Londonderry is facing an environmental time bomb as the river that supplies much of its drinking water is threatened with pollution on a massive scale, it has been claimed.
It's been claimed that the Department of the Environment (DoE) was made aware as far back as 2009 that toxic water leaking from a gigantic illegal landfill site at Mobuoy could make its way into the River Faughan – but failed to act until more than a year later.
Environmental groups say the DoE knew about problems with unauthorised quarrying at Mobuoy for years but did not put a stop to it – paving the way for one of the biggest illegal landfill sites in the UK to to be created.
Half-a-million tonnes of rubbish are believed to have been buried illegally in a dump nearly a mile long that would cost the taxpayer tens of millions to clean up.
Friends of the Earth (FoE) said all the evidence points to planning and regulation in Northern Ireland not working, while the Green Party warned that systemic failures were creating an "environmental time bomb" in Northern Ireland.
River Faughan Anglers director Dean Blackwood, a former DoE employee, said the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) had warned in September 2009 that unauthorised quarrying was allowing pollution to escape from the landfill. The agency is part of the DoE.
The Loughs Agency also issued repeated warnings to the DoE, expressing concern that retrospective planning approval had been repeatedly sought for unauthorised quarrying.
It warned that the natural water system in the area was being affected as a result and pointed out that the DoE had failed to take enforcement action.
It wasn't until 2011 that officials from the DoE began to carry out on-site investigations.
But Mr Blackwood said that the "damage was done by then".
Yesterday he told the Belfast Telegraph that drinking water for the city of Derry is extracted around a kilometre downstream from the Mobuoy site.
"It's only a matter of time before that pollution gets into the river," he said.
"The department have no idea where that pollution could appear.
"The dump is 1.4km long and it could come out anywhere. This leaves the people of Derry and the river with a legacy of environmental harm that could come at any time.
"This could so easily have been stopped – but they chose not to stop it."
Last night Green Party MLA Steven Agnew said there was no way of telling exactly what material – which may include toxic waste – is in this dump, and which could potentially leach into the water supply. "While illegal dumping is not unique to Northern Ireland, gaps in our legislation and a general failure to investigate or prosecute have led to massive exploitation by criminals," he said.
A DoE spokesperson said: "The River Faughan has been routinely monitored by NIEA for many years.
"Following the closure of the Mobuoy site a much more intense river monitoring programme has been put in place.
"No significant impact on water quality in the Faughan has been detected. Water quality is also being monitored on site. NIEA is engaging top-class experts to advise on longer term clean-up options at the Campsie site.
"The bottom line here is that Northern Ireland has a minister who has the courage to tackle these widespread, trans sector problems head-on with actions that attack problems right throughout the system.
"He is not taking the easy way out by putting in place a few piecemeal actions and pretending this will sort the problems out."
STORY SO FAR
In 2011 the DoE found that more than half-a-million tonnes of waste were buried without permission at Campsie near Derry. An independent report before Christmas warned that the 1.4km-long illegal landfill could cost tens of millions of pounds to clear up.