Oral Answers to Questions — The Environment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:00 pm on 5th February 2001.

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Photo of Mrs Joan Carson Mrs Joan Carson UUP 4:00 pm, 5th February 2001

8. asked the Minister of the Environment to detail the resources available for policing incidents of pollution.

(AQO 719/00)

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP 4:15 pm, 5th February 2001

My Department’s Environment and Heritage Service operates a 24-hour response to inland and coastal pollution throughout Northern Ireland. A Freephone pollution hotline allows the public to report pollution incidents. Key staff are on call at all times. The emergency pollution officer heads a team of six staff in Belfast, and he also has available to him the services of 41 field staff employed by fisheries boards and district councils across Northern Ireland. These field staff spend approximately 30% of their time on pollution response work.

These resources have increased significantly over recent years. The number of field staff employed by district councils has increased from nine to 29 over the last 10 or so years. The team of staff at headquarters, who deal specifically with pollution prevention and response work, has increased over the same period from three to six. A further three staff are due to join the team over the next few years in response to new pollution prevention and control responsibilities.

Of course, prevention is better than cure, and I have been significantly increasing the resources available for work in this area and in a number of related areas of activity in the water quality unit in the Environment and Heritage Service. Over the next two financial years, through budget increases and the retention of regulatory receipts, I plan to increase the size of the water quality unit in the Environment and Heritage Service by 33, thereby raising staff levels from 44 to 77, which is a considerable increase. These staff will be involved in a range of existing and new work areas in the unit. This will include activities such as pollution prevention and control, discharge regulation and monitoring of water quality.

Photo of Mrs Joan Carson Mrs Joan Carson UUP

I thank the Minister for his extremely good reply. I am delighted to hear that staff numbers will increase from 44 to 77. That is really going to do something. The need for effective policing on the waterways was recently highlighted in my own constituency of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, where a considerable amount of farm slurry went into a swallow-hole near the scenic Marble Arch caves at the source of the Cladagh River. This resulted in thousands of fish, and the Erne and Melvin hatchery, being destroyed. It wiped out the brown trout native breeding stock as well.

Does the Minister believe that the present fines are enough to deter potential polluters? Is he satisfied that the penalties are strong enough? Will there be any educational programmes to make farmers and country users more aware of the effect that slurry, in particular, and other substances have on our river life and fish stocks?

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

The maximum fine for pollution is presently £20,000. In recent years the courts have demonstrated an increasing tendency to impose fines approaching this maximum for polluters found guilty of serious pollution offences. Polluters found guilty in court of causing pollution are liable for compensation costs, including the costs of restocking where a fish kill has occurred and of any clean up. These costs can be large and frequently exceed the fines imposed by the court. At this stage I am satisfied that the penalties available to the courts through both fines and costs are sufficient to act as a deterrent if rigorously used.

With regard to the education process, there are no plans as far as the Department is concerned to educate people. We hope that people show a degree of responsibility rather than irresponsibility.

I am very aware of the pollution incident in the Marble Arch area of Fermanagh, and I deplore it. Farm slurry which was dumped into a hole in the ground contaminated local streams, including one feeding a fish farm which was used primarily to breed native stock for the Erne system. Thousands of fish were killed, and there may be longer term effects on fish fry and breeding stocks. This is a major setback to restocking plans in the Erne system. Therefore I have instructed my officials to pursue their investigation of this incident vigorously. The farmer involved has been identified, and the statutory samples have been taken with a view to prosecution.

Photo of Mr Eamonn ONeill Mr Eamonn ONeill Social Democratic and Labour Party

I also welcome the increase in public resources poured into this area. Does the Minister agree that this has perhaps been the worst year on record for pollution incidents in our rivers all over Northern Ireland and that the burden falling on staff is huge? Would he consider using some of this resource to help with the training and empowerment of voluntary bailiffs, who could report pollution incidents?

The evidence indicates that given the time from when an incident is discovered until it is reported and a sample is taken the chances are that the source will not be proven. If angling associations and groups of that nature had voluntary bailiffs who had the necessary training to take samples, and who could take those samples as incidents are detected, people could be brought to book more readily.

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

We would like to get to grips with those people who irresponsibly pollute waterways, wherever they might be. We have no plans at present to teach people or help voluntary groups. We feel that the Department, with the increase of staff I have referred to earlier, should help to ease the situation considerably.

Last year 2,573 pollution incidents were reported to the Environment and Heritage Service. On investigation, 1,699 were confirmed. The difference between reported and confirmed pollution incidents can be accounted for largely by natural phenomena being mistakenly reported as pollution or by the fact that some minor incidents can be so short-lived that, by the time pollution response staff arrive on site, any evidence of pollution has gone.