Government fined more than €5 million by European Court for decade-long environmental law breach

Ireland was sanctioned by the Court of Justice of the European Union because of a failure to carry out an environmental impact assessment of a wind farm development in Derrybrien, Co Galway. Ireland was ordered to conduct an assessment by the court in 2008 but has yet to comply with the European court’s directions in the ten years which followed. The European Commission then took Ireland back to court resulting in serious fines.

European Law states that an environment impact assessment must be carried out before  permission is granted for any project which is likely to have significant effects on the environment . No assessment was carried out before the construction of Derrybrien despite the clear European law on the matter. Construction of the wind farm in 2003 caused a massive landslide which killed thousands of fish and severely damaged the surrounding environment. Following this, Ireland was taken to court in 2008 and lost.

Ireland was then given two months to do an environmental impact assessment on the land. The State came up with a draft plan to carry out a non-statutory assessment but even this came to nothing. Ireland was granted extra time by the EU with December 2016 as the  final deadline but still no action was taken.

The CJEU this year took the Ireland back to court, on grounds that Ireland had not made any significant effort to carry out an environmental impact assessment of the project nor made any concrete plans to do so. They decided that the delay in complying could not be justified and there was no excuse for the inaction.

Ireland argued that they had had no power to direct the company (which is publicly owned) in ownership of the land to carry out the assessment, citing that a judgement cannot affect third parties when they are not heard in proceedings. They also argued that the measures that Ireland was required to take were never specifically identified, meaning that their steps toward a non-statutory assessment technically complied with the 2008 judgement. However, the court rejected these arguments and decided in favour of the European Commission.

A large financial penalties was imposed on Ireland to prevent the recurrence of similar infringements on EU law. The court found that the best way to do this would be t with a lump sum, followed by a significant daily amount as long as the breach continued. This was done to encourage Ireland to carry out the long-awaited environmental impact assessment. The final amount decided on by the courts was a lump sum of €5,000,000 followed by a periodic penalty payment of €15,000 per day from the date of delivery of the present judgement until the date of compliance with the 2008 judgement.

It is clear that all of the expense could have been avoided if Ireland ensured that the wind farm operator, which it owns, met its responsibilities and conducted an environmental impact assessment.

This post was authored by Daire Murray, a TY student from Loreto Kilkenny, who spent the week working with us.

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