The Environment Minister said his power to issue a stop notice on Lough Neagh sand traders isn’t up for discussion because of a “judicial review”.
The Mail spoke to Minister Mark H Durkan when he visited St Patrick’s Mullinahoe Primary after giving a project involving four schools in the area over £4,000 to learn about Lough Neagh, its birds and native species.
“Lough Neagh is so important - especially for wildlife. It’s an ASSI [Area of Special Scientific Interest] and Ramsar site of world importance and this [project] is trying to help the children find out how important a place they actually live in,” RSPB field worker Jo Mulholland said on the day.
During our interview with the Minister it came to light that Friends of the Earth NI is taking legal action against DOE because of its failure to stop the “illegal” removal of sand from Lough Neagh.
Although saying he has concerns about the impact sand dredging is having - “that’s why I issued an enforcement notice” - the Minister admitted his department “retained the power to issue a stop notice”.
But, when asked why he didn’t use it, he said he was unable to comment as “that’s now also subject to legal proceedings as we have received a pre-action protocol letter from Friends of the Earth”.
This means Friends of the Earth is calling for a judicial review of how the minister has dealt with the ongoing issue - a move the environmental campaigners admitted, but could not comment on further.
The group has previously called on the minister to issue an immediate stop notice on those sucking up sand from the bed of Lough Neagh - accusing him of being complicit in the “illegal” operation.
Minister Durkan served an enforcement notice on the five companies involved in sand dredging in May - giving them until the end of June to stop work.
Those involved appealed and now the case must be heard by Northern Ireland’s Planning Appeals Commission - which could take years.
As part of this appeals process an Environmental Impact Statement will have to be submitted before the end of November.
“It’s out of my hands as the sand dredging people have taken this to Planning Appeals Commission after I did take action,” the minister added. “It’s also worth restating that this activity has been going on on the lough for a century.
“I’m not disputing that fish stocks have gone down and that bird population has reduced either.
Read more: Lough Neagh fish ‘in decline’ as sand traders keep dredging and Lough Neagh duck population down 75%
“I have concerns and that’s why I issued an enforcement notice and they have tried to circumvent that by going down the Planning Appeals Commission route.”
But when asked why he just didn’t issue a stop notice, his personal advisor added: “That’s seriously under judicial review.”