Northern Ireland environmental crime unit in recruitment drive
Northern Ireland's environmental crime unit is recruiting more investigators which it is claimed will enable a greater crackdown on law-breakers.
But a letter seen by the BBC reveals that even after increasing its staff, the government unit will remain challenged.
The unit was set up three years ago and is responsible to the Department of the Environment.
It should have 41 staff, but presently has just 25.
Many of the vacancies are at senior level.
The DoE told the BBC that the hiring of additional, specialist staff like criminal and financial investigators was currently under way and once completed the unit could expand its work.
A letter sent by the DoE to Stormont's Environment Committee in October explained that although a decision to recruit was taken years ago, the move was delayed because of financial difficulties.
The department said it meant "many issues and cases simply cannot be pursued."
According to the letter, even after the current recruitment drive, the unit will "remain challenged in responding to priorities".
Andrew Ryan, a specialist in environmental law, told the BBC that the unit had tended to focus on "easy wins".
Mr Ryan, who works at the Belfast law firm Tughans, was previously engaged in enforcement for the Environment Agency in England.
He said: "To be fair the unit here is doing the best that it can with the resources it has.
"But there's a distinct lack of enforcement at the bottom and top end of the scale.
"Small fly-tipping offences are not really being dealt with or are the big cases involving serious criminality."
In a statement, the DoE said that historically the unit had been "seriously under-staffed".
"The minister Alex Attwood has taken a very robust stance towards environmental crime, recruiting for 11 posts at present," it said.
"He's also been in active discussions with the Lord Chief Justice to encourage the courts to take this issue much more seriously.
"There will be a much more robust examination on a case by case basis."
The DoE said Mr Attwood was also "firming up planning enforcement and looking to establish an environmental and planning crime unit".
The unit is part of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency which was behind a high-profile prosecution at Downpatrick Crown Court.
The former president of the Ulster Farmers Union, Graham Furey, was fined £20,000 on Thursday after admitting he allowed demolition debris from an old hospital to be buried illegally on land he owned near Downpatrick.
Afterwards, Down District Council said it had yet to decide what action to take over 1,900 tonnes of waste buried by a contractor.
The 54-year-old farmer, from Comber Road in Toye, near Killyleagh, could be liable for clean-up costs estimated at £180,000 if the council decides he must now excavate and remove the waste.
A spokeswoman for the council said: "We will make contact with and be working with the other agencies to address the matter in the New Year."