Sand traders granted extra 12 months for study
Campaigners have reacted angrily after firms involved in the unauthorised extraction of sand from Lough Neagh were given an extra 12 months to carry out environmental studies on the lake.
The Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) made the decision after traders appealed enforcement notices issued by environment minister Mark H Durkan earlier this year.
It is understood the environment minister could have ordered a stop notice but instead issued a less rigid enforcement notice.
Sand traders are allowed to continue their activities while the PAC considers their case and have continued to pump thousands of tonnes of sand from the lough each day despite having no planning permission.
The decision by the PAC to extend the study deadline until then end of October next year means sand will continue to be extracted until then at least.
In its submission to the PAC the DoE said it "did not consider it reasonable to extend the deadline, given the importance of identifying the environmental impacts of mineral extraction on the Lough Neagh system."
In his ruling PAC commissioner Trevor Rue said that it was necessary to allow extra time for the series of studies to be carried out adding that "concerns about ongoing development could be addressed by a stop notice, but that is a matter for the department."
Several environmental groups opposed the extension including the Green Party and Friends of the Earth which is currently taking legal action over the department’s failure to issue a stop notice.
According to Mr Rue they argued that the "deadline for submission should not be extended while sand extraction continues."
He said The Lough Neagh Fisherman’s Co-Operative, which controls the lough’s commercial eel fishery, said that"“sand extraction had been taking place in areas of the lough known to provide prime habitat for juvenile fish."
"They said such sensitive areas were fast disappearing and previously dredged areas had remained devoid of fish life decades after dredgers had gone," he said.
"They argued that if an extension of time were granted, then dredging activity should be restricted to a clearly defined area well away from the sensitive fishing areas."
Green Party assembly member Steven Agnew, who has campaigned on the issue said, "it is unacceptable that unauthorised sand extraction will continue for at least another year."
"Untold damage is being done to the unique ecosystem of Lough Neagh while the dredging continues.
"The cessation of dredging will allow for proper environmental impact assessment to be carried out would allow for sufficient time to allow this to be conducted without further damage being done to the lough."
A spokesman for the DoE declined to comment due to legal proceedings.