I thank the Member for that question. I initially became aware of the issue on Lough Neagh as recently as last summer — maybe at the start of last summer — and I have had regular, and incessant, correspondence on it ever since. The practice or industry of sand dredging, as it is known, has been going on in the lough as far back as the 1930s at least, and possibly beyond. As I said, no one had raised any issue with it or objection to it until very recently. However, given the serious nature of the objections, they have not been taken lightly by any means. DOE has issued an enforcement warning letter to many — if not all — of those involved in the practice of sand dredging, and it continues to monitor the situation.
I am also aware of, and have received correspondence from those involved in the industry about, their dependence on it, their many employees and their families' dependence on it and the fact that they have been doing it for so long. If they have been doing it for so long, just how harmful can it be? It is a very difficult issue of balancing environmental and economic concerns. However, given the very real threat of infraction proceedings from Europe, we have to ensure that we do everything correctly and that the environment is protected.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Mo bhuíochas don Aire as a fhreagraí go dtí seo. Minister, you say that there are concerns from other groups. Will you express to us what those concerns are? As you said, it has been going on since the 1930s and there was no regulation put in place, so why now?
I did say that the concerns raised are very real ones, centring on the impact on habitat. That is coming from Europe as well. We have to maintain standards in certain habitats, of which the lough is one. Therefore, the threat of infraction proceedings from Europe is very real and is one that we, as a region, cannot afford to be in any way blasé about, because if a huge fine comes along with that infraction, we will know all about it.
It is my understanding that those involved in the sand extraction business are working collectively to bring forward a planning application and an environmental impact statement to, I suppose, regularise the work that has been regular to them for almost a century. That is something that we have encouraged them to do, and I have subsequently encouraged them to do it a bit more quickly.