Northern Ireland Water has been branded a “serial repeat offender” after it emerged that the water company has been convicted 30 times in three years for polluting waterways.
Environmental campaigners said pollution incidents are not being treated with the seriousness they deserve and fines need to increase if they are to be a deterrent.
From 2009 to 2011, Northern Ireland Water was fined a total of £44,450 for the offences, with one of the 30 convictions attracting a conditional discharge.
The maximum fine for a prosecution taken under the Water (NI) Order 1999 is £20,000, but it is up to the magistrate how high a penalty should be imposed.
Friends of the Earth branded the level of fines “pathetic” and said it showed it pays to pollute rivers and lakes in Northern Ireland.
“The fines are neither a deterrent nor a punishment. Northern Ireland Water is a serial repeat offender and yet frequently fines of less than £1,000 are given to this state-subsidised polluter. As a repeat offender fines must increase, otherwise they will continue to pollute,” director James Orr said.
Meanwhile, the Green Party branded the fines “derisory and clearly ineffective” and called for robust legislation to ensure that Northern Ireland Water cuts the amount of pollution it is discharging into waterways.
Spokesman Ross Brown said: “Incidents of pollution of the environment in Northern Ireland are not treated with the seriousness they deserve.
“Northern Ireland is the only area in the UK without an independent Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and this is something that the Green Party is calling for.”
Northern Ireland Water said it views protection of the environment as a major priority and invests significant resources and measures to safeguard it.
A spokeswoman appealed to the public to reduce the number of pollution incidents by helping to spread the ‘Bin It, Don’t Flush It’ message.
“The collection, pumping, treatment and disposal of wastewater is a complex operation. The failure of any of these elements can cause pollution,” she said.
A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) said it had taken prosecutions against NI Water 30 times between 2009 and 2011.
“The severity of the penalty is for the courts to decide and not in the remit of NIEA,” he said.
“NIEA’s record of securing convictions in respect of cases taken to court is testimony to that, with a high level of convictions comparing favourably with the rest of the UK.
“But the punishment each time from the courts is not in our remit.”
Five spills that polluted waterways:
August, 2009: NI Water fined £2,000 for discharging untreated sewage into Belfast Lough off Ballyholme beach in Bangor.
March, 2010: NI Water fined £2,000 after polluting the Lagan.
May, 2011: NI Water fined £2,000 after a blockage in the sewerage system polluted the Sixmilewater in Antrim.
August, 2011: NI Water fined £1,000 for polluting a tributary of the River Lagan at Lockkeepers Lane.
March, 2011: NI Water fined £3,500 after blood and sewage leaked into the River Foyle at Lisahally.