First, Ireland's relationship with peat is one of exploitation, not conservation. Second, Ireland has totally failed to apply EU law - all EU law - to peat extraction, both within protected areas and outside. Third, this failure to apply EU law has significant impacts in terms of climate change, biodiversity, water quality, flooding, and the rule of law.
Here's an example of the impacts of peat extraction on a priority habitat Natura 2000 site, recorded during investigative site visits we made in May this year.
But before we get in to the substance, by way of background, Ireland has internationally important raised bogs and blanket bogs, with peat soils covering about 20% of the country.
These peatlands are exploited for various purposes.
Three examples: First, Ireland has three peat-fired power stations, burning about 3 million tonnes of peat a year. The supplier of the peat has never been subject to an environmental impact assessment under the EIA Directive. Nevertheless, the power stations benefit from a PSO subsidy of about EUR 30m a year, which was approved by the European Commission in 2001.
Second, peat is used for domestic heating. This is the use that is currently causing damage within Natura 2000 sites. The activity, known as ‘turf cutting', is often portrayed as a traditional activity within minimal impacts. In fact, turf cutting is mechanised and large scale, as we will see shortly.
Third, peat is used domestically and exported for horticulture - for use by gardeners, and by commercial operations such as mushroom growers (as far afield as South Africa). The attitude of producers, as you'll see from the quote on the right, is that peat is a crop.
And this attitude goes all the way to the top in Ireland. In 2008, during a trade mission to southern Africa, Ireland's then Minister for Trade claimed that peat is a ‘quality environmentally-friendly product'. But peat exploitation is not, of course, environmentally friendly. It has huge climate change impacts, biodiversity impacts, impacts on water quality (e.g. peaty water reacts with chlorine during drinking water treatment to create carcinogenic trihalomethanes), and it disrupts the hydrological functions of bogs, making them unable to protect against the sorts of flooding we've seen recently in Ireland.
The first peat extraction problem I'd like to focus on is peat extraction within Natura 2000 sites. Active raised bog and active blanket bog are priority habitats under the Habitats Directive - in other words, they are amongst the most threatened habitats in Europe. Ireland has over 100 raised bog and blanket bog Natura 2000 sites, but they are not protected at the national level. Indeed, Ireland has explicitly allowed peat extraction within Natura 2000 sites for the nineteen years since the Habitats Directive was adopted in 1992. The Commission has only very recently taken action - the first formal legal step was in January this year. The damage caused in the interim period has been devastating, as we discovered during investigative site visits we carried out in May this year.
This is Mouds Bog SAC in County Kildare, for example. The picture at the national level is terrible: as the quote in the centre states, "...there has been a 99% loss of the original area of actively growing raised bog in Ireland, and one-third of the remaining 1% has been lost in the last 10 years".
And here is another sad sight: Ballynafagh Bog SAC in County Kildare, which has been devastated by cutting and afforestation, and which was extensively burnt by wildfire this year - you can see the surface of the bog in the bottom right of the picture.
And this is Redwood Bog in County Tipperary, which lost almost 85% of its priority habitat in the ten years to 2005.
By way of summary of our site visits, we visited 33 of Ireland's 55 raised bog SACs in May this year. 22 of them being were being seriously damaged. 8 of the 33 have been in receipt of EU LIFE funding for restoration. 7 of those 8 were being actively cut in 2011, undermining the funded restoration work.
We would be very grateful if the Petitions Committee would do all in its power to address this issue. In particular, the Petitions Committee could usefully encourage the Commission to keep the pressure on Ireland, and we thank the Committee for the part it has played in this process to date. Turf cutters are threatening to restart cutting in spring 2012, when the cutting season begins, even if it means going to jail. The Commission could use its power under the Treaty to seek emergency interim measures, forcing the Irish authorities to take action pending the outcome of the Commission's infringement proceedings. The Commission could also use the threat of recovering the misspent LIFE funding as leverage in bringing an end to unlawful extraction in Natura 2000 sites.
The bigger problem - and this problem is not adequately addressed by the Commission in its response to our petition - is peat extraction outside protected areas. By way of example, I've focused in on an area around Lough Derravaragh, which is an SPA under the Birds Directive, but I could have chosen any of the orange areas in the middle of the map - all exposed, exploited peatlands.
This is an extraction area near Lough Derravaragh. The extraction site is huge, but the operator has no permission to work there, no EIA has been done, and no licences have been granted. The extraction breaches the EIA Directive, the Habitats Directive, and the WFD. But this is commonplace. As the ECJ said in 1999, no EIA has ever been carried out of any peat extraction in Ireland. The situation has not changed since 1999.
Here is another example - Clonfinane in County Tipperary, the site of a large moss peat operation for horticultural use. The site has come to the attention of the Commission before. It received EU funding for preservation work in 1996, but was subsequently subject to extraction with no EIA, as recorded by the ECJ in 1999 in Case C-392/96. Extraction continues today, with no permission or EIA.
