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Office of Environmental Assessment

The Office of Environmental Assessment is responsible for ambient monitoring of water and air, for preparing national monitoring programmes and a national hydrometric programme, for providing sampling and laboratory assistance to local authorities and for monitoring and providing various laboratory related services to support the EPA's licensing and enforcement functions.

It also has responsibility for the following: co-ordinating a national environmental research programme; establishing environmental databases; developing and using assessment tools such as Geographic Information Systems (GIS); undertaking strategic environmental policy research; producing regular reports on environmental quality and publishing periodic State of the Environment Reports. In addition, the remit of the Office includes implementing key aspects of the EU Air Framework Directive and EU Water Framework Directive. The Office operates Ireland's National Focal Point for the European Environment Agency (EEA), oversees Strategic Environmental Assessment and coordinates EPA activity on soils and biodiversity.

In 2007 a new soils and biodiversity unit was established within the EPA to coordinate EPA work in this area. The unit will also work with the National Parks and Wildlife Service and other agencies and groups involved in protecting biodiversity.

Research And Assessment

Environmental Reporting

Environmental Indicators are key statistics that summarise a particular environmental issue. Their strength is in delivering concise, scientifically credible information, which can be readily accessed by decision makers. In essence, their purpose is to simplify, to quantify and to communicate.

The EPA produced two Indicator-based Reports in 2007.

Water Quality in Ireland 2006 - Key Indicators of the Aquatic Environment was published in October 2007 and provides summary statistics on the latest information regarding water quality.

The report findings showed:

  • 71 per cent of river channel length and 92 per cent of lake surface area examined were of satisfactory water quality;
  • 19 per cent of the estuarine/coastal water bodies examined were eutrophic (over-enriched) while 3 per cent were potentially eutrophic;
  • 57 per cent of the groundwater sampling locations were contaminated by faecal coliforms;
  • Approximately 25 per cent of the groundwater locations examined exceeded the national guideline value for nitrate concentration for drinking water and two per cent breaching the mandatory limit;
  • The overall quality of bathing waters in Ireland remains very good;
  • The number of fish kills, while reduced compared to 2005, remains at an unacceptably high level.

The graph below in Figure 2 illustrates recent trends in water quality in Irish rivers.

Figure 2: Water Quality Trends in Irish Rivers 1987- 2006

Air Quality in Ireland in 2006 - Key Indicators of Ambient Air Quality is the second indicator report and this provided an overview of ambient air quality trends based on monitoring data from 24 stations. The report found that:

  • Air quality was good throughout the country, meeting all EU standards;
  • Levels of particulate matter (PM10) were highest in smaller towns due to limited use of smokeless fuel;
  • Levels of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter (PM10) due to traffic were potentially of concern in urban centres, should further increases occur;
  • Average concentrations of particulate matter (PM10) were similar in all population centres as the larger towns and cities now use smokeless fuel.

These Indicator Reports can be accessed in the Download Centre on the EPA website www.epa.ie.

Informatics/Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

GIS and informatics support in relation to the implementation of the Water Framework Directive continued, and included preparation for the submission of national datasets to Europe in 2008. Other activities included the ongoing development of an Assimilative Capacity modelling tool for rivers, to support the licensing and enforcement activities of the EPA, as well as the development of a GIS tool to assist the EPA in its carrying out of its responsibilities as an Environmental Authority for the Strategic Environmental Assessment Directive.

In September 2007, Mr. John Gormley, TD, Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government, launched ENVision, a major enhancement on the EPA website. This online viewer allows people to access environmental information about their locality, or any region in Ireland, thus allowing easier public access to environmental data that has been gathered by the EPA. Placing such environmental information at the fingertips of the public improves public access to real and meaningful environmental information.

Through ENVision, the public can access EPA information on air quality, water quality and facilities licensed by the EPA. More technical information is also available in the areas of soils, subsoils and landcover mapping. More information will become available as soon as it is technically possible to do so.

Bathing Water Quality

The Quality of Bathing Water in Ireland Report 2006 was launched in May 2007. The report found that the overall level of bathing water quality in 2006 remained high - 97 per cent of bathing areas complied with the mandatory standards and 90 per cent of bathing areas complied with the much stricter EU guideline standards. However, a small number of bathing areas did not conform to the minimum mandatory standards.

