Lough Neagh sand extraction 'doesn't harm ecology'
Sand extraction in Lough Neagh does not harm its ecology and may actually help it, according to an environmental report commissioned by the companies involved.
Five firms dredge up to 1.5m tonnes of sand from the bed of the lough every year.
They were served with enforcement notices in 2015 after it emerged that the work had no planning permission.
The matter is before the courts and the planning appeals commission.
Environmentalists claim the dredging could be impacting the site and have called for extraction to stop.
The lough has European environmental protection due to the importance of the birdlife which uses it.
Earlier this year, the sand companies applied for planning permission for 15 years' extraction.
The environmental report has been commissioned to accompany the application and has just been published.
It says sand dredging will be concentrated on an area of 3.1km sq of the lough, less than 1% of its entire area.
And it says there's no evidence this is having a detrimental impact.
Rather, it says, dredging has helped create flooded woodland, scrub and reed-bed habitat around the edges of the lough.
The report says there are almost 100m tonnes of glacial deposit sand and gravel available.
The 1.5m tonnes taken each year accounts for 30% of Northern Ireland's domestic sand requirements.
The industry supports almost 50 jobs in extraction and almost 200 more in cement and concrete manufacture.