Brussels, 18 March 2010
Ireland: Commission sends final warning over four breaches of environmental law; closes two cases
The European Commission is sending a final warning to Ireland over four cases where it has failed to comply with European Court of Justice rulings concerning illegal development and developments that may harm the natural and man-made heritage of the countryside, access to the Irish courts and protection of marine mammals. If the necessary steps are not taken, the Commission could refer the cases back to the Court and ask for fines to be imposed. Following action by the Irish authorities, the Commission is also closing two long-standing cases on drinking water supplies and shell-fish growing areas, shelving earlier proposed fines for the latter.
EU Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said: "I am pleased to see that Ireland has taken the necessary measures to enable the Commission to close two long-running cases. I would now urge the Irish authorities to renew their efforts to satisfy other important court rulings."
Final warning in two environmental impact assessment cases
The first case refers to a Court ruling in July 2008 concerning Ireland's failure to ensure that work on projects that might require an environmental impact assessment (EIA) does not start before the necessary checks or studies are carried out. The Court found that Ireland's use of a system of retention permission to retrospectively approve such work was contrary to the EIA Directive. The Court also found that there had been a failure to undertake a proper prior impact assessment of a wind farm at Derrybrien, County Galway, which caused a major peat slide. No legislation has been adopted to address the issue of retrospective permission identified in the judgment. In the Derrybrien case, the Irish authorities agreed to undertake an EIA to look in detail at further potential issues, however, to date none has been made due to delays in proposed new legislation.
The second case relates to a Court ruling in November 2008 which found that the thresholds for undertaking an environmental impact assessment for certain types of projects, including the restructuring of rural landholdings and water management projects for irrigation or land drainage, were too high. This led to loss of wetlands and other habitats and destruction of archaeological remains without any EIAs ever being required. No legislation has been adopted to address the issue.
Access to justice
On July 2009 the Court ruled that Ireland had failed to transpose into national law changes to the Environmental Impact Assessment Directive, including provisions on public participation in the decision-making process and access to justice. The Court found that Irish legislation failed to explicitly require that information on review procedures should be made available to the public and that access to the Irish courts should not be prohibitively expensive for citizens and NGOs. Ireland set out several measures it proposed to take to meet these shortcomings, however, the Commission is not aware that any of these have been put in place.
In January 2007 the Court ruled that Ireland had failed to take the necessary steps to adequately safeguard certain strictly protected species, including marine mammals (whales, dolphins and porpoises) and bats. These species represent some of Ireland's most important indigenous wildlife. Ireland agreed to put in place plans to monitor and protect these species. Although plans are in place for bat species, those for marine mammals have yet to be satisfactorily concluded.
In all four cases, the Commission is sending Ireland a first written warning under Article 260 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. If Ireland does not take the necessary steps, the Commission could refer the cases back to the Court, with the possibility of fines.
Closure of two long-running cases
The Commission is closing two long-standing cases following action by the Irish authorities.
In November 2002, the Court found that there were chronic problems of microbiological contamination of hundreds of Irish private and public water supplies despite EU rules stipulating that drinking water should be kept bacteria-free. Ireland adopted an array of measures in response, tightening legislation and increasing enforcement powers. Several hundred million euros were invested in upgrading drinking water supplies and installing chlorine monitors and alarms. The Commission is now closing the case. Issues of source protection from deficient septic tanks are being addressed separately.
The second case concerns measures needed to ensure quality standards for shellfish waters on the Irish coast, following a judgment from the Court in June 2007. In October 2009, the Commission proposed to refer this case back to Court, with the imposition of fines if the Irish authorities did not comply with the judgment within three months (see IP/09/1647). The authorities subsequently took the necessary measures, designating the remaining shellfish water site at Rostellan, Cork, and establishing pollution reduction programmes for all designated areas. As a result, the Commission is now closing the case.
The Commission has the power to take legal action against a Member State that is not respecting its obligations under Community law, under Article 258 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The infringement procedure begins with a first written warning ("Letter of Formal Notice") to the Member State concerned, which must be answered within two months. If the Commission is not satisfied with the reply, this first letter may be followed by a final written warning ("Reasoned Opinion") clearly explaining the infringement, and calling on the Member State to comply within a specified period, usually two months.
A failure to act on the final written warning can result in a summons to the Court of Justice. If the Court rules against the Member State, it must then take the necessary measures to comply with the judgment. If, despite the ruling, a Member State still fails to act, a further round of the infringement process begins under Article 260 of the Treaty, this time with only one written warning. This second round can ultimately result in financial penalties for the Member State concerned.
For current statistics on infringements in general see:
EIA case 2000/4384
EIA case 2000/5196
Nature case 2001/4917
Access to justice case 2005/0633
Water case 1997/4409