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Last Updated:  Thursday, 20 February, 2003, 19:24 GMT
Concern over lough pollution
Martin Cassidy
Rural affairs correspondent

The image abroad may be of green fields and sparkling lakes and rivers, but a government report paints a very different picture of Northern Ireland - one of widespread water pollution.

Lough Neagh is among the most heavily polluted waters in Europe, according to new research.

Fertiliser and animal waste from farms are the main sources of nitrates and phosphates seeping into the lake and poisoning it.

Lough Neagh is now classified as hypertrophic, ranking it alongside other heavily polluted waterways.

The chemicals act as nutrients for unwanted algal growth which causes oxygen depletion.

Phosphate pollution in Lough Neagh first emerged more than 30 years ago with the surface of the lake becoming covered with a green scum-like algal bloom.

Now pollution is on the increase but this time the concern is not just phosphates but also nitrates which farmers apply to crops and grassland.

The problem of chemical pollution in Lough Neagh is not some obscure environmental issue.

We do believe in calling a spade a spade. We don't see that we have a nitrates problem
John Gilliland
Ulster Farmers' Union
The lake is Northern Ireland's biggest source of drinking water, providing millions of gallons daily for household consumption. And it is the 72% increase in nitrate levels in the rivers flowing into the lough since 1972 which is focusing scientists' attention on the problem.

The European Commission's environment spokesperson Pia Ahrenkilde insists that Northern Ireland is not facing up to the problem.

"The Commission does propose fines and the European court ultimately decides on them but we still hope that solutions can be found without going to this last resort."

The new research though by the Departments of Environment and Agriculture has come under attack from farmers who have been singled out as the biggest cause of nitrate pollution and for a significant amount of phosphates.

Farmers say that moves to curb the use of nitrate fertilisers would have drastic consequences for productivity and the Ulster Farmers' Union has called in its own scientists to challenge the official findings.

Farmers point out that the nitrate levels in Lough Neagh are still well below the limit set by the European Commission.

UFU President John Gilliland says farmers will accept some of the responsibility for phosphate pollution but that agriculture is not to blame for the build-up of nitrates in the lough: "We do believe in calling a spade a spade. We don't see that we have a nitrates problem."

Pollution from fertilisers is part of the problem
Pollution from fertilisers is part of the problem
The new scientific report though says the nitrate inputs to rivers flowing into Lough Neagh have increased by more than 70% in the past three decades.

Dr Bob Foy says the increase in nitrates can be directly attributed to agriculture: "Farming is easily the biggest source. Agriculture is coming up for almost 80% of the nitrogen going into Lough Neagh."

The European Commission is demanding action where water is showing evidence of nutrient enrichment and is calling for a plan to reduce pollution.

It remains to be seen if that will be enough to satisfy the Commission that Northern Ireland is tackling the issue but Pia Ahrehkilde has warned that infraction proceedings could result in the European court imposing daily fines: "If we were to come into the unfortunate situation of pursuing further legal action against the UK for not dealing with the problem in Northern Ireland I can not even start guessing what the fines would be."

Find out more about this issue by tuning in to a special programme on BBC Radio Ulster this Saturday morning. A special 30 minute documentary called 'Lakes and Chemicals, will be broadcast at 1130 GMT.



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