Durkan to take strong line against polluters

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More than a, month has gone by since the catastrophic pollution incident on the Six Mile Water. But we haven’t heard the last of it yet.

In a lively adjournment debate in the Assembly, Environment Minister Mark H Durkan gave a solemn undertaking to get to the bottom of murky waters even promising to widen the search to find the culprit, checking if there was any evidence of a cover–up in the process and examining a broad canvas that included leniency in dealing with polluters and faint aroma of a Plebgate controversy when evidence of guilt was being sought by the friends of anglers.

Ulster Unionist Danny Kinahan said: “We must establish a database of all those who have access to the river, and ensure that all the most likely polluters and pollution sites are immediately checked out and sampled, with the samples independently checked and verified in a fully transparent manner and that once polluters are caught they are punished by paying substantial fines. Sadly this has not been the case in the past.

“We simply cannot permit such damage being done to our rivers so often and we really need a thorough review. We need to hold to account those who pollute our rivers. We need to monitor all consented discharges and we need to carry out all this work in totally open and transparent way in a timely fashion. Quite simply we must do better.”

The DUP’s Paul Girvan who initiated the Assembly adjournment debate said contamination had happened on the southern side of Ballyclare near an industrial estate and a water treatment works. He accused the Department of the Environment of “covering up” fish kills.

Cathal O hOisin of Sinn Fein supported Mr Girvan’s arguments. He said he had tried in the past to start a cross-party angling group.

Trevor Clarke of the DUP said he was at the Six Mile Water on the day of the fish kill and had seen the disappointment on the faces of young anglers. He criticised what he said was a slow response on the part of Department of Culture Arts and Leisure officials. Another South Antrim MLA, the DUP’s Pam Cameron, expressed her support for Mr Girvan.

Environment Minister Mark H Durkan said he was determined to work with other ministers to identify how to manage environmental systems better.

He said he “would not be complicit in any whiff of cover up” implied by other members. It was suggested that the pollutant could be finding its way into the drinking water source, Lough Neagh. It was suggested that NI Water’s Combined Sewage Overflows are a constant source of problems. It was also reported that Ballyclare Waste Water Treatment Works are being granted £2 million for improvements.

Breakdown of fish samples collected included 283 1lb+ fish, 400 2lb+ fish and 134 3lb+ fish which showed the quality of fish in the upper reaches of the Six Mile Water but also the damage caused to the spawning stock by this pollution.

Mr Durkan: “I give the Member an undertaking and a commitment to robustly investigate his allegation (of cover up) – it is not an insinuation any more. 

“As an outcome from today, to give the anglers in the Gallery, those anglers in the Chamber and the thousands of anglers outside some sort of comfort and something other than the tea and sympathy that they might expect from here, I am happy to give a commitment to the House that I will undertake to review how the system works and how my Department works with others, including DCAL, DARD, DRD and, importantly, the Department of Justice. I will be happy to get on to that as soon as possible.”

Mr Durkan: “In response to Mr Kinahan’s question, I will ensure that existing groups are meeting. Perhaps there is a need for more groups. A group that exists and does not meet might as well not exist, so it is important that we ensure that everything that had previously been put in place and yielded some successful outcomes continues to operate and function.”

Mr Durkan acknowledged the work done by the Six Mile Water Trust and angling clubs to improve the river and was disgusted by the latest pollution and pledged to reinstate Catchment Stakeholder Meetings and look into how pollution incidents are handled.

Some members were bracing ourselves for the third failure in a row to bring perpetrators of fish kills in the Six Mile Water to court. One said: “Perhaps an Independent Environmental Agency would be more effective as it would have no ties with those they are supposed to be prosecuting.”

Robin Swann, Ulster Unionist MLA for North Antrim, who has worked tirelessly for anglers’ interests, challenged the Sinn Fein Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister Caral NiChuilinn, to release the AFBI report that her Department now holds in regard to the recent fish kills at Portna on the River Bann.

Mr Swann said: “Surely neither the minister nor her department have anything to hide from fishermen or the general public in regard to the cause of these fish kills, so why the delay in publishing the report. After all the report is being paid for by public money, so let the public read it.”

In reply to Mr Swann’s question the minister said: “My department commissioned a report from the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) to investigate the recent fish kill incident at Portna. 

“My officials are currently considering the report to 
establish the full circumstances relating to the incident. 

“I will publish the report when my department has concluded its consideration of the issues.”

I have, over the years, had some harsh things to say about the RSPB and other financially bloated organisations which profess to be guardians of the environment and its wildlife. Thankfully, other highly respected journalists have joined in what is clearly a crusade to let the people know who, precisely, are the true friends of nature and whose main claim to fame is their capacity to raise money – lots of it.

I would put the vast majority of farmers, anglers and the shooting fraternity well up the list of those who really know, what is best for wildlife and how important it is that habitat should be preserved in a meaningful and realistic way.

Farmers know from practical experience what will happen if they neglect their stock in any way; their bank managers will soon be paying them a visit. Every farmer that I talk to is anxious to see our moors alive with grouse, curlew, meadow pipits, hares and curlew in the way they were 60 years ago.

They, along with their wives and families want to see blackbirds, thrushes, larks, robins and lapwings thriving again as of old. But what do they see today as the look out of their front doors and upwards towards the mountains? They see and hear magpies, hoodie crows, sparrow hawks, hen harriers, peregrine falcons, merlin and, if they live in certain areas, white tailed eagles and the occasional goldie.

One farmer I talked to recently said: “Do you see that poor fellow who has an interest in land near me. All he thinks of is turning his wee bit of property into a safe home for predators and raptors like foxes, badgers, buzzards, hoodie crows and magpies. He does not seem to have the faintest idea how much carnage is caused by species red in tooth and claw.”

I think that those who know what is best for our wildlife should put serious questions to the ministers responsible.

When are they going to declare that the principle of good husbandry must be respected. This means that when any species, whether it be foxes, badgers, seals or raptors become too plentiful, they should be culled for the benefit of species which are under pressure.