SERIOUS questions over the management of a Stormont agricultural grant scheme have led to a call for an independent investigation into its operation.
The Farm Nutrient Management Scheme (FNM Scheme) was designed to provide financial assistance for the improvement of animal waste storage on farms in Northern Ireland.
A total of 3,933 farmers, or 15% of all livestock farms here at the time, benefited from the scheme’s grants. The FNM Scheme’s combined cost was £212m, of which £121.3m came from the taxpayer in the form of grant aid. Farmers paid the remaining costs themselves.
The vast majority of the grants were used to fund the construction of underground slurry tanks.
An individual with an intimate understanding of the scheme contacted The Detail and provided a full briefing on what he viewed were its main failings.
He told us: “There has to be an investigation into the running of the FNM Scheme, which is yet another example of a scandalous Stormont project.”
We’ve also seen correspondence from Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) Minister Edwin Poots which shows departmental enforcement of testing the scheme’s tanks for leaks, once they were constructed, was lacking.
This is despite the process of leak testing – which should have then led to the slurry tanks being proven to be leak-proof – being a mandatory requirement for the grant funding.
Our contact says it’s, therefore, "highly likely" that most of the tanks funded under the scheme have leaked slurry into waterways and polluted the environment, “exactly what it was established to prevent”.
It was the now defunct Department for Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD), which preceded the DAERA, that had responsibility for the FNM Scheme.
Running from 2005-2009, the department’s aim was to support farmers in storing environmentally harmful agricultural waste during wet winter months when they are prohibited from spreading it on their land.
The DARD's ‘Specification Booklet FNMS 5A’, states that tanks funded under the scheme required ‘impermeable concrete construction’ which should not rely ‘on any self-sealing properties of slurry’.
This technical document also adds that the tanks had to comply with the 2003 Silage, Slurry and Agricultural Fuel Oil (SSAFO) Regulations.
Schedule 2 of these regulations states that the base of such tanks, 'the base and walls of any effluent tank, channels and reception pit and the walls of any pipes shall be impermeable’.
The FNM Scheme specification booklet also states that the tanks had to comply with a British Standard Code of Practice called BS 8007, which relates to the 'design of concrete structures for retaining aqueous liquids’.
Compliance with the BS 8007 standard requires that ‘inspection and testing of structures’ and ‘testing for liquid tightness’ must be carried out.
Prior to a seven-day testing period, tanks should undergo a stabilisation period of up to three weeks post-construction when they are filled with liquid (usually water).
However, our source stated that this whole process should only begin four weeks after construction "to allow the tank to gain its optimum design strength".
He added: "That brings the concrete strengthening, stabilisation and testing period up to two months in total."
Furthermore, should there be evidence of leakage and should the structure not satisfy the seven-day test, remedial work to address the source of the leak should then be performed.
Following this, the tank ‘should be refilled and if necessary left for a further stabilising period’ and then a ‘further test of seven days’ duration should then be undertaken’.
If upon re-testing, leakage still occurs or the structure again fails the seven-day test, the procedure for identifying and recording the leaks, removing the test water, carrying out repairs and re-testing, must be repeated as many times as is necessary until it passes the seven-day test and is confirmed to be impermeable i.e leak-proof.
These are the requirements of BS 8007 which the FNM Scheme had to comply with. They were, therefore, mandatory.
However, correspondence sent by DAERA Minister, the DUP's Edwin Poots, in March 2020 states that “leakage of tanks” funded under the FNM Scheme “was deemed to be low risk”.
The correspondence adds that a “risk-based approach” was adopted by the department with regards to the construction of the tanks and that, rather than potential for leakage or seepage, it deemed the “structural integrity” of the tanks to be the highest risk of causing pollution.
However our source said the “crucial fact” which Minister Poots and the DARD “got wrong” was that the “legal requirements” of the FNM Scheme to comply with the SSAFO Regulations and the BS 8007 British Code of Practice was “mandatory and could not be ignored”.
He said: “The slurry tanks, therefore, had to be confirmed to be impermeable and the only possible way to do this was to carry out the required tests for leaks.
“However, the minister’s statement about the department adopting a ‘risk-based’ strategy, regarding leak testing, and deeming leakage from the tanks as ‘low-risk’ is very telling.
“It reinforces my experience of a senior DARD official declaring that tanks funded under the FNM Scheme did not have to be tested for leaks even though this was the primary requirement."
Our contact added that without tanks being proven to be leak-proof, slurry can leak or seep from them "causing harmful pollution" – the opposite of the intended effect of the FNM Scheme.
The scheme began in 2005, but Stormont had collapsed in 2002 and Northern Ireland, therefore, didn’t have a locally accountable agriculture minister again until 2007.
Mr Poots is currently DAERA Minister, but Sinn Féin’s Michelle Gildernew was DARD Minister from 2007 to 2011.
Responding to ministerial questions from TUV MLA, Jim Allister, in February 2020 – Minister Poots admitted that department officials “did not physically check” if the FNM Scheme slurry tanks were leak-proof.
