Environment minister Mark H Durkan has called for the establishment of an Environmental Protection Agency, which would have an all-island remit.
“I am concerned about the current proposals which would see the merger of the agriculture and environment portfolios in Northern Ireland next May,” he said.
“One of the key weaknesses in the envisaged arrangements is the lack of governance where the issue of environmental protection is concerned.
“The most obvious way to deal with this issue is to have an independent Environmental Protection Agency set up in Northern Ireland. And, looking further down the track, I see no reason why an agency with this specific mandate could not be established on an all-island basis.
“It makes sense to take this approach as so many issues relating to the environment have a very strong cross border dimension.
“The establishment of an independent Environmental Protection Agency would also ensure that optima levels of EU funding are continuously drawn down from Brussels.”
Durkan was speaking at this week’s Environment Ireland conference in Dublin.
He confirmed that no final decision had been taken by the Stormont Executive to merge the departments of agriculture and the environment.
“But the matter is very much on the agenda, assuming that the current political difficulties at Stormont can be overcome,” he said.
Durkan pointed out that a better environment will help deliver a stronger economy across the board.
“Economic prosperity must not be pursued at the expense of the environment,” he said.
“Environmental and sustainable economic development policies must be developed hand in hand.”
The minister cited the recent prosperity agreements entered into between the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and three leading manufacturing companies as excellent examples of these principles being implemented on a very practical basis. Two of these businesses – Linden Foods and Thompson’s Animal Feeds operate within the agri-food space.
“Linden Foods has committed to reducing its CO2 emissions by 25%,” said Durkan.
“And I hope to visit the Dungannon based company in the very near future to gauge at first hand the progress they have made over the past 12 months.
“Thompson’s have committed to reduce the environmental footprint of their own manufacturing operation by 10% as well as working more closely with farmer suppliers to improve the efficiency of their businesses. This, in turn, should help reduce greenhouse gas emissions in all our rural areas.”
Durkan believes that every decision taken by the Stormont Executive will have an impact on the economy.
“We need a circular economy,” he said.
“Everything that we do has an impact on the environment.
“Waste, for example, is a resource. The good news is that we are now recycling and composting 40% of our household waste.
“And we must build on this for the future. In reality we need a step change in the way that we all think about the protection of the environment.”
The minister pointed out that dumping of fuel laundered waste represents a key health risk for livestock and the general public throughout the border region.