Fines need to match the crime of polluting the environment

The number and size of fines don’t do enough to deter, reports Claire O’Sullivan.

Fines need to match the crime of polluting the environment

At Longford District Court last November, the pig breeders Kiernan Breeding Stock pleaded guilty to operating a piggery without the required pollution prevention licence.

It was fined a mere €100 and handed the legal costs of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In the same year, Western Brand, the well-known West of Ireland poultry and egg producers, pleaded guilty to allowing excessive amounts of waste water to be flushed from their plant, to failing to notify the EPA about the breakdown of key environmental monitoring equipment, and to creating environmental emissions which were of “environmental significance”.

It was fined €1,000 and the EPA’s costs.

In 2009, Rilta Environmental Limited, a Dublin-based company, pleaded guilty to processing an array of sludge waste at its treatment centre that was outside the terms of its waste licence.

It was also fined €1,000 and costs.

So far, eight cases have been taken by the EPA this year, with an average fine of €6,000. Three of the cases taken this year were due to breaches of waste disposal regulations, with another three related to breaches at meat-processing plants. One related to illegal water discharges by a local authority while the other related to breaches of industrial emissions.

The biggest fine, by far, this year was handed down to the PPI Adhesives Group at Waterford Circuit Court. It was fined €20,000 with two directors also fined €3,000, as well as the EPA’s costs for exceeding emissions ceilings, not monitoring emissions, and providing misleading information to the EPA.

In 2012, ten prosecutions were taken by the EPA. The average fine that year was €1,650, aside from a notable €780,000 for Oxigen Environmental and another €260,000 for Cavan County Council in a joint case over odours coming from Corranure landfill.

In 2011, meanwhile, there were 14 cases prosecuted by the EPA for breaches of environmental law. The average fine was €2,200.

In 2010, there were 13 prosecutions. Aside from two fines for Wyeth Medica and Cara Environmental of €40,000 each, the average fine was €3,400.

In 2009, there were 18 prosecutions. The average fine was €3,700, apart from another standout fine of €350,000 handed down to South East Recycling for dumping more waste than it was allowed to under its licence.

An Taisce say it had spent years raising the issue of low fines and low levels of prosecution. It believes these cases need to be heard at a court higher than district level, if environmental law is to be taken seriously by waste companies, the food industry, and local authorities.

But equally, there are many in environmental circles that believe they are facing an uphill battle as industry and successive governments have argued that such a clampdown could cost jobs.

“The lower courts can not hand down sizeable fines. These cases need to be heard at a higher level,” said An Taisce’s heritage officer, Ian Lumley. “We are aware that these companies do incur the EPA’s legal costs which are most often many multiples of their fines but the point is that, even with costs, the prosecutions do not act as a deterrent to potential offenders who can make a calculated decision to save a lot of money by not obeying the law.”

Professor John Sweeney from NUI Maynooth’s department of geography agreed that current fines are not a disincentive. He described the relevant legislation as dated: “The EPA do try to solve as many cases as they can outside of the courts by working with offenders, but the numbers that are prosecuted in light of the number of offences is tiny. The current level of fines frequently does not match the damage caused. We certainly need to re-examine this area,” he said.

The EPA has said it is using all the enforcement tools that it can and that it is “outcome focused”.

“These tools [include] providing guidance on how to comply, issuing enforcement notices, applying administrative penalties and, when it is warranted, rigorously prosecuting environmental crime.

“Recognising that an injunction can focus on the best environmental outcome, there has been a significant increase in the use of injunctions since 2009.”

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