Environment Minister questioned at Stormont today over Lough Neagh sand extraction

SDLP MLA for Foyle, Environment Minister Mark H Durkan
SDLP MLA for Foyle, Environment Minister Mark H Durkan

Northern Ireland’s Green Party leader has voiced his disappointment at the Environment Minister for failing to stop Lough Neagh sand extraction.

His comments came after South Tyrone Sinn Fein MLA Bronwyn McGahan asked Mark H Durkan how he plans to address “ongoing sand dredging on Lough Neagh” at Stormont today [Tuesday].

A sand barge working on Lough Neagh

A sand barge working on Lough Neagh

But, because of the “recently instigated legal challenge in relation to the department’s ongoing enforcement case”, Minister Durkan said he was limited to what he could say on the matter.

Outlining the actions he has taken, he said during environment question time that a letter was sent to those involved on September 25, 2014 asking them to “cease until this situation has been addressed”.

Since that action, he said he also issued an Enforcement Notice on May 27 this year, which “ceased to have effect pending the PAC’s determination of the appeal”.

“Responsibility for determining the status of enforcement action and whether planning approval should be granted for the sand-dredging activities concerned has passed to the jurisdiction of the PAC [Planning Appeals Commission],” he added.

Toome locals said they have never seen the piles of sand being taken from the bed of Lough Neagh, grow so big

Toome locals said they have never seen the piles of sand being taken from the bed of Lough Neagh, grow so big

Ms McGahan further questioned the Minister over concerns sand extraction was impacting on fishermen, saying: “When does the Minister expect the case to conclude?”

His reply: “I could not even hazard a guess as to how long it will take. It is the subject now of a judicial review. Legal action has been brought by a third party who would like stop notices issued, which would, I suppose, satisfy the fishermen to some extent.”

Green Party leader, Steven Agnew MLA said: “I am disappointed at what appears to be a wasted opportunity for the Environment Minister to take decisive action and stop the unauthorised sand dredging on Lough Neagh.

“I fully understand that he does not wish to comment due to ongoing legal action, however that should not preclude him from bringing a halt to the indiscriminate environmental damage that is taking place until such times that the sand traders can prove they are not causing harm to the environment.”

Five Sand Traders and the Shaftesbury Estate have until the end of November to submit an Environmental Impact Assessment to PAC, but have requested almost a year’s extension to cover all the seasonal changes with their report.

DOE said: “It would not be appropriate for the department to comment now that this matter is before the court.”