PLANS to relax restrictions on controversial sand dredging at Lough Neagh would have gone ahead if a district council had not intervened.
An investigation by The Detail has found that Lough Neagh Sand Traders Ltd, a body representing all five firms which extract sand from the lough, had asked the Department for Infrastructure (DfI) to allow them to use larger dredging barges and allow the barges to operate after dark during winter.
Sand has been extracted from the lough for decades but regulations were only introduced in January 2021 when a handful of firms were licensed by the DfI to dredge up to 1.5 million tonnes annually.
Lough Neagh Sand Traders Ltd asked for restrictions to be relaxed in October 2021 - just 10 months after the new rules were introduced.
However, after Mid-Ulster District Council raised serious concerns about the relaxation in restrictions, the case will now be heard by the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC).
The health of the lough has come under greater focus over the last few months after extensive toxic blue-green algae blooms, linked to slurry run-off and sewage discharges, were seen on the water.
New research published by The Detail last year revealed that dredging has caused severe scars of up to 56 feet (17 metres) deep on the lough bed, prompting activists to call for more studies into the environmental impact of extraction.
Under current regulations, sand barges are not allowed to operate after sunset during winter, which in December can be as early as 4pm.
The firms had asked for the restriction on winter operating hours to be removed.
The Department for Infrastructure (DfI) said it was “minded to grant planning permission” in June this year. The permission would have allowed barges to operate in winter, but only between 6am and 6pm. It would also have allowed the firms to use bigger barges.
However, Mid-Ulster council, which borders the lough, objected to the relaxation in restrictions, saying it did not believe the impact of the proposed changes had been properly investigated.
The council has asked DfI to attend its planning committee and address a string of concerns raised by councillors about the firms’ application. It has also requested a hearing by the PAC.
In a letter to DfI, the council’s head of planning, Dr Chris Boomer, wrote: “These proposed changes could lead to an increase in the rate of extraction activities in the lough and the council is not satisfied that the impact of this substantial activity has been properly examined.”
The letter also said the environmental impact of dredging had not been properly researched.
“It appears there has not been adequate consideration to the scarring on the lough bed and the impact on fish and aquatic life,” Dr Boomer wrote.
“It also appears that there has been insufficient survey work conducted in relation to the nocturnal activities of terrestrial life including birds and the insects on which they feed.”
The letter from Mid-Ulster council said more research was needed into a series of environmental issues at the lough.
“There has been inadequate consideration of the multiple impacts and threats facing the lough such as water quality, the growth of algae and invasive species, impact of ammonia nitrate in conjunction with the impact of more intensive extraction activities, the growth of algae which may be linked to nitrates impacting on the water quality,” it read.
The letter also noted that “insufficient consideration has been given to the enforceability of the conditions on the permission if night time extraction were to occur”.
A spokesman for DfI told The Detail that the proposed relaxation in dredging restrictions will not lead to more sand being extracted.
“Extraction volumes are and will remain restricted to a specified maximum,” he said.
A DfI spokesman said that had Mid-Ulster council not intervened, approval would have been granted.
“On 27 June (this year) the Department issued a Notice of Opinion that it was minded to grant planning permission for an application seeking non-compliance with two conditions relating to the extraction of sand at Lough Neagh,” he said.
The spokesman said the department will now write to the Planning Appeals Commission to arrange a hearing on the application.
“The council has written to the department requesting an opportunity to appear before and be heard by the Planning Appeals Commission,” he said.
“This request was received timeously and the Department will write to the PAC for it to make the necessary arrangements.”Ciarán Breen, from Lough Neagh Boating Heritage Association, said the lough had been badly affected by pollution this year.
“What we’ve basically seen here over the summer months has been a perfect storm,” he said.
“There was a phenomenal amount of slurry going out with the ground being very soft.
“The ground stiffened up with the warmer weather in June and was then washed out again in July, creating this overload of phosphates and nitrates for the algae to feed on.”
However, he said the blooms had led to greater public focus on the lough.
“At the very least, this is awakening people to something huge that has been going on for a long time,” he said.
Dr John Spence, a retired researcher who specialised in aquatic systems, told The Detail that research is needed to establish whether sand extraction is redistributing toxins in the lough bed and contributing to poor water quality.
“There clearly are concerns about the potential mobilisation of toxic materials during this dredging,” he said.
Stormont departments have told The Detail it is not their role to commission such research.
A DfI spokesman said: "It would not be within the department’s remit to commission research on the environmental impact of dredging.”
The Department for Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) told The Detail that the Environment Agency (NIEA) had not carried out any specific research into the impact of sand dredging.
A Daera spokesman said: “NIEA commissioned a desk-top study to assess ‘implications of sand extraction on the Lough Neagh and Lough Beg SPA (special protection site) and Ramsar (a wetland of international importance) site’ (2016).
“While surveys of protected site features are periodically carried out, no further research or surveys have been commissioned specifically on impacts of sand extraction by Daera/NIEA.”
No government body has overall responsibility for Lough Neagh. While the lough water is publicly-owned, the lough bed and banks are owned by the Earl of Shaftesbury, Nicholas Ashley-Cooper, an English aristocrat based in Dorset.
A lengthy investigation by The Detail earlier this year highlighted a string of concerns about the lough, including poor management of the precious resource.
Research commissioned by the Lough Neagh Partnership, an organisation which includes fishermen, farmers and landowners around the lake, has suggested that global warming may also be contributing to issues at the lough.
The study found that the temperature of the water body had risen by 1C since 1995. The spread of invasive non-native zebra mussels, which feed by filtering particles from the water, has also caused the water to become clearer, allowing sunlight to penetrate deeper, contributing to algae growth.
A spokesman from Daera said it is not measuring the extent of the algal blooms.
“The extent of algal growth in Lough Neagh is not monitored beyond confirming its presence where it has been reported,” he said.
“The extent of the bloom in open water is highly variable and can change in a short period of time, collecting in settled areas or breaking up with natural water movements.”
Dr Spence called for greater efforts to reduce pollution at Lough Neagh.
“It's important to note that cleaning up a large water body like Lough Neagh requires a coordinated and sustained effort involving government agencies, local communities, environmental organisations, and scientific experts,” he said.
He said that research on large lakes in mainland Europe has shown that they were able to recover once pollution was reduced.
“The good news is that once concerted actions were taken to reduce nutrient loading, the situation started to improve,” he said.