‘Serial polluter’: Northern Ireland’s water provider taken to court 73 times since 2007

Figures showing that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) has taken the country’s water provider to court 73 times since it was established in 2007 underline the need for an independent environmental regulator in the province, Northern Ireland assembly members and campaigners have said.

Stormont’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) told the Belfast Telegraph that fines resulting from these cases against Northern Ireland Water (NIW) came to around £250,000.

NIW is Northern Ireland’s only provider of water and sewerage services, and is regulated by the NIEA which is an agency of DAERA. The NIEA regulates discharges from NIW, monitoring water quality, preparing water quality management plans and controlling effluent discharges.

Commenting to ENDS, James Orr, Northern Ireland director for Friends of the Earth, said: “The lack of robust environmental governance in Northern Ireland is well illustrated by serious water pollution in rivers and lakes. 

“We have confused policy, weak enforcement, and fines which do not act as a deterrent but as an incentive to pollute. There is no doubt government-owned NIW, a serial polluter, is being given an easy ride by the absence of an independent environmental protection agency. 

Orr said that the New Decade New Approach agreement, published in January 2020 to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland, committed all the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly to setting up an independent environmental protection agency (IEPA) “but we have seen no progress. The big polluters are getting off because of the structural weaknesses in the NIEA, a politically captured regulator that has no independence from central government”. 

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph about NIW being taken to court 73 times, John Blair, Alliance Party environment spokesperson, said: “The irony is not lost on those of us who care deeply about these matters when a public body is the polluter, it is the taxpayer who pays both the penalty and the repair.

“This further highlights the need for an IEPA which is not only an outstanding New Decade, New Approach commitment but also essential to better protect nature”.

Clare Bailey, Green Party leader, agreed with this: “The importance of an IEPA cannot be understated. The IEPA must sit outside executive departments so as to have the independence to investigate incidents involving departments and statutory agencies”.

She continued: “How many more pollution incidents, fish kills and habitat destruction before minister Poots accepts that the current environmental protection arrangements are not fit for purpose”.

Commenting last week, a DAERA spokesperson said: “NIEA works closely with NIW to prioritise the upgrade of wastewater treatment works and sewerage networks to ensure compliance with European Commission legislation and target funding where it will provide the greatest environmental improvements. NI Water requires significant investment to improve the level of wastewater management and treatment”.

NIW did not comment on the news of the NEIA taking it to court 73 times, but it said in a statement: “Northern Ireland is unique within the UK as being the only part where the regulated water utility is unable to fully implement the economic regulator’s final determination due to public expenditure constraints. As a result, it is widely acknowledged that wastewater infrastructure has been underfunded to a significant extent”.

DAERA has been approached for comment on the calls for the IEPA. 

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