Green groups have slammed plans by the Environment Minister to allow farmers to escape prosecution for low-level pollution spills.
Environmental groups are fearful that a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) being drawn up between the DOE and the Ulster Farmers' Union could herald a free rein for low-level spills in Northern Ireland's waterways.
It could leave Northern Ireland struggling even more to meet the stringent water quality requirements of the EU, making the region vulnerable to infraction fines.
Green Party NI leader Steven Agnew asked Environment Minister Mark H Durkan whether his department intended to enter into an agreement with the farming union that farmers will no longer be prosecuted or sanctioned for low-level pollution incidents.
The minister said a Memorandum of Understanding is currently being developed between the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and UFU aimed at creating a stronger, more effective working arrangement between the NIEA and UFU to deliver stronger compliance performance.
"There are several issues, including the best approach to achieving compliance on low-level pollution incidents, being discussed for how to create these improvements. No final agreement has yet been reached," he said.
However, Mr Durkan said his department will not enter into any agreement that would result in adverse implications for achieving compliance with the stringent requirements of the Water Framework Directive.
"Improving working relationships between all concerned will lead to increased communication and in turn, higher compliance levels in the agricultural sector. This MoU is being developed following internal consultation and advice from senior NIEA officials," he said.
But the comment has set alarm bells ringing within environmental groups, who say it pays to pollute in Northern Ireland.
River Faughan Anglers director Dean Blackwood said: "The minister has not denied that he is intending to enter into an agreement with the UFU which will virtually guarantee that polluters are no longer sanctioned for individual incidents."
UFU spokesman Clarke Black said: "Over the course of last few months the UFU has discussed several issues with NIEA and worked to progress a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which would help to improve working relations between farmers and the agency and ultimately help to deliver better environmental outcomes. The agreement has not been finalised yet."