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Department and ABC Council criticised over blockage at River Blackwater

The Department for Infrastructure (DfI) came in for a lot of criticism, at a recent Development Committee meeting of Mid Ulster District Council, over its perceived failure to intervene quickly enough to address blockage issues on the River Blackwater.

Speaking at tcommittee meeting held on March 14, Council Chairman, councillor Dominic Molloy claimed that lives were being put at risk as a result of DfI River’s alleged lack of action, and that ordinary citizens were left with no choice but to step in to clear blockages themselves.

The Sinn Féin councillor for Dungannon DEA stated: “I just want to raise an issue around the River Blackwater.

“I very disappointingly had a response from DfI Rivers today in relation to a query that was put in maybe two weeks ago, in relation to a full blockage of the river at the the old railway bridge, between Verner’s Bridge and Bond’s Bridge [close to Clonmore].

“Storm damage had washed down a lot of branches, a lot of trees, resulting in the river being completely blocked.

“[There were] issues around Lough Neagh Rescue Service not being able to get up the river.

“Essentially, what DfI Rivers were saying is, they came out and they examined the river, and mysteriously the blockage had gone.

“But it had gone because many good volunteers and people came along the last two Saturdays, and with a lot of effort and a lot of will removed the blockage, and spent two full days with heavy lifting equipment, diggers, winches, tractors, trailers, chainsaws. They all got together.

“I think it’s totally unacceptable that the people are left to do this, to open up a waterway which is essential to our tourism offering, as well as the people that live locally.

“It is a disappointing response, but we are now leaving – when I say ‘we’, I mean collectively as statutory agencies – this work to be done by local people, at risk to themselves, because we had I would say over the two Saturdays 30 to 40 volunteers putting themselves in danger on a river with boats.

“And only with a lot of management and looking after it that people made sure that they had life jackets supplied.

“If this continues it is a disaster waiting to happen, somebody will get injured, a member of the public trying to do this work when there are other agencies who should be doing it.”

Councillor Malachy Quinn (SDLP, Torrent DEA) concurred with the Sinn Féin representative: “I just want to agree with everything councillor Molloy said there. It’s an absolute disgrace what DfI are allowing to let happen.

“[Members of the public] took a risk themselves, getting the equipment, getting the boats, getting everything raised up, that’s not an easy job in, it’s not for amateur people.

“Because those people live on the Blackwater, because they care about it, they went out and put their lives at risk and they got it done.

“If they hadn’t done that and somebody had drowned, there was no way Lough Neagh rescue would be able to come up the water to rescue anybody, so this is a life-or-death situation.

“DfI came out, I know councillor Molloy mentioned the blockage up at the old railway bridge, there was a blockage down at the Maghery Canal.

“Rivers Agency came out and looked at it, they told me ‘Yes, we’ll get that sorted’. And the next day [they said] ‘No, it’s not our concern, we’re not going to do it’.

“If somebody had fallen in and drowned, were they going to turn around and say ‘Sorry, it wasn’t our problem’?

“DfI have authority to look after this, it’s a statutory duty to do it, and we now have to write to [DfI Minister John O’Dowd] to try and bring that to his attention. I’m sure the minister will try to do his best to get this resolved.

“And then we have another council on the other side that aren’t really making an effort to do much on it.

“Mid Ulster is almost having to put their nose into another council area to try and get this sorted, and I think that says a lot about our council – it says a lot about a neighbouring council as well.

“I’m sure other party colleagues are the same, they’re talking with their colleagues in ABC Council to try and get a resolution to this, but the longer this goes on, the more chance of a tragedy happening.

“People need to get the finger out. DfI certainly need to get the finger out. I’m looking forward to the meeting with the minister, and hopefully going forward we get this issue resolved very quickly.”

Bringing the debate to an end, chair of committee, Councillor John McNamee (Sinn Féin, Cookstown DEA) said: “Thanks for raising these concerns, and I agree with the frustration. This has been going on for a long time now.”

In correspondence to Cllr Molloy, DfI Rivers acknowledged that the site of the blockage was inspected on March 13 – nine days after being alerted to it by the Mid Ulster representative – however they insisted that navigational issues are not within their remit.

The correspondence states: “Further to your email received in this office on March 4, in which you reported a potential blockage on the Blackwater River downstream of Bond’s Bridge at the old railway bridge.

“From a drainage aspect my comments are as follows. The Blackwater River was inspected by boat on the morning of March 13, and I can confirm that the debris at the old railway bridge support columns has been removed.

“The Department understands that this has been carried out by members of the public.

“From the drainage aspect DfI Rivers can confirm that there is no drainage impediment at this location, and no action is required by DfI Rivers.

“It should be noted that DfI Rivers has not remit to keep watercourses open for navigational purposes, nor to aid others in this endeavour. DfI River remit is as defined by the Drainage (Northern Ireland) Order 1973.”

Armagh City, Banbridge & Craigavon (ABC) Borough Council were contacted for a response, in light of Cllr Quinn’s comments, however they declined to comment.

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