Northern Ireland

Lough Neagh sand-dredging: Friends of the Earth 'grossly overstated' impact

Dredging companies continue to work on the lough
Image caption Friends of the Earth is challenging a decision not to halt sand dredging on Lough Neagh

An environmental group has "grossly overstated" the impact of sand dredging on Lough Neagh, a court has been told.

It was not listed as a potential threat on one UK scheme that gave it protection.

On another key EU scheme, it was listed as "not a major threat" to its protected status, a barrister claimed.

Lough Neagh is an internationally recognised bird sanctuary with EU protections.

The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs is contesting a case over a former minister's decision not to immediately halt unauthorised sand dredging on the lough.

Cessation

In 2015, Mark H Durkan, then the environment minister, decided not to issue a stop notice to prevent the dredging, which did not have planning permission.

His decision to issue an enforcement notice instead meant the dredging companies could appeal and continue working, pending the outcome.

That appeal to the Planning Appeals Commission is still to be heard and sand extraction is continuing on the lough.

The court heard the sand companies had spent £500,000 in perpetration for the PAC hearing.

Their barrister said they would be making a planning application and that it was wrong to suggest they were stalling.

He also said the traders had regular contact with the authorities over their operations.

"There was nothing clandestine or hidden," he said.

Image caption Lough Neagh is an internationally recognised bird sanctuary with EU protections

A stop notice would have meant an immediate cessation of dredging and could only have been challenged in the courts.

The Friends of the Earth group is challenging Mr Durkan's decision not to issue the stop notice.

But a barrister for the department said given some of the "hyperbole" employed in the case, "you would think the world is about to end in terms of the ecology of Lough Neagh".

Precautionary

Earlier, a barrister for Friends of the Earth said no reasonable minister could have made the decision not to immediately halt the dredging.

He said Mr Durkan had "no option" but to issue a stop notice as the dredging was in breach of planning regulations and EU laws protecting birds and habitats.

Under European law, development should not be allowed in sensitive areas unless it is proven to present no risk.

It was claimed that so-called "precautionary principle" had not been satisfied in this case.

A later desktop study, prepared by the department, had found that the impact of dredging was "probably negligible".

But counsel for Friends of the Earth claimed the report was not exhaustive and "major important gaps" in the potential impact of dredging had been identified.

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