Northern Ireland news

Northern Ireland facing millions of pounds in EU fines over environmental failures - even after Brexit

Dundrum Bay in Co Down has seen a statistically significant deterioration in shellfish flesh

NORTHERN Ireland is facing EU fines totalling millions of pounds over a catalogue of environmental failures - even after Brexit.

Internal Environment Agency memos seen by The Irish News lay bare the extent ongoing damage pollution is causing to waterways and air quality.

Among the alarming 'infractions' of EU standards are failures for shellfish waters at Belfast Lough and Dundrum Bay to meet food hygiene regulations, breaches of air quality levels in greater Belfast and Derry and Strabane district and failures to preserve wildlife and flora through special conservation areas.

"There has been statistically significant deterioration in shellfish flesh at some sites in Belfast Lough, in Dundrum Bay South mussels and Dundrum Bay North Oysters."

There was deterioration in 52 water bodies between 2015-18.

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) has refused to answer repeated queries about the looming crisis.

The Irish News revealed last week concerns the Environment Agency may be reducing its wetlands sampling "to avoid scrutiny".

A damning report on the north's estuaries noted "a high level of uncertainty in the confidence" of the level of breaches of EU standards "due to the low numbers of samples available to calculate the annual average".

The European Commission has begun proceedings against the UK over the issues detailed in the latest documents.

Northern Ireland will be liable to millions of pounds in fines, with additional thousands of pounds in weekly sanctions.

James Orr, director of Friends of the Earth NI, said even leaving the EU will not shield the north's taxpayers from the punitive financial penalties.

"Even if Brexit happens, this infraction process will still be live as these cases are already in the system," he said.

"Any fines will come out of the Northern Ireland block grant putting further strains on the ability of the government to restore these degraded ecosystems and our air quality."

In 2008, the European Court of Justice and commission required the French government pay €10m for delaying changes to its legal system to comply with EU law.

Belgium was handed a lump sum fine of €15 million by court at the request of the commission for water violations in 2010.

Mr Orr said the department should have been proactive in preventing the damage to the north's rich environmental heritage.

"This government's record on environmental protection is here is an international disgrace."

SDLP environment spokesman John Dallat said Daera's latest consultation on the 2019 Waste Management Plan which closes on December 12 "comes against a shocking background of inaction".

"The current Waste Management Plan is in contravention the (EU) Habitats Directive.

"Over 90 per cent of Northern Ireland's European-designated protected habitats now exceed their critical threshold for ammonia with over 86 per cent of these sites by double their critical threshold.

"Add to this the reality that the Marine Plan for Northern Ireland has not been published nor adopted and this has significant implications for dredging and dumping at sea."

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