Body at centre of Lough Neagh probe gave training to planning officials
A QUARRY association provided minerals training to planning officials while some of its members were under investigation for the unauthorised pumping of sand from Lough Neagh.
The Quarry Products Association Northern Ireland (QPANI), which represents some of the firms involved in the extraction of sand from the lake, provided training to planning staff three times last year.
In 2014 Environment Minister Mark H Durkan requested several firms to stop taking sand from the lough after it emerged that they did not have planning permission.
Several companies involved in the practice subsequently ignored the request and were eventually issued with an enforcement notice last May.
Since then sand traders have lodged an appeal with the Planning Appeals Commission and continue to pump thousands of tonnes of sand from the lough each day.
It has now emerged that QPANI provided minerals training to Department of the Environment staff in February and March of this year - after the time some members were asked by the minister to stop their activities.
In the past the QPANI has spoken on behalf of Lough Neagh sand traders.
Concerns have been raised that unregulated sand extraction has damaged the lough's environment.
Around 120 million tonnes of sand are dredged from the bed of Lough Neagh each year.
Details of the training arrangement were recently provided to Green Party assembly member Steven Agnew by the environment minister.
Mr Agnew last night said he was stunned by the admission.
"I find it astonishing that while Quarry Products Association members were being investigated for unauthorised sand extraction, that the QPA was providing training to planning authorities,” he said.
"Planning officials are responsible for regulating QPA members and should not be taking instruction from them.”
Mr Agnew said he has asked Mr Durkan for more details about the training arrangement.
"While dialogue between planners and the QPA is important, training suggests something more directive,” he said.
"This would appear to be a case of the cart pulling the horse and I will be seeking further detail from the Minister of the Environment as to what this training entailed."
In his response to Mr Agnew the DoE confirmed “Quarry Products Association (QPA) partnered the Planning Division in bringing forward bespoke training”.
The DoE also claims “the input from QPA was provided free of charge and encompassed presentations from the Woodland Trust and RSPB”.
Environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth, have been critical of Mr Durkan decision to issue a less rigid enforcement notice to sand traders instead of a stop notice..
It is currently taking legal action over the department’s failure to issue a stop notice.
A spokesman for the DoE said it organised a series of training seminars for planning staff in local councils and that the QPANI was invited to take part.
“The Department considers it was appropriate to invite these groups to the training seminars,” he said.
Spokesman for the QPA Gordon Best said: “Those presentations informed the officials of the importance of the industry in each council.
“And also the very pro-active work that goes on with various NGO groups in protecting and enhancing bio-diversity”.