Are Northern Ireland in Deep Water Over Pollution?

originally posted on November 30, 2016


Northern Ireland Water have come under fire from protest groups for appearing to prioritise the economy over the environment. Citing figures of fees that the company has had reduced through appeals, Friends of the Earth accused NI water of being “more interested in avoiding heavy fines than avoiding serious pollution”.

A sketchy track record

NI Water has endured a difficult record when it comes to environmental practices at its wastewater treatment facilities. Since 2008, the company has been fined no less than 65 times for breaching regulations and contaminating waterways throughout the nation and caused 21 medium-to-high risk incidents in the last year alone.

While there are a myriad of ways to clean up flooded lakes and reservoirs, the most efficient method is to avoid contamination in the first place. This can only be achieved through scrupulous risk assessment and best practice adoption. NI Water’s track record when it comes to adhering to such practices is sketchy, to say the least.

In contrast to neighbouring Ireland (where water pollution seems to be on the wane), NI water has had to deal with a multitude of court cases and fines over the last decade. Most recently, the company was hit with a £13,000 fine earlier this month for contaminating the Blackwater River in County Down (CD).

Avoiding fines

Under the Freedom of Information Act, figures were released detailing the number of fines that NI Water has appealed over the last eight years. Of the total 65 offences since 2008, the company has appealed just five – but their successes have saved them tens of thousands of pounds in the process.

In 2012, two different incidents in Moneyreagh in CD carried a combined fine of £12,000, but appeals from NI Water saw that aggregate figure reduced to just £3,000. Meanwhile, two years later a £10,000 fine for contamination of the Cusher River in County Armagh (CA) was brought down to just £5,000.

The most recent appeal came earlier this year, when NI Water were successful in cutting a fine of £7,500 to £2,000 in Saintfield, CD.

Fines “not a deterrent”

Friends of the Earth Director James Orr lamented the relatively small size of fines in Northern Ireland in comparison to the rest of the UK, where they are much higher. He also criticised NI Water for making a “strategic decision to manage the risk to itself by appealing certain fines.” Instead, he explained that “We would prefer to see the strategic effort of a publicly-owned company to act in the public interest by managing the risk to rivers and lakes.”

Meanwhile, the company defended itself by saying that appeals were made on a case-by-case basis and that in dealing with 1.3 billion litres of wastewater every year, NI Water improves the quality of water instead of diminishing it.

“Over the years, our work across the wastewater network has done more to improve the quality of our water courses than it has ever done to harm them,” said a spokesperson, citing the fact that the company had invested £500m into improving its facilities over the last three years.

1st December 2016 – In relation to the article published NI Water would like to offer this response:

“Protection of the environment is a core customer promises that we make in NI Water.  We place it at the heart of our day-to-day activity, so the fact that any incident of pollution is caused by our assets is  a matter of deep regret for all of us in NI Water.  

Every year, we treat and return safely to the environment 1·3 billion litres of waste from over 1,000 waste water treatment works, so, while one incident is one too many, such instances are a very rare occurrence. The company is also responsible for the operation and maintenance of over 1,200 wastewater pumping stations and some 15,000 km of sewers. As a responsible corporate citizen with a very strong commitment to the environment, we will endeavour to operate this extensive infrastructure as effectively as possible and will work to make sure that we deal with the effects of any of our discharges.  In fact over the years, our work across the waste water network has done more to improve the quality of our watercourses than it has ever done to harm them. 

It is  incorrect and inaccurate to say NI Water is the  single biggest polluter of water in Northern Ireland. In reviewing the number of NIEA prosecutions relating to pollution incidents over the course of the past 5 years, in excess of 90%  of these cases were not associated with NI Water assets. 

According to NIEA figures, since 1 January 2012, there have been 44 Major or Moderate Fishkills in NI where the cause was due to a ‘pollutant’ discharge. NIWL has been determined by NIEA as the source in respect of 2 of those 44 with a further 2 incidents, including the case in the Carrigs River, remaining at various stages of set enforcement processes.
By ‘source’, the 44 Major and Moderate Fishkills caused by a ‘pollutant’ since 1 January 2012 were as follows:


We operate an Environmental Management System, externally accredited to ISO14001, which is used by the Company, to minimise the risk of environmental pollution.  Targets for reducing the number of incidents have been set by the NI Authority for Utility Regulation as part of the current Price Control process which involves consultation with NI Environment Agency.  Year on year progress has already been delivered by NI Water in this area, consistently outperforming the targets set, whilst addressing the legacy of underinvestment in sewerage and treatment systems. 

Investment in wastewater treatment since the creation of NI Water in 2007 has resulted in significant improvements in the level of compliance with environmental discharge standards.  NI Water has invested nearly £500 million over the last three years to bring the sewerage network system and wastewater treatment works up to an acceptable standard.  With on-going investment, NI Water will continue to improve wastewater services for the people of Northern Ireland. WwTW discharges are regulated by NIEA under Water Order Consents.  In 2016 we continue to deliver the highest ever levels of wastewater compliance.

However as with any water utility it is impossible to guarantee zero discharges across the entirety of its estate and both the NIAUR and NIEA work closely with NI Water to monitor such discharges. 

NI Water appeals in less than one in ten of cases it faces and the decision to do so is based purely on the merits of each individual case.  As a publically funded body it is incumbent on us to safeguard public money and appeal when it is felt this is the appropriate course of action. Far from adopting the approach of appealing big fines as Mr Orr suggests NI Water takes the approach of funding ever better environmental management to reduce the risk of the pollution events happening in the first place.”

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