Northern Ireland the dirty man of these islands

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.

  • Green Ink

    No comments? Symptomatic of how environmental issues are regarded in NI?

  • DK

    Only the DUP interested in the environment? Still won’t stop me voting for the Green party first (not Sinn Fein, the environmental one).

    The biggest concern should be Lough Neagh – this is a unique lake and the loss of it would far outweigh a few tampons washed up in Helens Bay. Fecking farmers – law unto themselves.

  • Mick Fealty

    Nice work George. I’ve some more to add to this, so will blog later. But this story demonstrates one of the most serious costs of not having direct democratic oversight over local issues.

    The behaviour of some senior civil servants in response to repeated requests for information from the Water Council, for instance, has been highly questionable.

  • pith

    Wasn’t Jim Wells of the DUP ridiculed by Paisley Jnr of the DUP for supporting an Environmental Protection Agency?

  • Mick Fealty


    What time period did that rise to virtual compliance take place in the Republic?

  • environmentsupporter

    “Wasn’t Jim Wells of the DUP ridiculed by Paisley Jnr of the DUP for supporting an Environmental Protection Agency?”

    Yes, all parties support the creation of an Environmental Protection Agency, the UUP have even produced a policy paper on it. Jim Wells, the former spokesperson on the environment also supported it but since he stood down the DUP have not supported the creation of an EPA. There is no immediately obvious reason for that, although the UFU are also sceptical about the idea so they could be trying to curry favour with them.

    However, an Environmental Protection Agency is well overdue here, Scotland, England, Wales and the Republic of Ireland all have one. There is no earthly reason why NI should continue lagging behind.

    “No comments? Symptomatic of how environmental issues are regarded in NI?”

    Well, indeed, put up a story about some over churched pillock getting a blow job in a hotel room and everyone wants to say but something as important as this provokes so little – sad indication of posters on this site.

  • pith

    My inclination would be to support the establishiment of such an agency. Is there clear evidence that they have helped improve environmental protection in Great Britain? Also, would an Agency in Northern Ireland have any powers in relation to planning? Anything that can stop the plague of the double-garage bungalows has my support.

  • George

    According to Irish Environment Minister Dick Roche last August compliance with European standards was just 25 per cent in 2000 but had risen 90 per cent by the end of 2004.

    But that took 2.4 billion euros to achieve.

    Before this almost half of the Irish Republic’s sewage plants discharged to environmentally sensitive waters, and 43 per cent of all sewage went effectively untreated.

    It will take “a few years” to reach 100 per cent apparently.

    Some good things have come out, which NI could maybe learn from.

    Local authorities now have to audit their waste water facilities and provide a breakdown of required future capacity.

    This can then be useful in informing county development plans on where capacity exists or is planned.

    It is planned to provide secondary treatment for all population centres with a population in excess of 1,000 as well as requiring each sanitary authority to make a strategic water services plan every six years.

  • environmentsupporter

    “Is there clear evidence that they have helped improve environmental protection in Great Britain?”

    Yes, the rest of the UK is well ahead of NI in terms of environmental protection. One of the main issues that I think the UFU have with it is that there is a possibility that an EPA in Northern Ireland could have powers to prosecute pollluters.

    “Also, would an Agency in Northern Ireland have any powers in relation to planning? Anything that can stop the plague of the double-garage bungalows has my support. ”

    No but planning will be devolved down to local council when the RPA comes in. It’ll then be up to the policians who gets planning permission – not sure if thats worse or better!

    If you want to read more about it, I would particularly recommend the Northern Ireland Environment Link’s website for information about it.