Official plans which could lead to one of Northern Ireland's most scenic landscapes being planted with ranks of wind turbines have sparked outrage.
There have been warnings of public uproar after it emerged the Silent Valley in the Mournes is among a number of areas earmarked as a potential location to develop new wind farms.
Members of Stormont's Regional Development committee were left shocked after two officials from the Department of Regional Development (DRD) said they would be advocating that Northern Ireland Water (NIW) turn over some of its vast lands – including the Silent Valley catchment – to wind energy.
While they weren't suggesting that NIW start generating wind energy itself, they said they would be "advocating" that it pursue leasing of its land to wind farm operators.
Stuart Wightman, DRD head of water policy division, said NIW is currently the biggest single user of electricity in Northern Ireland and faces an annual bill of more than £30m.
With increasing energy costs and EU legislation demanding higher standards, he said that bill is expected to rise to more than £47m by 2021 – and that forecast doesn't factor in growth in demand.
Ukip MLA David McNarry said DRD was "advocating the destruction" of one of Northern Ireland's most scenic places and called it a "glaring omission" that the document did not explore the potential of fracking.
Meanwhile, SDLP MLA John Dallat commented: "It is diabolical that an area like that should be destroyed. I think there would be a lot of public resentment with any attempt to do that."
The officials said they were not aware that many of the wind farms in operation in Northern Ireland only return around 18% of the profit to the landowner who leases the site.
MLAs were questioning DRD on a strategic plan, 'PC15: Social and Environmental Guidelines for Water and Sewerage 2015-2021'.
Among the most spectacular landscapes in the British Isles, the Mournes were once earmarked as the possible site for Northern Ireland's first national park. Former Environment Minister, Alex Attwood, backed down on the plans after strong opposition.
Speaking after the meeting with DRD officials, Mr McNarry said he is considering setting up a petition to gather opposition to the plan.
Mourne Heritage Trust chief executive Martin Carey said much of the area controlled by NIW in the Mournes is covered by the Eastern Mournes Special Area of Conservation and the Countryside Policy Area covering the High Mournes and would not be appropriate for such development.
A DRD spokesperson said: "Any proposals would be subject to normal planning requirements and approvals.
"NIW currently has no plans to lease land for wind turbines in the Mournes. The department intends to publish the Draft Social and Environmental Guidance for public consultation in November and welcomes views."
FACTFILE: WIND ENERGY PROS AND CONS
e It is a proven technology, already providing a significant amount of electricity to the grid.
e It is the cheapest renewable energy source now available to the UK.
e While they produce emission-free electricity in operation, there are limited emissions associated with manufacture.
e Some people who live in proximity to wind turbines complain of the noise and flicker they generate.
e Onshore wind turbines are often criticised for their visual impact.