Alliance and Green Party call for an independent environment agency to be set up
The Environment Agency has brought Northern Ireland’s sole water provider to court 73 times since 2007 over pollution incidents, it has emerged.
According to Stormont’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), fines resulting from these cases against Northern Ireland Water (NIW) totalled around £250,000.
DAERA’s Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) regulates discharges from NIW under the Water Order 1999 and the NIEA normally carries out formal enforcement action against NIW where there has been a significant water pollution impact and an investigation demonstrates a “managerial failure” on behalf of the company.
“Across Northern Ireland, in the 14 years since 2007, NIEA has taken successful action against NIW in the courts in respect of 73 significant water pollution incidents with fines during that period circa £250,000,” DAERA said.
“NIW has been significantly underfunded since they came into operation in 2007 and as a result, a prioritised approach is taken to manage the NI Water capital delivery programmes.”
Alliance Party environment spokesperson John Blair said all pollution of our waterways, whatever the source, is a very serious matter in terms of biodiversity, damage to natural habitat and risk posed to native species.
“I have raised the issues of penalties on many occasions and highlighted the regular pollution of the Six Mile Water river, in my own constituency, as an example,” he said. “The irony is not lost on those of us who care deeply about these matters when a public body is the polluter, it is the taxpayer who pays both the penalty and the repair.
“This further highlights the need for an Independent Environmental Protection Agency which is not only an outstanding New Decade, New Approach commitment but also essential to better protect nature.”
Green Party leader Clare Bailey said the Executive must explain and address underinvestment in our water infrastructure by working in partnership with NIW.
“The importance of an Independent Environment Protection Agency (IEPA) cannot be understated. The IEPA must sit outside Executive departments so as to have the independence to investigate incidents involving departments and statutory agencies,” she added.
“The DAERA Minister has said that despite being a New Decade New Approach commitment, an IEPA will not be delivered this mandate.
“How many more pollution incidents, fish kills and habitat destruction before Minister Poots accepts that the current environmental protection arrangements are not fit for purpose.”
DAERA said: “NIEA works closely with NIW to prioritise the upgrade of wastewater treatment works (WWTW) and sewerage networks to ensure compliance with EC (European Commission) legislation and target funding where it will provide the greatest environmental improvements. NI Water requires significant investment to improve the level of wastewater management and treatment.
“Compliance with the Urban Treatment Directive sets critical treatment levels which protect both public health and the environment. Significant investment has been made delivering on major improvements in the quality of treated effluent discharges and the reduction in spills of untreated sewage to the environment. However there is a lot more to do, with ongoing adequate funding required for NI Water to continue to improve.”