Lough Neagh sand-dredging: DoE to reveal action plans
The Department of the Environment will confirm how it intends to deal with the controversial issue of sand dredging in Lough Neagh in "the next few days".
The department says it has been gathering evidence of alleged breaches.
It has emerged that departmental officials discussed using a helicopter at a cost of up to £540 an hour to observe the sand operation as part of that evidence-gathering.
The companies were told to stop after it emerged in 2013 that sand extraction on the lough had no planning permission.
The area is an important wildlife habitat protected by EU directives.
Sand has been removed from the lough since the 1930s, and about 150 people are employed in the industry.
Warning letters telling the dredgers to stop were issued in September 2014.
Allegations were made that the work had continued.
The advice to use a helicopter is in a briefing document prepared for Stormont Environment Minister Mark H Durkan and senior officials in February this year.
It was drawn up by chief planning officer Fiona McCandless and the former head of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency Terry A'Hearn.
In it they said evidence that work was continuing was "not considered an appropriate standard to confirm a breach".
They advised that the department should begin its own investigations.
They said information requested from the sand operators about the volume of sand being taken "had not been forthcoming".
This made it impossible to do an environmental screening as required under European habitats regulations.
Ms McCandless said in the absence of the information, the department should assess the impact of the dredging operation on the site "based on the information available" to it.
Failure to act could be "could be legally construed as giving consent, permission or other authorisation," she said.
The briefing note says that if a breach is confirmed, officials can begin enforcement action to ensure the work stops.
Sand dredging could only resume if planning permission is then granted.
DoE officials have been working with representatives of the sand dredgers since February 2014 to "seek regularisation of activities on the lough".
Among the issues discussed are the details of a environmental statement that would accompany any planning application.
The briefing documents says planners have been told an application "will not be submitted until the end of 2015 at the earliest".
Green Party MLA Steven Agnew has raised a complaint under the EU regulations, demanding that the department moves immediately to stop the unauthorised activity.
The Northern Ireland Audit Office has also begun its own review of a number of issues surrounding the sand extraction from Lough Neagh.
It is looking at the environmental impact of the dredging; the enforcement around it; and tax exemptions available to the operators.
Mr Durkan said in a statement: "In the time since the request to cease operations was issued, officials have, under my instruction, been gathering evidence of the level required, and I expect to be in a position to confirm how I will proceed in the next few days."