Northern Ireland Water has come under fire over the raw sewage being pumped into the sea at a Co Antrim beauty spot.
Environment Minister Sammy Wilson has revealed that untreated sewage effluent being released into the sea at Whitehead — whose Blackhead Path is a popular spot for fishermen — is in breach of the consent set by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) which requires that it be finely screened.
The town’s infrastructure is under pressure because so many houses have been built there over the past few year, according to MLA Roy Beggs jnr. He added that untreated sewage is also being released from the Wastewater Treatment Works (WWTW) at nearby Ballystrudder into Larne Lough, a wildlife hotspot harbouring internationally important numbers of Brent geese and nationally important populations of roseate and common tern.
NI Water is now proposing to pipe the sewage from Whitehead, Ballystrudder and Ballycarry to the sea at Cloughfin Bay on the coast of Islandmagee. But the plan has been vetoed by NIEA, which says it is not acceptable and would affect a large section of coastline.
The bay has been adopted as a walking route by local community groups and lies less than a mile from the Gobbins, a wildlife hotspot and summer breeding ground for puffins which Larne District Council is proposing to restore as a tourist attraction. NIEA has now asked NI Water to model the impact of sewage treated to a higher level and says the results are due in early February when it will meet NI Water to agree the appropriate treatment for the sewage discharge at Cloughfin Bay.
Mr Beggs said: “There’s been been concern for some time about untreated sewage being deposited, both off the shore from Whitehead and in the Ballystrudder area, and a clear recognition that there is a need to bring about improvement.
“However, there is also concern that NI Water may be proposing not to provide adequate treatment. Given the sensitivity of the area that they are proposing to use as an outlet for sewage, I will be pressing for the highest level of treatment possible and that any outlet pipe should not put at risk those who would choose to use Cloughfin Bay beach.”
Residents have also raised concerns about the plan to pipe sewage effluent to Cloughfin Bay, saying it would receive even less treatment than it currently does as Ballycarry effluent undergoes secondary treatment.
Robin McIlwain, chairman of Islandmagee Community Association, said: “It would be a retrograde step. They would be taking raw sewage from one place and dumping it somewhere else.
“Cloughfin Bay is a still water bay which does not benefit from the main North Channel tidal flows, meaning there would be considerable contamination of the whole coastline.”
Dr Andrew Upton, of the Ulster Wildlife Trust, said: “We are very concerned about the impact of this on breeding seabird populations on the Isle of Muck, one of our nature reserves just off the tip of Islandmagee..”
NIEA said the treatment works at Whitehead and Ballystrudder currently do not provide appropriate treatment under the EU Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive.
NI Water said it is committed to improving sewerage infrastructure, while also taking into account environmental and tourism concerns.
“NI Water is currently developing proposals to meet the requirements of the Urban Wastewater Treatment Directive that will improve the quality of the waters in both Larne Lough and the Irish Sea in the vicinity of Cloughfin Bay and Blackhead,” a spokesman said.
“As part of our consultations with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency we agreed to develop alternatives which could result in a higher standard of water quality and provide further enhancement of coastal waters in the Cloughfin Bay area. Construction is expected to start in autumn 2009 and will be completed in summer 2011, subject to approvals and finance being available.”