Between the need to reduce - rather than increase - air travel and the pressing need to conserve biodiversity, this decision is most welcome.
4 June 2010
Sligo Airport - High Court quashes permission for runway extension that would damage protected nature conservation areas
The environmental lobby group Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) welcomed today's decision of the High Court to quash Sligo County Council's grant of planning permission for a runway extension at Sligo Airport.
In August 2009 the Council granted permission to allow the airport to extend its runway by building a platform - 285m long by 160m wide - directly onto Dorrins Strand, an area of outstanding natural beauty which contains two EU protected areas: one for birds and one for threatened habitats. Following a judicial review brought by two local individuals, and supported by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, today Mr. Justice McKechnie rightly quashed Sligo County Council's poor decision.
'This is a great victory for local activists,' commented a spokesman for FIE, 'and the Department of the Environment is to be commended for supporting their cause. If the airport company insists on revisiting its plans rather than giving up altogether, it must now go back to the drawing board and start again. It should properly consider less damaging alternatives, including the zero sum option: don't build a runway extension at all! There were no reasons of overriding public interest for proceeding with this project, and the airport company's plans to compensate for the damage they would cause were totally insufficient.
The runway extension, which was to have been financed with EUR 8.5 million of public money, is believed to be increasingly under threat from cuts in public spending. The Bord Snip Nua report recommended discontinuing subsidies for regional airports and significantly reducing capital grants to such airports, which would impact directly on Sligo Airport's plans.
'Between the need to reduce - rather than increase - air travel and the pressing need to conserve biodiversity, this decision is to be welcomed for many reasons,' commented FIE. 'First yesterday's Galway bypass decision and now this: we hope local authorities will now start to wake up to their environmental obligations.'
Verification and comment: Tony Lowes / 087 2176316 / 027 74771
The Minister for the Environment has now refused FIE's request to stop the ongoing unauthorised industrial peat extraction at our test case site in Westmeath because ‘Regional management has reported that there is no evidence of significant or measurable impacts'. The files obtained by FIE under Access to Information on the Environment show that National Parks and Wildlife Regional management had in fact commission a Report from their Ranger that said exactly the opposite - ‘While the activities carried out by this company are not being carried out within the European Site or NHA, I believe that they are likely to have an adverse effect on the integrity of the SPA alone and in combination with other activities.' This is not the first time FIE has found the Parks and Wildlife Service misleading the Minister as increasing evidence is being brought to us by the public that systemic problems within the National Parks and Wildlife Service management are leading to persistent infringements of European Directives allowing wholesale and devastating damage to protected sites throughout Ireland.
Dear County Manager;
We write to you in relation to a letter you received from Oonagh Buckley, then Director of the National Parks and Wildlife, dated 10 January 2008 enclosing documentation relating to the proposed Special Protection Area(s) for the Hen harrier within your County boundaries.
In the course of this letter, Ms Buckley stated:
‘However, with regard to the Hen harrier the scientific advice available to the Minister suggests that the development of single rural dwellings does not in general represent a threat to Hen harrier or its habitat.'
This letter concluded that as a consequence SPA designation should not be used as grounds for refusing permission for development of one off houses within the relevant proposed SPAs.
Ms. Buckley was incorrect in stating that any scientific advice held by the Minister suggested that one off housing did not represent a threat to the Hen harrier or its habitat.
We attach a letter from James O'Connell, Assistant Director of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, confirming that the advice received was not scientific.
This misinformation was given to you in spite of the fact that the cumulative adverse effect of one off houses - with their extensive infrastructure and associated activities - was recognised by the Assistant Principal Officer of the Wildlife Service in an email circulated the day before the issue of Oonagh Buckley's letter to you. This email from Jim Kelly dated January 9, 2008 stated that the letter was to be sent to all Managers in spite of the fact that there was already an ‘issue of one off housing having gone beyond acceptable levels in particular sites.'
As an emanation of the State, you are directly responsible to ensure that you do not breach the first sentence of Article 4(4) of the Birds Directive, which requires you to take appropriate steps to avoid pollution or deterioration of habitats or any disturbances affecting the Hen harrier through land use change, in so far as these would be significant having regard to the objectives of Article 4 of the Birds Directive.
