Northern Ireland

Call for change in pollution penalties

Low level pollution can affect rivers and streams
Image caption Low level pollution can affect rivers and streams

Northern Ireland's Environment Agency is to seek permission for changes on how it deals with landowners responsible for low-level pollution.

But inspectors say while they are asking EU officials for flexibility, they are not "going soft" on farmers.

The move is part of a wide-ranging agreement between the NIEA and the Ulster Farmers' Union.

It is meant to reduce conflict between inspectors and farmers, while improving compliance by offering advice.

Under EU rules, farmers who cause pollution are automatically referred for an inspection.

This is done whether the pollution is severe, moderate or low level.

It can result in a hefty penalty being applied to their annual EU subsidy payment.

Speeding ticket-style notice

Now the NIEA is proposing a change, but only for those who are responsible for low-level pollution.

Image caption The agreement was signed by David Small of NIEA and the UFU's Wesley Aston

This would see a fixed penalty notice, similar to a speeding ticket or a mandatory training course, instead of the inspection and potential subsidy cut.

The change needs to be agreed by Europe and has been opposed by some environmentalists.

'Let's work together'

Pollution from farms accounted for almost one in three of all incidents investigated by the NIEA in 2015.

Of the 327 farm-related pollution incidents last year, seven were "high severity", 52 were medium and 268 were low.

Image caption Agriculture was the source of one in three pollution incidents

A similar idea three years ago was rejected by the European Commission which said it would be a breach of the rules and could lead to fines on the Stormont executive.

Chief Executive of the NIEA, David Small, said: "If someone breaches the law we will prosecute, if someone has been unclear about their requirements then I would far rather make sure they understand their requirements and obligations and do that in a way that achieves a better environmental outcome."

Europe may again refuse permission for the changes, but the proposals could well feature in plans around regional agriculture arrangements after Brexit.

Wesley Aston of the Ulster Farmers' Union said the agreement was about delivering "positive environmental outcomes".

"Rather than use the stick approach and penalties, we're saying 'let's work together on this,' and solve the problems before they become a problem."

Related Topics