The European Commission has asked for clarification about alleged breaches to environmental regulations, including those protecting Lough Neagh, it has been revealed.
The Department of the Environment has received a letter asking for more information after complaints to the commission.
The complaints were made by Friends of the Earth and other organisations 15 months ago. The department has 10 weeks to provide the information. The commission then has 10 weeks to decide whether it is satisfied with the answers.
Minister Mark H Durkan has given sand companies until the end of June to stop dredging from the bed of the lough.
It is internationally recognised as an important bird habitat and has been given special protection area status under European rules.
Mr Durkan had been criticised by environmentalists for a failure to act to protect it.
Following an assembly question by Green Party leader Steven Agnew Mr Durkan said the commission was seeking clarification “on allegations relating to a number of environmental matters, including reference to the Lough Neagh special protection area”. “Lax environmental regulation and poor planning could lead to Northern Ireland facing big so-called infractions, or fines,” said Mr Agnew.
Mr Durkan said he would seek to show that “compliance has been achieved, or prioritise any actions necessary to the satisfaction of the commission”. He added that he and his department were taking “all steps necessary to minimise the risk of any infraction penalties”.
James Orr of Friends of the Earth said his organisation had raised issues about systematic and persistent failures by the government in fulfilling their legal obligations to the environment.