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


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.


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


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.


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


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


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.


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


Foreign biofuel defeating Bord na Móna sustainability plans

The oil palm tree grows in some of the world’s most biodiverse countries that often feature in nature programmes such as David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II, filled with images of luxuriant growth and rare creatures.

However, the tree is encroaching into the Attenborough world. Its high yielding fruit produces two versatile and cheap oils – palm oil and palm kernel oil – used in foods, cosmetics, and cleaning products.  Both, too, help to fill growing demand in Europe for biofuels.

However, the industry behind palm oil continues to be plagued by charges that it has laid waste to natural paradises, encouraged illegal logging and spurred abuse of lowly-paid workers.

Between 2000 and 2012, 16 million hectares of virgin Indonesian forest fell, owing in large part to palm oil plantations. Once the plantation matures, oil is extracted from the fruit, and the kernel husks left behind are sold internationally as biomass to fuel power stations in the West.

Since 2010, Bord na Mona has bought more than 150,000 tonnes of these husks – known as palm kernel shells (PKS) – to burn at its Edenderry, Co. Offaly power station. So far this year, it has bought 36,000 tonnes. Three-quarters of it came from Indonesia.

In a recent YouTube video, Bord na Mona’s Director of Marketing & Communications, Gerry O’Hagan declares that the company’s strategy is based on three pillars: People, Profit and Planet.  Bord na Mona’s “core DNA” is built around the “whole area of sustainability”, he says.

Facing questions over months from The Irish Times, Bord na Mona has defended its conduct, insisting that it obeyed all Irish regulations, even though a universal “single comprehensive certification code” for sustainably-produced PKS does not exist.

In a report, however, sent to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment in March 2013, Bord na Mona was most concerned not about the emissions risk posed by burning PKS, but rather what would happen if it was stopped from doing so.

The report, seen by The Irish Times after an application under the Freedom of Information Act, highlights concern about EU plans to review the Renewable Energy Directive and limit the use of biomass from high biodiversity areas.

“Many of the oil palm plantations in South East Asia are grown on former peatlands,” the report stated. “They have very high carbon dioxide emissions… and the use of palm kernel shells (PKS) from these plantations would be ruled out by the sustainability criteria.

“Edenderry therefore faces a considerable risk that PKS, and other agro-industrial residues arising from crops that are grown on organic soils or that have displaced high biodiversity habitats, will not be permitted in the future.”

In a statement following questions from The Irish Times, the company said that, although details of the new rules are not yet known, it intends to “enforce and adhere to the new EU standards once they are enacted”.

Following months of correspondent with The Irish Times, Bord na Mona now says that it will “cease to source and use” PKS in 2017 once it has “alternative, domestic and imported, sustainable supply chains in place”.

The decision follows a “root and branch review” of the company’s biomass supply chain, and in future biomass used will “all be independently verified as sustainably sourced”. The new supply chain will meet all national and EU standards.

The statement does not explain how it will find replacement supplies for Edenderry and warns that it will be a “significant challenge”, adding that the company would not be in a position to be making any further comment on this matter.

In a reply to an Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) request in August for documents to show if the shells were bought from sustainable sources, Bord na Móna said that this information was provided on a “voluntary basis by third parties” and it would seek consent before releasing.

Following up in September, Bord na Móna acknowledged that this information was not actually in its possession when The Irish Times’ request was sent as it only sought to obtain documents from suppliers after the request was made.

The company was also not able to provide the names of growers and millers, stating that this is due to the operation of the industry where PKS from various mills is stockpiled at ports to be sold to traders.

Bord na Mona also stated that, as PKS is classified as a by-product of the palm oil industry, it is not required to purchase sustainable kernel shells.

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

Bord na Mona was able to provide some form of sustainability certification, but only for the shipment of PKS to Ireland from Nigeria in 2013, backed up by a letter from the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC).

Responsible for promoting Nigerian non-oil exports, the NEPC said the company which shipped the PKS to Ireland works according to the “sustainable biomass production process”.

