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Lough Neagh sand dredging challenge fails in High Court

Words: Laura Edgar

An environmental group’s High Court challenge to force a halt to sand dredging in Lough Neagh has failed.

Friends of the Earth challenged the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affiars’ decision to issue an enforcement notice to stop sand extraction at the Lough rather ordering it to stop immediately in 2015.

Planning permission has not be sought for the extraction at the lake, which is a designated Special Protection Area owing to its population of birds during the winter.

The decision saw dredging firms able to lodge an appeal with the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC) against the enforcement notice.

Mr Justice Maguire rejected claims that then environment minister Mark H Durkan’s decision amounted to consent effectively being granted.

He said this was not a case where a minister or department “had been standing by and doing nothing”.

Firms have been able to continue work pending the outcome of their appeal to the PAC.

Counsel for Friends of the Earth suggested that the failure to stop extraction brought planning laws in the country into ridicule.

Lawyers representing the government department though, said the impact of dredging on Lough Neagh has been “grossly overstated” by the environmental group.

Although Mr Justice Maguire dismissed the challenge, he acknowledged that his decision would not settle the issue, but pointed out that the department has not ruled out the option of serving a notice to stop work in the future.

James Orr, Northern Ireland director, Friends of the Earth, said the ruling is a “major blow” to Northern Ireland’s environment.

“This vitally important wildlife site is supposed to be protected under international law – if we can’t protect these precious areas, then nowhere is safe.

“The Northern Ireland government must put in place a system to sustainably manage the Lough and its sand resource as soon as possible. This is surely in everyone interests – including the sand industry.”

Orr added that the Friends of the Earth legal team would study the judgment to see what grounds there may be to appeal against this decision.

Image credit | iStock