An independent watchdog has launched an investigation into the unauthorised extraction of sand from Lough Neagh.
The NI Audit Office probe is understood to be at an early stage and is expected to be completed later in the year.
Environmental groups had voiced concern after it emerged that a number of sand extraction firms have ignored a request from environment minister Mark H Durkan to halt their activity because they have no planning permission.
A spokesperson for the DoE said the audit office ‘has initiated a review of environmental protection of Lough Neagh’.
In a letter to the five companies last year Mr Durkan said that dredging sand from the lough ‘is unauthorised and the activity should cease until the situation has been addressed’.
Large sand barges are a regular feature on Lough Neagh and it is thought up to 1.2 million tonnes of sand are taken from the lough each year. A fee is paid for every tonne of sand taken from the lough to the Shaftesbury Estate, which owns the lake bed. The sand taken from the lough is favoured by the building trade.
As Ireland’s largest freshwater lake, Lough Neagh is designated as a Special Protection Area and is also and Area of Special Scientific Interest.
James Orr of Friends of the Earth welcomed the development.
“We are very pleased that some one independent is looking at this,” he said.
“The problem is there has been no independent assessment of the management of the lough. It should be one of our most special places but there is no management it seems to us.
“The minister asked last year for sand dredging to stop but they are out every day, it seems their activity has increased instead of decreasing.
Mr Orr said that there are concerns over bird numbers and fish stocks in the lough. He said that after years of neglecting these environmental issues it is now ‘impossible to access what these environmental impacts are’.
Green Party Assembly member Stephen Agnew said the DoE could be leaving itself open to fines from Europe.
A DoE spokesperson said it would engage with the NIAO but refused to meet with Friends of the Earth on this issue while there was a on-going enforcement investigation and follow-up action.