It seems that Northern Ireland, which I understand is the only part of these islands without an independent environmental protection agency, has the least protected environment in the UK and Ireland. For example, according to Friends of the Earth, in the coastal town of Bangor, sewage from more than 60,000 people is discharged untreated into the Irish Sea meaning beaches along the north coast are now littered with human waste, toilet paper and sanitary towels.
Northern Ireland is required to meet its obligations under the European Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive (UWWTD) which ensures the provision of an adequate level of sewerage infrastructure and treatment.
However, in numeric terms, compliance of sewage treatment works with EU standards fell from 53% in 2000 to 35% in 2001 (when new EU obligations came into force), compared with 95% compliance in England and Wales for the previous five years.
In 2002, the Northern Ireland Executive recognised that massive problems with sewerage infrastructure were creating a blockage to its equally massive housing programme when its own environmental advisory body, the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS), began objecting to planning applications on environmental and legal grounds.
The EHS was then ordered by ministers to refrain from objecting to planning applications in areas where such developments would cause environmental harm as a result of inadequate sewerage infrastructure. The policy was contingent on the implementation of an ambitious capital works programme for improving Northern Ireland’s sewerage infrastructure by the Water Service.
The Water Service is also responsible for determining and issuing discharge consents, which allow new house developments to discharge sewage.
In 2005, Friends of the Earth asked the Water Service to give an undertaking not to issue any further discharge consents in areas of inadequate sewerage infrastructure. When it refused, the judicial review followed. Although the court did not find that the Water Service’s continued connections in areas of non-compliance were themselves unlawful, the court found that the body’s failure even to take into account the requirements of the UWWTD when exercising its consent powers was unlawful and made a declaration accordingly.
During the proceedings it emerged that that in the year prior to June 2005 there were 325 discharge applications relating to development sites and 413 single property discharge applications in areas of legally inadequate sewerage infrastructure and that, of those applications, not a single consent had been refused.
We now have a situation where Lough Neagh is the most polluted lake in Ireland and one of the most polluted in Europe. Fertiliser and animal waste from farms are the main sources of nitrates and phosphates seeping into the lake and poisoning it. The situation is not helped by the fact that 60 per cent of septic tank discharges in the area are reaching surface waters.
Then there is the problem of the illegal dumping of waste, much of it from over the border. In the last two years, the Environment and Heritage Service has detected approximately 40 illegal landfill sites in Northern Ireland containing some 250,000 tonnes of waste from the Irish Republic.
Companies are also failing to comply with licences on water pollution. For example, in 2003 over 40 per cent of companies failed to comply with their
licences to pollute water. This compares with around 30 per cent in England and Wales – and just 16 per cent in Scotland.
In its defence, the Water Service will invest £290 million pounds (424 million euros) in infrastructure improvement in the three-year period to 2008. A lot of money but the question is whether it’s enough? In comparison, the Irish Republic is now spending 450 million euros annually on new water and sewerage facilities. Compliance with the EU Urban Wastewater Directive rose from 25% to 84% at the end of 2003 there.
Meanwhile a question by the DUP’s Sammy Wilson at Westminster revealed that seven out of 35 relevant Water Service waste water treatment works in Northern Ireland did not meet the requirements of the Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive as they did not have the required secondary treatment. In addition 13 works failed to meet either the effluent quality standards or the monitoring requirements of the UWWTD.