DAMAGE on an "unprecedented scale" was caused to the Gwent Levels in what was described as one of the worst environmental crimes this area has suffered to one of its protected areas.

Stephen Brinley Richards made £2 million from dumping 26,000 tonnes of waste in Coedkernew, Marshfield and Castleton - areas that are sites of special scientific interest because of their wildlife and unique reen system.

But, at Newport Crown Court yesterday (Friday), a judge ruled that Richards has "frittered away" all his profits and the only money that can be seized from his illegal activities is from the sale of his land and a van.

Between 2006 and 2009, Richards, 54, of Richmond Road, Cardiff, dumped 26,000 tonnes of waste at the sites. This came from his demolition business. As part of Operation Evasive, the Environment Agency found he dug 1,000 tonnes of clay from Hawse Lane, Marshfield, selling it for around £150,000 to be used as top soil for building projects such as a landfill in Newport. Richards then filled the space left with waste.

When he was caught, he had also dug out further ditches ready to extract more clay, causing further extensive damage to the Gwent Levels. He was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment in May 2011 after admitting a string of waste-related offences.

A proceeds of crime act hearing took place at Newport Crown Court to establish how much he made from his illegal operations and must forfeit- with it agreed his benefit was £2 million.

This was in the form of land and property worth £327,850 and cheques cashed by Richards amounting to £1.7 million. On top of this, Richards owes an additional £440,000 to 80-year-old Gwyn Husband.

Prosecutor Timothy Evans called this money "hidden assets" and said Richards probably made far more as these cheques only cover those cashed with two banks.

However, Richards said he simply used the money to "pay debts, bills and survive", saying he made no profit and his only assets now are his van worth £1,750.

Judge Rhys Rowlands said Richards took advantage of Mr Husband in a "cynical, wholly reprehensible way", adding that Richards was a "remarkably poor businessman, ill-equipped to operate on a commercial level".

He agreed there are "no hidden assets"- pointing to the fact that Richards cashed in a life insurance policy to pay for a hernia operation in 2010 and continued working when he went on the run from police for six months after admitting the charges.

Judge Rowlands added: "If there were any (hidden assets), when you absconded, you would have lived off them or left the country. Instead, you remained within the jurisdiction and worked in the south of England, which led to your arrest in 2011.

"There are no cash funds. In the past you were prepared to cut corners and frittered away what profits were made."

Richards must pay £329,600 within six months or face four years in jail. This will come from the sale of the land - much of which was paid for using Mr Husband's money - and £1,750 from his van.

The Countryside Council for Wales will be given £36,995.52p of this, to help restore the land on the Gwent Levels.

A spokesman for the Environment Agency said it was one of the biggest environmental crimes Gwent has suffered to one of its protected areas, while spokeswoman Nadia De Longhi added: "The damage caused to land in a protected area was on an unprecedented scale and will involve extensive repair work by Countryside Council for Wales."

JUDGE Rhys Rowlands described Richards' offending as "deliberate, brazen and arrogant in flouting the law" when sentencing him to 15 months in prison last May.

His offending included illegally disposing controlled waste that was likely to cause pollution and operating a regulated facility without a permit at Hawse Lane, Marshfield, Ty Mawr Lane, Castleton and Berry Hill Cottage, Coedkernew.

His offending was exposed following a £50,000 Environment Agency investigation.

This found Richards- who ran a demolition business operating at sites around the UK- had illegally dug up around 1,000 tonnes of clay from his sites and sold it to building contractors.

The holes left from the extracted clay were then filled in with waste.

Richards admitted a total of 11 waste-related offences, while co-accused Anthony Holwell, now 51, formerly of Berry Hill Cottage, Coedkernew, stood trial and was convicted of five offences.

They were due to be sentenced in November 2010, but Richards failed to surrender and was arrested six months later in the south of England.

In sentencing, defence barrister Stephen Thomas said Richards was in a "desperate financial situation" owing the Inland Revenue £500,000 and the dumping was a "temporary measure, which soon got out of control".

He was given a total of 15 months in prison and Holwell 12 months.

Clear-up costs at the site of special scientific interest by the Countryside Council for Wales is £36,995.52p.

Stephen Richards was warned by the judge on Thursday he could face further investigation over an unpaid debt of over £500,000 to an 80-year-old man.

The court was given details of the £1.7 million of cheques cashed by Richards - with 10 of these totalling £95,000 coming from 80-year-old Gwyn Husband.

Mr Husband gave evidence on Wednesday and said he believed Richards owes him £440,000, which is in addition to the £1.7 million.

But, Judge Rhys Rowlands said the debt is actually around £535,900 and said Mr Husband may have forgotten about the extra cash because of his ill-health.

Judge Rowlands said: "I put you on warning, this matter may be referred by me to the police for investigation into your dealings with this elderly gentleman over the years. I may well ask police to investigate the whole thing and the regulatory authority may want to get involved."