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The Northern Ireland Environment Agency – housed within the devolved Department of Agriculture, the Environment and Rural Affairs – introduced a “pause” on 38 planning applications for livestock farming and biogas plant developments earlier this year.
But it has lifted this temporary suspension to processing applications despite not having changed the wording of the advice on ammonia levels that it issues to Northern Ireland’s 11 councils which rule on the plans, Byline Times can reveal.
Campaigners say that DAERA may now risk inviting various forms of legal action, with one claiming a top NIEA scientist had warned publicly that it was vulnerable to such action only four years ago.
Scientists and public health experts have consequently dubbed Northern Ireland “ammonia land” and warned that its current emissions levels pose serious dangers to protected plant species (such as sphagnum moss, which acts as a carbon sink), as well as to human health.
The NIEA announcement comes as two separate probes are under way into more than 100 applications for new pig and poultry developments, as well as for biogas plant facilities. The investigations are examining the widespread use of falsified soil samples in applications.
DAERA told Byline Times that none of the 38 “paused” applications were ones in which falsified documentation was suspected to have been used.
A “pause” on issuing ammonia advice for livestock unit planning applications was announced in May, as the Office for Environmental Protection (OEP) watchdog announced its first ever NI investigation, assessing whether this government advice has been lawful.
Of the 38 suspended applications, the highest number were in the Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council area, where seven were highlighted by the NIEA. Five were suspended in both the Lisburn and Castlereagh City Council and Derry City and Strabane District Council areas.
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With the aim of beefing up its regulatory regime, the OEP’s remit was extended to Northern Ireland last year. But campaigners argue its ability to adequately investigate DAERA may be limited by the fact DAERA funds the regulator. The watchdog has stressed that its ammonia advice probe will be not impacted by this funding arrangement.
It is now questioning how the NIEA has taken the step of lifting its pause amid the OEP probe, without having altered the text of the advice it issues to councils which prompted the watchdog’s investigation over questions of lawfulness.
“Ammonia pollution is in the top five of the greatest threats to nature in Northern Ireland but of even more concern is the grave threat to public health,” James Orr, director of Friends of the Earth NI, told Byline Times.
“The polluted air is literally killing people. DAERA has known for years its ammonia protocol is vulnerable to legal challenge yet it is going back to the bad old days of caving into pressure from agri-food corporations.
“DAERA’s failure to deal with water pollution has led to the dying of Lough Neagh. Now we are seeing the same reckless attitude to air pollution. Yet again, they are protecting polluters instead of protecting the air we breathe.”
Lough Neagh, the biggest freshwater body across the UK and Ireland in surface area, has been blighted by a resurgent blue-green algae bloom over the summer and autumn months. Locals say it is the “worst” they have ever seen, following years of farm-source nutrient overload.
Around 62% of the lough’s phosphate inputs are estimated to come from agricultural run-off, while 24% is thought to come from human sewage discharges within the lough’s vast catchment area.
Geraint Ellis, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast’s School of Natural and Built Environment, said the NIEA’s decision raised questions around transparency and lawfulness.
“Although pausing these planning applications may cause some difficulties for the applicants, the overriding public interest is to make sure they are assessed thoroughly and that we are sure that they do not exacerbate existing environmental problems,” he told Byline Times.
“Given the significance of this issue, the high level of public concern over water quality in bodies such as Lough Neagh, and a declining confidence in the planning system, I find it remarkable that there is a lack of transparency about why this pause has been lifted. This lack of clarity will only fuel suspicions over the regulatory capture by big business.
“Although we do not know the full circumstances of why this pause is lifted, a lack of explanation significantly increases the risk of a legal challenge on this decision.”
A spokesperson for DAERA said: “NIEA took a decision in May to temporarily pause the issuing of ammonia planning advice while senior officials considered the use of the advice.
“Having considered the current situation in the context of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022, as amended by the Northern Ireland (Interim Arrangements) Act 2023, NIEA determined that there is not sufficient additional information or evidence, that wasn’t already available to the minister when he gave instructions for officials to continue to apply the operational protocol, to make a new decision that would change or set aside the policy/instructions set out by the former minister.
“Therefore, the pause has been lifted and NIEA has resumed offering advice based on the extant ammonia standing advice/protocol.”
Industry groups such as the Ulster Farmers’ Union have campaigned extensively since the “pause” was introduced by the NIEA to the applications for livestock farming and biogas plant developments.
Biomethane has just been introduced into Northern Ireland’s gas network for the first time, following a sustained period of industry lobbying.
A Stormont official’s note from more than a decade ago pointed out that the by-product of the anaerobic digestion process – which converts organic material to biomethane gas – does not address Northern Ireland’s emissions problems since this by-product, digestate, still contains high levels of ammonia and other harmful contaminants.
A Source Material investigation since then has also suggested that biogas plant deals struck by major firms like Moy Park with DAERA have allowed new poultry farms to “bypass detailed scrutiny of their impact on sensitive habitats”.
The OEP told Byline Times it had “noted” the NIEA’s decision to lift the “pause” on livestock applications and is considering its next steps.
Helen Venn, the OEP’s chief regulatory officer, said: “Our investigation into the ammonia advice DAERA provides to councils considering applications for certain livestock installations (known as the operational protocol) is ongoing. We have noted the NIEA’s decision to lift the pause on its provision of ammonia planning advice based on the operational protocol. We have a number of options available under our powers and duties and we are considering these as we continue our investigation.”
James Orr urged the watchdog to consider a legal challenge “as a matter of urgency” and said that, amid an almost two-year hiatus of devolved government, “DAERA has gone rogue”.
“This is also a huge insult to the OEP who announced they are investigating the application of the ammonia protocol in Northern Ireland yet DAERA have not had the decency to wait until that investigation is complete,” he added. “Pollution is only going to get so much worse unless the OEP intervenes as a matter of urgency. They have the power to judicially review DAERA and this must be considered as a matter of urgency.
“It feels that even without ministers, DAERA has gone rogue. It is failing to comply with its legal duties and is playing Russian Roulette with the health of nature and with people’s health.”