A NEW task force is to spearhead a blitz on illegal waste sites across Wearside and East Durham.
The Environment Agency launched the initiative as part of a national two-year drive to clean up the area.
The sites can pose a threat to the environment, contaminating land and rivers with oil and toxic chemicals.
They can also pose a risk to human health and blight communities, threatening air quality with toxic fumes from illegally burnt materials and by causing noise and odour problems from operations near homes and schools.
The agency has identified more than 600 active illegal waste sites in England and Wales, 36 of which are located in the North East.
It also estimates that more than half of them, nationally, are within 50 metres of schools, homes or sensitive environmental sites.
Identifying the sites and closing them can often involve complex investigations and legal action.
The new task force, which includes former police detectives, will work closely with enforcement partners to gather intelligence and close illegal waste sites.
It will be supported by up to £5million of Environment Agency funding for the first two years.
The big push is part of the agency’s continued action to combat serious, organised waste crime.
Increasingly, those involved in waste crime are involved in other criminal activities such as drugs and theft.
Working closely with key partners, including local authorities and the police, the agency took 34 prosecutions in the North East during 2010 to 2011.
In the last six months, the agency was granted court orders to recoup £56,000 from offenders through the Proceeds of Crime Act.
Environment Minister Lord Taylor said: “These illegal waste sites do untold damage to the environment and cause misery for local people that have to live with toxic fumes, noise at all hours and unbearable smells.
“We are cracking down on those sites that blight our communities and will work with the police and other partners to bring the criminals behind them to justice.”
Environment Agency chief executive Dr Paul Leinster is urging members of the public to contact the authorities if they spot any suspect sites.
“Waste crime is a serious offence that poses a risk to human health and can damage the environment,” he said. “The Environment Agency relies on members of the public and legitimate businesses to help us identify the culprits. They can call us or Crimestoppers with information.
“We’ll press for the strongest possible penalties, including prison, for those convicted of these crimes against communities.”
Anyone with information about suspected illegal waste operators should call the Environment Agency’s incident helpline on 0800 807060 or call Crimestoppers in confidence on 0800 555 111.