The Northern Ireland Environment Agency was not “advised of any proposed plan to stop treating sewage” by the Department for Infrastructure, we can reveal.
We reported last week how DfI put the proposal, which could see raw sewage discharged into our seas, out to public consultation.
DfI said in its equality impact assessment on the suggestion that it was “initiated” by Secretary of State Chris Heaton-Harris.
It follows major backlash over sewage pollution in England, where the Conservatives stood idly by while private water companies pumped raw sewage into English waters over 300,000 times last year.
The Tory MP has set the 2023-2024 budget for Northern Ireland in the absence of a functioning Assembly.
Departments across the board will have to make a series of cuts to public services as a result.
The Department for Infrastructure said within documents it has drawn up that a number of “unpalatable” options are being considered.
Their “DfI 2023/24 Budget considerations – cessation of NI Water’s provision [of] the wastewater pumping and treatment service” could save £35 million but can’t be signed off without a minister.
Friends of the Earth NI blasted the proposed policy, saying it could turn the Northern Ireland coastline into “a cesspit”.
We asked the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs if they were consulted on the proposal which could have huge implications for the environment.
A DAERA spokesman said: “DAERA is aware that DFI is consulting on its Equality Impact Assessment on the 2023/24 budget, including potential impacts on the Government Owned Company NIW.
“However, DfI has not advised DAERA of any proposed policy to stop treating and pumping sewage at this time.
“NIEA regulates the discharges from NIW wastewater collection systems and treatment plants under the Water (NI) Order (NI) 1999 and will take appropriate enforcement action for any non-compliance.”
DfI’s section 75 screening of the proposal states: “The cessation of wastewater treatment would result in the discharge of screened raw sewage at coastal wastewater treatment works (WwTW).
“In that scenario, NI Water estimates the percentage of the population served by compliant WwTW would significantly reduce from... 99.23% to something in the order of 25% - in short most of the population would not be served for wastewater services by legally compliant treatment.
“Pollution would certainly increase in rivers and coastal waters and sensitive rivers throughout the North would almost certainly be affected.
“This would breach discharge consents resulting in prosecutions against NI Water and the imposition of fines.
“Incidents of ‘out of sewer flooding’ would increase as it is anticipated that NI Water could not fund contracted resources to respond to sewer blockages and proactively maintain the sewer network,” they added.
“Pumping of wastewater to the wastewater treatment works would also cease resulting in blockages in the sewer networks and the likelihood of out of sewer flooding into homes and businesses and on public streets.
“There is no contingency that will adequately provide a sustained like for like replacement for a normally functioning wastewater treatment service.”
The Department for Infrastructure was ordered to make savings of around 24% - after Heaton-Harris gave them a £523.4m budget for 2023-24, despite needing £691m to “deliver essential public services”.
“As a result, this requires consideration of a number of unpalatable actions, including actions which would impact on NI Water service delivery,” the screening says.
Friends of the Earth NI director, James Orr, told us: “This is going into territory I never thought I would see, where it’s being proposed we can turn our backs on laws that protect wildlife, our shoreline and the health of people.
“The government has lost its moral compass - this could create an ecological catastrophe.”
A DfI spokesperson told us: “The Department welcomes all views about the potential impacts this would have on public services. It is important we assess the implications of the decisions that would need to be taken and indeed those that cannot be taken to cut funding in the absence of a Minister.”
Its public consultation on this and other proposals closes on August 7.