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Will new watchdog make polluters pay for ruining rivers?

By David Gordon

Criminal prosecutions for river pollution incidents in Northern Ireland are “far too rare”, a UK-wide angling organisation has claimed.

The Anglers’ Conservation Association (ACA), which takes private legal action against polluters, also said it has been repeatedly disappointed by the province’s Department of the Environment.

As this newspaper revealed last week, the ACA secured a £1,000 payout from a Co Down firm for a 2006 oil spill in Co Antrim.

It instigated civil proceedings against the company after the DoE’s Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) issued it with a warning letter for diesel oil pollution of the Threemilewater River.

The £1,000 payment will be used by a local angling club to rejuvenate the Newtownabbey waterway.

Official figures have shown that EHS opted for twice as many warning letters as prosecutions in water pollution cases last year.

Many critics of the Environment and Heritage Service’s record have campaigned for it to be replaced by a new watchdog, operating independently from government.

DUP Minister Arlene Foster instead opted recently to rebrand EHS as the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

ACA Executive Director Mark Lloyd said his organisation has taken up a number of other river pollution cases in the province.

He said: “The Anglers’ Conservation Association has been involved in several cases in Northern Ireland relating to pollution of our members’ waters recently.

“We have been consistently disappointed by the performance of the EHS — now the NIEA — with regard both to investigation of pollution incidents and enforcement of the law.

“The ACA can claim civil damages for its members, but we rely on the statutory authorities to provide an additional deterrent in the form of criminal prosecutions and fines, which are far too rare.

“Polluters should pay, and be seen to pay, for damaging the water environment which is so fundamental to the natural heritage of Northern Ireland.

“We hope the new regime at the NIEA will start investigating and punishing polluters with much more vigour.”

Responding to the criticism, a DoE spokesperson said: “NIEA will continue to enforce water pollution incidents with vigour where it is appropriate to do so and in line with its enforcement policy.

“NIEA is keen to support the angling clubs, and indeed the ACA, in providing case information that will support restocking costs at the appropriate time.

“In the past NIEA officers have offered to meet with ACA representatives to discuss their concerns, but they declined.”

Pollution: the figures

The DoE last year recorded 1,259 water pollution cases.

Of this total, 22 incidents were classified as high severity, 203 as medium and 1034 as low.

Alleged offenders were recommended by EHS for warning letters on 135 occasions, and for prosecution in 62 cases.

The DoE s says enforcement action will normally only be taken for incidents of high or medium severity, but it can be considered for persistent low severity incidents.

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