Sand dredging firms have spent £500,000 on studies to back their case that they are causing no environmental harm to Lough Neagh, the High Court heard today.
Counsel for the companies also insisted steps have been taken to ensure they have authority for both retrospective and future extractions.
Friends of the Earth is taking legal action against a former Stormont minister for failing to halt the process at the largest freshwater lake in the British Isles.
The charity is challenging Mark H Durkan’s decision to issue an enforcement notice rather than order it must stop immediately.
The move in 2015 by Mr Durkan during his tenure as Environment Minister enabled dredging firms to lodge an appeal with the Planning Appeals Commission (PAC).
Meanwhile, the annual extraction of up to 1.8 million tonnes of sand can continue.
Lough Neagh has internationally recognised environmental significance, with special protection under the wild birds directive and designation as an area of special scientific interest.
According to Friends of the Earth no planning approval exists for sand dredging on the lough.
A barrister for the charity claimed the situation represents a flagrant breach of planning laws that has brought the system in Northern Ireland into ridicule.
But on day two of the case counsel for the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs contended that the environmental group has “grossly overstated” the impact of dredging on Lough Neagh.
And Stewart Beattie QC, representing the Sand Traders’ Assocation, claimed his clients had been wrongly subjected to “excoriating” comments.
He told the court that an ongoing assessment has found “no evidence of harm being caused to Lough Neagh as a result of dredging activities”.
With sand extraction going on at the lough since the 1930s, Mr Beattie set out how the companies have been in correspondence with government departments from 1996 in a bid to ensure they have the necessary permission.
“There’s been nothing clandestine, nothing hidden,” he insisted.
Mr Justice Maguire was told how the process through the PAC involves dealing with retrospective and future dredging.
Detailing a series of environmental expert reports commissioned by the firms for the planning appeal, he disclosed: “To date the sand traders have committed in the region of £500,000 to the assessment work.”
Mr Beattie said his clients are working to a October 31 deadline for their environmental statement.
He added: It’s unthinkable that they will not progress to ensure there’s a planning application properly before the requisite statutory agency in respect of future work.”
The case continues.