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Back to school.

By Tony Lowes.

The environment is the enemy of jobs”.  That’s what my lad recently reported was the universal belief of all those in his Leaving Cert ‘Civic, Social and Political Education’ (CSPE) class in our west cork community school. To be honest, it’s what most people think in modern Ireland. To object to developments in rural Ireland is a swift route to social ostracisation – or worse.

But if we don’t protect the environment our dwindling natural resources will be used foolishly and the ultimate cost of cleaning up will one day be too great – or too late – to pay. Yet Dan and his school mates are no different from the current revisers of Directives in Brussels or the Kerry Councillors with their Material Contravention motions to overrule planning protection.

Environmental regulation is under unceasing attack at every level. The buzz word is ‘light regulation’. Light regulation? Isn’t that an oxymoron, a paradox, like ‘open secret’?

We rely on the environment for life itself. It’s just that the connections can be hard to see. Let’s look at what happens with – say – industrial peat extraction and public health.

In 2009 the group I work with received an anonymous letter from a hotmail account. It was a detailed missive with photographs demonstrating the devastation of hundreds of hectares of raised bogs in Westmeath by large industrial operators. We found no planning authorities had any record of these activities.

We spent five years pursuing the authorities to require them to assess the activities and protect the environment. We filed a Petition to the European Parliament. We went through the planning process all the way to the High Court where even now three cases await final determination. We commissioned a satellite survey of exposed peat-lands from University College Cork and presented the Department of the Environment with detailed maps of 126 extraction sites of more than 30 hectares across 19 local authorities, the vast majority of which their subsequent site visit reports confirmed required planning permission.

Why does this matter? Is it the quixotic defence of a rare bog orchid? Well partly: fragile ‘biodiversity’ matters; and bogs are a significant carbon store also. It matters also because the drainage of peat – and forestry and land reclamation on peaty soils – releases organic carbon into the water – the ‘peaty colour’ you sometimes see. When this water is treated with chlorine, THMs [Trihalomethanes – a group of chemicals like chloroform that are associated with cancer] are formed.

According to the EPA’s Quality of Drinking Water in Ireland we analysed for our complaint, almost 600,000 consumers in 153 water supply zones are currently receiving drinking water exceeding the European Union / World Health Organisation’s parametric limit for THMs.

And nobody has told the consumers, even though the law says they must be informed. The Directive and the Irish Regulations say that: “In such cases consumers shall be informed promptly thereof and given the necessary advice”. THMs are volatile – prolonged showering, jacuzzis, steam-rooms become dangerous, pregnant women may be at greater risk, etc.

Ireland’s defence to the EU’s investigation was assembled by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Health and Safety Authority. “The public should be reassured that all exceedences of the standards are examined to determine if there is a potential danger to human health”, the joint document said. It concluded that there is “not enough evidence to prove that THMs pose a health risk in the short term”.

Carcinogens by their nature are not “immediate” risks. Cigarette smoking, exposure to asbestos – these are not immediate risks either.

They have to deny any public health risk because the Commissioner for Energy Regulation [who also regulates water] is committed to giving a 100% discount for consumers receiving water unsafe for human consumption. And a 100% discount to 600,000 consumers would end water charges more quickly than any marches on the Dáil.

Meanwhile, the public will continue to drink potentially dangerous water that could be made safe – if they knew – by a simple charcoal filter.

The eight or nine ‘mini Bord na Mónas’ who are doing the extraction – most of them registered outside the state – have been lobbying the Government (‘from high up’) over the loss of jobs that potential controls could mean. The booming mushroom industry – which is now almost half of all Irish horticultural products – relies on peat to grow its crop. Our competitive advantages will be lost, they say: 3,500 jobs will be at risk. Hence the Minister is told regulation is a ‘threat to national food security’.

He has been told that peat should be removed from planning controls altogether and subject instead to – you guessed it – “light regulation”.

If we want a more progressive Ireland we’ll have to go back to school. •

Tony Lowes is one of the founders and a Director of Friends of the Irish Environment, an environmental lobby group established in 1997 to ensure the implementation of European
environmental law.