“This process does not include child labour, does not degrade the forest, does not involve deforestation and has positively affected the social environment of the local community,” the letter continues.

Professor Matthew Hansen, an expert in mapping changes in land use who has documented Indonesia’s large-scale deforestation, criticised Bord na Mona’s performance as “super lazy” and showing “a lack of good will”.

“The industries are just telling us to trust them, ‘trust us, we are doing the right thing’,” the University of Maryland scientist declared. “They should really prove it. We know from the satellites that that trust is not warranted.

“If you’re going to fuel green energy, supposed green energy of palm kernels, you should know where they’re coming from,” added Prof Hansen. “They’re looking at the bottom line and not doing due diligence. It’s irresponsible.”

Bord na Mona’s behaviour is quite common, according to Philip Jacobson, a Jakarta-based journalist for Mongabay, a conservation news group which has written extensively about the palm oil industry.

However, it could be doing more to find out where its supplies come from: “It sounds like a bit of a ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ arrangement, wherein the company simply imports the kernels, neither knowing nor caring about the origin,” Mr Jacobson added.

An industry-led sustainable standard, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, does exist, though it has been criticised as lacking the power to enforce guidelines, allowing some major multi-nationals to wrap PR fig leafs around unacceptable practice.

Formed in 2004 to encourage industry commitment to protect workers’ rights and ‘high conservation value’ areas such as peatlands, the non-profit says that 20 per cent of global palm oil production is now RSPO-certified.

Following checks by the RSPO and another global certification program, the International Sustainability and Carbon Certification System, none of the traders and shippers used by Bord na Móna were found to be registered as members of either program.

Danielle Morley, the RSPO’s European Director of Outreach and Engagement said accredited mills can supply RSPO-certified kernel shells, adding that Irish businesses serious about finding sustainable supplies should join the RSPO.

However, there is question over whether it can ever make sense to bring palm kernels from the other side of the world to burn in Edenderry in a bid to comply with Ireland’s international obligations to cut CO2 emissions.

Experts warn that the European Union’s policies to use more biomass – such as wood, miscanthus, and PKS – are flawed, masking the true emission figures from biomass-generated electricity.

In Ireland’s case, it has committed to ensuring that a minimum of 30 per cent of the fuel burnt at Edenderry will be biomass. Currently, it is ahead of target, hitting 37 per cent. In time, Bord na Mona plans to use more than  1.5 million tonnes of biomass per year there.

According to the company, emissions of over 1.1 million tonnes of CO2 have already been avoided between 2008 and 2015 by using biomass in place of peat, but critics strongly disagree.

Dr Fionnuala Murphy of University College Dublin is one of them: “There’s a big policy problem with all of this biomass being automatically considered carbon neutral,” she said, echoing warnings from the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Writing in 2011 about the dangers of the accounting rules, the EEA warned that the EU rules to encourage bioenergy, irrespective of the biomass source, “may even result in increased carbon emissions – thereby accelerating global warming”.

The EU rules lay down that biomass is carbon-neutral because the carbon lost through burning is recaptured through replanting and growing replacement biomass, but this does not take into account the likes of emissions from land use change and cultivation.

“All of those aspects need to be taken into consideration to ensure that the biomass we’re using actually achieves carbon reductions compared to fossil fuels, rather than increasing emissions elsewhere,” said Dr Murphy, who specialises in full lifecycle analysis of biomass emissions.

Although originally well intended, the EU carbon accounting “loophole” is exposing countries to an “enormous emissions risk”, according to Sasha Stashwick, senior advocate for energy at the US-based Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

Bord na Mona state that a well-managed biomass process will lead to emissions reductions of over 80 per cent, even when using imported biomass. Dr Murphy disagrees.

Using the example of PKS imports from Southeast Asia, Dr Murphy found that they produce an average of 256kg of CO2 per GJ of energy produced at Edenderry.

