Posted on September 25, 2023
AS CONCERNS ABOUT the state of Lough Neagh grow in Northern Ireland, more focus has turned to the sand extraction that has been happening at the freshwater site for commercial purposes.
Sand extracted from the lake is sold in a number of Irish retail stores and is used on pitches in sports grounds across the country, The Journal has learned.
Lough Neagh, Ireland’s largest lake and the source of 43% of Northern Ireland’s drinking water, has made headlines recently due to a resurgence of toxic blue-green algal blooms.
The sand extraction activity is thought to be contributing to the eutrophication process (or, nutrient loading) of the lough’s waters, which has driven the extensive blue-green algal growths at the internationally important lake this summer, and has left long-term scarring of the lough bed.
Industrial-scale sand dredging, which involves using suction hoses to remove vast quantities of sand from the lough bed, is thought to be redistributing toxins in the sediment. Planning documents indicate that phosphates and other contaminants that toxic cyanobacteria feed on are contained in the bed, which is also an important habitat.
Irish sports groups whose grounds have been purchasing the controversially sourced sand from Lough Neagh now say they were not aware of its use.
The sand, which is linked to a number of controversies, has been used at Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) grounds, as well as being sold by major retail outlets across the island.
Controversies surrounding Lough Neagh sand extraction include concerns that the activity is encroaching on nursery areas for spawning fish (creating “dead zones”, in the words of senior fishermen), claims of apparently illegitimate tax breaks for firms and allegations of regulatory breaches relating to the first formal consents for extraction.
A handful of companies were licensed to extract up to 1.5 million tonnes of sand at Lough Neagh in 2021. Prior to that, industrial-scale extraction was unauthorised and unregulated.
An English aristocrat who claims ownership of the lough bed, the Earl of Shaftesbury, also receives royalty payments for every tonne of sand that is suction-dredged at Lough Neagh.
According to industry figures, something like 30 million tonnes of sand is thought to have been extracted from the lough bed since the 2000s. It is not clear how much in royalties this would have generated.
Lough Neagh sand is thought to be used in GAA grounds across at least a third of all counties on the island.
Its use has been recorded across Northern Ireland’s six counties, as well as in at least six in the Republic of Ireland – Monaghan, Leitrim, Sligo, Donegal, Dublin and Longford.
The venues where Lough Neagh sand has been used include the home of Gaelic games at
Croke Park, where thousands of tonnes have lined the playing surface.
Environmentalists say firms supplying the sand – which accounts for roughly 30% of Northern Ireland’s construction sand overall – are “ripping out the heart of Lough Neagh”.
Campaigners held a ‘wake’ for Lough Neagh along the shores of Ballyronan, Co Derry, last Sunday.
“There is a definite contradiction in a leadership organisation that represents the best of Ireland being involved in the exploitation of one of Ireland’s most precious habitats,” said James Orr, the director of Friends of the Earth NI.
“Sand dredgers are ripping out the heart of Lough Neagh. They’re digging deep into the source of a lot of what this place represents, culturally and mythologically, for people here.
“Particularly with the GAA – who have such a sense of history, culture and storytelling as part of their organisation – it just feels so wrong that they’re using this material.”
Orr suggested that the discrete branding of Lough Neagh sand bags – many are packaged in plain white bags, with no immediate information on provenance or the firms involved – allowed the products to slip below the radar from a consumer point of view.
“The lough itself is being debranded and reduced to a barcode,” he said. “Because of the controversies surrounding it, it’s almost as if the industry is aware, or self-conscious, of the environmental vandalism that’s been going on and is sneaking in the product, when most products are very carefully and well-branded.
“The sensitivities around the destruction of Lough Neagh are such that you don’t even get a sense of who is exploiting it and where it’s coming from. The idea of the lough being reduced to a barcode, to me, says everything about the commodification of our most precious jewel.”
A number of county branches said that, since they contracted out pitch maintenance and work on sports grounds, they did not know where the sand they have been using is sourced. A number did not respond to requests for comment.
“The GAA has no role in the acquisition of materials by third parties,” a spokesperson for the GAA said.
“It is at the discretion of our units to engage companies for their own works.”
Sand sourced at the lough is also used by various major retailers for a number of purposes.
The Journal can reveal that Homebase stocks and sells bags of recreational and building sand, supplied by Lough Neagh sand extraction firm Norman Emerson Ltd, at all of its eight stores in Northern Ireland and its eight outlets in the Republic of Ireland.
A spokesperson for Homebase told The Journal: “Across Homebase’s wide range of
recreational and builder’s sand, only two products contain Lough Neagh Sand, which are the Lough Neagh Building Sand and Sand & Cement Mix from Norman Emerson.
“These are sold only in our Irish stores.”
The spokesperson added that Homebase is “working with our suppliers to review our range”.
Rival firm B&Q also used to stock and sell Lough Neagh sand. But it told investigative website The Detail last year that it had “not sold sand sourced from Lough Neagh in any of our stores since 2015″.
Norman Emerson Ltd was also approached for comment.
The most recent dispute over Lough Neagh sand centres on an application by the Lough Neagh Sand Traders Ltd – a collective of five companies at the lough – to remove, and later to relax, some of the regulations that were introduced as part of the first-ever formal consents introduced for the industrial-scale extraction activity.
The non-compliance application has been challenged by Mid-Ulster Council and is now due to go before a planning hearing.