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Fine Gael councillor Declan Doocey in his ceremonial robes as Mayor of Waterford in 2018. Image: Waterford City and County Council
Waterford

Auditor suggests council dock Deputy Mayor's expenses to help recoup €700k landfill bill

Declan Doocey, a Fine Gael councillor, was previously accused of breaching environmental protection laws by the local authority.

A COUNTY COUNCIL has been told by a State auditor that it should consider targeting its deputy mayor’s expenses to help it recoup some of the €739,000 in costs arising from clearing a toxic waste dump operated by the politician’s company.

It follows criticism of the council by the auditor, from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, for allegedly not pursuing Councillor Declan Doocey over the site owned by his company in west Waterford.

The standoff has been criticised by environmental NGO Coast Watch which said the council needed to heed the local government auditor’s advice and pursue the case to ensure it acts as a “deterrent” for other cases.

Doocey told The Journal that he has not paid any of the costs back to the council, and insisted he will be “exonerated” eventually.

He further alleged that was “unfairly targeted” despite other cases of “hundreds of thousands of tonnes” of waste stored around the country, while he claimed his waste was “tidy, segregated” and ready to be disposed of before the council took action.

When asked about the auditor’s suggestion to dock his expenses, he said: “I won’t be wearing that.”

He added: “Councillor Declan Doocey didn’t create the bill, it was a private [company].”

High Court case

Doocey, who runs a recycling company dealing with farm plastic near his home in Lismore, Co Waterford, was previously brought to the High Court by Waterford City and County Council for allegedly storing over 5,300 tonnes of toxic waste on the land.

The Fine Gael councillor was accused of breaching environmental protection laws by the local authority under sections 57 and 58 of the Waste Management Act.

These sections concern the unauthorised holding, recovery or disposal of waste in a manner which may have caused environmental pollution.

While the case was settled in 2021 without the court making a judgement against either party, the council has since carried out works to clean up the site running to a total of €739,000.

There were also legal costs of €39k incurred by the council in High Court proceedings.

Doocey served as Mayor of Waterford City and County between 2018 and 2019. He was elected as deputy mayor by fellow councillors last summer and currently holds that title.

In late 2022, the council was criticised for allegedly not seeking to recover its costs from Doocey.

State grant funding had been given to the council to clean up the site, which the auditor noted at the time was “repayable should the council recover its costs”.

The costs for the cleanup were paid with funds from the Department of the Environment.

New audit

The latest audit, which was published in recent weeks, returned to the issue of the unpaid costs.

While the council issued an invoice to Doocey for the recovery of legal costs of €39,000 in February 2023, Moran noted that these remained “unpaid” when he finalised his report last September.

Auditor James Moran said that under Section 56 of the Waste Management Act 1996, the council is “empowered and obliged to pursue illegal holders of waste”, and that it can use potential sanctions to “maximise the deterrent factor”.

Moran added that the council had “not exercised its powers” under Section 7 of the Local Government Act, 1983 which would allow it to “set off the amounts due against any allowances, payment or gratuity made or due to the mayor by the Council”.

He noted that the legal guidance also provides for the imposition of an additional landfill levy on “each tonne of waste” and that local authorities should pursue civil remedies against operators where practicable.

But he added: “An invoice for the remaining balance of approximately €700k, had not been issued up to September 2023, nor had a landfill levy been imposed.”

In its response to the auditor, the council said that it had spoken to the department for legal advice “in respect of recovery of the monies” arising from the case.

When contacted by The Journal, a spokesperson for the council said it was in “on-going dialogue” with the deputy mayor over the controversy.

“It is not the policy of Waterford City and County Council to issue details on an individual case such as this, however, it can confirm that there is on-going dialogue between the Local Authority and Cllr Doocey,” the spokesperson said.

Doocey response

Doocey said there was a “crisis” in the plastic waste disposal industry arising from China, formerly a key global receiver of plastic waste, having banned imports in the industry.

“I brought it to the attention of the government and got kicked around. They still haven’t done anything about it. But I will clear my name eventually,” he said.

“I was the only one in Ireland picked out for this,” he claimed.

“I’ve a family, a wife and a son and a daughter and it’s a big thing to deal with. I was a private sole trader and it had nothing to do with my council position.”

Doocey, who will seek reelection later this year in Waterford for the upcoming Local Elections, said a group is lobbying the Department of Environment to investigate the issue.

“There’s hundreds of thousands of tonnes of plastic around the country, unbaled,” he said.

He further alleged that his waste, which saw remediation works cost €700,000, was “tidy, segregated and ready for export”.

“Our markets were interfered with and then China closed it. This is a long game and it’s a long long story,” he said.

“I’m not a cocky man and I’m not an unreasonable man either, but I’m so right. This is so unfair and unreasonable. You’ve honesty and justice and you’ve none of them [in this situation].”

He said there was an attempt to “damage” him with members of the public, but claimed he has the support of his fellow councillors, which saw him elected as deputy mayor last year.

“There’s no problem with my colleagues,” he said.

Coast Watch Ireland, the Irish branch of a European-wide environmental NGO, told The Journal that the council needs to do more to ensure the case acts as a “deterrent” for future cases.

“We need much faster enforcement and we need it to be so that’s its very unlikely to happen again,” the national coordinator of the group Karin Dubsky said.

There needs to be a disincentive so that companies ensure they abide by the environmental protections that are there. This case involves a sitting councillor and deputy mayor, so what kind of an example does that set?

“Our councils may not have enough environmental staff to catch things early and that’s why they really need informed public participation, but credit should be paid to the auditor who took the time and effort to give the council so much guidance.”

Dubsky added that was disappointed to learn that the audit and its findings had not been discussed by councillors at either of the two meetings held in which it was presented.

On each occasion, the council management said the audit was for noting rather than discussion.

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