Questions have been raised as to why Mid Ulster Council planners allowed 28 bore holes to be dug in the bed of Lough Neagh without an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
A floating drill rig appeared on the Lough two weeks ago, and after some digging, the Mail discovered that the head planner Dr Chris Boomer had approved its work without ever taking the planning application to the council’s planning committee.
But the mechanism that allowed him to take the decision without input from any elected representatives was a change to the council’s scheme of delegation that he submitted to the monthly council meeting - less than two weeks before drilling started.
Mid Ulster Council, however, has denied that the scheme of delegation, which was first approved two years ago, was changed to pave the way for this decision.
A spokesperson said: “The council undertook a screening process which included consultation with relevant bodies, eg. NIEA, and it was determined that no ES was required. This application is not classified as a major or significant application which is why it was considered by the council. Commercial sand dredging is a different issue and is being considered by the department.”
Lack of transparency aside, Northern Ireland’s Green Party leader, Stephen Agnew, said the main concern is that the decision doesn’t consider the potential damage already being caused in the Special Protection Area (SPA) by unauthorised sand extraction.
I am bewildered by what is going on in Lough NeaghGreen Party leader Stephen Agnew
Although the drilling is being carried out on behalf of the Sand Traders, which they say will provide a baseline for the Environmental Statement the Planning Appeals Commission requested, Mr Agnew said it would have needed an EIA.
“I am quite bewildered by what is going on in Lough Neagh”, he said.
“There appears to be a lack of transparency and a disconnect between the fact that these bore holes are being drilled as part of the wider issue of unauthorised sand dredging.
“The council has admitted it did not take into account the cumulative effects from the ongoing unauthorised sand extraction before it decided to approve these bore holes,” he added.
“Not only is this contrary to the EIA directive where cumulative effects must be taken into account, but it flies in the face of the position already adopted by the former Minister of the Environment.
“On 11 August 2014, Mark H Durkan MLA determined that where temporary exploratory drilling is associated with unauthorised mineral extraction, and where the effects of that extraction remain unknown, Environmental Impact Assessment is required.
“It is incredible, given that these bore holes are directly associated with the biggest unauthorised development in Northern Ireland, that the scheme of delegated powers would be used to approve a proposal which has given rise to such controversy.”
Indeed, in the environmental determination report, the case officer says that the project has the potential to impact on hydrology, fish stocks and wildlife habitat in the area.