The view from Ireland


Ten years ago, the European Court of Justice found Ireland guilty of systemic failures in complying with the Waste Framework Directive. Pat Fenton, environment attaché at the Irish Permanent Representation to the EU in Brussels, looks back at a case he worked on from the start.

“We knew it was going to be a very serious issue for us,” says Pat Fenton, recalling the 2004 advocate general’s opinion on the Commission’s case against Ireland, which was delivered a year before the ECJ judgement (C494/01) that found Ireland guilty of failing to comply with the EU Waste Framework Directive.

We don't run away from problems anymore. We have a process to sort it out.

Pat Fenton, environment attaché

Fenton, then in the environment department in Dublin, was charged with organising Ireland’s response. His first task was to secure buy-in from the top and set up a task force. He also needed to get the Finance Ministry on board to pay to clean up the illegal landfills. 

Avoiding the blame game

One early challenge he faced was how to build cooperation with local authorities, which are responsible for waste collection and disposal. At first, there was a lot of refusal and denial. “We don’t have the resources,” they would say. But everyone soon learned that they had to avoid the blame game to get on with the task.

Money collected via Ireland’s plastic-bag tax and a landfill levy helped fund a new generation of enforcement officers to combat illegal landfilling. The Irish Environment Protection Agency set up a national network to support enforcement, and a template to ensure consistency. They opened a national environmental complaints line, and informed the judiciary that low fines were proving ineffective at dissuading offenders.

Other issues were brought under the umbrella of the case: 42 sites would ultimately be included, compared to the original 12. “This saved us going to court on other cases, and allowed us to have the same principles of enforcement and to get funding,” says Fenton. “And we could argue that delays were due to statutory processes not to reluctance.”

Thus, when it was discovered that 250 000 tonnes of domestic waste were being illegally deposited over the border, Ireland worked with the Northern Irish authorities and the Commission to avoid a separate case on trans-frontier shipments. Management of these shipments was shifted from 25 authorities to one.

New attitudes to waste, more cooperation, and a proper enforcement network are some of the positives to come out the case, reflects Fenton. “We don’t run away from problems anymore. We have a process to sort it out, risk assess it and deal with it, also with the cooperation of the state.” Maintaining finance was the hardest task, especially at a time of austerity, but the Irish Finance Ministry knew that without action they faced the threat of daily fines.

Fenton has already travelled to share his experience of the process with officials in Greece, which faces similar problems with illegal landfills and where politicians were not fully awakened to the seriousness of the issue and the possibility of daily fines.

“I wanted to allay their concerns that it doesn’t happen overnight,” he says. “Once you have some kind of a plan of action the Commission is willing to give you time.”