Treating the environment like sh*te…

It’s hardly surprising that the front page of the FT this morning that the European Commission wants to make breaches of its environmental directives criminal. In Northern Ireland, the environment comes a poor second to house price hikes and restrictive planning issues with all of its parties (bar the Greens of course). Ferghal McKinney, with some interesting clips from Bangor and Donaghadee, showing the brown outflow of raw sewerage sewage into the Irish Sea just on the Donaghadee side of Groomsport…In fact, since the Bangor area began its rapid expansion in the late sixties and early seventies, its infrastructure has not been able to keep pace. Now, literally, the human waste (just look at the colour of the water hitting the rocks) from a 60,000 population is going straight into the sea, untreated. This from Friends of the Earth:

At the moment there is raw sewage being discharged at Bangor (Briggs Rocks just outside Groomsport) with a population equivalent (PE) of 92414; Donaghadee with a PE of 33600; Portrush (Ramore Head), PE 16391; and Portstewart with a PE just under 10,000. There are probably some small discharges too – Portballintrae, for example.

Population equivalent is a measure of the amount of sewage a works has to deal with. It includes the population of the area plus industry, shops, small businesses and anything else here people are likely to use the sewage network. The biggest contributor is the population, so it gives a fair idea of how many people’s sewage is being discharged, untreated in these areas.

All of this is supposed to be governed by both by EU Directive and its transposition into domestic UK law: hence the European Court of Justice’s damning judgement.

Background:

In 2002, according to Dermot Nesbitt, formerly the Minister responsible for the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS), Northern Ireland’s environmental advisory body tasked with monitoring environmental impacts:

• Compliance of sewage treatment works with EU standards fell from 53% in 2000 to 35% in 2001.
• Compliance with domestic standards fell from 81% in 2000 to 57% in 2001.
• Compares with 95% compliance in England and Wales for at least the past five years”.

He further noted that, “the situation reflects the increased stringency of the regulatory standards and not an overall deterioration in the system’s performance”. In other words, this decrease in compliance was not real, but rather a result of closer democratic oversight of the problem.

As a result of identifying this crisis, all planning applications in 57 environmental hotspots were put on hold as a result of concerns over the capacity of the local infrastructure to cope with the extra loading.

A Ministerial fudge:

However, on October 7th 2002, two weeks before the suspension of the devolved Assembly, the Minister announced a compromise between his department and the Department for Regional Development, to the effect that in the short term, he would waive any systematic objection to further development in all of the hotspots, despite the minister’s own legal advice which:

“…emphasised the need for a precautionary approach, taking account of both European and domestic law, and for careful consideration of the issues”.

The Minister for the Department of Regional Development, Peter Robinson, was asked to produce a paper outlining:

“…a location-by-location examination of the compliance problems and the work needed to resolve them together with a comparison of the projects and priorities in the Water Service capital works programme”.

The compromise was based on:

“…an acknowledgement that an absolute constraint on development in those areas with a significant degree of non-compliance with environmental standards until such time as the deficiencies in the sewerage infrastructure can be corrected would have a crippling effect on physical development across Northern Ireland. Such an approach, despite the high level of environmental protection it would have afforded, would have carried a high price in respect of constraints in economic growth and social progress.”

The contentious nature of the issue is contained in the Minister’s speech:

“…it means that developments will continue to connect to the public sewer in areas where the current inadequacy of the sewage collection and treatment systems is having a high or medium environmental impact.”

The decision to drop the requirement to address environmental impacts before development was:

“…based on the Water Service’s commitment to deliver the capital works programme as currently planned, subject to the completion of statutory processes.”

Finally the minister stated that he had:

“…established clear monitoring and review mechanisms by way of a close and clear relationship between the Department of the Environment and the Department for Regional Development, and sought to encourage opportunities for the construction industry to assist in the solution of those problems”.

In an update table, published in March 2005*, charting the progress in each of the hotspots it notes that nine of the new works planned at the time of the mininster’s statement were completed, and several others were slated to reach completion by autumn 2005. The last time I checked early last year, no official review of the status of any of the hotspots had been undertaken.

– The special status of the hotspots, which restrains the status and focus of EHS advice, still holds as they did in 2002, regardless of any consequent change in status.

– The timetable has slipped with some projects not being slated for completion until 2009 – i.e. years outside the Minister’s projected timetable.

A cross party collusion?:

The decision in the first place has compromised the advisory body’s capacity to provide oversight, by making it reliant on the Water Service’s capacity to finance the necessary capital works. It certainly raises questions of naiveity on the part of the Minister responsible. But it also raises some important questions about the underlying attitude of our main political parties, since this environmentally compromised measure was hammered out at Executive level (and presumably with the consent of ministers from the UUP, the SDLP and Sinn Fein).

According to a document uncovered by judicial review:

…the then Environment Minister, Dermot Nesbitt says:

“I am willing to consider options at the lower end of environmental protection. But only on the basis that the Executive notes and accepts that this involves a significant compromise of environmental protection in favour of physical development.”

On the option chosen by the Executive, option 4, Mr Nesbitt says:

“Option 4 is likely to entail permitting developments to occur which will exacerbate non-compliance [with European law] and/or actual and potential pollution problems in areas where pollution is already deemed by EHS to have High and Medium impact.”

* By the latest estimate, 37 out of the original 57 hotspots remain to be completed.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty