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Horticultural peat unlawfully removed ‘much like rock from a quarry’, High Court hears

Environmental Protection Agency is seeking an injunction against Harte Peat Ltd to halt peat extraction in Westmeath.

File photo of the Four Courts in Dublin
File photo of the Four Courts in Dublin
Image: Pierre-Olivier via Shutterstock

PEAT HAS BEEN unlawfully extracted from peatlands in Co Westmeath to a depth of five metres “much like rock is removed from a quarry”, the High Court heard today.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is seeking an injunction against Harte Peat Ltd for peat extraction from a site in Co Westmeath that it says the company has carried out without a licence from the EPA as required under national law. 

The environmental watchdog argues Harte Peat has extracted peat from two areas of hydrologically-connected peatlands of a combined 128 hectares on raised bog near Derrycrave. 

An EPA licence is required for any activity above 50 hectares, EPA counsel Fintan Valentine SC told Ms Justice Siobhán Phelan this morning. Harte Peat contends that the activity subject to the current proceedings takes place in an area below this threshold and, therefore, does not require a licence.

‘Intensification of works’

In an affidavit from EPA inspector John Gibbons, read by Valentine this morning, he states that the agency collected evidence between September 2018 and September 2021, with an estimated 250,000m3 of peat extracted between December 2018 and August 2021. 

Based on the evidence collected, including site visits, drone photography, and satellite imagery, Gibbons believes there has “been an intensification of works” by Harte Peat in the last two to three years. 

Prior to 2018, Gibbons says, the company was primarily milling the peat, whereby peat is skimmed from the top layer of the bog, dried, piled in ridges and then stockpiled for transport. 

“This was seen as good practice for the purpose of allowing plant life to regenerate and letting the peat land start to come back even though this might take thousands of years,” Gibbons states. 

Gibbons’ affidavit adds, however, that, since as early as 2009 in one area, and since Autumn 2018 in a second area, Harte Peat has been “quarrying” peat down to a lower level. 

“In effect, this is digging the peat with excavators in benches, much like rock is removed from a quarry,” he said, with peat excavated to a depth of five metres in some areas and down to the marl material beneath the peat. Combined, the two areas encompass 128 hectares, he states. 

“At this depth, the peat land is unlikely to redevelop as the heather and plant life required for the peat land cannot grow on this surface. Thus, this escalation and intensification of peat extraction by the Respondent has been and remains a major concern from an environmental perspective,” he argues. 

‘No licence required’

In an affidavit read to the court this afternoon from Aidan O’Harte, the Managing Director of Harte Peat, he argues that there has been no intensification of the company’s activity in recent years and that the EPA is incorrect to state that it is harvesting peat on an area of more than 50 hectares. 

He says that activities had ceased prior to 2018 in one of the two areas outlined by the EPA in its case, with no recent extraction activity. He argues that activity in the other area subject to the current proceedings was already underway prior to 2018, and, therefore, does not constitute a new area of activity and that there was no intensification of the activity there.  

As such, O’Harte argues in his affidavit, that the EPA’s position that it is actively extracting peat on over 50 hectares of peat is incorrect and that its activity is limited to 26 hectares. Therefore, he argues that the company does not require an EPA licence. He also challenges the EPA’s argument that extraction was giving rise to a worsening of the conditions of the bog. 

Mushroom industry at stake

O’Harte also states in his affidavit that a decision in favour of the EPA would mean that the mushroom industry would essentially be wiped out in short order, impacting local economies and communities that rely heavily on the industry in countries such as Monaghan. Harte Peat supplies peat casing to the mushroom industry in Ireland and abroad. 

This is supported by affidavits from several members of the mushroom industry read into the court record today. Michael Mel O’Rourke, the interim CEO of Commercial Mushroom Producers Co-Op, states, for example, that there is no other growing media on the market that can replace peat and meet the needs of the mushroom industry. 

He argues in his affidavit that the industry relies on a year-round and continuous supply of mushroom casing to continue to operate. The prevention of supply of casing, he says, would “devastate the mushroom industry within a matter of weeks, if not days”.

Ms Justice Phelan is also hearing judicial review proceedings brought by Harte Peat seeking to overturn a decision by the EPA to refuse to process an application that it made in October 2019 for an EPA licence to extract peat from several sites in Co Westmeath.

The hearing will continue tomorrow.

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