UTV's Up Close: The depths of the pollution crisis in Lough Neagh

Freshwater environmental campaigner and pop icon Feargal Sharkey has said the pollution crisis in Lough Neagh is a "physical manifestation of politics in Northern Ireland".

"It’s polluted and it’s failing,” the former lead singer in the Undertones told UTV for its award-winning Up Close current affairs programme.

What Lies Beneath takes a deep dive into the pollution catastrophe facing Lough Neagh - arguably Northern Ireland’s greatest asset.

Presented by UTV reporter Sarah Clarke, the hour-long programme on seeks to find answers as to why Lough Neagh, which is meant to be protected by a number of environmental organisations, was allowed to get into such a dire state; who was meant to be regulating; and who was raising the alarm. 

Feargal Sharkey. Credit: UTV

NI Water, The Ulster Farmers’ Union, and stakeholder groups are challenged on their responsibilities while scientists, environmentalists and locals are asked about solutions.    It began with a noxious green sludge which spread across the lough this summer, threatening livelihoods and wildlife.

It shut down popular leisure activities such as swimming, walking and fishing…from the lough right up to beaches on the north coast.

Public alarm grew as civil servants from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (DAERA) and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) which sits within DAERA, revealed that the problem was caused by phosphorous build up caused by farming slurry and septic tanks.  

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency also revealed that Northern Ireland Water, responsible for maintaining water quality, was also responsible for 24% of pollution into the lough which provides 40% of NI’s drinking water.

A government policy ‘Going for Growth’ to encourage intensive farming was blamed.

Gerry Darby from the Lough Neagh Partnership pointed out that there was ‘little or no concern of the environmental impact’ of this strategy when it was launched back in 2013. 

Dympna Gallagher of NI Water Credit: Presseye

However, John McLenaghan of the Ulster Farmers’ Union defends the ‘Going for Growth’ strategy pointing to positive outcomes for consumers, and adds that farmers are still being heftily fined and prosecuted for any discharge breaches.

The programme shines a light too on NI Water as figures showed that wastewater was responsible for almost a quarter of the phosphorus in the algae. 

NI Water is challenged on its role in being one of the biggest polluters along with agriculture, to the water system. 

Dymphna Gallagher, Head of Drinking Water Regulation at NI Water explains how they are working with NIEA on improvements, and explains how wastewater and sewage levels are monitored. 

Ownership of the bed and banks of the lough by the Earl of Shaftesbury is examined in the programme.

He is open to selling it, however, former MP Bernadette McAliskey told the programme the lough should not be allowed to be sold privately and should come under public ownership.

Throughout the programme, scientists, users of the lough, and environmental activists talk of their own experiences in working and living around the lough and give their opinions on what has gone wrong, and how it can be fixed.   Northern Ireland’s Environment Agency states that its main purpose is to protect and enhance Northern Ireland’s environment…and support economic growth. 

Many stakeholders are calling for an independent environment agency.

Dr Ciara Brennan from Environmental Justice Ireland, said: “That would remove any potential conflicts of interest that currently exist, because our environment agency is located within the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs, and there is not a great deal of distance between the regulated community and the regulator.”  

She goes on to say, “I also think it’s important because there has been almost complete collapse in public trust.”

Looking to the future, James Orr, Director, Friends of the Earth added: “We need to stop taking from it, and work out what are the causes of this terminal decline, and if we don’t get to the truth, if we don’t get to the bottom of this, then the lough is sacrificed forever.”

Up Close: What Lies Beneath airs on UTV on Thursday 16 November at 10.45pm. The programme was produced and directed by Brendan Mc Court and is presented by UTV reporter Sarah Clarke. It will be available online here.

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