Ken Griffen writing in tThe Irish Times tells us that The Department of the Environment has ruled out a review of environmental protection law, even though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) obtained just €162,700 in fines from prosecutions last year.
The Department of the Environment has ruled out a review of environmental protection law, even though the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) obtained just €162,700 in fines from prosecutions last year.
This total was unusually high due to the €110,000 in fines imposed on the Shannon-based multinational, Schwarz Pharma, last February for 11 charges, including the emission of suspected carcinogens into the air.
When the Schwarz Pharma verdict is stripped out, the EPA obtained €52,700 in fines last year - an average of about €2,770 per prosecution.
The cost of bringing environmental prosecutions regularly exceeds the penalties imposed.
According to EPA figures, the agency was awarded costs of €209,911 by the courts last year.
An EPA spokeswoman admitted that the fines the agency could obtain were limited because it could only prosecute offenders in the District Court, where penalties are lowest. The maximum penalty for environmental offences in these courts is €3,000 per charge and a year’s imprisonment.
Although cases can be taken in higher courts by the Director of Public Prosecutions, this rarely occurs. Just three cases were heard in higher courts last year.
In each case, the EPA had attempted to bring a District Court prosecution, but the judges refused to accept jurisdiction due to the serious nature of the charges. These included the Schwarz Pharma case.
The EPA spokeswoman declined to answer questions about whether the EPA regarded these penalties as a sufficient deterrent. She said, however, that the EPA’s prosecutions had led to improved environmental standards in Irish businesses.
‘‘Legal actions taken by the EPA have led to significant investment in improvements to site infrastructure and clean-ups,” she said. ‘‘This investment was estimated to be in the region of €19 million in 2005.”
However, Fine Gael’s environment spokesman, Fergus O’Dowd, said the fines being imposed were ‘‘derisory’’ for significant environmental breaches.
‘‘The EPA is doing a very good job in policing the environment, but it needs to be supported with tougher fines,” he said. ‘‘What is the point of bringing people to court if the fines are so small?”
O’Dowd said that maximum fines should be at a level where ‘‘companies will remember them’’.
However, a spokesman for the department said fines were a matter for the courts to decide within the limits set by legislation.
He said that the department had no plans to review the legislation governing fines, which were last increased in 2003.