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 user 2006-08-04 at 12:41:00 pm Views: 93
  • #16259

    River dig mix-up harms rare mussels
    They should have been safe – they were protected by local and European legislation.But it did not stop a digger ripping up the bed of the Upper Ballinderry River near Cookstown.Following the excavation, 10% of the protected and endangered freshwater pearl mussels are thought to have perished.It has not been proved yet why the mussels died after the digging, but scientists fear they were probably suffocated under the clouds of silt that were released.The protection for the river as a Special Area of Conservation was specifically because of its rare mussels and its growing family of otters who have made it their home.But when researchers surveyed the river a few days ago, they discovered hundreds of dead mussel shells.They traced these up-stream to the site of the excavation where a water pipe had been laid across the river bed.Above the dig, the mussels seemed undamaged and healthy. This is one of the reasons why the finger is being pointed at the digging as the causeNow the question being asked is why a digger was allowed to work on a protected river bed.It is especially embarrassing for the Department of Regional Development (DRD) Water Service, which had contracted out the work.They told the BBC that they had sent a “retrospective application for permission to cross the river to the Environment and Heritage Service, setting out the working methods that were employed on the actual crossing”.

    It appears that this is just another example to add to the pile of poor environmental governance in Northern Ireland Alex McGarelWorld Wildlife Fund

    In other words, they dug the river up first and then asked if that was OK afterwards.But the BBC has learnt that another government department has a very different story to tell.The Department of Environment (DoE) is charged with policing the environment, including its rivers.It had advised the Water Service that, as the site was protected, they could not lay the pipe across the river bed. Instead, the “pipe must be laid under the river bed using underground techniques”.But it turns out the Water Service ignored this advice, saying that it was “impracticable”.However, the DoE has pointed out to them that this was not a decision they could take under the relevant legislation. The site was protected from all such damage, including that by government agencies.The whole event has angered environmentalists, especially the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).It has been carrying out a long-term project on the river to keep it in good shape because of its protected status. The group said they were “horrified” that it had happened.WWF NI Freshwater Policy Officer Alex McGarel said: “It appears that this is just another example to add to the pile of poor environmental governance in Northern Ireland.”Again and again, we see government so tied up in its own regulatory knots that it’s incapable of doing its job of protecting the environment.”Despite efforts by scientists and environmentalists, no new mussels are growing in the river.The youngest ones are already 20 years old. The mature mussels are over 150 years old. Many of these died in just a few hours. Ultimately the population is dwindling.Particularly frustrating for people like Mr McGarel is the lack of comeback on any one group.The DRD Water Service, a government agency, enjoys Crown Immunity and cannot be prosecuted.

    ‘Polluter pays’
    However, this position does not sit well with the European Commission.If it turns out that the Water Service has damaged a Special Area of Conservation and Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI) and get away with it, then the UK government could find itself in the European courts to explain why the ‘polluter pays’ principle is not being properly applied in Northern Ireland.More immediately, the Water Service has to explain why it deliberately broke the rules and dug up an ASSI, knowing it had been told not to by its sister department.And there will be plenty of environmentalists waiting to hear the answer.