NI Water’s first stint in court ends in £100 fine

Northern Ireland Water has been prosecuted after polluting a river just hours after it lost the protection of crown immunity. The government-owned company was fined just £100 with costs of £211, but the prosecution is nevertheless a landmark in more open environmental regulation in the province.

Northern Ireland Water Limited (NIWL) has been fined for the first time after polluting the river Lagan with sewage.

NIWL is the government-owned company that succeeded from the government-run water service on 1 April 2007 (ENDS Report 384, p 37 ). The former Northern Ireland Water Service fell under the aegis of the Department for Rural Development and therefore enjoyed crown immunity from prosecution.

That immunity came to an end on 1 April last year, and within hours the new company clocked up its first pollution incident that ended in prosecution. NIWL appeared before Belfast magistrates on 19 February to face charges under the Water (Northern Ireland) Order 1999.

The court heard that an Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) inspector noticed a grey plume of sewage pollution in the river Lagan on 1 April while driving along the M1 motorway. He investigated the incident and took water samples.

The following day NIWL’s Dunmurry sewage works was identified as the source. Officers visiting the works found untreated sewage was still running into a tributary of the Lagan from storm overflow tanks, even though the weather was dry.

The EHS classified the incident as ‘medium severity’, which means abstractors might need to be notified and that a significant fish kill or impact on other aquatic life was likely. It recommended the province’s Public Prosecution Service press charges.

NIWL pleaded guilty to discharging polluting matter, contrary to article 7(1) of the 1999 Order, and contravening the conditions of its discharge consent, contrary to article 7(6). The company was fined £100 with court costs of £25 and analysis costs of £186.

Despite the modest fine, the prosecution is a mark of progress to a more open system of regulation in Northern Ireland, and prosecutions will make the impact of the underfunding of water services apparent to the general public.

In a statement, NIWL blamed the incident on "serious long-term under investment" in water infrastructure. "In this specific incident, faced with outdated and over-stretched infrastructure, NI Water optimised the use of the plant assets in line with industry guidelines to maintain the best level of treatment to as much of the high volume of incoming flow as possible," the statement said. "The incident resulted from the restricting of flow through the works in order to prevent leakage of activated sludge and the complete loss of treatment."

Without the restriction in flow a much more serious pollution incident would have occurred, it explained.

The works was built 20 years ago to serve a population of 50,000, NIWL said. It now treats waste from 65,000 people.

The company said it regarded environmental protection as a "major priority" and was investing £1 million per day in improving water and sewerage services. It also pointed out that it was the only public body in the province to have obtained the ISO14001 environmental management standard. The company is managing a huge investment programme.