Local authorities are being encouraged to designate more bathing sites, to help ensure the protection of public health related to swimming.

A map of the quality of Ireland's bathing water is at Figure 3.

Figure 3: Bathing Water Quality Map of Ireland 2006

Environmental Research

2007 was an important year for the EPA's environmental research initiatives. In October, a new research programme, called STRIVE (Science, Technology, Research and Innovation for the Environment) was launched. A total of €101 million has been allocated to EPA's environmental STRIVE research programme for the period 2007-2013. This will be funded through the NDP 2007-2013 and the Inter Departmental Committee for the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (IDC-SSTI).

The STRIVE programme aims to fund research that will address key environmental management issues, which will ultimately protect and improve the natural environment. Research is funded under the core topics of air quality, biodiversity, environment and health, environmental technologies, climate change, land use, soils and transport, socio-economics, water quality, waste and resource management. This provides a major opportunity for Ireland to build research and development capacity and to become a world leader in niche areas. During 2007, 29 research projects came to completion and all of the research reports are available on the EPA website, at www.epa.ie, providing a valuable resource to anyone with an interest in environmental protection.

Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Directive

Strategic Environmental Assessment involves assessment of the likely significant environmental effects of plans and programmes prior to their adoption.

In Ireland, the EPA is one of three designated environmental authorities under the SEA Regulations. The SEA Regulations require that competent authorities must consult the designated environmental authorities and subject specific plans and programmes to an environmental assessment. The objective is a high level of environmental protection and integration of environmental considerations into plans and programmes to promote sustainable development.

In 2007 significant progress was made in the development of more effective systems and procedures for improving the SEA process and for promoting best practice. These include the ongoing development of an automatic GIS Search and Reporting Tool and a SEA Process Checklist.

In addition, the first EPA SEA-related Research Fellowship was completed in October 2007. At the end of 2007 there were 85 SEA's ongoing.

Environmental Noise Monitoring

The Environmental Noise Regulations 2006 designate noise-mapping bodies and action planning authorities for the making of the strategic noise maps and action plans. Primary responsibility for both of these functions is assigned to Local Authorities. The EPA is designated as the National Authority for the purpose of the Regulations and our role includes supervisory, advisory and coordination functions in relation to both noise mapping and action planning, as well as reporting requirements for the purpose of the Directive.

The first tranche of strategic noise maps for Ireland was completed during the year. Ireland reported on progress in fulfilling its obligations under the Environmental Noise Regulations to the EU Commission by the end of 2007. These strategic noise maps will be available via the EPA's ENVision mapping system on the EPA website during 2008.

Land Cover - Corine

In addition to their immediate effect on soil quality, land use practices have implications for the quality of air and water. Unsustainable land use changes impose additional pressures on the environment. Knowledge of such changes is a prerequisite in evaluating the effect of public policy. The EPA commissioned a land cover/land use map of Ireland as part of the European Corine Land Cover initiative, in which the European Environment Agency coordinates land cover mapping of most of Europe. An update of Corine Land Cover for Ireland for 2006 is under way and will be completed in Summer 2008.

National Soils Archive

An EPA funded research project produced a national baseline database for soils geochemistry in Ireland. The resulting National Soil Archive comprises both soil samples and a nucleic acids archive. The data from the samples will become available to the general public in March 2008 from the EPA Environmental Research Centre website (http://coe.epa.ie/safer) website.

Policy Research

The Strategic Policy Research Unit undertakes research in a number of areas such as waste, energy and the environment. During 2007, the Unit prepared a discussion paper titled "Hitting the Targets for Biodegradable Municipal Waste: Ten Options for Change", which is due to be published in conjunction with the National Waste Report early in 2008. The Unit also undertook research on how the EPA itself could improve its own environmental performance.

European Environment Agency

EIONET (European Information and Observation Network) is a partnership network of the European Environment Agency (EEA) and its member and participating countries. It consists of almost 900 experts from 37 countries in over 300 national environment agencies and other bodies dealing with environmental information.

