Illegal sand dredging must cease
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's ecosystem.
Lough Neagh has been designated a Special Protection Area and the DoE's lack of action to date could be interpreted as a 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 have raised this many times, including issuing a complaint under the Environmental Liability Directive demanding the department move to stop the unauthorised activity. However, there seems 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 have gone unheeded.
In addition, there is no expectation that information requested from the sand traders to assist in a habitat screening will be forthcoming. This is not good enough.
It would appear that senior civil servants also agree with us. As recently as February 2015, chief planner Fiona McCandless and Terry A'Hearn, who is head of the Northern Ireland Environmental Agency, wrote to the 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. It is clear to all that unauthorised sand dredging is continuing on Lough Neagh. I am calling on Minister Durkan to tackle illegal sand extraction as a matter of urgency.
While he dithers, contrary to the advice he has received, it is to the detriment of the life of the lough.
Steven Agnew MLA is leader of the Green Party in Northern Ireland