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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: -1°C
Alamy Stock Photo The register contains information on where water is drawn, or abstracted, from. File photo.
THE MORNING LEAD

Department of Agriculture pressured EPA not to release list of farms pumping from rivers

The list, which the EPA has refused to release, also contains information on data centres and quarries.

THE DEPARTMENT OF Agriculture pressured the environmental watchdog not to release a list containing information on farms pumping water from or diverting rivers and lakes across the country. 

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claimed that the department “would not share information on farmers and farms” with the EPA if the information were to be made public.

This assertion has appeared in a ruling by the Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information (OCEI) in which it overturned a decision by the EPA to withhold its water abstraction register for 1,223 locations across the country. 

All 1,223 involved in the ruling are non-drinking abstraction points where water is removed or diverted from its source as part of activities related to farming, quarries, data centres and some semi-State bodies which were unnamed in the ruling. 

Water abstraction takes place in dairy, beef and horticultural farming, including for irrigation, and for cooling with data centres. Quarry companies abstract water as part of their work with stone and minerals.

  • Click here to support a Noteworthy project to examine if lax rules on water abstraction are affecting local water supplies

Ashley Glover, a Wicklow-based member of Right to Know who took the case, told The Journal that he believes a number of other questions need to be answered. 

“So we see the EPA saying they’re being told by the Department of Agriculture not to release this information. What we don’t know is, for example, why were quarry operators or data centres not being released.

“Some of these sites may also be under investigation for pollution so we’re going to follow this up to find out what other information is being withheld. If a company or farm is abstracting water, you could be pumping out large amounts of it but also other materials could be getting into the water source with any of these activities, like with sediments from quarries.”

According to EU water policy, the EPA may share information on abstractions with other public authorities with responsibility for water management in Ireland, such as local authorities and government departments.

According to the OCEI, the register comprises a “significant number of companies, organisations, and state bodies”.

It was part of a case taken by environmental information campaign group Right to Know which sought the names, addresses and locations of those entities abstracting water.

The decision comes a day following an EPA report outlining how agriculture and other sectors, including industry, are failing to meet climate targets, and just a week after the commissioner criticised the department and other public bodies for their stances on information affecting the environment.

The EPA told the OCEI that information on farms is held by the Department of Agriculture, but that this information is protected and not typically shared with other public authorities.

In its decision, the OCEI noted the EPA’s claim that the department “indicated . . . that unless the EPA agrees that data on individual farms and farmers is not made public, the department will not share information on farmers and farms with the EPA”.

The EPA has two months to decide whether to appeal the case to the High Court to prevent the release of the list. 

When the EPA received the initial request under an access to information on the environment request (AIE) it ruled against releasing the information on the basis that it could identify exact abstraction locations and the disclosure of such information would “adversely affect public security”. 

The EPA had contended that releasing the list could result in named individuals having their identities exposed, including in situations where a company name was released – the EPA argued this amounted to “personal information”.

It also claimed that there were “public security” concerns around releasing the locations, adding that the infrastructure could be vulnerable to “vandalism” too.

However, the commissioner disagreed with this and found that “certain information clearly cannot be said to be personal information”. 

The OCEI added: “A brief inspection of the registrations indicates that while some of the registrants do appear be individuals, they also comprise a significant number of companies, organisations, and state bodies.”

It said the EPA had adopted a “blanket approach” to refusing Right to Know’s request but, rather than ordering the full release of the list to Right to Know, the OCEI said the agency needed to engage with the group first to discuss what information should be included in the final documentation. 

Another list containing locations of drinking water points is held by the EPA but this was not applied for by Right to Know as the EPA has claimed that releasing the list could result in people trying to tamper with water sources.

Social Democrats TD Jennifer Whitmore said she was concerned by the information contained in the OCEI’s decision. 

“We need to be treating our water systems holistically, where all the agencies are working together and I would have concerns if the Department of Agriculture is stymieing the EPA from doing what they need to do,” she said. 

The Wicklow TD added that water levels are being reduced more often during summer heatwaves, with the east coast in particular affected due to its higher population and the pressure that has placed on the water supply. 

“There does need to be transparency about the level of abstraction. If we’re to manage water courses and catchments, there should be figures for how much is being abstracted from different water sources. We’re moving to a future where there could be more pressure on water levels at different times of the year and we need to be moving to a space where that info is easily accessible.

“It doesn’t need to be down to a farm level but certainly agencies do need to have that access to that information to management catchments properly.”

The department did not immediately respond when contacted.

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