of up to two years for basic environmental contamination and up to six years for aggravated offences, but courts do not generally hand down such stiff sentences.

In June the Supreme Court arrived at a precedent that Suvantola called a step in the right direction.

In that case, a Janakkala civil engineering firm took gravel and dumped the waste in a ground water system, a practice that it continued for years. A district court sentenced the firm’s chief executive to a three-month suspended prison sentence and an appeal court ordered the boss to pay 12,000 in damages. However the Supreme Court imposed a seven month suspended sentence and ordered the company to pay nearly 280,000 euros.

Financial gains rarely recovered

The risk of getting caught in Finland is small, as only a fraction of environmental violations come to light. Suvantalo speculated that only the most egregious offences are uncovered, while many less serious crimes go unnoticed.

In addition, authorities often fail to recover any financial gains from firms that commit environmental crimes. A University of Eastern Finland study of rulings in environmental degradation cases between 2009 and 2013 found that Finnish prosecutors as a rule do not call on firms to forfeit any financial benefit they’ve gained from their violations.

In one case where a company illegally exported waste batteries, the defendant neglected to pay for a 950-euro license. Suvantola noted that for some reason, some prosecutors did not interpret the unpaid permit as a financial gain.

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Recyclables in Yellowknife, Northern Canada have been dumped in landfill for over a year, CBC News

Finland: Radioactive material found in scrap metal at northern Finland plant, Yle News

Norway: Minister downplays environmental impact of planned mine in Arctic Norway, The Independent Barents Observer

Russia: Russian Navy sends clean-up team to Arctic trash dump, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Many towns in Sweden seek funds to clean up polluted sites, Radio Sweden

United States: Alaska Native Regional Corporations are responsible for pollution, too, Cryopolitics Blog

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