Fish Kill: Aghlisk River

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:15 pm on 25th May 2021.

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Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin 2:15 pm, 25th May 2021

4. Mr O'Dowd asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs for an update on the investigation into the fish kill in the Aghlisk river on 2 May 2021. (AQO 2107/17-22)

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Following extensive investigations by the Loughs Agency, it is confident that the source of the pollution has been identified and stopped. Analytical results from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) laboratories are now awaited. That will determine the next steps for the Loughs Agency. As with all investigations of this nature, details remain sub judice until their formal conclusion. That being the case, I am unable to comment further.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Given the significance of the fish kill in this incident and too many other incidents of pollution of riverways, lakes or loughs, does the Minister believe that the protections and enforcement in place are sufficient to protect our natural habitats?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

These are tricky issues. Some of the pollution incidents come from our Water Service. That has improved fairly dramatically. We also have some industry pollution incidents. Invariably, it proves very difficult to identify the sources of those. That has been particularly problematic in rivers like the Sixmilewater, where there has been a regular number of incidents but an inability to identify the sources. If you follow the pollution, it takes you to a large industrial estate where it is hard to identify the source. There has been a substantial improvement in incidents related to agriculture, but there is more to do. We continue to educate in the first instance and enforce in the second. I much prefer the education route to enforcement. Enforcement is for when failure has happened, and we want to avoid failure.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

When was the last time that a prosecution was brought by NIEA or the Loughs Agency following a fish kill?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I do not have the detail of when the last time was, but many cases are brought. It is usual for that to happen. They are reported regularly, so people know the costs that can be involved. Those costs can be hefty, because there is full cost recovery for the incident. People are usually talking not about hundreds of pounds but about many thousands and, sometimes, five-figure sums.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Minister has referred to the fact that there can be a wide range of sources of pollution, including the Water Service. Given that our sewerage system is already at capacity in many areas, will the Minister advise whether he has been involved in any discussions at Executive level to solve the impasse with the Water Service so that pollution does not continue to be released, affecting the quality of our rivers?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I have directly met the Infrastructure Minister on that issue. We need to be very careful that the area plans produced by local authorities take full cognisance of Northern Ireland Water's ability to deal with the sewage arising from new developments. I am not sure that that is the case. That area needs to be addressed. At the Executive, I have supported additional funding for Northern Ireland Water, because more investment in the capital infrastructure is critical. It is not the most popular thing to invest in. Sewerage and water pipes are beneath the ground. It is not a new school or hospital. People do not see it, but there is a significant benefit from that investment, and it is important that the Northern Ireland Executive continue to invest in having good-quality sewerage and water infrastructure to help to ensure that our environment is maintained at a high level.