State fined for environment breaches

Wed, Dec 19, 2012, 00:00

Ireland has been fined €3.5 million in two lump sums, as well as an ongoing €12,000 per day, for breaches of environmental law.

The fines were imposed today by the European Court of Justice in cases taken against Ireland by the European Commission.

The first ruling relates to Ireland's failure to properly regulate the installation and use of septic tanks, or individual waste water treatment systems.

The court heard discharges from septic tanks, of which there are close to 500,000 in Ireland, have contributed to micro-biological pollution of groundwater and nutrient pollution of surface waters. Human health is put at risk because pathogens can enter drinking water sources via septic tanks that are poorly designed, located or maintained.

In today's ruling, the court found that Ireland had not complied with an earlier 2009 ruling and therefore the court imposed a penalty payment of €2m pluss €12,000 for each day of delay, from today, until full compliance.

How much this daily fine will amount to was not immediately clear however. A spokesman for the Department of Environment said the judgment was being considered but the understanding was that the current registration requirements for septic tanks meant Ireland was now complaint. The Department of Environment is expected to make a more detailed statement later today.

However a spokesman for the commission in Dublin said the judgment appeared to find Ireland had not set a final date for the registration of the tanks, and the court had therefore found the legislation was not “fully” applied. As such Ireland, it appeared, was still not compliant, he said.

The second judgement relates to Ireland's failure to correctly transpose and apply EU legislation on environmental impact assessments relating to the restructuring of rural landholdings and water management projects. This involved irrigation or land drainage which did not fully take sensitive countryside features into account. The result was a loss of wetlands and other habitats without any environmental impact assessments ever being required.

However in this case the court found that Ireland had implemented an earlier 2008 ruling, and therefore the imposition of a penalty payment was unnecessary. However, the court imposed a lump sum fine of €1,500,000.

Both cases were initially brought to the court by the commission on the basis of evidence of harm to human health and the environment resulting from significant shortcomings in national legislation. The additional fines were sought by the Commission because Ireland showed very slow progress in reforming legislation to ensure compliance with the first judgments, and EU environmental legislation.

The commission estimated that failure to implement environment legislation costs the EU economy around €50 billion every year in health costs and direct costs to the environment.

Green Party leader Eamon Ryan said Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan's failure to act quickly on the compliance scheme for septic tanks was "now costing us dear".

"In 2009 Ireland was found to have been in breach of the Directive since 1975. This called for swift action to ensure a system of inspections of septic tanks. This was set up by [former Green Party minister for the environment] John Gormley but Phil Hogan has dithered since entering office, and failed to put the necessary enforcement measures in place," he said.

"He now needs to take swift action to stop the daily fines that we are now paying. Ireland's record on implementation of essential environmental legislation is poor. While the Green Party were in office the number of cases against Ireland started to drop, but this recent case shows that we have gone back to our old ways and is a wake-up call to the Government that they need to take the environment seriously."