More than a dozen applications for new pig and poultry units under investigation

Poultry farms are a key agricultural sector in Northern Ireland. Picture by Fernando Losada Rodríguez, Wikicommons

Poultry farms are a key agricultural sector in Northern Ireland. Picture by Fernando Losada Rodríguez, Wikicommons

MORE than a dozen planning applications for new pig and poultry units across Northern Ireland are being investigated by a government agency, The Detail can reveal.

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) has raised "significant concerns" about the validity of vital documents submitted as part of at least 14 applications for new farm developments.

The agency wrote to the applicants saying it had been “unable to verify” the results of key soil samples because “the purported analysing laboratory” listed on the documents had no record of either all, or a majority of, samples recorded in each of the applications.

In order to be granted planning permission, applications for new pig or poultry sheds must demonstrate that manure produced by the animals will be dealt with effectively.

If the applicants want to spread the animals’ manure, they must include soil samples showing that the land can safely accommodate the waste.

Manure contains ammonia, a nitrogen compound which can harm the environment and human health.

Ammonia emissions - 97% of which come from agriculture in Northern Ireland - are already at dangerous levels, including at many protected nature sites across the north.

The NIEA said it had launched the investigation "in relation to the validity of soil sample results" in October 2022 - just months after The Detail revealed that Teagasc, the Republic’s agri-food agency, had launched an internal investigation into dozens of Northern Ireland poultry farmers’ planning applications.

Teagasc said 60% of the applications had used documents, purporting to be issued on its behalf around the export of animal manure across the border, that were either “falsified” or “altered” without its knowledge.

The NIEA investigation relates to planning applications made between 2017 and last year.

The agency did not confirm the total number of applications under investigation.

However The Detail can reveal that the NIEA has expressed "serious concerns" about at least 14 applications.

In one application, the NIEA said it had “identified misrepresented and unverifiable soil sample analysis reports”.

The NIEA, an agency within the Department of Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera), sent letters to the applicants in question between December 2022 and May 2023.

It said that since it had “been unable to verify soil sample analysis results submitted in relation to this development, previous consultation responses on water quality and ammonia deposition may no longer be valid”.

Some of the applicants have told the NIEA they are now sending their animal waste to an anaerobic digestion plant, rather than be spread as manure.

Others have submitted new soil samples analysed by a different laboratory.

A spokesman for Daera said the NIEA had told several government bodies, including local councils, about the issue and “flagged particular planning applications of concern for consideration and any appropriate action”.

“NIEA’s investigation relates solely to issues within the agency’s legislative remit,” he said.

“NIEA’s investigation is currently ongoing, therefore, no further comment can be made at this stage.

“We can confirm that NIEA has alerted the wider Department (Daera), the Department for Infrastructure, local councils and the Planning Appeals Commission.”

The Detail revealed earlier this week that a long-awaited government strategy to tackle ammonia emissions would only save a fraction of Northern Ireland’s key habitats.

The strategy, which was branded as toothless and insufficient by environmental and air pollution experts, would only save 16 of the north’s 394 protected sites.

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