POLICE who raided an organised gang suspected of illegally dumping waste have discovered asbestos after diggers moved onto the sites.
Teams of officers, working with officials from the Environment Agency, swooped on homes and industrial areas, including a scrap yard, a skip hire company, a farm and a planned caravan site in a carefully co-ordinated operation across North West Durham.
In all 12 sites – 11 in Derwentside and one in Chester-le-Street – were targeted.
As major searches of property and offices were underway, those arrested, whose ages range from the 30s to 45, were taken to various police stations for questioning. Seven were detained on suspicion of conspiracy to commit environmental offences, the eighth man was arrested on suspicion of arson.
The operation, codenamed Sinta, was investigating illegal tipping, waste disposal and car scrapping offences.
Four addresses in the hill top village of Burnhope, high above Lanchester, were raided including a bungalow called Stephanie Manor in Wright’s Way, a row of luxury houses known by police and locals as “Millionaire’s Row”.
A young man was led out in handcuffs shortly after 7am. Officers also searched a field behind the bungalow.
At an isolated former quarry, Hanging Stone, on a back lane near Leadgate, traces of asbestos were found as mechanical diggers sifted through the earth.
Seven fierce looking guard dogs, including a Japanese Akita, were in cages or tied to railings next to a Portakabin. Police at the scene said they would inform the RSPCA of their presence.
Deputy Chief Constable Mike Barton said: “This is the start of a concerted campaign to rid County Durham of an organised crime group whose seemingly respectable business front is a sham and operates outside the law.
“Their activities ignore legal restraints and regulations and undermine legitimate businesses. The people who control and run it reap the benefits of a lifestyle to which they are not entitled.
“Our message today is simple: it will not be tolerated and every effort will be made to arrest, convict and punish those involved. We, and all right-thinking people, don’t want these individuals in County Durham and working together with our partner agencies are determined to shut them down for good.”
More than 150 police officers, including some with specialist sniffer dogs, along with 50 officials from the Environment Agency were involved in the raids.
Once sites were secure mechanical diggers were brought in to begin a series of excavations to discover exactly what has been dumped and buried. Julian Carrington, North East environment manager at the Environment Agency said: “This is a major operation and shows the extent to which organised criminal groups are involved in the illegal dumping of waste. Waste crime puts human health and wildlife at risk – and undermines the legitimate waste companies who do things by the book.
“This is serious crime with serious penalties – including up to five years in prison and unlimited fines.
“Today’s raids are an important example of how the Environment Agency can work together with the police to fight environment crime.” The operation had been 11 months in the planning. Information and intelligence – a lot of it coming from local residents – had enabled the joint strike to go ahead on such a large scale.
Mr Barton said: “Local people know what is going on and have waited for this day. These things take time but all information passed to us is acted on and this operation is the result.”
Anyone with information about criminal activity can contact Durham Police on 0345 606-0365 or call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555111.