Change agents: Just cause

5th July 2013

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  • Pollution & Waste Management



Okey Ngoka describes how he helped prosecute the owner of an illegal waste operation next to the Olympic park and ensure the closure of the site

When I joined the environment team at the London Borough of Tower Hamlets in 2004, I had no idea that I would become involved in the prosecution of an illegal waste site that would reach the Court of Appeal and be studied by my peers as an example of case law.

As a major projects officer for the borough, my day-to-day job revolves around noise and air quality. I work with the developers of projects such as Crossrail, the Docklands Light Railway (DLR) expansion, Canary Wharf’s redevelopment and the Thames tideway tunnel to mitigate and monitor the environmental impacts of construction work.

Engaging local communities is a big part of my job – or we would be in the newspapers every day – and there’s also a lot of coordination with other local authorities and the developers.

I’m involved from the planning stages and throughout the construction phase: discussing potential mitigation options at the outset, moving on to monitor noise and air quality impacts of the construction and, if necessary, taking action to prevent harm to the environment or local community.

On one memorable occasion, this involved putting up the residents of an entire street at a local hotel for six weeks while their glazing and insulation was replaced!

My job is about balancing the need to encourage large-scale development with the significant impacts such projects have on those who live nearby. In particular, I spend a lot of time examining work carried out at night.

Developments involving the railway network, for example, require significant construction work to be carried out between midnight and 5am because the lines have to remain operational during the day. In my job you get used to staying awake!

Knowing that you’ve helped to ensure big projects are successfully delivered and that local residents haven’t been inconvenienced, makes it worthwhile.

One project I’m particularly proud to have been involved with is the expansion of the DLR. This is in part because it was very complex and involved a lot of nightwork, but also because we identified a firm that was operating without a waste management licence and were able to successfully prosecute it.

Pursuing an unlicensed waste operator was not part of my standard job role. However, the Cleaner Neighbourhood Act in 2005 provided local authorities with the powers to enforce environment regulations and we became the first borough In London to prosecute using those powers.

I had come across O’Grady Plant and Haulage operating in Tower Hamlets in the past and requested information regarding its waste carrier and management licences, but the firm had been quite evasive. It was by chance that I saw the director of the company while attending a meeting at the DLR contractor’s offices.

I asked DLR to provide me with details of its dealings with O’Grady Plant and Haulage. We were able to trace construction waste from the DLR works and found that the lorries were not going where they were supposed to, but to an unregulated site in Tower Hamlets next to the Olympic village.

Over six to nine months, I worked to gather evidence against the firm, aided by DLR, the Environment Agency and other London councils, including Kensington and Chelsea.

The illegal dump was close to a new housing development and the residents also played an important role, taking photographs of the site and appearing as witnesses at the trial.

It was one of the most interesting periods of my career. I spent a lot of time following lorries, being verbally abused and physically threatened. The company’s director also attempted to sue Tower Hamlets and me for harassment. But the passion of the residents and the knowledge that we were doing something to stop someone illegally dumping waste were both great motivators.

The case was referred to the crown court, where a jury found O’Grady Plant and Haulage and its director guilty of four breaches of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 after dumping controlled waste on an unlicensed site.

The director attempted to appeal against the convictions, but the Court of Appeal refused to overturn the decision, saying that the evidence I had helped to collect spoke for itself and that the company had caused substantial pollution. The director was fined £12,000, and the multi-million pound waste operation that had blighted the area was shut down.

Acting as an expert witness in a successful prosecution was one of the best things I have done in my career, and something I never expected to do. Frequently, when you work in this sector, you are seen to be there to ask organisations to make voluntary changes to lower their environmental impacts, such as adopting ISO 14001.

However, such actions would not happen if you didn’t have an active regulatory regime and robust enforcement of those rules. Regulation is what really makes it economically viable for organisations to be environmentally friendly most of the time, and I’m proud to have been part of that process.

Okey Ngoka, AIEMA, is a major projects officer for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets.

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