People, Environment

N. Ireland Wants Flexibility in Punishing Polluters

N. Ireland Wants Flexibility in Punishing PollutersN. Ireland Wants Flexibility in Punishing Polluters

Northern Ireland's Environment Agency is to seek permission for changes on how it deals with landowners responsible for low-level pollution.

But inspectors say while they are asking EU officials for flexibility, they are not "going soft" on farmers.

The move is part of a wide-ranging agreement between NIEA and the Ulster Farmers' Union, BBC News reported.

It is meant to reduce conflict between inspectors and farmers, while improving compliance by offering advice.

Under EU rules, farmers who cause pollution are automatically referred for an inspection. This is done whether the pollution is severe, moderate or low level.

It can result in a hefty penalty being applied to their annual EU subsidy payment.

Now the NIEA is proposing a change, but only for those who are responsible for low-level pollution.

This would see a fixed penalty notice, similar to a speeding ticket or a mandatory training course, instead of the inspection and potential subsidy cut.

The change needs to be agreed by Europe and has been opposed by some environmentalists.

Pollution from farms accounted for almost one in three of all incidents investigated by NIEA in 2015.

Of the 327 farm-related pollution incidents last year, seven were "high severity", 52 were medium and 268 were low.

A similar idea three years ago was rejected by the European Commission that said it would be a breach of the rules and could lead to fines on the Stormont executive.

Europe may again refuse permission for the changes, but the proposals could well feature in plans around regional agriculture arrangements after Brexit.

Wesley Aston of the Ulster Farmers' Union said the agreement was about delivering "positive environmental outcomes".

"Rather than use the stick approach and penalties, we're saying 'let's work together on this', and solve the problems before they become a problem," he said.

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