Talking tough on trash
With the nation threatened by multi-million EU fine for failing to close its rubbish dumps, watchdog the National Environmental Guard's Silvian Ionescu talks enforcing the law on councils. Profile by Ana Maria Nitoi
Romania has failed to live up to its EU obligations to close down its non-compliant rubbish dumps by the middle of 2009.
Since then the European Commission has had the right to launch a 200,000 Euro fine for every day Romania fails to shut its 400 remaining dumps and nine giant landfills.
Worth 73 million Euro for a year, this fine is a Sword of Damocles hanging over the head of trash watchdog, the National Environment Guard (GNM).
The agency, an enforcement arm of the Ministry of the Environment, must show it is tackling the issue with gusto or risk the EU issuing the crippling penalty to the struggling state budget.
If companies and local authorities break the law by failing to protect the environment, the GNM can dive in with harsh financial levies. The Guard can take to court a person, company or institution or can file a complaint to prosecutors to carry out tougher probes into the case.
So far Romania’s authorities have closed down 6,500 non-compliant landfill sites, but 409 have missed their deadline by over six months. The country also needs a total of 69 new landfills, from which only 21 are operating. “The Social Democratic Government between 2000 and 2004 is to blame for this situation, because it failed to negotiate in Romania’s favour and imposed too-short deadlines on local authorities to fulfill these obligations,” argues chief comissioner of the GNM Silvian Ionescu.
There is also a lack of will from councils to use free EU money for this purpose. From the 1.1 billion Euro in post-accession European funds available for Romania’s construction of new landfills since 2007, the Government has approved only 43 million Euro, for one project in Bistrita-Nasaud county.
Not in my backyard
For over a year, Timisoara was forced to close down its landfill without having a new facility in place. Instead the city is depositing its rubbish in an ‘improvised dump’ inside containers on an ex-industrial platform until the new landfill is ready. Since 2005, the county council has been trying to find a land plot, but each time it succeeds, the nearby homeowners refuse. Citizens are not aware of the public debate at county council level, and only hear about a new rubbish dump once construction is about to start. The people protest and go to the press after the council has spent millions of Euro on studies, lawyers and construction workers.
“Local authorities in Timis county have fulfilled their obligations, but this is a case in which citizens abuse the law because they do not understand it,” argues Ionescu. “They block projects and a whole county has to suffer.”
The Timis county project has been set up, agreed and stopped five times - in a clear example of communication failure between local authorities and people. “In Romania many people attempt to impose their own personal needs on the rest of the community and do whatever they wish, because they do not know their legal rights and obligations,” argues Ionescu.
About 80 per cent of the complaints received by Ionescu’s institution and 70 per cent of the penalties relate to mishandling or improper depositing of municipal and hazardous waste. At the beginning of 2009, the Guard fought 1,200 ongoing lawsuits, from which it was losing 67 per cent. To solve the problem, Ionescu outsourced GNM’s legal assistance by organising public tenders to select six law firms for handling the institution’s lawsuits.
“The firms have to ensure at least a 70 per cent winning rate, otherwise the contract ends,” says Ionescu. GNM’s collected penalties go straight to the state budget, but Ionescu believes that this money should fund environmental projects. “Unfortunately, the Romanian state has been moving from one crisis to another over the past 20 years,” he says, “in these conditions, it is difficult to change the law to cut the state’s financial sources.”
The chief commissioner of the Guard is often a political appointee. Ionescu himself is a member of the ruling Democratic-Liberal Party (PD-L) and is serving his second mandate at the helm. But he has removed from the law the right for his position itself to give sanctions.
“It is not fair for a politician to apply financial penalties as a means of political control,” he says. “I am good friends with many of the mayors who are members of my party, but they should be the first to apply the law.”
One example is the Mayor of Valul lui Traian. Florin Mitroi, VP of Constanta County’s PD-L branch, who was penalised in 2009 for not closing down the town’s landfills. The Guard has also fined Social Democratic Mayor of Dorohoi, Dorin Alexandrescu, who was depositing waste in a town dump listed as closed down, by secretly sending rubbish vans there.