In its response to our petition, the Commission has focused on extraction on Natura 2000 sites, but it has not tackled the bigger problem: unregulated extraction outside protected areas. The Commission won a case on this issue before, in 1999 (Case C-392/96). Proceedings for fines were brought (C-294/03) to enforce the judgment, and the proceedings got as far as an application to the ECJ. Ultimately the case was settled before Ireland was fined. Since that time, Ireland has totally undermined the basis of the settlement. The Commission could therefore reopen its proceedings for fines in Case C-294/03. Or it could bring entirely fresh proceedings. Either way, someone urgently needs to bring peat extraction in Ireland within the fold of EU law.
To close, I'd like to put on the record a formal request for the Petitions Committee to come to Ireland on a fact-finding mission regarding peat extraction in Ireland. If Committee members see first-hand what is happening, we believe they will be strongly motivated to act. My colleague, David Healy, has personally tested all the bogs, and has discovered all the places you are liable to sink, so you will be safe with us. Thank you.
Turf Cutters' and Contractors' Association [TCCA] are continuing a series of meetings designed to inflame resistance to the lawful end to turf cutting on protected bogs next spring. They present themselves as ‘wholly innocent victims in this debacle', with the Government having ' ‘bullied, threatened, swindled and betrayed peace loving Turf Cutters'.
The Peatland Council has failed to disabuse the turf cutters of proposals they have made which are legally or scientifically impossible or impractical - including hydrological liners, de-designation, and relocation to bogs capable of restoration.
We debate the issue on the Pat Kenny Show with Luke Flannagan, the TD and spokesman for the TCCA. Read our proposal to give the turf cutters a Home Energy Programme worth up to €16,000, using the proposed compensation and grants available from the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland. This will tackle fuel poverty at its source and give the cutters generous recompense for their lose - an improved home that will save money on fuel far into the future.
FRIENDS OF THE IRISH ENVIRONMENT
10 RECOMMENDATIONS TO THE PEATLANDS COUNCIL
EMERGENCY MEETING OF 1 JUNE 2011
1. Given Ireland's and the EU's climate change obligations, the ecosystem services provided by even non-designated bogs, the opportunity to alleviate fuel poverty by the wise application of the public funds being provided, and the obligation to spend public money in accordance with all policy priorities, relocation to other bogs should not be permitted as mechanical turf cutting is not compatible with conservation.
2. If relocation is permitted notwithstanding, it can not be to the 75 Raised Bogs or 73 blanket bogs which Ireland designated in 2003-2005 under national legislation as part of the terms of the agreement with the European Commission for the withdrawal of the Commission’s request to the European Court of Justice for daily fines [C-294/03].
3. Machinery must be removed from all 55 protected sites at the end of this season with carefully made consolidated peat drain blocking to take place on every drain every 12 metres [Guidelines from NPWS required].
4. Roads with no purpose other than access to SAC or NHA bogs which could be used for turf extraction or dumping to be blocked against machinery entry or indicated otherwise when blocking is unrealistic.
5. All SAC and NHA bogs must be signed at all entrances with clear information and warnings (e.g. information sign stating that the site is part of the Natura 2000 network, explanation of site's importance, warnings against damaging activities).
6. The Habitats Directive obligation to undertake surveillance of the habitats and to report regularly on the conservation status must be scheduled comprehensively for 2011 and 2012 with Hydrological/ecological monitoring to be developed for all SAC and NHA bogs and their recovery as seen at Killyconny.
7. Programmed removal of trees invading SAC or NHA raised bogs where appropriate.
8. Rangers must be instructed in writing to report all damage to ALL protected habitats when detected.
9. The forms and manner of enforcement must be made clear.
10. The Qualifying Criteria for Annuity Payment Scheme and the Relocation Scheme will be enforced and no application will be accepted by any party where turf cutting was ceased by Cabinet decision of May 2010 and yet turf cutting or associated activity is ongoing on the property or has occurred in 2011.
‘The Government has no legal advisor on this Council and the result is that the cutters are being given false expectations of continuing cutting on or adjacent to designated peatlands because of economic, social and cultural requirements - something not in fact allowed under EU law.
Changes in designation boundaries and displacement to other protected sites - as suggested - would also be illegal. Concluding an agreement based on these kind of expectations (as the Peatlands Council has) can only raised false hopes and kick the conflict down the road into another year..
Only 1% of Ireland's raised bogs remain, and 1/3rd of them have been destroyed in the last ten years.
The report shows machinery cutting into 12 foot high turf banks, newly cleaned deep drains, acres of destroyed bog and endless fields of turf extruded from machines to dry.
Spot visits to 18 of the protected raised bog where cutting was supposed to have ceased last year shows extensive machine cutting continues on 6 of them.
The sites include Cloonchambers, the bog where TD Luke Flanagan has said he will continue cutting turf.
In total, damage that will result in a further deterioration of Ireland's raised bogs conservation status - cutting, burning, draining, adjacent extraction - was photographed on 21 of the 31 designated raised bogs visited.