Mid Ulster Planning Committee want ‘a balanced approach’ to sand extraction on Lough Neagh

A sand barge at work on Lough Neagh

A sand barge at work on Lough Neagh

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Members of Mid Ulster council’s Planning Committee are to tell the Environment Minister they support “a balanced approach” in relation to sand extraction and the conservation of Lough Neagh.

Those at Tuesday night’s meeting expressed concerns that they were being asked for a view after Department of the Environment told sand traders they have until June 30 to cease ‘unlawful’ operations on the lough.

A spokesperson for the council said: “In relation to the future use of the lough, the committee felt there was a need for a study to establish how a balanced approach to nature conservation together with controlled sand extraction, fishing and leisure activities, could be achieved.”

Although this appears to be good news for the sand companies involved, it is still unclear whether the outcome of Mid Ulster’s committee meeting will have any impact.

Last September, Environment Minister Mark H Durkan wrote to companies taking sand from the bed of Lough Neagh, advising them to stop.

Because they didn’t, the Minister issued an Enforcement Notice in May this year.

And, while James Orr, director of Friends of the Earth NI has blasted Mr Durkan for not issuing an immediate Stop Notice, Regional Director for the Quarry Products Association Northern Ireland [QPANI], Gordon Best, has been lobbying Mid Ulster’s councillors by email.

“Dear Councillor,” he said. “We are aware that you are/will be asked to take a decision to support further enforcement action by Planning Service against the long established Lough Neagh Sand Industry.

“With this in mind we would like to inform you of a number of developments in the Pre application discussions that are currently taking place.”

To this email, Mr Best attached a document saying: “There is scientific evidence to demonstrate that Lough Neagh sand extraction is having no effect on European Designations”.

'Unlawful' industrial dredging suctioning Lough Neagh's lake bed on May 16, 2015

'Unlawful' industrial dredging suctioning Lough Neagh's lake bed on May 16, 2015

But when asked whether we could see the reports from the scientists involved, he did not provide them.

The document then went on to outline a number of “negative economic consequences” which he said included the loss of “1000 jobs (100 direct)” and “a substantive breech [sic] in the sand supply chain for construction” which he said was “upwards of 40%”.

Outlining his reasons for issuing a notice, Minister Durkan said that while he recognises the economic benefits of sand extraction, he must weigh this up with potential harm to the environment, adding: “To date I have seen no conclusive evidence that the activity is not causing environmental damage.”

Both QPANI and the Sand Traders were approached for a comment, but neither came back to us within deadline.