More than seven million tonnes of raw sewage is being dumped into Northern Ireland’s seas and rivers every year, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Environmentalists in Friends of the Earth have described the figures as “disturbing and disgusting”. They say that to treat our natural waters as sewers and coastline as a “dump for toxic waste” is a “huge stain on the credibility of the NI Executive”.
Department for Infrastructure (DfI) Minister Nichola Mallon confirmed that the discharged sewage is “untreated”.
The figures are effectively an annual average, based on 20 years of historical recorded rainfall data. NI Water advised that sewer networks have a finite capacity and are designed to overflow into receiving watercourses or the marine environment during periods of heavy rainfall to relieve pressure on the system.
A spokesperson added: “These overflows are a necessary part of the sewer network and are standard industry practice consented by NI Water’s environmental regulator, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA).”
Because the figures are based on an average, it is difficult to ascertain whether sewage spills have increased or decreased over time. However, environmentalists firmly believe that with climate change, the stormwater that mixes in the sewer pipes and leads to discharges is only going to worsen.
Areas affected include those famed for their natural beauty such as the North Coast which is known for its award-winning beaches and top-class golf courses – one of the North Coast drainage sites is named Portstewart Golf Links CSO (Combined Sewer Overflow).
The Kinnegar drainage area in North Down – close to Belfast City Airport – has two of the largest annual spill volumes. Kinnegar Waste Water Treatment plant and Sydenham Park Avenue pumping station account for over 1.5m tonnes of sewage every year.
That is of serious concern for North Down MLA Rachel Woods who swims in water near the spillage site. She said £2bn is required to upgrade Northern Ireland’s sewerage network, which is beyond capacity in around 100 locations.
“Northern Ireland has a poor track record when it comes to protecting our environment and keeping our waterways clean – only one of Northern Ireland’s 21 larger lakes has ‘good’ water quality,” the Green Party MLA explained.
“Every Boxing Day, I take part in the pier jump at Holywood, and North Down's coastal environment is understandably very popular for sea swimming. It is very worrying to learn that swimmers could be exposed to high levels of untreated sewage in the water.”
“We need to ensure that our infrastructure has the capacity to respond to increases in flooding, otherwise Northern Ireland’s pollution problem is just going to increase.”
NI Water requires investment of around £2bn in water and wastewater services over a six year period, the Utility Regulator said in May. This financial year the DfI Minister allocated a combined budget o £350m to NI Water for 2021/22.
However, Ms Woods said that while 100 locations in NI’s sewage network are beyond capacity, the announced funding will only address about 40.
James Orr from Friends of the Earth said beautiful places are being desecrated yet fines are “pathetic” and “those responsible for pollution need to be held accountable”. He believes an Independent Environmental Protection Agency should be set up, as agreed in New Decade, New Approach.