DUP stall Lough Neagh rescue plan over proposal to ban excess fertiliser on farms

A photo taken by police officers from the PSNI helicopter on Sunday shows a return of algal blooms on Lough Neagh.A photo taken by police officers from the PSNI helicopter on Sunday shows a return of algal blooms on Lough Neagh.
A photo taken by police officers from the PSNI helicopter on Sunday shows a return of algal blooms on Lough Neagh.
As toxic algae accumulates again in Lough Neagh, the approval of an action plan by the executive before the election appears increasingly unlikely – despite commitments from all parties to find an urgent solution to the unprecedented environmental disaster.

Just last month the assembly passed a motion noting the “biodiversity and ecological breakdown in Lough Neagh”.

It comes as the News Letter can reveal that the number of pollution incidents caused by Northern Ireland Water in the lough’s catchment area increased last year.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

A plan has been drawn up by the Environment Minister Andrew Muir to deal with pollution of the lough and improve its water quality – but a cancelled executive meeting yesterday has further delayed the proposals, and it is not certain it will even make the executive for consideration if, as expected, it meets again on Monday.

The DUP is understood to have objected to parts of the plan including on new regulations for certain fertilisers, which are a major pollutant in the lough as they feed the growth of the toxic ‘blue green algae’ bacteria.

Two key proposals from Mr Muir are understood to have been opposed by the DUP.

One is a new regulation to ban excess phosphorous (fertiliser) being put on the land if the soil already has enough under the Soil Nutrient Health Scheme. The minister wanted a ban, which the DUP opposed – it is understood a reduction will instead be brought forward as a compromise.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The second proposal understood to have been opposed by the DUP is a consultation on the sentencing framework around fines and penalties for environmental crimes such as waste dumping and polluting rivers.

The DUP didn’t answer a question from the News Letter about why it opposed Mr Muir’s plan.

In a statement Paul Girvan told the News Letter: “There must be a concerted effort to tackle the sources of pollution, protect habitats, prevent biodiversity loss and preserve water quality in both Lough Neagh and our rivers throughout Northern Ireland.

“The DUP supports a multi-agency response, and approach, to the ecological crisis in Lough Neagh; targeted initiatives to prevent pollutants entering our waterways and enforcement action for those who repeatedly or deliberately pollute our rivers or lakes.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

If the executive meets again on Monday it is still unclear whether it will back the environment minister’s plan for a rescue package – even if it is approved for discussion by the first ministers.

Earlier this week, the Alliance Daera minister told the assembly he would write to the first minister and the deputy first minister to request the use of urgent procedure to approve the report and action plan.

“If the executive meeting does not occur this week and urgent procedure is not granted, I will have to consider my options,” he said.

Ulster Unionist MLA Robin Swann told the News Letter: “In recent months, a number of initiatives have either been put in place or are planned to help improve the water quality in Lough Neagh. While these plans are very welcome there are other aspects that may have greater positive impacts, like improved anaerobic digestion processes and woodland buffer zones.”

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The News Letter can reveal that the number of pollution incidents in the Lough Neagh catchment area caused by NI Water increased last year.

An assembly question, tabled by Mr Swann, revealed monthly pollution incidents “attributed to a discharge from a NI Water asset within the Lough Neagh catchment”.

There were 33 incidents in 2021, 18 incidents in 2022 and 25 incidents in 2023.

The figures were released by Daera, who said “there were no pollution incidents in Lough Neagh during this three-year period that were caused by direct discharges from NI Water’s wastewater assets”.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

SDLP MLA Patsy McGlone, who lives close to Lough Neagh, said the health of the lough is of huge concern to local residents who are worried about a repeat of last year.

“They don’t want last year revisited upon us. The smell, the noxious odours, the sight of this – and people not being able to use the lough along with all their reservations about water quality and stuff like that.

“By this stage, we should have seen action from the executive. All parties committed to action, yet we haven’t heard a peep yet.

“I remember meeting with departmental officials back in December. At that stage they were anticipating a pretty extensive action plan being available round about the tail end of February, beginning of March.

“And here we are,” he told the News Letter.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Sinn Fein did not respond when asked if they would support the Daera minister’s plans at the next executive meeting.

The Department of Infrastructure didn’t respond to questions about whether it would support aspects of the plans which affect its remit.

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.