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Annsborough River: Pollution

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:00 pm on 25th October 2016.

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Photo of Harold McKee Harold McKee UUP 2:00 pm, 25th October 2016

1. Mr McKee asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for her assessment of the ecological harm caused by the recent pollution by NI Water of the Annsborough river. (AQO 540/16-21)

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

Officials from my Department first learned of the incident in the early afternoon of Saturday 8 October 2016, and on-call officers from DAERA's Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and inland fisheries division immediately travelled to the scene. By late afternoon, the source of the spill had been traced and samples taken with a view to enforcement action. Inquiries at the source site also quickly determined the precise nature of the chemical involved in the incident and thus the detailed ecological and toxicological information on the potential hazards that it poses. Officials from my Department promptly notified, and have continued to work closely with, a range of other agencies to ensure that every possible risk to the environment or public has been considered and addressed.

As far as the potential ecological harm posed by the spill is concerned, there are three broad lines of inquiry into mitigation: first, the absolute necessity of protecting public health; secondly, an assessment of the pollutant's effects on fish and fauna in the river; and, finally, an assessment of any potential damage to commercial shellfish beds where the river enters Dundrum Bay.

As far as the risk to public health is concerned, the data on this chemical confirms that although it is toxic to fish, it does not pose a significant risk to human health. Nevertheless, my Department has worked closely with relevant agencies, including the Food Standards Agency and Newry, Mourne and Down District Council, to ensure that all possible risks are considered and addressed. All of the evidence to date confirms that there has been no risk to or impact on public health.

With regard to the effect on fish and fauna in the Annsborough river, the chemical involved is toxic to fish. Inland fisheries officials have confirmed that in excess of 1,600 fish were killed, including adult salmon and sea trout, and this will undoubtedly have an effect on the river for many months to come. However, the inland fisheries division is already working with others to consider how the river could be restocked. NIEA is also carrying out a biological survey of insects in the area.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

I remind the Minister of the two-minute rule.

Photo of Harold McKee Harold McKee UUP

I thank the Minister for her answer thus far. Does the Minister agree with me that until people in public bodies, such as NI Water, begin to be held to account for these incidents of pollution, the current penalties will continue to prove ineffective?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question, and I agree with him about those responsible for pollution incidents such as this, be they from public bodies, in business or private individuals. There is a process within which my Department has to operate, but we also need to look at education and advocacy alongside our enforcement rules. While NI Water has admitted that it is responsible, there is an ongoing investigation.

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP

I thank the Minister for her answers so far. I understand that Northern Ireland Water has accepted responsibility for the fish kill at the Annsborough. Has it been associated with many fish kills previously?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. Since 1 January 2012, there have been 44 major or moderate fish kills in Northern Ireland where the cause was a polluting discharge. Northern Ireland Water has been determined by NIEA as the source of two of the 44, with a further two incidents, including last week's in the Carrig river, at various stages of the enforcement process. In 2010, a moderate fish kill associated with Tandragee waste water treatment works resulted in a £5,000 fine, and, in 2014, a moderate fish kill associated with the pumping station in Ballynahinch resulted in a warning letter from NIEA, and £1,600 in fishery restoration costs were recovered from Northern Ireland Water.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

The Minister is aware, as she commented herself, that this is only the latest in a long string. We have had the Faughan, the Ravarnet, the Comber river, the Lagan — I forget some of the others — the Sixmilewater and the Three Mile Water just in recent times.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy Deputy Speaker

Can we keep it to south Down, please, to the Annsborough?

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

Does the Minister agree with me that, in fact, the sanctions and the punishments are available through the existing law to deal with this kind of pollution incident much more seriously, but the courts very rarely impose a fine that to the rest of us would seem commensurate with the actual offence? The fines are piffling.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. Obviously, the whole issue around pollution is something that I do take seriously, and it does cause me concern. It has happened in rivers in my constituency, and I understand the impact that it has on the habitat and on those who use the rivers. Very often, as you say, it does not seem that the fine is commensurate with the crime that has been committed. I am happy to have further conversations about this and to pursue it, and I am open to conversations with Members as well.