By Tony Lowes.
99% of the actively growing raised bog in Ireland has gone, with one third of the remaining 1% lost in the last 10 years
“I would like to draw your attention to the outright carnage bestowed on hundreds of acres of our historical raised bog lands in County Westmeath.”
So began an anonymous letter to a variety of environmental NGOs and Government officials in February of 2009. Site visits to Westmeath confirmed the concern and revealed that in fact the extraction was intensifying, with multiple unmarked container lorries heading from the back bogs of Coole and Castlepollard directly to the docks in Dublin.
Five years later, a questionnaire to Local Authorities from the Department of the Environment about 126 extraction sites of over 30 hectares across 20 local authorities confirmed that the industrial extraction from Ireland’s bogs remains the biggest unregulated land use in Ireland, if not in Europe. The questionnaire was based on a satellite survey undertaken by an Irish environmental NGO.
The statistics are in fact well known. The original pristine raised bog area of 311,000 hectares has been reduced to 18,000 hectares. As of the last Report to the EU, 99% of the actively growing raised bog in Ireland has gone, with one third of the remaining 1% lost in the last 10 years.
The damage is also well researched.
Drainage of peat causes not only the degradation of the peat, but a reduction of water-storage capacity and a release of nutrients, heavy metals, sediments, and dissolved organic carbon.
The dissolved organic carbons when treated with chlorine in our water-treatment plants creates carcinogenic disinfectant by products – trihalomethanes. Trihalomethanes exceeding the WHO and EU recommended levels in drinking water currently affect 600,000 Irish consumers, some 200,000 of them on the EPA’s ‘Remedial Action List’. The fact that consumers are not informed and so able to take precautionary measures, as required by the legislation, is a not-unrelated scandal.
Then there is the loss of carbon sink from turf-cutting and related activities (e.g. combustion and horticulture). According to recent UCD studies, these emissions are twice that from waste processing and the equivalent of half of the emissions from our national housing stock.
As a Southern Regional Fisheries Board Report in 2008 concluded:
“The companies involved in the hacking of the boglands have no appreciation for the habitat or the surrounding watercourses and do not work to any specified environmental work procedures. The extraction schemes are financially lucrative due to consumer demand in Ireland, the UK and further afield. The overall result is that the loss of available bog sites greatly exceeds the area of bog being conserved, and this further demonstrates the urgent requirement for control”.
The Department of the Environment’s ‘2013 Peatlands Survey’ was based on a 2010 satellite survey of exposed peatlands commission from University College Cork by Friends of the Irish Environment [FIE].
The survey was pieced together from free Landsat imagery and cloud-cover meant that the only clear pictures were from 2003 – 2007. These revealed more than 74,000 hectares of exposed peatlands in unknown ownership (excluding Bord na Mona). Vast areas of devastation stretched across the raised bogs of the midlands with more than 21,000 hectares in Offaly alone.
The result were catalogued by county and size and presented by FIE to the EU Petitions Committee with dramatic results. The Commission wrote to Ireland suggesting that “extraction is of a scale that exceeds the threshold for mandatory EIA without the competent authorities having required any peat extractrion operator to undertake an EIA”.
Subsequent pressure from the Commission led to the Department of the Environment agreeing to investigate 126 sites of over 30 hectares identified in the NGO satellite survey. Accordingly, they wrote to the 20 local authorities involved, providing maps and coordinates, requesting site surveys of each location.
While some sites were abandoned or in fact were young forestry on exposed peat soils, more than 80 of the 126 sites were found to have required planning permission. No local authority had to date even a record of peat extraction, as it was considered exempt from planning. Consequently, none were on the Register of Extractive Industries and not one had undergone any assessment.
The Planning System
FIE also pursued the unauthorised extraction at a national level. A series of test cases in County Westmeatrh was subject to Section 5 Reference, where the local authority is required to determine if an activity requires planning permission.
In its first decision the Planning Appeals Board (An Bord Pleanála) dismissed the reference as it claimed it could not identify the location or boundaries. FIE took a judicial review, having supplied GIS coordinates in the centre of a 100-hectare site. The Board’s decision was quashed by the High Court in 2011 and costs were awarded against the Board and Westmeath County Council with a requirement for new References to be submitted.
The new References led, after a further two years, to a ruling confirming that planning permission was required. The Bord Pleanála Inspector concluded dryly:
“The continued extraction of peat and other ancillary works on each of the sites raised in the referred request would therefore be likely to have significant effects on the environment and require environmental impact assessment. Indeed, after inspection of the sites I cannot imagine any reasonable basis to conclude otherwise”.
This decision was appealed to the High Court by the two operators concerned – Westlands and Bullrush – who were also given leave to continue operations whilst the matter was being adjudicated (see Box: ‘To Bronze age roads’) on the grounds of unfair commercial disadvantage if they were singled out to halt work when so many others continued apace. The case is scheduled for hearing in June 2015.
And so the destruction of Ireland’s raised bog continues.
Tony Lowes is a Director of Friends of the Irish Environment
Westmeath’s Bronze Age roads
An appeal to the Minister to issue a protection order to protect and/or preserve in situ a 3,000 year old prehistoric plank-built bog road “that is in danger of being or is actually being destroyed, injured, or removed” was made by An Taisce on the 12th of August, 2014.
When more than 600 metres of roadway were exposed by Westlands Horticulture’s drainage of a bog in the townland of Mayne in 2006, excavations were undertaken that included Carbon 14 dating suggested the road was built 1200 – 820 BC. Between four and six metres wide, the road is substantially older than the celebrated Coorea roadway in a nearby bogland. Excavations at other sites indicate that brushwood and roundwood roadways were normal, while more substantial plank constructions were rare and exceptional.
By the time of the preliminary study in 2006, 50 drains had already been cut across the site. They traversed and damaged the roadway in 43 places. Westlands refused to provide time or funding for the recommended further studies which would have included (at a minimum): phosphate testing to determine if the road was used by animals; studies of the wood used as an indicator woodland management; analysis of the tool marks to determine the tool technology and the number of individual workers; and an examination of the area to determine the length of the road and its position in the archaeological landscape.
The submission stated:
“the unchecked milling of peat has now exposed the trackway fully in many places. So much peat has been removed that only approx 20cm of peat now covers some areas. In many areas the trackway is now at surface level and is being actively ‘chewed’ by the industrial peat milling machines. It now requires state intervention to prevent its total destruction”.
Identified by the 2010 satellite survey and in turn included in the 2013 Department of the Environment (DoE) Peatlands Survey, Westmeath County Council confirmed to the DoE that this site, along with all 17 others identified by satellite in its jurisdiction, “required planning permission”.
Yet to date no action has been taken by any authority to require planning permission with its appropriate assessments. And so the destruction of Ireland’s raised bogs – and all they contain – continues.