Northern Ireland undertakes tougher action against fuel smuggling

Oct 24, 2001 02:00 AM

A case brought before Belfast Crown Court highlights an ongoing problem for police and customs and excise staff on both sides of the Irish border, namely the smuggling and laundering of diesel and gasoline. One of the major problems lies in the much lower rates of duty and hence fuel prices in the Republic of Ireland when compared with those in Northern Ireland.
The duty on diesel and unleaded gasoline in Northern Ireland, as in the rest of Great Britain is 45.82p per litre, whereas in the Republic it is only 19.61p per litre for diesel and 27.44p per litre for unleaded gasoline. If one looks at the situation in Northern Ireland, government figures show that, since 1994, the volume of gasoline being shipped legitimately into the province has dropped by 53.18 %, despite an increase of 22.62 % in the number of vehicles on the roads.
In the light of this, Security Minister Jane Kennedy recently met a delegation from the Petrol Retailers' Association to discuss the growing problem of fuel smuggling across the border. According to PRA chairman, Thomas Palmer, "Tougher action is needed against fuel smuggling before it totally cripples the industry in Northern Ireland. Over 120 sites have now closed and something must be done."

One agency that is stepping up its action is HM Customs & Excise. They brought a case against a 26- year old oil supplier from Co Armargh for smuggling three tanker loads of diesel and gasoline into Northern Ireland from the Republic. The Court was told that in March and November 1999, Customs & Excise officers stopped and searched the tankers after they were allegedly seen crossing the border in counties Tyrone and Armagh.
The court was told that two of the tankers belonged to Mr L.W. Stewart of Killylea who runs a business, Oil Supplies, from a yard in Keady, Co Armargh while the third tanker formerly belonged to him. The first tanker was stopped on 26 March 1999 while the second was seized shortly after driving into Northern Ireland on 17 November. The third tanker arrived three minutes after the second one.
Two of the drivers pleaded guilty to smuggling the fuel while Stewart denied charges of smuggling the diesel and gasoline and knowingly fraudulently evading the duty owing to customs on 5,000 litres of heavy carbon oil (DERV) and 13,000 litres of gasoline (17 November 1999) and 5,000 litres of DRV and 14,200 litres of gasoline (26 March 1999). Total revenue due was approximately GBP 21,000. Stewart was found guilty and remanded in custody but sentencing on all three was deferred to 23 November.

This is however just the tip of the iceberg. According to a spokesman for HM Customs & Excise in Belfast, "In 2000, we dismantled 17 fuel laundering plants across Northern Ireland which would have had a combined production capacity of approximately 50 mm litres. Our efforts have continued this year as you can see below."
On 24 January, in the Cookstown area, Customs officers uncovered a fuel mixing plant. Over 18,000 litres of fuel (over 8,000 litres of gasoline and 10,000 litres of adulterated fuel),two vehicles and a quantity of storage and mixing equipment were seized. As part of the operation, Customs tested the fuel in a number of filling stations in the area and a further quantity of illicit fuel was removed.
Customs believe the plant was used to dilute duty paid Derv and gasoline with agricultural fuel by means of a mixing process. It was estimated that the plant had the capacity to mix 20,000 litres a day, avoiding revenue of around GBP 60,000 a week, for distribution throughout Co Tyrone. This operation follows the seizure of 20,000 litres of illicit fuel in Omagh on the previous day.
Just five days later, Customs officers discovered a mobile diesel laundering operation outside Armagh. The plant, which was located in a compound on the city's Moy Road, comprised of a 13 mm curtain-sided trailer which concealed a number of fuel pods and oil drums. A large quantity of diesel, pumping equipment and several containers of waste product and sulphuric acid were seized.
Customs believe that the plant, capable of laundering 25,000 litres at a time, was being moved regularly, not only to avoid detection, but also to meet the demands of those who wanted large quantities of red or green diesel laundered at their own premises (Red diesel is a marked gas oil or a rebated fuel for use in the UK in agricultural machinery and not for use in road vehicles.

A Customs spokesman said that the clear up operation had been hampered by the volume of sulphuric acid around the plant. He also added that, given the quality of the laundered fuel discovered, it was likely that more than Customs would be hampered, as those motorists who chose to use this fuel would very probably be facing mechanical difficulties in the not to distant future. No arrests were made.
This was a good week for the officers for, just two days later, customs officers dismantled a fuel mixing plant following an operation outside Middletown, Co Armagh. Approximately 5,500 litres of a red and green diesel mix were seized. One HGV vehicle, a van and a car plus a number of large oil storage tanks were also seized. One man was arrested.
On 16 February, in an operation centred on the Newry to Belfast road, customs officers seized 10,000 litres of green diesel, which had been smuggled from the Republic of Ireland. The vehicle, a box van with a concealed tank on board, was also seized. Customs say that they are concerned that this vehicle, obviously not designed to carry fuel, had travelled through a number of built up areas, including Newry. If it had been involved in an accident or the fuel had caused the vehicle to topple, there was a potential for a very serious incident.

