The Secretary of State has been blasted over policy that is said could turn the Northern Ireland coastline into ‘a cesspit’, despite his party suffering serious backlash over sewage pollution in England.
According to a screening document Chris Heaton-Harris "initiated" the policy proposing Northern Ireland Water stop treating wastewater before it’s discharged into the sea in a bid to save money.
His party stood idly by while private water companies pumped raw sewage into English waters over 300,000 times last year and now it seems bill payers will be forced to pay the £10 billion needed for systems upgrades that weren’t done while shareholders raked in huge dividends.
Now NI’s Department for Infrastructure has drawn up an equality impact assessment on the “unpalatable” plan for our sewage, which was put forward as a way to save £35 million amid “cruel” Conservative budget cuts.
It outlines how the move will cause “a negative impact across all Section 75 categories” but also hospitals, health services, agri-foods, environmental and council services too.
The policy, named “DfI 2023/24 Budget considerations – cessation of NI Water’s provision [of] the wastewater pumping and treatment service”, was initiated or written by Chris Heaton-Harris according to the paperwork.
Author of the Section 75 screening 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, blasted “the fact the Secretary of State... would consider turning the Northern Ireland coastline into a cesspit”.
“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,” he added.
“The government has lost its moral compass - this could create an ecological catastrophe.”
Environmental Justice Network Ireland director, Dr Ciara Brennan, told us: “The quality of our maritime and terrestrial waters are already of very poor standards compared to where they should be.
“Any policy or legal decisions which result in further reduction of those standards is going to leave us in an extremely precarious position and bring us into the world where we’re in breach of multiple international standards of protection.
“In addition, it raises very serious concerns about trans-boundary pollution across the border and this will also bring us into breach of multiple international environmental conventions.”
Unite the Union says the move could see “sewers exploding into homes, businesses and onto public streets”.
Its regional officer for NI Water, Joanne McWilliams, said: “Our members working in Northern Ireland Water will not sit back idly and watch as austerity budgets decimate a critical public service, devastate our environment and threaten public health.”
We asked DfI if they were seriously considering this course of action - which needs Ministerial sign-off.
A spokesperson said: “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 and responses will be “used to inform further mitigation measures and reallocation of any additional funding that may become available during 2023-24”.
Take part here: https://www.infrastructure-ni.gov.uk/consultations/dfi-resource-budget-2023-24-equality-impact-assessment-consultation
A NIO spokesperson said: “The statutory responsibility for ensuring that NI Water treats raw sewage before it enters Northern Ireland's waterways is devolved to Northern Ireland departments, including the Department for Infrastructure.”
DAERA, which oversees water quality and pollution, was contacted for comment.