He also couldn’t say the number of instances when the tanks were proven to be leak-proof, adding this was the “responsibility of the design engineer".
Meanwhile, his March 2020 correspondence states that “leak tests” were performed “at the expert discretion and judgement of the responsible chartered engineer” rather than department officials.
Our contact said: “Crucially, Mr Poots’ statement confirms that DARD officials didn’t demand that the overseeing engineers completed the mandatory leak test for every single tank, before certifying those tanks as complying with all the stringent regulations and, therefore, as being leak-proof.
“Testing for leaks wasn’t a discretionary judgment call or at least it shouldn’t have been. The regulations demanded it was mandatory."
Our source added that he has spoken to "seven or eight" contractors, who he said built a combined total of over 1,000 tanks funded under the FNM Scheme, “who have all confirmed to me that none of the engineers, who certified their work, made them test for leaks".
He continued: "The minute you start testing for leaks, look to see what the cause of the leaks are, carry out the remedial works and repeat the cycle – that eats up so much time.
"You can construct one of these tanks in four weeks but if you’re tormented with leaks, it can easily take many months.
“Money would not pay you for the pain and the aggravation of doing all the retesting and fixing.
“It's simply not cost or time-effective to do such tests, for either contractors or engineers. Any engineer worth his salt would immediately recognise the potential pitfalls in complying with BS 8007.”
Our source said this created a scenario in which a "select group" of contractors and engineers, built and certified "so many tanks so regularly and quickly" that it would have been "logistically impossible" for the necessary leak tests to have been conducted.
He added: "However, by not conducting leak tests it was highly lucrative for those involved.
“This was only allowed to happen because the DARD applied no pressure to ensure that the mandatory leak tests were done, even though it paid out over £120m of public money in grants.
“The department is trying its best not to take on any responsibility at all for the failure to ensure that the tanks were leak-proof, but that’s just ridiculous.”
Our contact, therefore, believes that "given the difficulties in achieving leak-proof concrete construction it's highly likely that the vast majority” of the tanks have leaked slurry into waterways and polluted the environment, “exactly what the FNM Scheme was established to prevent”.
A DAERA spokesperson told The Detail that all tanks funded under the FNM Scheme were designed by the applicant’s (farmer’s) chartered engineer and that “all engineers were required to submit a copy of their tank design” to the department.
The spokesperson added that these were reviewed by a chartered structural engineer who advised the department of their compliance with BS 8007.
We were also told that the engineers were required to provide a certificate on completion of each tank for the farmer who would then notify the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), previously called the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS).
The DAERA spokesperson maintained that this NIEA notification certificate confirmed that the engineer authorised the design and supervised the construction of the tank to comply with the "correct standards”.
The NIEA certificate, which both the farmer and the engineer had to sign, made reference to the need for the tanks to be built in compliance with the SSAFO Regulations.
Our source claimed that multiple farmers he knows have had to pay "vast sums of money" carrying out remedial works on their leaking FNM Scheme slurry tanks as they are causing pollution.
He said: “They are scared about speaking out because they could face punitive action from the NIEA – an agency which the DAERA has responsibility for.”
The Detail has seen correspondence sent by the DAERA Permanent Secretary, Dr Denis McMahon, to Alliance North Down MP Stephen Farry, in February 2020, which states that the department carried out 700 "interim inspections" on FNM Scheme tanks "at a certain stage of construction".
The DAERA spokesperson told us these inspections assessed whether or not the “materials and processes being used” were in accordance with the engineers’ specifications, and that each of the engineers involved in the scheme were inspected "at least" once.
However, Dr McMahon's correspondence makes no reference to any of these 700 inspections being performed after the tanks’ construction – the time when they should have been under the leak testing phase.
Our contact said: “When the DARD officials carried out these inspections it should have been made abundantly clear that no engineer’s certificate would be accepted unless the tank in question was tested for leaks and confirmed to be leak-proof, but the department didn’t do that.
“The whole scheme then hinged solely and completely on the professional integrity of the engineers.
“The engineer was meant to exercise professional integrity in the interests of the farmer, the taxpayers and the natural environment. However, that is not what transpired.”
Our contact also told us that the DARD permitted the engineers to be employed directly by the same contractors whose work they were professionally obliged to “instruct, police and control”.
Calling this an “obvious and very serious conflict of interests”, he said this led to contractors choosing the engineers who “weren’t going to be too fussy, demanding or strict” and ultimately weren’t going to ensure they perform the “tortuous, but mandatory, tests for leaks”.
Under data protection grounds, the DAERA declined to provide The Detail with a list of the names of all the engineers who certified tanks built under the FNM Scheme, all of whom were approved by the department.
Since the DARD and the Department for the Environment (DoE) became defunct in 2016, the NIEA came under the control of the DAERA.
Therefore, when The Detail sought to contact the NIEA to see if the agency knew of any slurry leakages linked to tanks built under the FNM Scheme, it was the department which responded.
