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Republican Party seeks details of Clinton links to Ireland

Republican Party officials in Washington sought records on links between Ireland and the William J Clinton Foundation under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act as part of an investigation into the former president’s business and philanthropic links overseas.

In an FOI request sent to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) last February, the Republican National Committee (RNC) director of investigations, Scott Parker, sought documents related to the disbursement of funds from Irish Aid – the Department’s overseas aid wing – to the Clinton Foundation.

Last month, US Republican presidential candidate Donald J Trump released a series of emails attacking Hillary Clinton’s links to Irish businessman Denis O’Brien, including material on connections between Ireland and the Clinton Foundation.

In a statement, Raj Shah, deputy communications director of the RNC said that although the FOI request was not connected to the Trump campaign’s attack emails, Mr O’Brien’s relationship with the Clintons “raises questions”.

“This request was part of the RNC’s opposition research program looking into the Clinton Foundation’s activities around the world, but not directly connected to Mr O’Brien,” Shah told The Irish Times.

“However, Mr O’Brien’s extensive ties to the Clintons, the millions he’s raised for the foundation, and the considerable business interests and influence he has in parts of the world where both the Foundation and the State Department interacts with government officials raises questions and conflicts of interest and demands scrutiny.”

Mr Parker also made requests in 2015 to numerous US governmental departments, including the Federal Trade Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for records that were “sent to, received from, or interacted with” email domains linked to Hillary Clinton.

The Democratic presidential candidate’s use of a private email server has been a controversial topic during the US presidential campaign, and is commonly referred to in attacks by her rival, Mr Trump.

DFAT identified and granted the release of 42 documents created in 2003 to Mr Parker, including copies of emails on negotiations with the Clinton Foundation and a copy of a memorandum of understanding between the Clinton Foundation and the Irish government.

In the response to Mr Parker, DFAT also provided information on funds disbursed to the Clinton Foundation and an offshoot, the Clinton Health Access Initiative (CHAI).

Similar information was contained in an Irish Aid briefing note provided to journalists following the release of the “Follow the Money” emails by the Trump campaign.

The briefing note showed that Irish Aid disbursed €156 million worth of funds for projects involving the health ministries of Lesotho and Mozambique, governed by three separate memorandums of understanding with the Clinton Foundation and CHAI.

Prior to his role with the RNC, Parker worked as a research analyst for America Rising, a political action committee (PAC) set up in 2013 to “serve as an organization on the right for the sole purpose of exposing the truth about Democrats through video tracking, research, and communications”.

The RNC is a political committee responsible for coordinating the Republican Party’s election strategy, as well as developing and promoting the party’s political platform.

A version of this article appeared in The Irish Times in November 2017

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RDS redevelopment: ‘Area is at breaking point’

The €26 million redevelopment of the Anglesea Stand at the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) has been granted planning permission by Dublin City Council, however some concerned local residents intend to appeal the decision, writes Niall Sargent.

A letter in an April 1881 edition of The Irish Times celebrates the 150th anniversary of the RDS, lauding its move in 1879 from Leinster House to more expansive grounds in Dublin 4.

“The opening of the fine show-yard and halls at Ball’s Bridge will mark the commencement of a new era of increased advantage to the… prosperity to the Society,” the letter reads.

The 285-year-old society is now firmly established as the heartbeat of Ballsbridge, increasing its original holdings from 15 to 40 acres and is prepared to expand again.

Planning permission to redevelop the Anglesea Stand, the oldest in the RDS Arena, to increase capacity of the home of Leinster Rugby club to 21,000 has been granted by Dublin City Council.

However, unlike reaction in 1881, the current plans are not well received by some, not least those living in the shadow of the Anglesea Stand.

“It’s total disregard for the local community,” says Dr Mona McGarry. She is one of many residents voicing their concern over the Council’s decision amid traffic and parking issues caused by the ever-expanding roll call of events held year-on-year at the RDS.

“You just wonder nowadays do the planners object to anything,” Dr McGarry, living on Anglesea Road for over 30 years, adds. “Does anyone matter to them?

“You’re just so frightened that the individuals, or collected individuals, have lost all their impact and all their say in life.”

Residents’ concerns were taken onboard by the Anglesea Road Resident’s Association, which submitted an observation to the RDS’s planning application.

The association is now “gearing up” to submit an appeal to An Bord Pleanála, according to the association’s chairperson Paddy Byrne.

“They have been commercially very successful over the last number of years and you have to take your hat off to the management,” he says. “The trouble is that increase in commercial activity is coming at a cost for us, the local residents.

