Court ruling today has 'major implications' for peat harvesting across region

The future of commercial peat extraction in the midlands has been cast into even more doubt following a Supreme Court judgement today.

Bord na Móna has been embroiled in a major planning battle over the last year to secure permission to regularise and continue its peat extraction activities across a network of bogs stretching across Offaly, Westmeath, Longford, Meath, Laois and Kildare.

The planning row was one of the key reasons behind the company's recent decision to suspend its peat harvesting operations across the country this summer.

When the suspension of harvesting was announced earlier in June, many argued that it would become permanent and the judgement today by the Supreme Court certainly adds further doubt on the future of commercial peat harvesting.

In its ruling, Supreme Court struck down two provisions of Irish planning law, relating to a substitute consent procedure, for being in breach of the European Union's Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) Directive.

The substitute consent procedure was introduced in the Planning and Development (Amendment) Act 2010 and provides a mechanism in specific circumstances by which permission to retain a development affected by the EU Directive on Environmental Impact Assessment may be granted.

One of litigants in the case, An Taisce, said today that the Supreme Court ruling “has major implications” for an application by Bord na Móna for substitute consent for its historic peat extraction activity on 41 individual bog units.

“It also has implications for future peat extraction activities on selected individual bog units situated across counties Offaly, Westmeath, Laois, Meath, Kildare and Longford.”

In June, Bord na Móna had applied to An Bord Pleanála for substitute consent to regularise its peat extraction activities at five groups of bogs.

The applications lodged for the Boora, Blackwater, Allen, Derrygreenagh and Mount Dillon group of bogs came a few weeks after the company had overcame the first hurdle by securing permission from An Bord Pleanála, in the first instance, for leave to apply for substitute consent.

The move to seek leave to apply for substitute consent was instigated by Bord na Móna after questions arose over the status of peat harvesting activities from September 20 2012, and over whether environmental impact assessments and appropriate assessments should have been carried out on the potential impact of such activities.

When it announced that it was suspending peat harvesting this year - only a few short weeks after lodging the application with An Bord Pleanala for substitute consent - Bord na Móna admitted that it moved to suspend peat operations because the application process for substitute consent was “itself a cause of uncertainty that will have to overcome a range of legal and planning challenges.”

As part of its Supreme Court challenge, An Taisce queried the legality of the provision by which a quarry operator, or other party, could seek leave to lodge a substitute consent application via internal communication with An Bord Pleanála. Currently prospective applicants can engage with An Bord Pleanála through this internal process that is not subject to public consultation or the provisions of the UN Aarhus Convention, which have been incorporated into the EIA Directive.

Following the failure of An Bord Pleanála to have regard to An Taisce’s submission, High Court proceedings were initiated and that Judgment appealed to the Supreme Court.

In its judgment today, the Supreme Court said:: “the failure to make provision for public participation at the leave application stage for substitute consent is inconsistent with the public participation rights conferred by and outlined in the EIA Directives”

As a result of this morning’s Supreme Court Judgment, An Taisce said it would be seeking urgent intervention by the newly-appointed Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Darragh O’Brien, to ensure that Irish legislation is brought into line with the requirements of the EIA Directive and the public participation rights of the Aarhus Convention.

The current Bord na Móna application to An Pleanála relates to the following bogs:

The sites in the Blackwater Group of Bogs caught up in the latest controversy include two sites known as Ballaghurt Bog, to the east of the river Shannon and to the south of Athlone and the M6 motorway. Bord na Móna has sought to continue peat extraction on 392 hectares.

Permission is being sought for ten sites, within the Boora bog group, including at Leamonaghan, Bellair and Noggusboy, along the Westmeath border and into West Offaly.

Peat production across the ten sites will cover some 2,693 hectares.

Consent is being sought for peat extraction on 3,504 hectares across 17 sites in the Allen group of bogs, largely in the Edenderry and Daingean areas of Offaly as well as the Mountmellick and Portarlington areas.

Permission is being sought for peat harvesting on five sites in the Derrygreenagh group, covering 708 hectares.

Planning is being also sought for peat extraction on three sites in the Mount Dillon group of bogs, comprising 542 hectares in North Westmeath and North East Longford.