Unauthorised sand dredging ordered to stop

At last some good news. Environment Minister Mark H Durkan has issued enforcement notices to five sand dredging companies on Lough Neagh telling them to cease activities by the end of next month.

As the debate continues over the budget black hole, there has been little mention of the fact that the Department of the Environment is potentially facing fines due to continuing unauthorised sand extraction in Lough Neagh.

This activity has been ongoing for decades and is causing major damage to the lough ecosystem.

Lough Neagh has been designated a Special Protection Area, and the DOE’s lack of action to date could be interpreted as clear breach of EU wild birds, habitats and environmental impact assessment directives. This leaves the Department wide open to the possibility of infraction fines from Europe.

I raised this as an issue many times, including raising a complaint under the Environmental Liability Directive demanding that the Department move to immediately stop the unauthorised activity. However there seemed to be an unwillingness to stop the sand traders.

Warning letters were issued in 2014 to the sand traders advising that their sand dredging was unauthorised and that the activity should cease. These went unheeded.

This is not good enough and it would appear that senior civil servants also agreed with us. As recently as Feburary 2015, Chief Planner Fiona McCandless and Terry A’Hearn, who is head of the Northern Ireland Environmental Agency, wrote to Minister Mark H Durkan recommending that ‘a precautionary approach is taken and formal enforcement action should be initiated to ensure the cessation of the activities’.

They also advised that the Department should initiate its own visual inspection of the Lough area to confirm and obtain evidence that sand extraction continues. This would not be difficult to achieve. You only have to stand on the shore to watch the dredgers at work.

I now hope that these stop notices will be adhered to and enforced, given that failure to do so will constitute a criminal offence. I will continue to monitor the situation and apply pressure to ensure that Lough Neagh is protected.

Thursday 28 May 2015

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