Laura Burke, not racing to prosecute business

Irish Environmental Forum has sought resignation for comments and industry backgroundPat Geoghegan 


Laura Burke has been Director General of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) since 2011, before which she served as a Director of the Agency for seven years in the Office of Communications and then the Office of Corporate Services and Climate, Licensing and Resource Use.

Before joining the EPA, Burke was project and operations manager for Indaver Ireland, including for incinerators in Meath, Cork and Dublin Port. The Green Party considered this involvement disqualified her from even taking up a position in the EPA. Like her predecessor as head of the EPA, Mary Kelly who now leads An Bord Pleanála, she was involved, before moving to the EPA, in environmental policy with the can-do employers’ representative group, IBEC.

A Departmental review was laudatory of the agency but noted concern at the “relatively low” level of prosecutions being taken and even recommended instigation of an environmental court

Burke was born in Dublin in the early 1970s and attended St Joseph’s of Cluny Girls school in Killiney before going to the largely male St Conleth’s College in Ballsbridge. She studied chemical engineering in UCD, graduating with a 2:2 honours degree and working for a while in her mother’s chemist’s in Dun Laoghaire. She took an MSc in Management Practice from Trinity in 2008.

The EPA was established in 1993 ‘to protect and improve the environment’ and deals with air and water, climate change, waste-licensing, hazardous waste, sewage effluents and genetically-modified organisms. It monitors a range of indicators including air, water and CO2 emissions. It issues Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control Licences for pollutant activites which deploy best available techniques to eliminate or limit releases to the environment, and minimise effects on the environment.

In the USA the Federal EPA has interpreted its limited remit as broadly as possible, for example extending its role in regulating air quality under the Clean Air Act to regulating greenhouse gases – in the teeth of Presidential opposition, and moving in, as a Federal body,  to traditional State areas of planning and transport, under the pretext of concern for air and water, the staples of any EPA. In Ireland, however, EPA leaders are cautious and are recruited from the ranks of those who will not extend the remit.

Within five months of Burke’s appointment as Director General, she gave an interview to the Irish Times, in which she stated that the EPA “should not be racing” to prosecute business for not complying with environmental licences and regulations. She said she wanted to reposition the agency to support economic growth and move away from the perception that it was purely an environmental watchdog or policeman. This apparently ran counter to the perspective of a Departmental Review instigated by John Gormley as Minister for the Environment which was broadly laudatory of the agency but noted concern among some stakeholders at the “apparently relatively low” level of prosecutions being taken and even recommended instigation of an environmental court.

Laura Burke
Laura Burke

Burke said she was not trying to subvert or dilute the agency’s role as a regulator but that Irish businesses were “broadly compliant” and the agency had an important part to play in the State’s economic recovery.

“We now need more than ever to highlight the importance of the environment, not just for its own sake, but also the importance of the environment to the economy and to economic recovery”, she adumbrated, suggesting her own personal views.

Her “not be racing” comment has shocked environmental campaigners as it is perceived to give a  public signal to Companies, especially those which are considering investing here, about the reality of an Ireland which out of one side of its mouth still claims to be green. The message, one which admittedly is often countered by worthy rhetoric, seems to be that whether their enterprise is fracking, incineration, industry or oil and gas explorations  an IPPC licence, granted by the EPA can be breached in today’s reeling Emerald Isle. Communities will have to make do.

But EPA deference is not new. A 2011 report published by Professor Jacqueline McGlade of the European Environmental Agency  named seven industries in Ireland, led by electricity-generation as damaging the environment and human health, with a cost of over a billion euros in damage for the year 2009 alone.

In September 2012 Labour TD, Ciaran Lynch, who is chairman of the joint Oireachtas environment committee, accused Minister, Phil Hogan, of not engaging the committee before the appointment. He wrote: “A committee cannot refuse an appointment, but it can make a recommendation or judgment call if it has concerns about an individual’s attitudes, background, etc”.

The Irish Environment Forum has sought, to have Burke removed because of her comments and background, compromised by her involvement in industry. To date Minister Hogan has failed to answer any of our requests, though it is unusually difficult for him to hide behind the EPA Act, when section 21 (16) states clearly “the Director General may be removed from office if his removal appears to the Government to be necessary or desirable for the effective performances by the Agency of its function”.

In  the EPA’s Review of 2012, Burke comments “We are fortunate in Ireland that our environment remains generally in good condition”. For many environmentalists, particularly against a background of the pristine environment handed to the current generation, that is not just not enough; it is not even true.

Pat Geoghegan is founder of the Irish Environmental Forum