Half of the emissions in her own estimate of the real CO2 numbers come not from the burning of the shells, but rather from the C02 emitted by the decision to turn peatlands and forest in South East Asia into palm oil plantations.

Bord na Mona’s own C02 figures are “very low” in comparison she found, equal to the value estimated for shipping the shells to Ireland alone.

Meanwhile, says Ms Stashwick, there is the issue of the large subsidies required by biomass-fuelled power stations: “You’re really locking into a perpetual fuel cost and the fuel costs are highly uncertain.”

Subsidies for peat-generated electricity in Ireland through the Public Service Obligation (PSO), a levy charged to all electricity customers to support energy policies, was phased out at Edenderry in December 2015.

However, the station is now guaranteed a tariff price until December 2030 through the PSO-funded Renewable Energy Feed in Tariff (REFIT) for electricity generated by co-firing up to 30 per cent of its 128 MW installed capacity.

The Commission for Energy Regulation, which determines the PSO levy, says there are no checks to verify the sustainability of imported biomass when it calculates subsidies: “This is a very expensive way to ostensibly shift to renewable electricity,” Stashwick went on.

For Dr Murphy, the solution, or part of it, to high C02 emissions from imported biomass is to grow more Irish energy crops such as miscanthus and willow: “We can fully produce indigenous biomass to the gate of the power plant at lower greenhouse gas emissions,” she said.

However, Irish biomass production has stalled, despite a significant push from the government through Bio-Energy Establishment Schemes. In 2009, three-quarters of all biomass burned at Edenderry was Irish. Two years ago, imports made up half of the biomass used.

Last year, the Government offered farmers more support to grow willow, offering to pay 40 per cent of the costs of planting up to 50 hectares. Just four applications were received for 53 hectares. The scheme is now under review.

This investigation featured in The Irish Times on 6 January 2017.


Heritage Bill: Debate in Seanad Leads to Limited Progress…

An amendment to limit a proposal to cut hedgerows in August solely to roadside hedges passed during a heated Seanad debate on the Heritage Bill late yesterday evening.

The amendment to section eight of the Bill was brought by Fianna Fáil Senator Paul Daly. It calls for the restriction of the out of season destruction of hedgerows to roadside hedges only.

Section eight would allow for the cutting of hedgerows in August under a two-year pilot project, as well as the burning of gorse during March.

The Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Heather Humphreys, proposed that hedge-cutting also be allowed on tillage farmland or where reseeding needs to be carried out.

An Taisce and BirdWatch Ireland welcomed the amendment last night, stating that it would greatly limit any potential impact on wildlife.

Heated Debate

Several Fine Gael senators, however, took issue with the amendment. Senator Tim Lombard said that it showed “total disregard for the farming community”.

“Entrenchment has become an issue with this debate,” he added. “Rural people think they have been driven into the ground about this.”

The Minister added that the amendment came down to whether or not we trust farmers as the “custodians of the countryside”. She earlier caused uproar when she said that accusations had been thrown around that farmers are out to destroy wildlife.

This led Senator David Norris to interrupt her for “making unjustified accusations”. Senator Alice Mary Higgins added that the Minister’s comments were “not constructive”. She asked the Minister to be careful not to “create division where division has not in fact been sown”.

“We have spoken very much about the interests of farmers, for example, horticultural farmers… who are deeply concerned about the pollination impacts,” Ms Higgins added.

The Minister went on to clarify that her statement was in relation to public comments made on social media.

Several prominent amendments were defeated, such as Green Party Senator Grace O’Sullivan’s one on road safety. The Minister has championed road safety as a key reason for bringing the Heritage Bill forward.

“This is a serious issue on local by-roads in rural Ireland where hedges are growing out on roads,” she said. “It damages cars and it’s restricting the views of motorists and it’s dangerous for cyclists.”

However, Labour’s Kevin Humphreys said that we can “now rule out once and for all” that this Bill is concerned with road safety”. “Let nobody in this house try and justify that this section of the Bill is about road safety, because it’s not.”

