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Irish Times - 21-03-06
Environmental advisory committee appointed by Minister is unbalanced

The Minister for the Environment has shown his true colours with his appointments to the EPA's advisory committee, writes Frank McDonald, Environment Editor

Dick Roche would like people to believe that he cares about the environment, even that he's more sympathetic to the "green agenda" than his predecessor Martin Cullen.

But when it came to choosing nominees to serve on the Environmental Protection Agency's Advisory Committee, he nailed his true colours to the mast.

Not one of the six nominees put forward by 24 groups involved in various aspects of environmental protection was chosen by the Minister.

He passed over all of them - including such prominent figures as Karin Dubsky - in favour of appointing people with little or no discernible track-record in the area.

Section 27 of the 1992 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Act specifies that its advisory committee should be broadly representative of professions and organisations concerned with environmental protection, those concerned with social and economic development and those involved in environmental education or research.

Until Mr Roche took over as Minister for the Environment in September 2004, the prescribed organisations under the environmental protection heading were An Taisce, Voice and Eco-Unesco - all three of them actively involved in this area.

However, that was changed by a little-noticed statutory instrument signed by the Minister in December 2004.

Henceforth, the organisations with rights to nominate candidates for selection as members of the EPA advisory committee were to be Fáilte Ireland and the Heritage Council - both State agencies - and Environmental Ecological NGOs Core Funding Ltd, (EENGOCF) an umbrella body for non-governmental organisations involved in environmental protection.

EENGOCF had been set up to administer the relative pittance disbursed annually by the Department of the Environment in "core funding" for 24 environmental NGOs, to enable them to survive. In 2005, it received €80,000 to share out between them, plus a further €115,000 for administration and conference travelling expenses.

In January 2005, EENGOCF was requested by the Minister to nominate six candidates for appointment to the new EPA advisory committee - three of whom should be male and three female, in the interest of "gender balance". The environmental groups had every reason to believe that at least one of their nominees would be chosen.

The previous advisory committee, incidentally, had been allowed to lapse 10 months earlier even though the 1992 legislation under which the EPA was established laid down that "there shall be a committee" with 12 members to advise the agency on such matters as its work programme, standards, guidelines and codes of practice.

EENGOCF submitted six nominees: Jack O'Sullivan, who served on the previous advisory committee; Elizabeth Cullen, of the Irish Doctors' Environmental Association; Karin Dubsky, of Coastwatch; Michael Ewing, of Friends of the Irish Environment; Pat Finnegan, of Grian, and Caroline Lewis, of the Irish Natural Forestry Foundation. Though these nominations were made within a tight timetable, a full year passed before EENGOCF was informed by the Minister's office that the new advisory committee had been appointed, and none of its nominees was selected. Instead, Mr Roche chose the Fáilte Ireland nominee, environmental consultant Jeanne Meldon, from the panel.

He also made four personal appointments: John Dillon, former president of the IFA; John Buckley, a Killarney auctioneer who was on the previous advisory committee, and two of his own constituents - Irene Sweeney, described as a "community representative" from Arklow, and Seán Byrne, of the Wicklow Uplands Council.

Mr Dillon has said he was approached directly by the Minister within weeks of stepping down from the IFA's leadership and asked if he would like to serve on the EPA's advisory committee; he had agreed to accept the appointment "for the good of Irish farmers". At the time, the IFA was at war with the Government over the EU nitrates directive.

Ms Sweeney is married to a Fianna Fáil councillor in Arklow whose family have been active in the party for many years, and was involved in the Special Olympics in 2004, while Mr Buckley is also a board member of Sustainable Energy Ireland, the State agency charged with promoting the adoption of alternatives to fossil fuels.

As reported in today's newspaper, Mr Buckley took an interest in the case of an illegal dump in Co Wicklow and plans by Brownfield Restoration (Ire) Ltd to remediate and develop it; he forwarded a letter from the company's managing director addressed to the Minister to the EPA's deputy director general, Dr Padraic Larkin.

There is no doubt that the committee appointed by the Minister is unbalanced. The farming sector is more than well represented, not just by Mr Dillon, but also by Donal Harte, chairman of the ICMSA in west Cork, who has complained that a "draconian" application of the nitrates directive would put pig and poultry farmers out of business.

Carmel Dawson, of the Irish Countrywomen's Association, is also a member of the new advisory committee, as is Marian Byron of Ibec, which represents companies in the chemical and pharmaceutical sector that must obtain integrated pollution control licences from the EPA - though the committee has no role in relation to individual licences.

According to Frank Corcoran, national chairman of An Taisce, Mr Roche's decision to overlook all six of the nominees put forward by the NGO umbrella group in his appointments to the advisory committee - "sends a clear signal" that the Minister "places no value on the input of civil society" into the whole area of environmental protection.

Ms Dubsky agreed. "There are weaknesses in the way the EPA is being run, such as the requirement that any complaint to its Office of Environmental Enforcement must be in writing.

"A lot of people are afraid to do that because their names would appear on a public file. If we were on the advisory committee, we could change things like that."

© The Irish Times


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