One person has been jailed for water pollution offences in Northern Ireland in the past five years — despite more than 11,000 pollution incidents and over £2 million spent on investigations.
SDLP South Antrim MLA Thomas Burns, who revealed the figures, said the effectiveness of warning letters has to be questioned as they do not seem to act as a deterrent. And he warned that the fines dished out often do not cover the cost of the investigations.
But Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), which is responsible for protecting waterways, said its record holds up well beside the independent Environmental Protection Agencies in the rest of the UK and pointed out that it is the judiciary that rules on fines and sentencing.
And it said it intends to raise the serious impact of pollution incidents to the Lord Chief Justice’s Office at a planned meeting.
Mr Burns said: “It cannot be denied that these shockingly high figures point to a scant disregard for the health of our public waterways.
“Destruction of our rivers and lakes should not be tolerated.
“Previously, I uncovered that more than £2m had been spent investigating incidents relating to water pollution.
“Obviously crimes of this nature must be taken seriously but with this public expense we are entitled to see results.
“We have to seriously question the effectiveness of warning letters as they do not seem to be any form of deterrent.
“Likewise, we need to look again at the issue of fining and I am still of the view financial penalties must be severe. We should also send offenders the full bill for the costs of the environmental investigations.
“In many cases the fines dished out not cover the cost of investigations. Tough action is required and what type of message does it send out to offenders when there has only been one prison sentence. We have to take environmental crime seriously.”
Mr Burns said NIEA needs to pursue offenders with more vigour, but it is also time to look at setting up an all-Ireland Environment Protection Agency with powers to protect the environment.
NIEA said it takes formal enforcement action if this is warranted by the severity of the pollution and the circumstances which led to it.
“In cases where it is decided that prosecution is appropriate, NIEA staff collect the necessary evidence and prepare a file which is submitted to the Public Prosecution Service with a recommendation for prosecution,” a spokesperson said.
“Warning letters play a key part in enforcement of water pollution incidents.
“However, the Department focuses on the use of Enforcement Notices to deal effectively with significant or potentially significant pollution incidents, and these are enforceable by the courts.
“NIEA currently vigorously recover costs, including clean-up costs and inspector’s time for investigations of significant water pollution incidents in line with the polluter-pays principle.”
NIEA said it is the judiciary that decides on the level of fines or sentencing and independence would make no difference to this.
“However, not resting on its laurels, the Agency has made several representations to the judiciary on this matter and plans to highlight the seriousness and impact of pollution incidents to the Lord Chief Justice's Office at a future meeting,” the spokesperson said.
“NIEA has encountered more significant pollution incidents in 2007 and 2008 with 62 cases recommended for enforcement action in 2007 and 93 cases being considered in 2008 so far.
“This doesn’t mean to say we are content with our performance and we will continue to vigorously gather evidence and recommend prosecution where it is appropriate to do so.
“Recent successes in court, including fines of £6,000 and £5,000 for water pollution offences, including one for an incident in Mallusk, are clear examples of this.”