Despite a warning from DoE that they are in breach of planning control, companies ‘illegally extracting’ sand from Lough Neagh have carried on.
And because Environment Minister, Mark H Durkan, ‘has failed to stop them’ the Green Party has served notice on his department under the Environmental Liability Directive, while a complaint has also been submitted to the European Commission.
It has also emerged that the Northern Ireland Audit Office is now investigating the environmental impact of sand extraction, focussing specifically on DoE’s role.
Sand companies, some of which operate from Mid Ulster, take millions of tonnes of sand each year from the bed of Lough Neagh and have been doing so for over 70 years.
Their actions, according to the Green Party, Friends of the Earth and Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy have caused untold damage to the lough’s ecosystem, destroying the nursery habitat of eels and affecting the lough’s rare pollen.
Last September the Environment Minister “advised” the companies involved to cease operation, but to this day they continue to operate.
Steven Agnew of the Green Party said: “There has been essentially decades of extraction going on in the lough that hasn’t been authorised and nothing has been done. It’s not good enough simply asking them to cease... we believe this could be infringing EU habitat regulations, putting Northern Ireland at risk of infraction.”
This means if the EU decides laws are being broken, Stormont faces massive fines.
James Orr from Friends of the Earth told the Mail this “is one of the most important environmental stories to ever come out of Ireland”.
“Lough Neagh is a Ramsar site,” he explained, “which is wetland of international importance and a Special Protection Area designated under the EU Birds Directive. When you have these delegations the law says you are not allowed to rip the place up without going through certain processes.”
Something he says DoE has not done.
But Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy said it may be too late to undo the damage - an opinion which he said is shared by fishermen working the lough.
“I am concerned about the effect sand extraction is having on the fishing industry,” he said, “and the damage being done to the extraction areas.”
The Shaftesbury Estate, which owns the bed of Lough Neagh and is understood to receive payment from the sand companies, told the Mail it is monitoring the situation.
A spokesperson said: “We understand that sand traders have sought the advice of environmental and scientific experts who recently conducted several studies on the lough to examine any environmental impact from sand extraction.”
Studies they say haven’t revealed any major concerns.
DoE ‘considering formal action’
In response to suggestions that Department of the Environment, and Minister Mark H Durkan have allowed the ‘illegal’ dredging of sand from Lough Neagh to continue, a spokesperson said: “The department issued warning letters to operators in September 2014 advising that dredging actives being undertaken on the Lough constituted a breach of planning control and advised that this activity should cease until this situation had been addressed.”
The department also said it initiated investigations on activities on the lough prior to receiving notice from the Green Party and that the investigation is ongoing.
Shaftesbury Estate said: “We believe the sand traders are working with the planning service regarding the matter of planning permission,” but DoE said, “the department is not in receipt of a planning application for dredging on Lough Neagh.”
Audit Office investigating DoE’s role
The Northern Ireland Audit Office has said it is currently “undertaking a study on sand extraction from Lough Neagh” which will be “specifically focussing on the role of DoE”.
A report on the investigation, which will look at both the environmental impact of the dredging as well DoE’s role, is at an early stage but is expected to be published before Christmas 2015. They started work on the report late in 2014.
A spokesperson said: “The report is at an early stage with a target publication date of pre Christmas 2015. As with all our reports the report will be laid in the NI Assembly and brought to the attention of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in the Assembly. The PAC may decide to hold an evidence session on the findings in the report at some stage.”