The DAERA spokesperson said: “Any incidents of allegedly leaking tanks, either reported or detected during planned farm inspections would have been, and continue to be, investigated by NIEA.
“How a tank’s construction was funded, is not part of the NIEA investigation.
“Therefore, data on how many instances there have been of tanks constructed under the FNM Scheme that have leaked has not been collated by the department and is not available.”
EU Nitrates Directive
During the cold and wet winter months, if slurry is spread on frozen or saturated land, it’s more likely to make its way into watercourses, causing pollution.
This led the EU to impose the 1991 Nitrates Directive, prohibiting farmers from spreading agricultural waste on land during winter months.
Our contact said: “This put pressure on the DARD to get the FNM Scheme up and running.
“It was essential because of the Nitrates Directive and Northern Ireland had to get in line otherwise farmers would have to reduce their livestock numbers significantly which would have created major economic problems for our farming industry.”
However, different approaches were adopted throughout Europe.
The House of Commons' Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, for instance, produced the ‘Implementation of the Nitrates Directive in England’ report in 2008, which expressed regret that the UK department was ‘not in a position’ to provide the kind of financial support offered under a previous grant scheme and instead recommended that the department ‘make representations to the Treasury on the need for financial support in the form of enhanced tax allowances for the construction of slurry storage facilities’.
However, in regards to Northern Ireland, the DAERA spokesperson said: “Construction of additional slurry storage through the FNM Scheme enabled farmers to observe the closed spreading period.
“By storing slurry over the winter and spreading when weather and ground conditions are optimum, farmers are now able to maximise the nutrient/fertiliser value of slurry.”
The Nitrates Action Programme (NAP) Regulations came into effect in Northern Ireland in January 2007.
A DARD guidance booklet on the requirements of these regulations states they came into operation to ‘improve the use of these nutrients on farms and reduce their input to Northern Ireland’s water environment from agricultural sources’.
The requirements laid out by the NAP Regulations applied to all farmers in Northern Ireland to ensure the country met its ‘legal and environmental obligations’ – which the FNM Scheme was established to support.
The DARD guidance booklet on the NAP regulations also says that between October 15 and January 31, farmers ‘must provide adequate storage’ for their animal waste and that these structures ‘must prevent seepage, directly or indirectly, into a waterway or water contained in underground strata’.
It adds that tanks built for this purpose ‘must comply’ with the SSAFO Regulations.
The department confirmed to The Detail that if Northern Ireland failed "to comply" with the EU Nitrates Directive “infraction fines” imposed by European authorities "could have equated to £50m per year”.
Our source said: “The matter gains even more significance when you consider that the watercourses of Ireland, north and south of the border, are connected.”
The maximum grant investment, per project, funded by the DARD via the FNM Scheme was £51,000.
In its infancy, our source told us the DARD "struggled" to get farmers interested in the FNM Scheme because it was only initially going to offer a 40% grant of the total cost of work (to a maximum spend of £85,000) completed under it.
However, the DARD then increased the maximum grant percentage size to 60% of £85,000 (£51,000) which "attracted more farmers to the scheme".
It was planned that the jump in grant percentage size was going be funded through the sale of DARD-owned land at Crossnacreevy on the outskirts of Belfast to the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP), as it was then called.
However, a subsequent Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report found that an 'initial informal valuation' of the land of £200m was 'astonishing' given the Land and Property Services would later value the site at between just £2.28m and £5.87m, and that 'the urgency of the funding situation' could not 'justify the presentation of a figure' that was 'essentially groundless'.
The DUP’s Peter Robinson was DFP Minister at the time.
The additional £89m, which the DARD required for the FNM Scheme due to the increase in grants on offer, was later ratified within the Executive’s budget.
Our source claimed that after farmers were attracted by the 60% grant, the department "found it difficult" to get contractors and structural engineers to build and certfiy the necessary tanks as the scheme was running during the construction boom and they were “already making fortunes elsewhere”.
He added: “The expectation that there was to be a demand for compliance with BS 8007 and the SSAFO regulations also put off many engineers from getting too heavily involved.
“While some of the engineers who worked on the scheme are meticulous, thorough people – there are others who were reckless and careless, likewise with the contractors.
“I know of an engineer who certified several hundred tanks under the FNM Scheme, making a small fortune.
“Meanwhile, the farmers and the taxpayers have been screwed, and over £200m has been wasted on an inherently flawed scheme.”
The DAERA referenced reports produced by the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) and the PAC, that were both published in 2011, which did not raise issues in relation to the engineering aspects of the FNM Scheme but our contact maintained that is because neither body “investigated those elements of it”.
The Detail was told that the DARD’s investment via the FNM Scheme was to “maintain livestock production by supporting environmentally sustainable farming practice and improved water quality”.
We were also informed the department is “satisfied” that the FNM Scheme was “operated correctly and has no evidence of widespread issues with slurry tanks, funded under the FNM Scheme, leaking”.