National Focal Points (NFPs) are the primary links/contacts between the EEA and the national EIONET partners. The EPA in its role as NFP for Ireland continued to coordinate environmental information exchange with the EEA and to maintain and develop the national network and facilitate and coordinate contacts, requests and deliveries between national and EU level.

Aquatic Environment

Water Framework Directive (WFD)

The Water Framework Directive represents the most significant development in the field of EU water policy to date. The Directive provides an overarching framework and programme to deliver long-term protection of water. It aims at protecting existing high and good status water, preventing further deterioration of water quality and restoring all degraded ground and surface waters to good status.

In 2007:

  • The EPA sent to the European Commission a summary report of the Water Framework Directive Monitoring Programme in March. Implementation of this new monitoring programme commenced in January 2007 and full implementation of the EPA aspects of the programme was achieved from July onwards.
  • The European Commission published a report on the performance of EU Member States in implementing the Water Framework Directive. Ireland scored highest in meeting the reporting requirements of Article 3 and Article 5 of the Directive (see Figure 4).

Figure 4: EU Comparison of Member State Compliance with Water Framework Directive Reporting

  • The EPA published Proposed Quality Standards for Surface Water Classification for consultation in July. Comments received were taken into account in finalising the programme.

Water Quality Monitoring

In 2007 a new national water monitoring programme, designed to meet the requirements of the Water Framework Directive, for surface and groundwaters was initiated. This programme requires a comprehensive examination of the four principal aquatic biological elements, an expanded list of chemical and physico-chemical parameters and hydromorphological elements. The programme will be used to assess the water quality at river, lake, tidal and groundwater sites representative of all types and pressures in Ireland as well as in artificial and heavily modified waterbodies and groundwater dependent terrestrial ecosystems

Hydrometric Programme

The objectives of the Hydrometric Programme are to produce good quality, relevant data on flows and water levels in order to support the design of major infrastructure, for example water supply abstractions and bridge building, as well as undertaking monitoring in support of environmental goals such as those of the Water Framework Directive. The latter Directive underlines the need to understand the interactions between surface water and groundwater and so the monitoring of important springs is now becoming a priority and new monitoring boreholes are being planned. The predicted impacts of climate change in Ireland, as elsewhere, point to changing rainfall patterns with consequent implications for water resources and the availability of water supplies; this underlines the continuing need for hydrometric monitoring including rivers, lakes and groundwater.

Laboratory Services

In 2007, approximately 23,400 samples were taken and analysed for a range of chemical and, where appropriate, microbiological parameters. This involved a total of approximately 350,000 analytical measurements, a slight increase over 2006. The samples were taken from rivers, lakes, groundwaters, tidal waters, landfill leachates, effluents and air emissions. The work was undertaken as part of national monitoring programmes including the Water Framework Directive (WFD) Surveillance and Operational programmes, in support of environmental enforcement, and for regional programmes on behalf of local authorities in the south-east, west and north-east.

The Kilkenny laboratory moved all operations into the new custom-designed premises. A wide range of laboratory equipment in all laboratories was upgraded to coincide with the increased work for the WFD. This included the introduction of HPLC/MS in Dublin for the analysis of WFD Priority Pollutants, which was outsourced for 2007-2008.

Intercalibration Programme

The total number of laboratories participating in the EPA's intercalibration programme, increased by 3 to 124 in 2007. These include local authority and contract laboratories, other laboratories supplying data to the EPA and also the EPA's five regional laboratories. The register of laboratories, provided for under Section 66 of the EPA Act, 1992, was updated in September 2007 and is available for inspection at the EPA Headquarters and at www.epa.ie.

Air Monitoring Network

All air monitoring activity throughout the country is available, using a map-based interface, on the EPA website. The map in Figure 5 shows the locations of current monitoring sites and towns where assessment reports have been prepared.

During 2007, monitoring was completed at all 15 medium-sized towns (Zone C) in Ireland. New monitoring sites in 2007 included Waterford, Navan and Passage West (Cork Harbour).

Quality is assured by participation in Europe-wide intercomparisons for inorganic gases, metals and volatile organic compounds.

Figure 5: Locations of current monitoring sites and towns where assessment reports have been prepared