River pollution cases in Northern Ireland fall, but prosecutions are rare
The Belfast Telegraph joins officials on the waterways beat
Just one in every 20 people who pollutes Northern Ireland's waterways is prosecuted in the courts, it can be revealed.
The vast majority of offenders escape punishment with only a handful of the 1,000-plus incidents each year resulting in a conviction.
The figures emerged as the Belfast Telegraph investigated who is protecting our waterways and what action has been taken to preserve our environment for future generations.
We spent a day with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA)which is responsible for policing green issues.
According to NIEA, incidents of water pollution have fallen sharply over the last 15 years.
Last year, 1,149 confirmed cases were reported to the agency – a sharp fall from the 2,087 recorded incidents in 1996.
"In the early to mid-90s there were up to 2,000 confirmed pollution incidents per year, but over the last 15 years that figure has declined, said Norman Henderson, a senior operator from NIEA's water pollution team,
"We are now down to about 1,200 or so incidents a year. It is quite high but it covers a lot of incidents. Most are low level. It could be a leak from someone's oil tank or a problem septic tank.
"There has been a decline in numbers but also in the severity of incidents. In years gone by there would have been regular oil spills and fish kills, but those serious incidents have become less and less common."
However, in the vast majority of cases no action is taken against the culprit.
Of the 1,149 incidents last year, just 57 resulted in a conviction in the courts. And in 2011, 59 convictions were secured from 1,303 incidents – around one in every 22.
According to Mr Henderson, the vast majority of cases reported to NIEA are low-level incidents and not suitable for prosecution.
In many cases, there isn't sufficient grounds to bring an action.
"It sounds like a very low percentage but when you look behind the figures and consider that 85% are pretty minor, and then take out the high and medium incidents which are due to genuine accidents, you find that the figure is about right," he added.
"Each case has to go through the Public Prosecution Service, and the PPS will only let it go if it reaches a certain standard in terms of the intent of the offender and the severity of the offence.
"If something has been a genuine accident and relatively minor, the PPS is unlikely to agree to a prosecution."
It isn't just pollution which is hitting our waterways. The Belfast Telegraph has consistently highlighted how litter blights our countryside.
Mr Henderson said everyone had a role to play in protecting our environment.
"There's only so much we can do on our own and we need the public's help," he added. "You can't just wave goodbye to your litter or something you flush into a river. Somewhere down the line it is going to cause harm."
* Use the water pollution hotline 0800 80 70 60 to report pollution. It can be contacted 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
* Community groups can contact the Rivers Trust co-ordinator to find out more about protecting or improving rivers in their area. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
* People can also go on to the NIEA website www.doeni.gov.uk/niea for more information on the water environment.