Irish Times - 02-09-05
Four years ago, Prof Frank Convery, director of the Environmental Institute at UCD, warned that Ireland was in danger of becoming "the dirty man of Europe". And so it has come to pass, with the European Commission taking a raft of legal actions against the Government over its failure to implement EU environmental legislation.
This is the bleak backdrop for next week's Environment Ireland 2005 conference in Dublin, hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But the programme conveys little sense of how serious Ireland's environmental crisis really is - or of how the EPA itself is under fire for its own shortcomings in dealing with this crisis.
The programme talks about how "the importance of the environmental agenda is growing" and says that in some sectors "it is the environment that is actually driving overall policy and changing behaviour". In fact, what's really driving change is the need to comply with EU directives; otherwise, little would be done.
In a classic piece of understatement, the programme notes that "the management of waste is a growing problem in Ireland as a whole". Indeed it is. Not only do we have more than our fair share of illegal dumps, but there has also been a cross-Border trade in waste that should have been dealt with in the Republic.
The recent publication of "performance indicators" for local authorities also showed up glaring discrepancies. Despite all the talk about recycling, Cork County Council, for example, managed to divert less than 3 per cent of household waste from dumps, compared with the exceptional 49.5 per cent achieved by Galway City Council.
And whatever about the pledge by former minister for the environment Martin Cullen that the new Office of Environmental Enforcement within the EPA would be a "watchdog with teeth", the 2003 Protection of the Environment Act denied it the power to prosecute local authorities when they flout environmental laws.
As for those it can pursue, notably private-sector offenders engaged in illegal dumping or in polluting rivers and lakes, the fact is that this much-vaunted "watchdog" can only take legal action on its own initiative in the District Courts, where fines can often be derisory - it all seems to depend on whether a particular judge is environmentally aware.
Last year, the EPA brought 17 cases before the District Courts and secured convictions in 16 of them. Though these are not enormous numbers, the agency pointed out that the legal actions led to significant investment by convicted offenders, ranging between €250,000 and €900,000, in pollution abatement measures.
Dr Padraic Larkin, the EPA's director general, recently suggested that the Director of Public Prosecutions should set up a special unit to bring more serious cases to the Circuit Court. Only then would offenders face fines of up to €15 million or imprisonment for up to 10 years, or both - penalties that have yet to be imposed on anyone.
Larkin conceded that the EPA itself could have been "more proactive" in warning the public about last July's spillage of 255 tonnes of caustic soda into Cork Harbour from the ADM plant in Ringaskiddy. Responding to strong criticism from environmentalists, he candidly admitted that the agency was "guilty as charged".
Last month, in a bid to restore public confidence following a less serious pollution scare at the GlaxoSmithKline plant in Carrigaline, Co Cork, the EPA announced that the news section of its website (www.epa.ie) would in future carry details of any new incidents reported to the agency that required investigation.
The hottest issue the EPA has had to deal with involves Indaver Ireland's proposed toxic waste incinerator for a site opposite the National Maritime College in Ringaskiddy, Co Cork. What mystified objectors was how the agency, having issued a draft licence last October, could then proceed to adjudicate on the case made against it.
Larkin has admitted that it was "somewhat unusual in law to have a body that makes the first decision making the decision on appeal . . . Ideally, we would prefer that an appeal wasn't back to ourselves, but that is the law" - which it is, under the Act that set up the EPA in 1993, which was introduced by the current Tánaiste, Mary Harney.
There is nothing in next week's conference programme about the EPA's conclusion in its last review of the environment, published in May 2004, that pollution from rapidly increasing road traffic has become "the primary threat" to Ireland's air quality and the prospects of meeting our Kyoto Protocol target.
"The rate of private car ownership and the volume of road traffic have already reached the levels predicted for 2010, contributing to traffic congestion in cities and huge increases in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions," the review stated, adding that these emissions must be "soon brought under control".
But there is little prospect of this happening when the Government is spending billions of euro on building a motorway network feeding into Dublin's already congested M50, and when the breakdown of public investment in transport works out at 80 per cent for roads and just 20 per cent for public transport.
No more than An Bord Pleanála, the EPA is hardly going to challenge Government policy, however environmentally warped that policy may be in certain areas. It is not responsible for policy-making, merely for dealing with the often appalling consequences of the failure by our politicians to embrace sustainable development.
For example, the EPA is well aware of the threat to water quality represented by septic tanks - 400,000 and rising - that serve single houses in rural areas. But the Government wants more of this kind of unsustainable development, so all the agency could do was commission research on better sewage treatment.
Published last month, the research involved a series of trials to assess the performance of septic tanks and other small-scale sewage treatment systems, such as filters and reed-beds. Its aim is to raise awareness of the need to reduce contamination of groundwater, rivers and streams from poorly maintained septic tanks.
Another major environment conference in Belfast next month will adopt a less technocratic approach. Environment NI: A Vision for the Future is being organised by the Northern Ireland Environment and Heritage Service, whose chief executive, Richard Rogers, says he wants "an open and frank debate". Even the titles of the workshops at this conference are engaging: Too Many Cooks (dealing with the clarification of responsibilities); Slippery Slopes (sustainability of development); Shop 'til you Drop (impact of consumerism); Blue Sky or Grey Mist (need for research and development); and Reality Check (is our "green and pleasant land" a fantasy?).
As we are all beginning to realise, the answer to that final question - in Dublin or Belfast - is probably yes.
© The Irish Times
Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment