Details on Garda helicopter use among cases rejected by watchdog

Commissioner for Environmental Information says not enough use being made of laws

Information Commissioner Peter Tyndall found An Garda Síochána was justified in refusing access to information on the use of Garda aircraft. Photograph: The Irish Times

Information Commissioner Peter Tyndall found An Garda Síochána was justified in refusing access to information on the use of Garda aircraft. Photograph: The Irish Times

 

A request for a Garda station electricity bill and information about the use of a Garda helicopter were among the appeals that came before the Commissioner for Environmental Information last year.

Peter Tyndall, who is also the Information Commissioner, published the details of this and other cases in his 2015 annual report on Wednesday.

Mr Tyndall deals with appeals where individuals have sought and been refused access to environmental information under the Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations. The regulations give effect to an EU directive on public access to environmental information.

In an appeal taken by journalist Gavin Sheridan, Mr Tyndall found An Garda Síochána was justified in refusing access to information on the use of Garda aircraft, information on a contract for the provision on fuel and information on an electricity bill for a particular Garda station.

The commissioner found the connection between the requested information about the helicopter and any impact on the environment from air travel was “too remote” to qualify as environmental information.

Investigators also upheld a decision by Dublin City Council to refuse access to information on the identity of individuals making planning complaints where disclosure of such information would adversely affect the interests of the complainant.

The office found, however, that mapping information used by the forestry body Coillte to allow test surveys in connection with wind turbines constituted environmental information.

Mr Tyndall said he did not believe full use was being made of the AIE regulations to seek information on the environment that was of public interest.

“I think there is more scope. I think some of the requests for information are very much on the periphery of environmental issues,” he said.

“I can understand that people use the tools that may be available to them. But I think there’s actually more capacity to use the legislation for mainstream environmental information requests.

“I think probably that there is a lot of legitimate public interest in issues around the environment and that some of the information that’s not currently in the public domain could be properly obtained by using the legislation.”

Formal decisions

In 2015, the office received 31 new appeals – an increase of 80 per cent on the previous year. A total of 27 cases were closed last year, 15 formal decisions were made, eight appeals were invalid, three cases were withdrawn and one case was settled.

The commissioner said that notwithstanding the improved turnover for appeals, significant challenges remained to process the increased volume of appeals being received by the office.

He welcomed the appointment of two new investigators to his office, expressly for the purpose of conducting AIE appeals.

The Minister for the Environment must publish an indicative list of bodies that are subject to the AIE regulations. They include government departments, local authorities, non-commercial State agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and commercial State agencies such as EirGrid.

The kind of information that may be sought includes records about the air and atmosphere, water, soil, land, landscape and natural sites including wetlands, coastal and marine areas.

Information on substances, energy, noise, radiation or waste, including radioactive waste, emissions, discharges and other releases into the environment also fall within the scope of the regulations.

The state of human health and safety, including contamination of the food chain, is also covered, as are policy and administrative measures affecting the environment.