This story on quarry planning, published when I was on Annual Leave, is necessary reading.
Now, I know there's nothing worse than a holidaymaker coming into an area and passing judgment on locals who live there all year round and must earn their livelihood. But this quarry was so big, and its effect so monstrous, that I couldn't help wondering who had sanctioned it.
We need quarries if we are to build houses, offices, railways, harbours and roads. But the environmental impact of quarrying can be enormous. Apart from the obvious scar on the landscape, there are issues of air pollution from the dust, noise pollution from blasting, complex water run-off issues, biodiversity issues and so on.
However, the Cork-based group Friends of the Irish Environment has discovered something rather amazing - that Irish legislation set up to regulate quarries is unenforceable.
Best practice in quarrying will ensure that the surrounding environment will suffer as little as possible from such effects, and also that quarry owners will restore sections they have finished with.
However, the Cork-based group Friends of the Irish Environment has discovered something rather amazing - that Irish legislation set up to regulate quarries is unenforceable. Under the Planning Act of 2000, operating quarries were required to register with county councils to create a framework within which the industry could be environmentally regulated.
Quarries bigger than five hectares, or those located in protected areas, were deemed to need planning permission. Taking public submissions into account, councils imposed a system of development contributions on quarries - not for esoteric tree-hugging purposes, but to cope with straightforward and obvious issues, like the damage done by heavy stone lorries to surrounding roads.
But during a prolonged investigation, Friends of the Irish Environment has established that many quarries do not make development contributions, and some blatantly ignore requests by local councils to minimise their impact. Councils were found to be powerless to pursue quarry owners, because the act of 2000 gave them no means to do so. A test case brought to the Ombudsman elicited this response:
‘‘Enquiries (about enforcement) were made to the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The Department advised that conditions imposed under Section 261 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 were unenforceable because the Act did not provide a mechanism for pursuing legal proceedings for non-compliance."
The letter added that the department was ‘‘considering how this anomaly might be addressed by amending legislation; unfortunately there was no timeframe provided for this''.
So, just to be perfectly clear, quarry owners can behave pretty much how they want, because councils can do nothing to regulate them. It is down to the integrity of owners - or lack of it - as to whether quarries wreck the surrounding environment or not.
As Tony Lowes of Friends of the Irish Environment notes: ‘‘Not only has the environment been damaged by this longstanding legislative failure and great hardships imposed on residents, but many millions in development levies can no longer be collected."
Given the many planning debacles Ireland has witnessed over the years, it has not really occurred to us to consider where the material for all our new buildings and roads is coming from. But it is pretty shocking to learn that, unlike the construction industry, quarrying is barely regulated at all.
The quarry quandary:
I had a fascinating response to last week's article about quarrying, and the lack of regulation surrounding it.
Readers from five different counties contacted me to illustrate cases that had directly affected them. Because I don't have the resources to investigate each one, I won't name names or locations. But your stories highlight a number of common factors.
1.Quarry ‘owners' have sometimes claimed rights to long-abandoned quarries that, historically, they had absolutely no connection with. There is a repetitive pattern of operators reactivating old quarries without asking anyone's permission and, after a period of time, simply claiming squatters' rights - even though they are not caretaking the land, but rather consuming it.
2.The owners of quarries surrounded by common land or turf plots have sometimes either consumed that land or taken possession of it, again by claiming squatters' rights, or by compensating some locals at a token rate and, in a sort of divide and-conquer strategy, steamrolling others who do not cooperate.
Landowners have had to go to court to reclaim property approppriated in this manner.
3.When people go to their local council to complain about quarries, they are sometimes met with indifference, protestations of powerlessness (which was the point of last week's article), and in one or two cases, outright obstruction.
Would it be unusual to find that a dodgy quarry owner also has a number of council contracts in his back pocket, for road or maintenance projects, for example?
This is not necessarily to imply blanket collusion between craven councils and dodgy quarry owners; not all councils are craven, and not all quarry owners are dodgy. The extent of the abuse is hard to gauge - one case even alleged that a local council was using a quarry illegally.
Whatever about their lack of powers under the Planning Act, I think it is fair enough to say that councils are reluctant to move against quarry owners who are in some way connected to them. I'd be very keen to hear from any one else who knows about illegal or semi-legal quarrying activity and my e-mail address is below.
Friends of the Irish Environment must be credited with uncovering this story, but I suspect there's quite a lot to it.
Under the Planning Act 2000, councils are plainly not able to regulate quarries - but I wonder how many Irish quarries are fly-by-night operations in the first place. Initially, my interest in this was that quarry owners seem under no obligation to repair any of the environmental damage that they've done, but this may be just one of the problems.
It is also worth bearing in mind that many of the illegal rubbish dumps uncovered in the late 1990s were in abandoned quarries. If quarrying is as unregulated as it appears to be, is it unreasonable to assume that this filthy, dangerous activity might enjoy a renaissance?
Especially during a recession, when everyone is trying to cut corners? Does anyone have any news about this? If so, get in touch.
By Stephen Price
Sunday Business Post