Mr Humphrey’s own amendment to limit any pilot project to no more than ten per cent of the State did not pass.

Scientific Baseline

Another major amendment tabled by Ms O’Sullivan for a baseline scientific study prior to the start of any pilot project was also defeated.

A lack of national scientific data on which to base a trial study is the main concern of many opposition Senators, with Ms O’Sullivan adding that the Minister was “putting the cart before the horse”.

Ms O’Sullivan’s amendment was supported by several Senators including Mr Norris. He said it was an “appalling prospect” that policy is brought in without any scientific research. He called for section eight to be “vigorously opposed”.

“There’s been absolutely no survey done whatever and I think this is disastrous,” he added. “We need Irish data… not the mass implementation of a policy that is unsupported by science.”

No Grubbing or Destroying

The Minister proposed that the words grubbing or destroying be removed from the Heritage Bill at Report Stage. Shea also said that trimming will be “limited to only the current year’s growth”.

“I am satisfied that the provisions to be put in place in section eight fully respect the requirements of the nesting and breeding seasons,” she added.

While welcoming the announcements, Ms Higgins said that none of the proposals are reflected in the Bill.

“The legislation at the moment gives an absolutely clear wide permission and none of the constraints or the concerns… are in the legislation before the house,” she added.

She said that it was “imperative” for the Minister to include this information in the legislation to reflect what was presented before the chamber yesterday.

“At the moment we have a very very very wide divide between state policy intent and between the legislation that’s before the house,” she added.

Secateurs and Measuring Tape

Yet, according to Independent Senator Michael McDowell, even if the limit of cutting to the current year’s growth is explicitly stated in the Heritage Bill, it will be impossible to monitor.

He dryly asked if inspectors would be sent out “to crawl along the hedges… with secateurs and measuring tapes” to determine if a hedge is cut to the proposed limitations.

“Either a hedge-cutting machine is going to be deployed on a hedge or it’s not, and in the aftermath there will be nothing to show really how far into last year’s growth the cutting actually went.”

He added that the “broad-brush” Bill would be better served if the Minister “walked away from section eight” as many people in Irish society oppose it.

“They object to its unscientific basis, the manner in which it has been done, the absence of draft regulations, the unthought-out way that this has been done,” Mr McDowell added.

To date, over 27,000 people have signed an online petition opposing the Heritage Bill. A flurry of signatures were received over the past 24 hours.

A version of this article appeared on The Green Diary on 30 March 2017


Microplastics: from must-have to hated cosmetics ingredient

Microbeads, tiny pieces of plastic found by the hundreds of thousands in shower gels, face-scrubs and toothpastes, were once trumpeted as a cosmetic “must have” – a crucial ingredient in the battle for beauty. Now they have become a hated ingredient.

The US, Canada and the Netherlands have banned them from cosmetics because of their potential impact on the environment, and the UK is preparing to ban them from the end of 2017.

In a bid to get the ball rolling in Ireland, Green Party Senator Grace O’Sullivan brought forward legislation to ban microbeads in late September 2016, which would have also included plans to monitor levels of microplastics in Irish waters.

However, the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Simon Coveney blocked the bill, stating that it failed to include detergents and scouring agents, and did not include sufficient investigative or enforcement powers.

In its place, the Minister has launched a public consultation on a potential microbeads ban in certain products such as cosmetics, body care products and some cleaning products which closed last week.

While such moves as welcomed, experts, such as Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology’s (GMIT) Dr Anne Marie Mahon, say that a microbeads ban in Ireland would only solve a fraction of the microplastics problem.

Microplastics are tiny plastic granules, pellets, fibres and fragments less than 5mm in diameter. They can be as small as two to three centimetres in length and are often as thin as a human hair.

“The cosmetics industry is only one very small piece of the picture,” says Dr Mahon, as cosmetic microbeads make up just over 4 per cent of microplastics entering the marine environment from Europe.