This provision of the Birds Directive applies to the proposed SPAs for the Hen harrier (in place of Articles 6(2) to (4) of the Habitats Directive) since these are sites for which the designation process is not complete but which should have been so designated (the deadline for completing the SPA network was 1981) - see the European Court of Justice's decision in case C-374/98.
In these circumstances, we would be grateful if you ensured that any consideration of planning permissions for one-off houses in these areas is subject to a suitable assessment, taking account of the cumulative effects of development in such areas, and acknowledging the fact that there may indeed be cases in which permission will need to be refused in light of the relevant site's status as a proposed SPA.
Tony Lowes, Director
Enc: National Parks and Wildlife Service letter dated 3 March, 2009
Tom Curran, County Manager
Kerry County Council,
Aras an Chontae,
Tralee, County Kerry
Edmond Gleeson, County Manager,
Martin Riordan, County Manager,
Alex Fleeming, County Manager,
Aras Contae an Chlair,
Ennis, County Clare
Martina Moloney, County Manger,
Aras an Chontae,
Peter Carey, County Manager,
Laois County Council,
Aras an Chontae,
County Laois Pat Gallaher, County Manager,
Aras an Chontae,
Terry O Niadh, County Manager,
North Tipperary County Council,
Limerick Road, Nenagh,
Edmund O'Connor, County Manager,
Aras an Chontae,
Declan Nelson, County Manager,
The Glen Road,
FIE has warned that if Government does not end the ‘derogations' for turf cutting on nature conservation sites it will face a judicial review.
In our submission to Minister for the Environment John Gormley on his Cessation of Turf-Cutting Scheme, we show that the ‘derogations' which began following the prolonged and strenuous objection from turf cutters after the publication of the list of SAC raised bog sites in 1997 are illegal.
There is no provision in the Habitats Directive allowing Member States to derogate from the site protection provisions of the Directive as the government has done. The Habitats Directive imposes a very strict protection regime in respect of protected sites. The true situation is that the Government unilaterally arrogated unto itself the power to impose, selectively, the terms of the habitats directive, when it has no such legal right.
GOVERNMENT WARNED ON TURF CUTTING
The Government has been warned that if its ‘unlawful derogations' for turf cutting in nature conservation areas are not withdrawn and enforcement steps not taken to stop the practice it will face a judicial review.
The warning comes as part of Friends of the Irish Environment's submission to ‘The Cessation of Turf Cutting Working Group' established by John Gormley when he announced the continuation of turf cutting in designated areas for 2009.
The FIE submission tracks the derogations which began following the prolonged and strenuous objection from turf cutters after the publication of the list of SAC raised bog sites in 1997.
In 1999, Síle de Valera announced the first 10-year derogation for further cutting on raised bog SACs. This 10 season derogation ended in 2008, but has recently been extended by a year. In 2002, Martin Cullen, then Minister for the Environment, announced a similar 10-year derogation for raised bog SACs designated since 1999.
In 2004, an agreement with the farmers' organisations ensured an additional 10 year extension for raised bogs designated as Natural Heritage Areas (NHAs), a domestic site protection regime. Blanket bog conservation areas (SACs and NHAs) fare even worse, and are effectively subject to a derogation of indefinite duration.
FIE's submission alleges that there is ‘no provision in the Habitats Directive allowing Member States to derogate from the site protection provisions of the Directive as the government has done. The Habitats Directive imposes a very strict protection regime in respect of SACs. Thus, Ireland's so-called "derogations" are in breach of EU law.'
‘It is inconceivable that the rate of loss reported by the Minister last year - 2% to 4% per annum with 36% lost over the last 10 years - could be caused if cutting was genuinely carried out solely for a cutter's own personal use. In fact both blanket and raised bog SACs continue to be harvested for commercial purposes, dressed up - and masquerading - as "domestic cutting".
Other environmental groups have also opposed the derogations.
An Taisce' submission suggested that ‘To harvest bogs, especially those selected for protection under the Habitats Directive because of their particularly special characteristics, is not in keeping with our obligations under the Habitats Directive, the Convention on Biological Diversity, or our European commitment to ‘Halt the loss of Biodiversity by 2010'.
The Irish Peatland Conservation Council claims to have photographic evidence of contractors cutting turf with outlawed ‘sausage machines' in the Connemara Bog Complex SAC in 2009. It urged the Government to relocate the turf cutters and provide green energy grants, calling for a ‘substantial funding package for the cessation of turf cutting'.
