'A crying shame': NI Water rarely fined over water pollution

The company responsible for treating Northern Ireland's water is also one of the main polluters, and UTV can reveal that it is rarely taken to task over it.

New figures show that in a five-year period between the start of 2017 and the end of 2021, NI Water was found to have been responsible for 591 polluting discharges into waterways and the sea.

However, the body only received 28 warning letters, and was fined all but nine times. NI Water therefore forked out just shy of £150,000.

Credit: DAERA

The stats have prompted fresh calls for an independent regulator.

NI Water is in the Department for Infrastructure family tree.

Presently, an offshoot of DAERA, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency is responsible when it comes to pollution discharge incidents, while the Drinking Water Inspectorate, also part of DAERA, checks the quality of water coming out of our taps.

Ofwat looks after the water and waste water companies in England and Wales. 

Charity Friends of the Earth wants to see a similar organisation in Northern Ireland.

It is responsible for regulatory intervention, take cases that reduce a significant occurrence of customer harm or detriment, try to set a precedent that encourages beneficial changes in the sector, and set precedents that prevent similar cases occurring in the future.

James Orr is the charity's NI Director. He met UTV on the tranquil shores of Strangford Lough, and cycled past some sea-swimmers on his way to be interviewed.

"Water is life, people are really getting that not that most of our bodies are made up of water, that we need to go to places like this for enrichment of our souls, and for that water to be polluting and stinking and a mess is a crying shame on our government," he said.

"Water is more precious than anything and the fact that we're not looking after it is a stain on Northern Ireland."

Mr Orr has been calling for reform for some 15 years now.

Last week, DAERA revealed that NI Water had been fined in Downpatrick Magistrates' Court over a discharge incident into Dundrum Bay in April 2021.

Credit: DAERA

The fine cost the company £3,000 and a £15 offender's levy.

"There are no successful prosecutions with fines that meet the state of the problem," said Mr Orr, who thinks the fines here are barely a deterrent at all.

"So if you're a company, you can get away with it.

"Where is the incentive to invest back in proper sewage treatment plants? Across the water, things are a bit better. There are fines in England for example that might surprise you.

"Thames Water was recently fined £90million. For multi-millionaire companies, that's a fine that will be a deterrent ... In Northern Ireland we simply give a small slap on the wrist," he said.

"It's even worse than that because the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, the government body that's meant to be prosecuting, it's basically saying, you can self-monitor yourself, you can send us some information and some data and we'll look at it.

"That's just not good enough because what offender voluntarily submits information to prosecutors and says, 'Arrest me now?'

"There's a collapse in environmental regulation here and it means Northern Ireland water, which is supposed to be providing clean drinking water, is also our biggest polluter."

Six Mile Water flows into Lough Neagh, which supplies around 40% of Northern Ireland's water.

35,000 fish were killed along the tributary in a huge pollution incident in 2008, and authorities have never established exactly what happened.

The Six Mile Water Trust was born from the environmental catastrophe.

Jim Gregg, a keen fisherman, dons his waders and samples the waters regularly.

'Kick-sampling' involves upsetting the river bed and catching whatever critters are there in a net. The greater the variety, the greater the water quality.

If only high tolerance invertebrates are found, it can indicate the waters are less healthy.

His interest is in wildlife like herons, kingfishers, otters and fresh-water fish, but he says what happens on the river impacts many of us.

"Lough Neagh supplies approximately 40% of Northern Ireland's drinking water. That in itself, before it gets to your top, is very heavily treated with chlorine and other chemicals and filtration to bring it up to a very high standard," said Mr Gregg, while waist high in the flowing water, clutching his net.

"I think the water quality coming out of our taps is actually quite good here in Northern Ireland compared to other regions.

"But that has a cost. So NI water spends probably millions treating that water.

"If the water coming into the lough - through all the different feeders - if it was of a higher quality and less polluted, therefore there would be less money required to clean it up in the first place."

Polluting discharges in our rivers, lakes and seas are the result of numerous reasons - sometimes it's agricultural run-off, sometimes it's dirty run-off from roads, sometimes industry has a part to play, and sometimes overflow from sewers finds its way into the water.

NI Water is permitted to allow some raw sewage to enter waterways under local environmental law.

This can be when there is no other option, for example, if not doing this would result in sewage backing up into peoples' homes or onto the streets. It often happens when there has been a lot of rain.

NI Water's head of Environmental Regulation insists they take every pollution incident seriously.

"For Northern Ireland Water, any pollution incident is one too many, and irrespective of how many times cases are taken to court, we take every pollution incident very seriously," said Angela Halpenny.

"We have a management team in place who review the incidents on a monthly basis.

"We do a root cause analysis, are there any lessons to learn and read across to other sites where we can put measures in place to avoid a repeat occurrence, or those incidents happening again in a different area?"

Funding has long been an issue too.

Ms Halpenny said it has been no secret that money has been an issue for the body, but that they received all the funding identified as necessary both this year and last.

Although upgrading the entire system may be an unrealistic change, there are effective changes that could make a difference immediately, according to NI Water.

They say the sewers would keep flowing if everyone was more responsive with what they flush.

We saw all sorts of miscellaneous items which had been on a journey from toilet-bowl to sewer, including a Christmas tree, false teeth, toys, mobile phones, concrete and a mountain of sanitary towels.

The team at Belfast's waste-water treatment plant even said that sometimes people pour concrete down drains and oil into toilets.

"Don't be pouring any fats, oils and grease down the sink," she said, adding that in the toilet it should only be pee, poo and paper.

"We've had a Winnie the Pooh cuddly toy that blocked a pump, there is a wide rage of things that can cause havoc in the waste-water treatment plants."

In a statement the Department for Agriculture and Rural Affairs said: "NI Water’s activities are subject to licensing and permitting requirements in the same way as other industries and are subject to the application of NIEA’s Enforcement Policy with respect to these activities.

"Where NI Water carries out monitoring as outlined in regulation, it has a duty to inform the NIEA where non-compliances have been identified and are subject to investigation and auditing by the NIEA to ensure this is achieved."

The statement said the level of fines imposed was a matter for the courts.

"Whilst legal action is one option open to NIEA, there is also a considerable amount of work undertaken to achieve improvements and outcomes in relation to water quality through a range of measures other than formal action," it added.

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