In March, in a joint operation with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, customs officers dismantled a fuel laundering plant at Coastguard Road, Larne. Over 4,000 litres of laundered product, five filtration units and a quantity of storage equipment making up the plant have been seized.
Customs believe this plant, located in a warehouse, had the capacity to produce approximately 500,000 litres of laundered fuel per year and is one of a network of such operations located in the South Antrim area. A Customs spokesman said, "No doubt there are people in the Larne and surrounding area who have bought cheap diesel and who have only considered the price but not the potential damage this fuel can do to their vehicles. Hopefully the identification of this illegal operation will make car owners think twice before buying their fuel from anywhere other than a legitimate source."
The same week, Customs officers discovered a diesel laundering operation on the outskirts of Armagh city. Approximately 35,000 litres of fuel (both red diesel and laundered diesel) were seized along with one 13 mm curtained- sided trailer with a tanker on board, a car and a quantity of storage and filtration equipment. Customs also uplifted over 2,000 litres of highly dangerous hydrochloric acid, which was being used to launder the red diesel. Initialestimates by Customs indicate that the plant had the capacity to launder over 200,000 litres per week, thus evading approximately GBP 100,000 of duty a week.

In June, customs officers carried out a roadside search and 31 motorists had their vehicles seized as part of a customs operation in Co Fermanagh. The operation, which was centred on Enniskillen and Lisnaskea, was organised to combat the misuse of fuel. All vehicles had been detected using red or green agricultural diesel. A total of GBP 16,000 in penalties was paid by the motorists to have their cars and vans restored.
All vehicles were restored, although Customs are conducting on-going enquiries in two of the cases. A Customs spokesman said, "This is the second time in a month that we have carried out this type of operation in Fermanagh and it is the second time big numbers of motorists have been detected using red diesel. We are making it quite clear if you think you can drive around on red or green diesel then you are mistaken - you can take achance but you will get caught."
In September, customs officers dismantled a diesel laundering operation in Loughgall, Co Armagh. Approximately 3000 litres of Gas Oil (red diesel) and a similar quantity of laundered product were seized. Initial estimates by customs indicate that the plant had a capacity to launder 75,000 litres per week, thus evading approximately GBP 375,000 of duty weekly. A quantity of sulphuric acid sludge, a hazardous residue of the laundering operation was also discovered.

This month has already been quite successful for the customs officers. A total of 18 drums of dangerous waste were found dumped by fuel launderers by Camlough reservoir by a member of the public who informed Newry and Mourne District Council. They were found to contain 4000 litres of chemicals, the remnants of a fuel laundering operation. Some of the steel drums, which had begun to leak, had been dumped by the roadside overlooking the Camlough water reservoir.
A customs spokesman said, "We have come across this type of dangerous practice in the past and it is the fourth illicit dumping site discovered this year. All of the illegally dumped drums contained a mixture of chemicals including acids used to remove the red chemical marker from agricultural-use diesel. The toxic residue is difficult and dangerous for the launderers to dispose of legally and so it is illegally dumped without any concern for public or environmental health."
In another operation on 3 October, customs and police in Belfast stopped a lorry containing 30,000 litres of petrol. A man was arrested and charged with the alleged illegal importation of the fuel from the Republic of Ireland. In a separate operation in the Co. Tyrone area, 64 motorists have had their vehicles seized. The two-day operation was organised to combat the misuse of fuel, and all of the vehicles seized had been detected using red or green agricultural diesel. A total of GBP 30,000 in penalties was paid by the motorists to have their cars and vans restored.

This is anongoing problem and it is clear that, despite the efforts of the police and customs officers on both sides of the border, the results outlined above are only a fraction of the operations that are continuing daily. As the officers say, not only are these operations illegal and in many cases, highly dangerous, the resulting fuel may appear cheap today but, in the long run the effects upon the engine may be much more expensive.
There is also the problem of increased environmental damage resulting from these chemically treated fuels. The problem does not stop in Northern Ireland, however, for a large amount of the laundered and smuggled fuel ends up in north-west England, via the ferries from Northern Ireland to England and here again motorists purchasing "cheap" fuel may be storing up longer term repair bills, apart form the risk of getting caught.

Source: Hart's European fuels news
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