“This area is at breaking point from both the traffic point of view and a parking point of view.”

While Mr Byrne is pleased that the council has included a condition that the RDS must put a management plan in place prior to starting work to deal with traffic and parking issues, he feels that the council could have influenced the RDS to resolve the issue now by rejecting the application.

Dr McGarry supports the resident association’s decision to lodge an appeal, fearing that the expansion, which will also include two multi-purpose buildings, will lead to an increase in events, already totalling 400-plus a year.

A member of the RDS for over ten years, she left the society due to what she describes as its excessive commercialisation. “They have their concern and that is to create as much business for them as possible. Hoodwink to the residents.

“You’re timing your whole day around what time is a match at and what time does it finish at, whatever game it is, whatever show it is,” the Mayo native says. “There’s actually no living here. The stress of it is astronomical.”

“It’s a nightmare for everyone,” says Kevin McMahon, another resident of the road.

“There’s black days when they have ludicrous things like marathon registration… and on the same day they’ll quite possibly have another event there and the place just comes to a standstill.”

McMahon was quick to add, however, that the issue rests solely with the management of access to the road, with events proving popular with many residents.

The restaurateur welcomes the atmosphere created around match nights, although he often finds himself blocked in during events, forcing him to walk to work.

“The RDS haven’t, as far as I’m concerned, handled their end of the bargain to date. There’s no reason to believe they’ll handle more people coming in to a match night.”

Carmel Chambers, a retiree and resident for over 40 years, says that parking issues have just become worse and worse. Today, she cannot even guarantee that she will see her grandchildren at the weekend.

“On a Friday evening after school, if you want to have your family around and the grandchildren, if there’s a match, there’s nowhere for them to park.”

Although the RDS’s planning application outlines plans for 189 underground car parking spaces, the transport statement, submitted together with the application, points out that a large number of cars are likely to park at on-street locations in the surrounding area.

“I don’t think they [RDS] ever think of the residents of Anglesea Road when they are planning anything,” Ms Chambers adds.

Even taxi drivers are keen to avoid the area during events according to Noel Burke, over 20 years in the business. He says that traffic on Anglesea Road can be “absolutely chronic”, especially during the Dublin Horse show and is hesitant to wait for a fare as those arriving by car will “park in your back”.

“If you stayed quiet enough for long enough with your boot open, they’d park in it.”

Businesses on Merrion Road, however, stress that the rugby and other events are vital to their livelihood, with the RDS estimating that fans at Pro-12 matches bring in €1.9 million per match to the local economy.

While understanding residents’ concerns, John Treacy, the manager of Crowe’s Pub, the self-described oldest and most famous rugby pub in Dublin, says that the RDS is “very much a lifeline for the area”.

“It accounts for close to 40 or 50 per cent of our turnover,” he says. “If Leinster rugby was to pull out of the Ballsbridge area as their home playing ground it would be devastating for the area really. There’s a lot of businesses here depending on the RDS for their ‘Brucie Bonus’.”

Although not directly benefiting from the rugby, Adrienne McCrory, owner of Hemingway’s Cafe, is in favour of the approved expansion. “They have a huge amount of conferences and exhibitions which bring a huge amount of people to the area which is very beneficial to us.

“I know a lot of the businesses around here, and I can understand why they would want it to be expanded because it does generate a huge amount of business.”

Mr Byrne hopes that the RDS will start listening to the concerns of the residents, although concedes that an appeal to An Bord Pleanála is the more realistic option. “If the RDS have any cop on, they might actually even go, ‘well actually, you know, maybe we should address this whole traffic issue now.’ They have it in their power to do it, they just need to focus their minds.

“Unfortunately now it will end up in An Bord Pleanála and I don’t like because it costs everybody money at the end of the day, but unfortunately it wasn’t our decision,” he says.

An RDS statement says that the society is “delighted” to receive notification of the council’s decision to grant planning permission.

“It is a considerable step along the planning process and one that brings the new Stand closer to realisation. The new facility will create a top class experience for visitors and positively impact on the Dublin Horse Show, Leinster Rugby and any other events held in the RDS Main Arena.”

Demolition work is scheduled to begin in late 2017, with a construction period of twelve to fifteen months.

A version of this article appeared in The Irish Times in October 2016.

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Pristine river sites at risk of extinction, report warns

There has been no major improvement in Ireland’s overall water quality in the last six years, with our dwindling pristine river sites at risk of extinction without significant changes, says a landmark EPA report.

