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Spanish raids seize 19 tonnes of illegal refrigerant

SPAIN: Three people have been arrested and five are under investigation following a raid on illegal refrigerant warehouses in Murcia and Granada.

In an operation, codenamed Fluoris, police and customs officials are reported to have seized 1,885 cylinders, totalling an estimated 19 tonnes of illegal refrigerants. In addition to HFCs, the haul included the banned ozone depleting refrigerant R22.

A swoop on a warehouse in the Granada municipality of Atarfe uncovered 996 disposable cylinders and various types of fluorinated gases. According to the investigation, the refrigerant was being transferred using a “non-approved compressor” to refillable cylinders. These gases were later supplied to customers with incorrect labelling.

The person suspected of being the head of the operation was arrested and a female worker in the warehouse is being investigated as to her involvement. 

A subsequent raid on a maritime container in Alhama de Murcia uncovered a further 889 cylinders, thought to have originated from the Granada warehouse. With temperatures inside the container potentially reaching 40ºC in the summer, there were concerns for the safety of neighbouring properties.

This inspection led to the arrest of two people suspected of involvement. Significantly, four purchasers of the refrigerant are also under investigation. The suspects face a range of potential charges including smuggling, crimes against the public treasury, environmental crimes and fraud.

Analysis of the contents revealed that some of the seized cylinders were labelled incorrectly, constituting a tax fraud in a country which imposes an additional tax on HFC refrigerants.

The total haul included a broad range of refrigerant types. In addition to current refrigerants R134a, R410A, R32 and R407C, the seized gas included the high GWP and restricted refrigerant R507, retrofit gases R437A and R407H, the HFO R1234yf, lower GWP alternative blend R452, and the banned HCFC ozone depleter R22. 

Spain’s National Confederation of Installers and Maintainers (CNI), which represents more than 6,000 installation and maintenance companies, has previously denounced the “serious damage” that illegal trafficking of refrigerants was causing to its industry, the environment and the economy. CNI has estimated that the seized refrigerant cost the exchequer around €690,000 in lost taxes, and will cost over €200,000 to be destroyed.

CNI says it has collaborated with SEPRONA, Spain’s environmental police, reporting cases of illegal trafficking in its provinces. Since February of this year CNI has been involved in this work at the national level through close collaboration with Spain’s customs surveillance service, SVA. 

“Since the Customs Surveillance Service has begun to work and coordinate the fight against the illegal traffic of refrigerants with the close collaboration of CNI, we have started to see very positive results that give us hope to end this fraud,” said CNI president Javier Cueto. “CNI is providing a lot of information for the investigation and participates through its technicians in police operations to seize gases to take samples and issue technical reports,” he added.

Referring to the latest raids, Cueto said: “This type of operation does not end with the arrest of the traffickers, but continues until the identification of their clients, as has happened in this case and who may end up in jail for purchase refrigerants on the black market. If there are no customers, there is no traffic and the risk of buying illegally is very great.

“We continue working with the SVA because we are aware that illegal trafficking has some immense proportions and we will do everything possible to end it as before. It is not an easy job because the fear of reporting is still very present, but the economic consequences of not doing so can be catastrophic for the refrigeration market and the environment.”

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