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Environment fight goes to Europe

Minister warned to stop 'dragging her heels' over independent protection agency

By Linda McKee

A complaint has been lodged with the European Commission claiming that the absence of an independent Environmental Protection Agency in Northern Ireland breaches EU law.

Green campaigners Friends of the Earth submitted the complaint today, alleging that the situation risks setting the seal on Ulster's reputation as "the dirty corner of the UK".

The move follows a recent judgment in Belfast's High Court in which the judge said the Department of the Environment had been consulting itself on important planning issues, rather than seeking the advice of an independent authority as required by law.

John Woods, Northern Ireland director of Friends of the Earth, has challenged DUP Environment Minister Arlene Foster on the issue.

"We had hoped that the era of Northern Ireland being dragged through the European legal processes was drawing to a close," he said.

" Regrettably, the minister's reluctance to create the kind of independent environmental protection body that exists in the rest of the UK and Ireland means we had no choice but to lodge this complaint.

"The case for a new agency has been clearly made by the Government's own independent review panel. It is time for the minister to stop dragging her feet and live up to her title of Minister of the Environment."

The landmark ruling by Mr Justice Weatherup found that Northern Ireland had failed to properly implement a key piece of European legislation called the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive.

The DoE's Planning Service was required to seek external advice on the environmental impacts of the Magherafelt and Northern Area Plans, but instead consulted the Environment and Heritage Service which is part of the same department.

Judge Weatherup ruled that this was in breach of European law and said it may be necessary to create an independent authority.

Mr Woods said: " The concept of an independent environmental protection agency enjoys widespread support, including all the Assembly parties except one.

"The DUP is acquiring a reputation of caring little for a clean environment. Arlene Foster needs to move swiftly if she is to avoid setting the seal on our reputation as the dirty corner of the UK."

The European Commission is already dealing with a number of official complaints made by Friends of the Earth on the failure of DoE's Environment and Heritage Service to control water and waste pollution.

One such case was pursued as far as the European Court of Justice which ruled against the Government. The issue of fines is yet to be decided, but may mount to many millions of pounds.

Mr Woods concluded: "The minister has expressed concern that independent environmental protection may be too expensive. I think she will find that the European Court will ensure that not protecting the environment will be a rather more expensive option."

Friends of the Earth said it had written to the minister after examining Judge Weatherup's judgment asking what measures she planned to put in place to comply with European law, but no reply has been received.

A DoE spokeswoman said it would be inappropriate to comment on the Northern Area Plan as there is an ongoing judicial review on the document.

" A proposed independent environmental agency is not the subject of this review. The minister has already clearly said that she will closely consider the findings of the review panel. She is doing this," she said.

"A letter from FOE to the minister was received last week. A reply is currently being drafted."

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