Lough Neagh sand-dredging: Companies told to 'stop or face court action'
Companies taking sand from the bed of Lough Neagh have been told to stop or face prosecution.
The environment minister has issued enforcement notices to five companies telling them to cease activities by the end of next month.
Mark H Durkan said a "detailed investigation" had convinced him the firms were flouting an earlier instruction to stop dredging.
Failure to comply with the enforcement order is a criminal offence.
The companies have a right of appeal to the Planning Appeals Commission
Sand has been extracted from the bed of the lough since the 1930s, but the operation has never had planning permission.
It is estimated that about 1.7 million tonnes a year is removed using special dredging barges.
It supplies around a quarter of Northern Ireland's construction needs annually.
The lough is also an important bird habitat, protected by EU directives.
Environmentalists had complained that unregulated sand extraction was threatening the site.
The minister said he had been told "some time ago" that the sand companies would be submitting a planning application, but that there had not been one.
In a statement, he said: "Significant survey work, in addition to what has already been submitted, will be required to inform the environmental impact statement which must accompany the planning application."
'No conclusive evidence'
He said as the lough was the subject of important European wildlife and habitats designations, the department needed further information to complete an assessment under habitat regulations.
"Therefore the department cannot simply postpone formal action pending the submission of a planning application as it appears to me that this will not happen anytime soon," he added.
"While I understand that these activities have been ongoing for many years, the simple fact remains that continuing extraction is development requiring planning permission and is currently unauthorised."
The minister said he recognised that the businesses brought jobs, but he had a responsibility to balance the economic impact with any potential harm to the environment.
He said he had seen "no conclusive evidence that the activity is not causing environmental damage" and until that evidence was provided he had no option but to take a "precautionary approach".
Sand traders have said that they have been engaged in pre-application discussions with the Department of Environment for some months and will be submitting a planning application.
They said they welcomed the regulation of all aspects of activities on Lough Neagh and have campaigned for this for decades.
Green Party assembly member Steven Agnew said the activity was causing "major damage" to the lough ecosystem.
"I now hope that these stop notices will be adhered to and enforced, given that failure to do so will constitute a criminal offence," he said.
A spokesman for the five sand extraction companies said they were "disappointed" to receive the enforcement notices.
Conor Jordan, who works for Emersons, said their engagement with Department of the Environment (DoE) officials over a formal planning application had been a "frustrating" and "haphazard" experience.
He said they were still trying to establish exactly what information planners wanted.
Meetings were hard to get or were sometimes cancelled at short notice.
He said there were a number of industries like fishing, water extraction and leisure all using the lough without regulation and the sand operators felt "singled out".