Rea’s Wood bathing water responsibility role for Antrim and Newtownabbey Council
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As a bathing water operator, the council will be required to inform DAERA’s pollution hotline and take appropriate measures to protect bathers’ health when it becomes aware of any pollution incidents/abnormal situations/exceptional weather events that could be considered a risk to human health.
It must provide information to the public and if necessary, remove any pollution and issue temporary advice against bathing. It is understood the council would have no responsibility for water quality. Sites need more than 45 bathers or 100 beach users to be included.
Last summer, the council issued warnings that blue/green algae blooms were detected in the water at Rea’s Wood, at Antrim lough shore, Cranfield Point/jetty and along the Toome Canal. In September, councillors supported a motion for a working group of relevant agencies to be established to address the Lough Neagh “crisis” after hearing blue/green algae had spread to such an extent that it was visible by satellite.
Speaking at a meeting of the borough council’s Operations Committee, at Antrim Civic Centre, on Monday evening, Macedon Ulster Unionist Councillor Robert Foster recommended approval. He noted it is the only inland bathing water to be included.
Airport Sinn Fein Cllr Annemarie Logue said that she was “happy to second” the recommendation. “It is better that it is controlled locally by the local council and signs put up when appropriate,” she noted.
Antrim DUP Alderman John Smyth said he would have been happy with the alternative option to decline to undertake statutory responsibilities. He queried whose responsibility it would be if someone gets hurt.
Matt McDowell, director, of parks and leisure operations, pointed out the council’s responsibility “ends at the shoreline in relation to bathing waters”.
He indicated warning signs must be put in place and the Department will carry out water tests on a weekly basis with two samples taken, one for e-coli and another for faecal matter. A separate test would be carried out for blue-green algae.
He reiterated the council’s responsibility “ends at the shoreline” and as an operator, it would give the local authority “peace of mind” due to the proximity of Rea’s Wood to the council-owned caravan park.
Macedon Alliance Cllr Billy Webb MBE said: “I share Ald Smyth’s concern in relation to this.” He added the Northern Ireland Assembly has indicated Lough Neagh will be “a priority” in relation to dealing with “the blue/green algae issue”.
He also expressed concern there could be “reputational damage” to the council if it is seen as “supporting swimming” at the location if there is a further outbreak of blue/green algae in the summer.
“If may be better if we leave this until the algae problem is resolved,” he suggested. He was advised if algae is present, signage would relay to members of the public that swimming at the location would be “detrimental to their health”.
Ballyclare DUP Cllr Helen Magill expressed reservations and asked if cost would be incurred if the council had to remove any waste. She was advised there would be an expectation the council would be required to assist with removing waste from the water at Rea’s Wood and there would be an associated cost.
Airport Alliance Cllr Andrew McAuley also said he had a few reservations that it may be “a bit too much responsibility and too many things that can go wrong”.
Threemilewater Alliance Cllr Julie Gilmour commented there had been a council proposal initially to include Jordanstown lough shore but DAERA decided not to take that forward.
Councillors have said previously open water swimming has become increasingly popular at Jordanstown and Antrim lough shore with a rise in groups and individuals swimming at these locations during the Covid pandemic.
“It makes no difference, people still swim there. If people still swim in the lough, surely they are safer if we are operating this,” Cllr Gilmour commented. She was told if the council declines, DAERA would not test at the location “unless there is a reason to test” although tests would continue if there is blue-green algae.
“I think it is safer for our residents if we are operating it because then DAERA will do more testing,” added Cllr Gilmour. She went on to say that although she understands concerns about potential reputational damage and cost, she said it would be “better to go with it” as people are “going to do it anyway”.
Airport Sinn Fein Councillor Maighréad Ní Chonghaile stated: “I agree we should assert some responsibility in the service of our residents.”
Cllr Foster commented: “Hopefully the blue/green algae can be brought under control and the lough does become an asset to our borough. It is a jewel. We are very lucky to have it. Our responsibility ends at the shore.”
Cllr Logue said: “I think the council is far better to be involved and respond when needed. The council has been very prompt in putting signs up in Rea’s Wood and other areas.”
She noted that Rea’s Wood is “very popular” for swimming with “hundreds” of bathers. Ald Smyth asked for a recorded vote. The proposal was carried after 10 votes in favour and four against.
Michelle Weir, Local Democracy Reporter