Several members of a group dubbed the ‘waste mafia’ have been sentenced to prison after being found guilty of depositing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste in nature in southeast France.
In addition seven construction, public works and building transport companies were ordered to pay fines of over €3million in total
Ten defendants stood trial in the court case in Draguignan (Var), which was the first of its kind. The trial lasted three weeks and issued its ruling on December 14.
It found the companies – one of which did not actually exist – guilty of bad management and abandonment of illegal waste across 21 sites in the area.
It comes after an inquiry known as ‘Scorched Earth (Terres brûlées)’ investigated reports of a vast network of illegal waste dumping from construction sites in the Var and Alpes-Maritimes between 2017-2020.
The so-called ‘waste mafia’, as the prosecution called them, were found to have charged very competitive prices for waste contracts for major construction projects such as the Nice airport or Pôle emploi in Cannes.
But, instead of taking the waste to a certified waste disposal centre and paying for it, as required by law, they simply dumped hundreds of thousands of tonnes of rubbish in nature.
Some of the sites have been severely damaged and ruined by waste that includes tar, asphalt and plastic, and even mercury, arsenic, and lead.
The companies offered “free” deliveries of topsoil to individuals who were looking to dig up land, for vineyards or even garden vegetable patches, via adverts on Leboncoin or Facebook.
But, instead of the two or three lorries of topsoil, owners would see their land turned into a “rubble dump”, with many more lorries dumping rubble and construction waste onto the land instead.
One owner who tried to complain was met with the threatening response: “You don’t know the industry. In the construction industry, we solve problems at the end of a gun.”
Others who complained received threats of violence.
Jail and fines
A 34-year-old man, considered the 'brains' of the operation, has been sentenced to four years in jail, of which two will be suspended. Four other individuals were given prison sentences of 24-30 months.
The defendants and companies will also have to pay heavy fines.
Esterel Environnement, the main company involved, was ordered to pay €1million, including costs of restoring the polluted land.
In total, between it and other companies, €3.28million worth of fines will be paid to contribute towards the estimated cost of €6million estimated for the restoration of the land.
The court also awarded damages to several civil parties, including France Nature Environnement, as well as to some of the affected owners.
The defendants denied their responsibility for the actions, and claimed that the practice was common within the construction industry, and part of a larger network that they claimed not to control.
One said that their clients had “willingly turned a blind eye” to the practices, and “with the prices that we charged, they absolutely would have known that we were not going to dispose of the waste in the ‘proper’ sites”.
The lawyer for the defendants criticised the heavy fines levied and said that the court case had “gone after the little guys” instead of addressing the wider issue as a whole.
A growing issue
Illegal rubbish dumping, especially of construction waste, is a growing problem in the southeast and especially the Var and Alpes-Maritimes.
The latest regional report into the issue, published in June 2019, found that the construction industry produced 14 million tonnes of waste per year, of which 12% is disposed of or stored illegally.
The death of Jean-Mathieu Michel, mayor of the small commune of Signes, who was run over and killed by the driver of a van that had come to illegally dump waste in the village, sent shockwaves through the community – but the problem persists.
One of the defendants in the Var case said that there are still many open-air, illegal dumps still being used. He said: “What I don’t understand is that everyone is still dumping waste there right now.”
Many mayors have started to take the issue of illegal waste into their own hands in recent years.
In January last year, Christophe Dietrich, mayor of Laigneville (Oise, Hauts-de-France) filmed a huge pile of household rubbish in a field and hired a truck to “return it to sender”, after the perpetrator was identified on council CCTV cameras. He was also fined €4,000, the council said.
In 2019, another mayor, this time in Côtes-d'Armor (Brittany), returned a pile of "Christmas rubbish" back to its owner, with a note reading: "These boxes, wrapping paper and leftover food [must have fallen] off Father Christmas’ sleigh when he was leaving your house. To help repair his error, I thought it would be useful to bring them back to you."
And in September 2018, a mayor in Ille-et-Vilaine reported a similar incident after a homeowner dumped rubbish including what appeared to be a large microwave.
In a bid to help residents combat the issue, last year environmental group l'Association France Nature Environnement launched an app called “Sentinelles de la Nature (‘Nature Guardians’)”.
It is designed to enable residents to alert the group to illegally-dumped waste in natural areas, and see where in France is most affected.
The association has been gathering data on the most polluted sites in the country, shown on the app via a colour-coded map.