It submission concludes ‘Where voluntary compliance with the Cessation of Turf Cutting Scheme does not happen compulsory purchase of the land holdings within the SAC and NHA should be carried out.'
Carbon Cycles and Sinks Network (CCSN) highlighted the threat of a ‘damaging climate change' suggesting that this means that ‘not only must this carbon stock be preserved but that damaged bogs must be restored so that they can resume functioning as carbon sinks'.
An Taisce called for a "carbon tax" on extraction and CCSN's submission calls for rates to be based on the ‘total emissions released, or not absorbed, as a result of the peat extraction.'
It alleges that turf cutting is ‘trebly damaging. Not only does burning the cut turf release more CO2 into the atmosphere than any other fossil fuel, but the cutting process both dries out the bog, allowing the remaining peat to oxidise and release CO2, and also destroys the bog's effectiveness as a sink.
The Working Group has received more than 400 submissions.
A Ministerial Instruction from the Department of Environment to nine County Managers instructing them not to refuse one-off houses in Special Protection Areas for the Hen harrier was based on ‘scientific advice' that did not exist. FIE investigated the letter which claimed that ‘the scientific advice available to Minister suggests that development of single rural dwellings does not in general represent a threat to the Hen harrier or its habitat. ‘
In response to a request under Access to Information on the Environment, the Department admitted that no such scientific advice existed. In fact, internal Department emails shows ‘one off housing having gone beyond acceptable levels in particular sites.'
FIE has now written to the County Managers involved - Kerry, Limerick, Cork, Clare, Galway, Laois, Offaly, Tipperary, Tipperary, and Monaghan - informing them that they must ensure that any planning permissions for one-off houses must be subject to a suitable assessment and that there may indeed be cases in which permission will need to be refused.
13 May 2009
Friends of the Irish Environment
THE MINISTERIAL ‘SCIENTIFIC ADVICE' THAT DIDN'T EXIST
A Ministerial Instruction from the Department of Environment to nine County Managers was based on ‘scientific advice' that did not exist.
The claim comes from the environmental group FIE, who investigated a letter to County Managers written in 2008 by Oonagh Buckley, the Director of Parks and Wildlife Service. The letter stated:
"With regard to the Hen Harrier the scientific advice available to Minister suggests that development of single rural dwellings does not in general represent a threat to the Hen harrier or its habitat. Accordingly, I am directed by the Minister to advise your Authority that, where the Harrier is the sole conservation interest in the SPA, the SPA designation should not be cited as grounds for refusing permission for development of single rural house projects within that SPA.
In response to a request under Access to Information on the Environment, the Department admitted that no such scientific advice existed. The Assistant Director of the Parks and Wildlife Service wrote to the group stating that
"The advice from the Birds Unit of the National Parks & Wildlife Service was of a practical nature, not strictly scientific. It was felt that new houses and extensions of farm infrastructure would be insignificant in the context of land use management of 169,000 ha for Hen Harrier."
In fact, the group also obtained a copy of an email from an Executive Officer stating that while he was arranging for the sending of the letter that day, there was an issue of ‘one off housing having gone beyond acceptable levels in particular sites.'
The group has now written by registered letter to the County Managers involved, informing them that as an emanation of the state the relevant EU Directive requires them to take appropriate steps to avoid pollution or deterioration of habitats or any disturbances affecting the Hen harrier through land use change.
The letter from FIE concludes:
"In these circumstances, we would be grateful if you ensured that any consideration of planning permissions for one-off houses in these areas is subject to a suitable assessment This should take account of the cumulative effects of development in such areas and acknowledge the fact that there may indeed be cases in which permission will need to be refused in light of the relevant site's status as a proposed SPA."
Wide-spread public meetings after the announcement of the original designations in 2002 led to the disbandment of Duchas, the Department of the Environment's Heritage Service, while more than 100,000 hectares of proposed protected land was removed from designation.
The embarrassing admission regarding the absence of ‘scientific advice' follows on a Judgment of the EU Court of Justice in December 2007 against Ireland for its failure to protect numerous species, including the Hen harrier.
The Commission recently wrote to the Irish Government with a Letter of Formal Notice stating that they are now commencing proceedings to ensure compliance with the Court's judgment. Such proceedings could ultimately end in lump sum and daily fines being imposed against Ireland for its failure to protect the Hen harrier and other rare birds.