The High Court has overturned a permission granted to a fish farm operator to pump freshwater from an island lake for use in bathing salmon in fish farms off the Co Galway coast to rid them of disease.
Environmental activist Peter Sweetman took the challenge over An Bord Pleanála’s permission for taking freshwater from Loch an Mhuilinn, Gorumna Island, Co Galway, and associated works, including a temporary pipe link to the lake.
Bradán Beo Teoranta, a licensed fish farm operator, got permission to take a maximum of 4,680 cubic metres of freshwater weekly from the privately owned non-tidal inland lake for up to 22 weeks annually from mid-May to September, to be pumped over four hours daily for a maximum of four days weekly.
The freshwater was intended to bathe diseased salmon in four licensed sites operated by the company in Kilkieran Bay to rid them of sea lice and Amoebic Gill Disease.
The freshwater would be pumped from the lake via a pipeline to a proposed headwall at the coast road where another pipeline would carry the freshwater to tarpaulins which would be towed by boat to the sites where the fish would be treated.
Galway County Council had refused permission for the proposed development, but An Bord Pleanála in July 2018 allowed the company’s appeal over that refusal. In a recently published judgment, Ms Justice Niamh Hyland ruled Mr Sweetman was entitled to succeed on one ground of his challenge, that the permission did not comply with the Water Framework Directive (WFD).
While rejecting all other grounds, including of alleged breach of the Habitats and EIA Directives, the judge said Mr Sweetman was “rightly deeply critical” of the “extraordinary” eight-year delay by Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in deciding the company’s application for aquaculture licences intended to last 10 years.
Upholding Mr Sweetman’s argument of breach of the WFD, the judge said the Directive requires that the status of water bodies in EU member states be evaluated with the objective of achieving good status of all EU surface waters.
The Environmental Protection Agency is the body responsible under Irish law for evaluating Loch an Mhuilinn and assigning it a status under the WFD, she said. Because the EPA has not assigned a status to the lake, the board could not have evaluated the efficacy or appropriateness of the firm’s proposed mitigation measures by reference to the WFD, she said.
The reliance by the Board and its inspector on some type of “proxy evaluation” referring to concepts said to stem from the WFD, but which did not follow the steps identified by the WFD, “does not constitute compliance with the WFD”.
Given the failure of the EPA to assign a status to the lake, it was “impossible” for the Board to have considered and concluded the proposed development complied with the WFD, she held.
The company, she earlier noted, can continue its fish farming activities without the proposed water extraction works.