Northern Irish Government acted unlawfully by not stopping Lough Neagh sand dredging, says Court of Appeal

Published by Kate O'Brien on

3rd July 2017

The Northern Ireland Government acted unlawfully by not stopping sand dredging at Lough Neagh, the Court of Appeal has found.

Environmental group Friends of the Earth took the Department of the Environment to court for its failure to stop up to two million tonnes of sand being dredged from Lough Neagh annually without planning permission.

Lough Neagh is the largest freshwater lake by area in the British Isles, providing 40 per cent of Northern Ireland’s water and around a quarter of the sand needed for the construction industry.

The court ruled that former Environmental Minister, Mark H Durkan, was incorrect when he issued an enforcement notice rather than a stop notice which allowed companies to continue extraction pending an appeal.

An Environmental Impact Assessment and a Habitats Regulation Assessment are also currently missing in relation to sand dredging in the lake despite the lake’s designations as an Area of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Protection Area.

The lake is also protected under the Ramsar Convention, an intergovernmental treaty for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources.

Commenting on the Court of Appeal’s decision, Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland Director James Orr said that it was a “scandal” that Government took so long to understand its legal obligations.

“It shouldn’t be left to groups like Friends of the Earth to ensure environmental law is followed,” he added. “People shouldn’t have to force the authorities to protect special places like Lough Neagh.

“This ruling by the highest court in Northern Ireland sends a powerful signal to the government to take our environment seriously and to safeguard precious natural jewels like Lough Neagh,” he concluded.

The Department of Environment had previously accepted that there could be many significant effects from dredging on the lake and environs in a document called an EIA determination.

Over 20 likely significant environmental effects were identified including pollution, disturbance of sand bars, disturbance to wildlife, depletion of a finite resource, sediment deposition from barges, traffic movements, and impacts on other industries such as fishing and tourism.

Craig Bennett, Chief Executive of Friends of the Earth, England, Wales and Northern Ireland added that the decision will be “crucially important for the protection of all our precious nature areas”.

He also pointed to the need for the British Government to “adopt strong nature laws” to protect the environment once the UK leaves the EU.

“The public wants proper protection for nature,” he said. “The case today was won because of EU law and demonstrates how vital these are in protecting our environment.”

In the 1980s, the Lough supported the UK’s largest concentrations of overwintering waterfowl, including scaup, pochard, whooper swans and tufted duck. The Lough also has its own unique species of fish called the Dollaghan which is a variety of brown trout.

The eels of Lough Neagh travel over 4,000 miles to breed in the Sargasso Sea and the young fry return by drifting on the Gulf Stream back over the Atlantic and enter the River Bann as young elvers.

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Kate O'Brien

Kate is a freelance writer with work published in The Guardian, the Financial Times and the New York Times blog. She is a former Editor of The Plant, a UK magazine on plants and other greenery