THE Government will be forced to clean up abandoned landfill sites around the country that are leaking into the groundwater and polluting it or face massive fines following a ruling from the European Court of Justice.
EU members are supposed to ensure that dangerous substances do not leak from waste and contaminate the groundwater from which most of the country’s drinking water comes.
But the court found that the Ballymurtagh landfill site in Co Wicklow has been leaching into the groundwater and the river Avoca nearby. The poisonous substances include mercury and cadmium from old batteries, which is cancer-causing This would not have happened had the site been properly lined but the authorities decided against this at the time on the basis that the river was already poisoned by heavy metals from a nearby disused mine.
The case has wider implications however, according to Labour MEP, Proinsias De Rossa, because it proves the Government has not been complying with the Groundwater Directive.
“Should the commission in the future be presented with evidence of pollution of groundwater by landfills, it has the right to ask the court to impose substantial fines against Ireland, possibly amounting to tens of millions of euro,” he said.
The case should also force the Environmental Protection Agency to review the way it does its job as the court found it had breached the directive by granting a licence for the Ballymurtagh landfill in April 2001 without carrying out a full examination of the local environment first.
“The EPA must now review its procedures for licensing landfills on foot of this ruling,” said Mr De Rossa. The authorities were also found guilty of allowing septic tanks attached to commercial ventures to pollute groundwater in Wexford and endanger the lakes of Killarney. However the court said they were not shown enough evidence by the European Commission that septic tanks were contaminating drinking water around the country.
The commission says it may return to the court with fresh evidence such as the cryptosporium found in Galway during the summer and EPA reports that 57% of groundwater samples were contaminated with faecal coliforms.
Mr De Rossa said the minister for the environment could not take any comfort from the fact that the court turned down the commission’s claim that Ireland had not done enough to prevent groundwater pollution from commercial septic tanks.
“It should be bourne in mind that Ireland had not taken all possible steps to prevent such pollution. There is still clearly a need for the minister for environment to take further action on groundwater pollution from septic tanks,” he said.
The Department of the Environment, who has been fighting this case for the past five years, said they were studying the court decision.