According to Mahon, various other industries play a far greater role in creating and distributing microplastics, such as the booming medical devices industry, which produces microplastic waste through milling and grinding processes involved in making products.

However, she reserves particular attention for the clothing industry. “Most of the microplastics that have been found in environmental samples taken from water, whether it be from freshwater or marine samples, are fibres, and these fibres are derived mostly from synthetic clothing that we wear,” she says.

“Thousands of fibres come out per wash into the wastewater and then that goes into the sewage treatment plant,” she adds, with fibres from furnishings such as curtains and carpets also an important source.

While Mahon’s current research focuses on freshwater systems, similar findings have been made off our coasts, with every square kilometre of the ocean estimated to contain about four billion plastic fibres.

In a recent study covering more than 12,700 km of the north-east Atlantic by former GMIT researcher, Dr Amy Lusher, more than 90 per cent of samples captured contained plastics. Analysis of the samples indicated that 89 per cent of the captured plastics were in fact microplastics, the majority of which were fibres rather than microbeads.

“I think it’s important to make people aware that it’s not just microbeads that are affecting animals and it’s not just microbeads that we’re finding in the environment,” says Lusher, now a member of the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP) – a body that advises the United Nations.
“I’m really glad that we can watch different countries banning them or new moves to combat plastics in cosmetics, but I think that there are other forms of plastics that need to be targeted as well and it shouldn’t be the key focus.”

Back on land, Mahon also mentions the role of the construction industry, which produces microplastics from many hazardous polymers. For example, the sawing of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes and the cutting of PVC windows produces huge amounts of microplastics that are being released into the environment. Other sources include the abrasion of synthetic rubber tyres, household waste, and surprisingly, the recycling industry, which shreds or flakes plastic materials prior to washing.

Once in contact with the plastics, this water is then pumped down the sewer as waste water and into a treatment plant together with millions of particles of microplastics, 90 per cent of which is captured in sewage sludge.

Although this may sound good, as we now know where the microplastics are, Mahon says that lime stabilisation, the most common treatment method used in waste water treatment facilities, may actually be exacerbating the problem by shearing microplastic particles, making them even smaller. As the microplastics break down into smaller particles, their surface-area-to-volume ratio increases, leading to a greater chance of being absorbed by organic materials in the sludge, 80 per cent of which ends up spread on agricultural land.

“What happens to it when it is spread on the land is an absolute unknown,” according to Mahon, who is currently leading an EPA-funded project to examine microplastics in sewage sludge.

The impact on human health is also unknown at this point, either through direct contact with microplastics or through the food chain. A review by the European Food Safety Authority found that although the digestive tract of marine organisms often contains large quantities of microplastics, they are normally discarded before consumption.

Lusher presented similar findings through a study of mammals beached on the Irish coast, including True’s beaked whales, one of the rarest and least understood animals on the planet. Her findings indicated that the whales have the ability to remove plastics from their system in the same way they would eject pieces of bone and items they don’t need.

Lusher plans to further elaborate on her findings and undertake wider research on the impact of microplastics on the marine environment. “We are still trying to find out the effects of plastics because they are such a new and, until recently, a very emerging pollutant, that we were actually unaware of the detrimental effects it was having on the environment,” she says.

According to Mahon, as plastic production increases – quadrupling since the 1980s alone – we need to take more action now to understand the scale of the impact of plastics, on course to outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050.

Laboratory studies have presented early findings on the impact on organisms, including decreased feeding, weight loss, and energy depletion, while a recent French study on oysters highlighted the impact of microplastic exposure on subsequent generations, rather than just the individual which ingested the microplastics.

“Although the lab trials use environmentally irrelevant or exaggerated levels of microplastics, looking ahead to the future, this could be the reality,” Mahon says. “The plastics industry is growing at such a rate that we need to address it now, even if the impacts are not too visible.”

A version of this article appeared in The Irish Times on 28 October 2016.