The European Commission has formally warned the Dublin government that private contractors from the Irish Republic are ferrying waste across the border into Northern Ireland where it is being dumped in unauthorised landfill sites.

At a time when the two parts of the island are trying to forge closer political links, the EU's intervention has been seized on by hardline unionists opposed to any role for the southern authorities in Northern Ireland.

Edwin Poots, an assembly member for the Democratic Unionists, received confirmation from the Commission last week that it had sent a “a letter of formal notice” to the Dublin government complaining “supervision and control of shipments of waste are not being fully and properly respected by the Irish authorities”.

The move follows the embarrassing unearthing of one site in February in Eskragh, county Tyrone, where amongst the waste material were documents letter-headed from the Ministry of Justice in Dublin.

The EU action comes as Northern Ireland authorities prepare to launch their first prosecution in a magistrates court in Enniskillen, county Fermanagh. In total, Northern Ireland's director of public prosecutions is preparing cases against more than 20 individuals, both haulage contractors and farmers whose land is used. The cross-border smuggling of fuel, cigarettes, counterfeit goods and drugs has been a lucrative activity in hardline republican border areas where, because of the Troubles, the police and customs officials have had little effective control.

But the problem of waste being illegally trucked and dumped across the border has only arisen as private sector waste collection companies in the Republic seek to avoid the high tariffs that local authorities there have introduced for using existing landfill sites. The Northern Ireland authorities estimate 100,000 tonnes was moved in the first six months of 2004, with illegal dumps being discovered at a rate of two a week. The hauliers are said to make £2,500 for every 20-tonne load.

The increase in landfill charges was a response to the dramatic increase in waste production, with the economy experiencing record growth. But as a result, production in the Republic outstripped the capacity to treat the waste.

Meanwhile, in Northern Ireland controls were lax. Until December, responsibility for waste management was in the hands of local councils. But perceptions of conflict of interest in the issuing of licenses forced the Northern Ireland Office to give the job to the Environmental and Heritage Service, part of the environment department.

Friends of the Earth wants the NIO to go further and set up an independent watchdog, pointing out Northern Ireland is the only region in the British Isles not to have such a body.

Environmental groups commissioned a report by Professor Richard MacRory, an environmental law expert at University College London, in which he describes waste management in Northern Ireland as one of “dodgy dumps and cowboy carriers”.

Few local politicians doubt the IRA and other republican paramilitary groups are involved. Officials say officers of the EHS have been intimidated. On a recent BBC television programme, officials refused to show their faces for fear of recrimination. “It's very unlikely it could happen without the paramilitaries at least knowing about it,” says Tommy Gallagher, environment spo-kesman for the Social Democratic and Labour party.

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