The State of the Environment Report, released today, states that we have failed to meet our target to improve the ecological status of Ireland’s rivers, lakes, estuaries and coastal waters by 13.6% from 2009 levels.

The target is outlined in the first cycle of the River Basin Management Plan, a recurring six-year action plan to protect, improve and sustainably manage Ireland’s water.

While the quality of our waters remain among the best in Europe, there is still room for improvement, according to EPA Director General, Laura Burke.

“We need to act with a much greater sense of urgency,” she said at today’s launch. “There are many worrying signals warning us that we are in danger.”

There has been a dramatic reduction in our high quality rivers over the past three decades, declining from over 500 in the late 1980s to only 21 recorded during the latest monitoring period of 2013 to 2015.

According to the report, unless effective measures are urgently put in place, our remaining high quality river sites “could become extinct from the Irish landscape”.

“We’ve lost the best of our best water quality,” said EPA environmental scientist, Andy Fanning. “We do see there’s a need for focusing in on protecting the high quality and restoring those ones that have dropped.”

He said, however, that this will be a very difficult task to achieve if rivers fall below the second highest ecological quality rating of 4.5.

“The step from 4.5 back to five is like a gently rising slope. But once you get to four, it’s like climbing a mountain to get back up to that five,” he said.

Ireland also falls short in meeting the full legal requirements of the EU Drinking Water Directive and is noncompliant with the Directive on the treatment of urban waste water.

“This isn’t about Europe making unreasonable demands on Ireland,” said Ms Burke. “It’s about making sure that, at a minimum, for example, the water we drink, or the water we swim in will not make us sick.”

Untreated sewage is still discharged from 43 areas across the country, over half of which are located in Cork, Donegal and Galway, with their elimination by 2019 outlined as a priority. Of the 43 locations, 36 discharge directly into estuarine or coastal locations across the country.

Together with agriculture (53 per cent), municipal sources (34 per cent) account for almost 90 per cent of suspected cases of water pollution, and will dent any potential improvement in water quality unless adequately managed.

The report also highlights the “unacceptable” number of public water supplies on long-term boil notice and calls for “major investment” to ensure pollution risks from the likes of cryptosporidium, lead and trihalomethane contamination are eliminated from our drinking water.

The EPA has funded over 100 water-related projects since 2007, with a new risk-based approach to water catchment management outlined as key to improving and protecting water quality across the country.

A version of this article appeared in The Irish Times in November 2016

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Poor air quality causing over 1,200 premature deaths every…

A near-doubling of the number of cars on Ireland’s roads and the continued burning of solid fuels are the key drivers causing poor air quality in Ireland, causing more than 1,200 premature deaths every year.

Ireland’s air quality is good by European standards, but it does not fare so well when measured against new World Health Organisation guidelines , according to the latest EPA State of the Environment report.

Ireland exceeds WHO guideline values for PM10 and PM2.5 – very fine particulates smaller than 10 micrometres that can enter the lungs and cause major health problems.

Solid fuels such as coal and turf for domestic heating remains the main cause of poor air quality in rural towns and villages, especially those not on the national gas grid.

In larger towns and cities, air quality has improved as more homes have moved away from solid fuels to gas, while changes in diesel-engined cars has helped matters, too.

Ban on smoky coal

The report states that the nationwide ban on smoky coal due to start in 2018 should bring levels down, and calls for regulation of other solid fuels such as peat and wood.

“However, there is a need for regulation of solid fuel beyond coal. Peat burning is still prevalent in many parts of the country – most particularly in rural areas – and contributes significantly in terms of particulates,” says the report.

The report adds that a high proportion of Ireland’s urban population is now exposed to harmful levels of air pollution based on the updated WHO measures.

Traffic is seen as the key pressure on air quality in our largest cities as exhaust emissions leave us hovering dangerously close to EU limits for nitrogen dioxide NO2, another major contributor to poor air quality.

Although NO2 levels are down from their height in 2009 when EU limits were breached, levels are on the rise again as more cars return to our roads in line with the economic recovery.

Sustainable public transport

 The report calls for a move away from private car use to a more efficient and sustainable public transport system, and for further incentives to encourage the uptake of electric vehicles.

The passing of WHO guidelines into EU and Irish legislation and a national network of real-time data monitoring are also outlined as key to eliminating poor air quality and protecting our health.

According to EPA director general Laura Burke such measures will also have a positive knock-on effect on climate change targets, with the link between a clean environment and a healthy society beginning to seep into the general consciousness.

“In years to come, the pollution of our air from vehicles or burning fuels will be seen as being on a par with tobacco smoking,” she added.

