Minister halts unauthorised sand extraction
OPERATORS involved in the unauthorised extraction of sand from Lough Neagh have been ordered to stop their activities by environment chiefs.
Warning letters were sent to several sand firms yesterday to wind up their operations on the lough by June 30.
Enforcement notices were served on firms involved in the alleged activity yesterday.
Mark H Durkan had previously ordered a halt to the practice after it emerged they had no planning permission.
Speaking last night Mr Durkan said he was “convinced on the basis of the evidence gathered by officials” that unauthorised extraction was continuing.”
He also warned that failure to comply “with an enforcement notice is a criminal offence.”
“I had hoped that the operators would have stopped dredging voluntarily pending the resolution of the matter,” he said.
“The operators had indicated to me some time ago that they would be submitting a planning application to regularise the situation. I am disappointed that to date no application has been received.”
The minister said that any new planning application will be require “significant survey work” to inform and environmental impact statement as well as information about wildlife and natural habitats.
“Therefore, the department cannot simply postpone formal action pending the submission of a planning application as it appears to me that this will not happen anytime soon,” Mr Durkan said.
The minister said he recognised that sand extraction has “important economic benefits” but said he has a “responsibility to carefully balance such economic impacts with any potential harm to the environment”.
“To date I have seen no conclusive evidence that the activity is not causing environmental damage,” he said.
“Therefore I have no option but to take a precautionary approach until it can be demonstrated the activity can be carried out without unacceptable impact on the natural environment.”
He said his officials will continue to monitor the activities of operators on the lough.
“Should activity continue further enforcement powers are available to the Department, including legal action,” he said.
The development comes just days after the Irish News revealed that the Northern Ireland Audit Office has launched an investigation into the activity.
Lough Neagh - Ireland's largest inland waterway - is designated as a Special Protection Area and is also an Area of Special Scientific Interest.
Around 120 million tonnes of sand are dredged from the bed of Lough Neagh each year.
A fee is paid to the Shaftesbury Estate, which owns the bed of the lake, for every tonne taken.
The sand, which is favoured by builders, is then used by the construction industry.
It is believed around 150 people are employed in the sand extraction industry which has been going since the 1930s.
The environment minister had been coming under increasing pressure to act after it emerged that two of his department's most senior officials warned four months ago “that formal enforcement action should be initiated to ensure the cessation of the activities”.
It also emerged that officials had considered hiring a helicopter to monitor the sand companies as part of their year-long investigation.