UP to one-third of Ireland's rivers are polluted and dozens of lakes and estuaries are in an "unsatisfactory" condition, a major new report on the state of the nation's environment revealed yesterday.
The 'Ireland's Environment 2008' report warns that while the environment is generally in good shape, progress on meeting a range of challenges including climate change, carbon dioxide emissions and loss of wildlife is at a "standstill".
The Environmental Protection Agency report, published only every four years, says we will miss EU targets for reducing the amount of household waste sent to landfill and in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, and that up to 75pc of fish species are harvested "beyond safe biological limits'.
It also warns there is no national inventory of contaminated land banks, and no policy to deal with legacy issues from mining and old landfills.
Car emissions are keeping nitrogen oxide levels well above the 2010 ceiling, because of a reliance on the private car and lack of public transport.
In addition to one in three rivers being polluted, over 80 lakes and estuaries are in an unsatisfactory condition.
The main causes of pollution are sewage discharge and agricultural sources; groundwaters contain elevated concentrations of pollutants in the east and west of the country.
The situation in the Swilly estuary in the north west appears to have deteriorated, while major rivers in the south east and south -- including the Blackwater, Slaney and Bandon -- show signs of serious pollution.
The report shows that 29pc of river length is polluted to varying degrees, a slight improvement on previous but nothing like the rate of improvement that will be needed to meet the obligations of the Water Framework Directive (WFD) which requires that all waters be of at least good status by 2015.
EPA Director General Dr Mary Kelly said that tackling these issues was at a "standstill", and that investment in protecting wildlife, water and tackling climate change was needed, even in the midst of an economic downturn.
"This major report analyses the last four years of Ireland's performance on the environment and concludes that Ireland's environmental quality is good, although we are not making headway and we are not progressing at the rate we need to," she said. "There has been progress, but the progress is too slow. Radical action is needed.
"We have challenges on climate change, we have challenges on water quality and we have challenges on waste. There's still a very long way to go. We're at a standstill, we're not making headway in meeting targets.
"Ireland has made progress in a number of important respects over recent years. While we acknowledge these successes, this report points to considerably less success in a number of other environmental areas as evidenced by the key environmental challenges we have identified."
She called on Environment Minister John Gormley to ensure there was continued investment in tackling environmental problems.
Mr Gormley said it would be a "major mistake" not to realise that the economy and environment were linked.
"Our rivers, lakes and water sources are under more pressure. Species are in decline and we have sizeable legacy issues. We are recycling more, but we're producing more," he said.
"We have made mistakes, and a lot relate to planning. A lot of housing was built in the wrong places and a lot was badly built. Investment in public transport is vital. We've already seen the huge success of Luas and DART, I see those as key objectives, they're absolutely vital."
He added that lead contamination of water supplies would be dealt with, and that resources were "not an issue" in relation to public health matters.
For the first time, the report also projects environmental pressures going forward, particularly from waste generation and carbon dioxide emissions from industry, agriculture and transport. It finds:
l Under the most favourable scenario, Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions will exceed the proposed reduction target for 2020 by seven million tonnes, which could lead to hefty fines running into hundreds of millions of euro.
l Emissions of nitrogen oxides, currently well above the 2010 ceiling, are expected to remain high mainly due to the continued emissions from private cars.
l The country faces key challenges including tackling climate change, reversing water pollution and the loss of habitats and legislation compliance.
l Provision of and maintenance of sufficient infrastructure in the areas of sustainable transport, renewable energy, wastewater treatment, waste management and flood prevention and control is "critical", the report adds.
In response, Fine Gael said the National Climate Change strategy should be binned and re-drafted because of the EPA's findings that Kyoto targets would be missed.
"The EPA report suggests to me that we have to start again," Fine Gael environment spokesman Phil Hogan said.
"The figures produced in the report indicate that the environmental deterioration under Fianna Fail in the last number of years is far worse than expected."
Fine Gael was working on a new climate change policy which would include more buses, removal of free car parking spaces for public servants, encourage rail freight and allow households to feed excess energy back into the National Grid, he added.