The fact that over 1,200 people die prematurely from exposure to poor air quality should bring home the message to the general public, according to the EPA’s programme manager, Dr Jonathan Derham.

“That’s three a day,” he said. “So by the end of today, three more Irish people will have died prematurely associated with particulate matter.

“It’s no longer protecting the environment for the environment’s sake. We’re protecting it because it’s essential to our own health and well-being.”

A version of this article appeared in The Irish Times in November 2016.

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Funding shortage for energy retrofitting of homes, warns EPA

Resources are only available to fund retrofitting work on one-third of the 75,000 homes and buildings required to be upgraded each year between now and 2020 to meet our EU energy targets.

Energy use across all sectors is inefficient, according to the latest Environmental Protection Agency State of the Environment report, leading to high energy costs, cold and uncomfortable housing and an increase in CO2 emissions.

According to the report, 50 per cent of Ireland’s housing stock had a Building Energy Rating (BER) of D or lower in 2014. BER is measured on energy performance and CO2 emissions, ranging from A – the most energy-efficient – down to G.

Data from the European Environment Agency also shows that daily household energy use in Ireland is the second-highest in Europe at just under 50kWh daily.

This leaves us facing a “major and immediate challenge” to reach our 2020 target of a 20 per cent improvement in energy efficiency, the report states.

The Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Governmentgave €85 million to local authorities from 2013 to 2015 to retrofit over 46,000 local authority homes.

However, according to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI), 75,000 buildings from our housing, commercial, and public sector need to be upgraded each year between now and 2020.

Increased funding is required to reach this goal, according to Philip O’Brien, research specialist at the EPA. “The resources available will probably only cover maybe 25,000 of that,” he said. “We don’t see those financial instruments in place as yet. That’s a challenge.”

Renewable sources

With the residential sector making up one-quarter of our total energy requirements, the report also calls for replacing fossil fuels with renewable sources to power and heat our homes and drive Ireland toward decarbonisation by 2050.

The report adds that this will be difficult as we are still “highly locked into carbon-intensive systems”, with about 90 per cent of energy-use reliant on fossil fuels such as imported oil and natural gas.

The report says this is both expensive – imports cost €5.7 billion in 2014 – and environmentally unsustainable.

EPA programme manager, Dr Jonathan Derham, envisions little change if we continue to subsidise fossil fuels to the tune of €386 million annually. “We have to identity the incentives, the taxes that are in place, which are counter to the environmental policies that we want to pursue,” he said.

The EPA is working on a project with the Economic and Social Research Institute to measure the environmental impact of subsidies for the likes of peat extraction and agricultural diesel.

However, with the winter fuel allowance accounting for a large chuck of subsidies, Dr Derham said that it will take some time before we figure out the balance between our social, economic and environmental needs.

One thing is for sure, however, according to EPA director general Laura Burke: “The fossil age is over.”

A version of this article appeared in The Irish Times in November 2016

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Sourcing of wood pellets in US could destroy forests,…

Plans by Bord na Mona to invest in wood pellet manufacturing in the south-eastern United States to fuel an electricity power plant in the Midlands could devastate forests there, critics have charged.

In a report to the Government, released under the Freedom of Information Act, Bord na Móna forecasted that it would struggle to find enough locally-produced wood and other biomass for its Edenderry, Co. Offaly plant.

In it, the semi-state says that its biomass demand “cannot be met from the existing indigenous supply sources” and calls for a greater supply of pulpwood from State forests.

The looming shortages at the Edenderry plant have been magnified by Bord na Mona’s decision to quit the controversial import of palm kernel shells.

The absence of PKS will leave a large gap in biomass supply. The kernel husks made up over 20 per cent of biomass used at the semi-state’s Edenderry, Co Offaly power station in 2014.

One solution may be to import wood pellets from the US. The company recently outlined plans to invest in US-based wood pellets manufacture to secure a long-term supply of woody biomass.

“Our analysis suggests that the South Eastern states in the United States are probably the optimum location due to the extensive availability of wood in the locality,” the company’s 2016 Annual Report states.

Chief Executive, Mick Quinn also outlined interest to establish a model similar to that used by UK power company Drax at a Joint Oireachtas Committee in June 2015.

Drax, which has a wood pellet plant and shipping terminal in the US southeast, exports roughly 900,000 tonnes of pellets back to the UK every year.

Yet, critics say this strategy has a devastating impact on the region, “ground zero” for the wood pellet industry according to Sasha Stashwick of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Exports to Europe soared from 530,000 tonnes in 2009 to 3.89 million tonnes in 2014, making the US the world’s leading exporter.

