The raised peat bogs between Lough Derravaragh and Lough Sheelin in County Westmeath form the basis of the Case Study.
On 5th February 2009 FIE received a complaint by email (10 MB) from a member of the public about damage caused by peat extraction Near Coole in County Westmeath. The email included a number of photographs showing extensive extraction of more than 200 hectares adjacent to the River Inny some 1 - 3 km upstream from Lough Derravaragh a designated Special Protection Area (SPA) , Natural Heritage Area (NHA) and a High Amenity Area (HAA) in the Westmeath County Development Plan. In response to this in February 2009 FIE sent a letter of complaint to Westmeath County Council, the National Parks and Wildlife Sevice (NPWS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Shannon Regional Fisheries Board (SHRFB). These complaints started a long campaign to attempt to get vast areas of unregulated peat extraction under control. It also raised our awareness of failings in the planning and licencing process.

During site visits in April 2009 and 2010 to the tonwlands of Coole, Lickny, Doon, Clonsura/Derrycrave and Carlanstown we discovered that virtually all the raised bogs - covering hundreds of hectares - between Lough Derravaragh and Lough Sheelin were under development. This peat extraction is resulting in significant water pollution. Our findings kick started a National Study as it was clear that Westmeath was not the only county with problems.

 

Westmeath County Council

Planning

FIE raised planning issues with Westmeath County Council but they replied that they could not act under the current legislation. The (Planning and Development Act 2000, Section 160) states that an application to the High Court or Circuit Court for an order under this section shall not be made in respect of a development where no permission has been granted, after the expiration of a period of 7 years from the date of the commencement of the development. If a drain had been cut this counted as development and the peat extraction companies were not required to supply substantive proofs that there had not been a change or intensification of use in the past seven years. Hopefully this loophole will come to an end under the amendments made in the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2010 due to come into force which revokes the seven year rule both for quarries and peat extraction.

Local Government Acts

Under Local Government (Water Pollution) Acts 1977 and 1990 and the Local Government (Water Pollution) Regulations, 1978 to 1996 , trade effluent from peat extraction requires a Discharge Licence. In December 2009 Westmeath County Council issued three discharge licences - one to Westland Horticulture Ltd and two to Harte Peat Ltd. However these are inadequate , they only set limits on one parameter (sediments) and there appears to be little if any enforcement. FIE site visits showed the inadequacies in the sediment traps and we requested a review of the discharge licences. Westland Horticulture Ltd and Harte Peat dismissed our claims and no action was taken. In a telephone Converstaion the County Council claimed our request was an enforcement issue and they could not review the licences on the inforamtion provided . FIE responded by submitting a request for a licence review based on the content of the licences. We have also issued a complaint in relation to four other peat extraciton areas which require discharge licences. These are under investigation by Westmeath County Council's Environment Section. We are also persuing the requirment for an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) under Section 32 of the Habitats Regulations (SI No.94/1997).

The details of our correspondence with Westmeath County Council are available here.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

 

As the areas of peat extraction under investigation were over 50 ha they require an Integrated Pollution Prevention Control (IPPC) licence. In a telephone converstaion the EPA assured us that this matter would be treated as urgent and we would be sent a report within 2-3 weeks but three months passed and no enforcemnt action had been taken. In May 2009 FIE complained to the Ombudsman in relation to the slow and inadequate response. The Ombudsman replied that the EPA is an independent public body with its own complaint handling mechanism, and that complaints about the EPA should be directed to the Quality Customer Service (QCS) Officer in the EPA. We did this but the EPA informed us that their Quality Customer Service complaints procedure covers customer complaints and comments relating directly to the quality of the service provided. It does not cover complaints about EPA decisions or other activities of the EPA where there are statutory mechanisms in place to deal with complaints/appeals. We were left at the mercy of the Office of Environmental Enforcment who were in no hurry to act and allowed the unlicensed activites to continue unabated.

Finally on 10th July 2009 the EPA undertook a site vist and determined that Harte Peat did require an IPPC licence and informed us that they ahd applied for one. The EPA also determined that peat extraction areas harvested by Westland Horticulture required a licence. However Harte Peat have not applied for a licence and have since split their operations by forming another company Lismoher. Westland Horticulture have applied for a licence but their documentation is flawed and incomplete. FIE made a submission to Westlands licence application which clarified the leagl requirement for an appropriate environmental assessment. On 21st September 2010 the EPA requested further information and corrections incuding the provision that that if the County Council so determine an EIS must be undertaken. It is difficult to understand why the EPA have allowed extraction to continue for over two years despite the fact that operating without a licence is 'an offence liable to prosecution'. To the best of our knowledge no enforcement action has been taken. This is despite the EPA's concerns about water quality in the River Inny and the close proximity to Lough Derravaragh a designated site. In June 2010 FIE wrote to the EPA requesting that they investigate the impact of disturbed peat soils on drinking water quality - to date nothing has been done.

The details of our correspondence with the EPA are available here.

The National Parks and Wildlife Service

The NPWS were very unhelpful and slow to respond to our complaint. On 26th May 2009 we followed up with a formal AIE request and eventually received information on the 26th August 2009. This showed that they had received the complaint from the member of the public on the 5th February, had found the photos 'shocking' and had requested follow up. The information contained the conservation rangers site visit report dated 27th February 2009 which stated that the 'Shannon Regional Fisheries Board had measured the peat dept in Lough Derravaragh close to the Inny inlet and about 6 feet of peat sedimentation was found'. The report concluded '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'. However other NPWS staff determined that 'the site where the peat extraction is ongoing is not in a NHA SAC SPA or pNHA, there is no evidence of significant (or any measurable ) impacts in any nearby designated site there is no evidence of impacts on any qualifying interests for same'. In a follow up AIE request in March 2010 we received a copy of a bird report showing significant decline of diving ducks. The Court of Justice of the European Union, in Case C-127/02 Waddenzee, ruled that 'The competent national authorities, taking account of the appropriate assessment of the implications of [the activity] for the site concerned in the light of the site’s conservation objectives, are to authorise such an activity only if they have made certain that it will not adversely affect the integrity of that site. That is the case where no reasonable scientific doubt remains as to the absence of such effects'. However from information contained in internal NPWS email correspondence it is clear that they insist on ignoring this ruling.

The details of our correspondence with the NPWS are available here.

Shannon Regional Fisheries Board (SHRFB)

The SHRFB did reply to our complaint however their main concern was the ‘proximity of peat stocks to the river Inny and wind blow from same’. The Board requested the peat stockpiles be covered with tarpaulins and once used all stockpiles were to be relocated to at least 150 meters away from the River Inny. There is in this one site approximately 200ha of highly erodable bare peat soil crossed with drainage ditches exiting directly into the River Inny. There are no buffer zones for the drainage ditches and a scant 2-3 m buffer zone for the River Inny. Yet the Fisheries Board only seems to be concerned about the windblow from stockpiles. On 19th May FIE issued an AIE request to clarify the situation and obtain a study on peat siltation in the River Inny carried out in November 2008. On the 26th August 2009 we finally received a letter in reply and the study which raised significant concerns .

The details of our correspondence with the SHRFB are available here.