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INTERVIEW: Laura Burke, EPA director general, says supporting economic growth is a key aim
THE ENVIRONMENTAL Protection Agency should not be “racing to prosecute” businesses for not complying with environmental licences and regulations, the director general of the agency has said.
Laura Burke, who took up the position five months ago, said she wanted to reposition the agency to support economic growth and move away from the perception that it was purely an environmental watchdog or policeman.
She said she was not trying to subvert or dilute the agency’s role as a regulator but that Irish businesses were “broadly compliant” and the agency had an important part to play in the State’s economic recovery.
“We now need more than ever to highlight the importance of the environment, not just for its own sake, but also the importance of the environment to the economy and to economic recovery.”
Among the few growth areas of the economy were agriculture and tourism, both of which were dependent on a clean, green environment, she said. However she added that the agency wanted to assist businesses in any industry to save money and resources by becoming more environmentally efficient.
“When you talk about the green economy people tend to think of new green jobs, whether its wind or wave energy, and all of those are very valuable in their own right. But we also need to look at other businesses we have and support them and make them more resource-efficient.”
To this end the agency had established a waste prevention programme in hospitals, a green business programme for small to medium enterprises and a green hospitality programme for hotels.
“There has been a 20 per cent increase in hotels in the programme in the last year and savings of €7 million in the sector among those that have joined the programme.”
Ms Burke’s appointment follows a review of the agency commissioned by former minister for the environment John Gormley, but published last May by his successor Phil Hogan. It was the first formal review of the agency since it was set up 20 years ago.
The review, by John McCarthy, assistant secretary at the Department of the Environment, was broadly supportive of the performance of the agency but noted concern among some stakeholders at the “apparently relatively low” level of prosecutions being taken.
It said its enforcement process was working with “reasonable effectiveness” but recommended the agency should always take into account the strong deterrent effect of prosecutions and “should pursue the prosecution route to optimum effect”.
Ms Burke said she believed the agency took a balanced and a proactive approach to enforcement. “What you don’t want to do is go racing to prosecute. What you look at is guidance for the sector, you put in a proper licensing regime, you then do audits, inspections, etc, and you give businesses a chance to put in rectifying measures. And in the context of companies not delivering on their side of licensing, then you go to prosecutions, but enforcement is much more than prosecution.”
The agency’s prosecution rate was “on a par” with other regulators in Europe, she added.
The agency was established in the early 1990s in response to a lack of environmental policing, which had resulted in widespread illegal dumping within the State and north of the Border, and pollution, particularly of water courses. The situation at the time was “very bad”, she said, but had since dramatically improved.
“What was tolerated back in 1992 is no longer tolerated. In the waste sector we had around 100 unregulated, unlicensed dumps around the country – we now have less than 30 regulated, lined landfills that operate.”
However, just last year a fire at an illegal dump at Kerdiffstown, Co Kildare, resulted in the release of toxic smoke over the Naas area for more than a month. The cost of the clean-up has been estimated at more than €30 million. The agency had taken legal action to shut the dump one year previously, but local residents said they had been submitting complaints to the agency for more than five years.
Kerdiffstown was just one example out of 100 where an illegal landfill continued to operate, Ms Burke said, and the agency was now ensuring there was a resolution to that situation. Local people may not have been aware of work in relation to the dump that was going on behind the scenes, she said.
“There was a significant amount of work being done in relation to that facility. We did try to engage with the community to a significant extent but at the same time we were involved in enforcement action and prosecution, and you can’t declare everything to everybody.”
The review also noted the low levels of fines imposed by the courts and recommended the establishment of a new environmental court or tribunal with strengthened powers.
Ms Burke said fines of “hundreds of thousands of euro had been imposed” and said the reputational damage to a business of a prosecution was often more of a deterrent than a fine.
The Green Party had called for Ms Burke’s appointment to be terminated when she first joined the agency as a director in 2004 because she had previously worked for incineration company Indaver. Ms Burke said she believed her work over the past eight years showed her commitment to the agency.
“Just because I came from business doesn’t mean eight years later I’m trying to dilute the requirements of the agency – absolutely not.”