Ms Stashwick, an energy policy analyst, said that Europe’s “tremendous new additional demand” on the US “wood basket” is having a detrimental impact on the local environment.

She also found that woody biomass is far less efficient than fossil fuels like coal.

Fresh cut wood is almost half water by weight, and requires more power to burn off the water before useful energy can be produced.

As such, a lot more wood has to be burnt to produce the same amount of energy as fossil fuels, which Ms Stashwick says is “depleting that forest carbon sink”.

A UK Department of Energy and Climate Change report also found that energy needed to produce electricity from the pellets will be “significantly greater” than for coal by 2020.

EU rules, however, hold that the burning of wood pellets is carbon neutral. The idea is that any carbon lost through felling and burning is recaptured and fixed back in the soil through replanting.

Professor Matthew Hansen finds this concept “kind of ridiculous”. A remote sensing scientist at the University of Maryland, Prof Hansen specialises in land use change mapping.

Using satellite data from 2000-2012, he found logging in the region to be among the “most intensive we see in the world”.

He also said that bottomland hardwood wetland forests, some a century old, are now being targeted as forests on upland well-drained land have been “absolutely hammered”.

A 2016 investigation by Dogwood Alliance, a non-profit working to preserve and restore native forests in the region, also documented clear cutting in wetland forests.

The forests are unique to the southeastern coast, and provide a range of environmental services, such as flood protection. They also act as a habitat to a number of endangered species.

The European Commission confirmed that whole trees are being sourced for pellet exports to the EU. The Commission also documented problems with high greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and deforestation.

For Ms Stashwick, the report “really validated” concerns held by the NRDC, and brought home the “far-reaching ecological impacts of the trans-Atlantic wood pellet trade”.

“If Ireland becomes a big importer of wood pellets from the Southeast you’ll probably start hearing more from US advocates like us,” she added.

In a statement, Bord na Móna told The Irish Times that developing a reliable, cost effective supply chain will be a “significant challenge” for the company.

The company did not comment on any plans to invest in wood pellet manufacturing while it examines its options for future biomass supply.

Whatever decision is made by Bord na Mona, the US southeast will remain saddled with “carbon debt”, a debt that will take “many decades to repay”, according to Ms Stashwick.

“It’s a really big ship to turn around once you have gone down this road.”

A version of this article appeared in The Irish Times on 6 January 2017

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Bord na Móna to stop importing palm kernel shells…

Bord na Móna is to stop importing palm kernel shells from plantations in some of the world’s most biodiverse countries following concerns that it is helping to fuel the destruction of forests.

Since 2010, more than 150,000 tonnes of palm kernel shells (PKS) have been bought by the semi-state company to burn along with peat at the Edenderry, Co Offaly, power station.

An investigation by The Irish Times shows that the semi-State body has imported the shells without knowledge of whether they have been sustainably sourced, despite pledges that protecting the environment is part of the company’s “core DNA”.

The palm oil industry is linked to various environmental and social abuses, such as deforestation, pollution, poor working conditions and the destruction of peatlands in Indonesia, which has supplied nearly two-thirds of Bord na Móna’s PKS supplies.

Byproduct

Once oil is extracted from the fruit of the oil palm tree, the kernel shells are dried and crushed and sold internationally as biomass, where they are included in the “green energy” figures of energy companies.

In September, in a reply to a request by The Irish Times, Bord na Móna said as PKS is classified as a byproduct of the palm oil industry, it is not required to buy sustainable kernel shells.

“PKS are a byproduct of this industry and, as such, no certification is required and in most cases is unavailable,” the company states. “In the palm oil industry, it is the production of palm oil itself that may be certified and not the residue – ie PKS.”

However, the company has now said it will “cease to source and use” the product from this year, once “alternative, domestic and imported, sustainable supply chains” are in place.

“The review of the future supply of biomass is being guided by the company’s sustainable business criteria with the objective of securing positive outcomes for people, the planet and the company’s profit,” the statement continues.

However, the semi-State, which is now Ireland’s biggest supplier and user of biomass products, acknowledges that developing a reliable and cost-effective biomass supply for the Edenderry plant will be a “significant challenge”.

More than a third of the fuel used at the Co Offaly plant is biomass of one form or other. This meets a Government-set 30 per cent co-firing target, laid down as part of Ireland’s efforts to generate 40 per cent of electricity from renewables by 2020.

A version of this article appeared in The Irish Times on 30 March 2017