The Lough Funshinagh Flood Scheme aims to drain Lough Funshinagh (a priority turlough and Special Area of Conservation (SAC)) into Lough Ree SAC/Special Protection Area (SPA). This project has set a new low for environmental and planning law breaches in Ireland; no Appropriate Assessment (AA), no Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIAR), no planning permission, no public procurement, and no budget.
I have set out below a discussion of the potential ecological impacts this scheme and these demonstrate why both AA and EIAR were required.
Construction phase impacts
The project involves extensive construction works and these pose a risk to water quality in both Lough Funshinagh Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Lough Ree SAC / Special Protection Area (SPA). Water quality impacts could occur as a result of surface runoff, dust, and also via groundwater. The potential pollutants would include suspended solids, oils/fuels from machinery, concrete, and wastes generated from site compounds etc. As both Lough Ree and Lough Funshinagh are designated Natura 2000 sites with water quality dependent Qualifying Interests this potential impact required mitigation and Appropriate Assessment (AA).
The works will potentially cause disturbance of birds and other wildlife along the route of the pipeline, and at the intake area at Lough Funshinagh. Whooper Swans are likely use the areas along the pipeline route for foraging. These species will be arriving in the next few weeks and will be subjected to construction disturbance. Whooper Swans are a Qualifying Interest of Lough Ree SPA and have previously been recorded foraging in areas along the pipeline route. This potential impact required AA and mitigation.
It is also likely that the construction works will impact on other protected wildlife, including bats, badgers, and Otters. Installation of the pipeline is likely to require the removal of many hedgerows and tree lines along the route which are likely to be used by protected mammals. Bats and Otters are strictly protected species listed under Annex IV of the Habitats Directive. Any trees and hedgerows along the route could be used by bats for roosting, foraging, and commuting. Otters could be present along the route and their holts can be located well back from aquatic areas. Bat and non-volant mammal surveys were required and a derogation licence (NPWS 2007) to disturb bats, and perhaps Otters was likely to have been required.
The works are progressing during the statutory bird nesting close season (1st March to 31st August). Numerous hedgerows, treelines, and uncultivated ground areas will be impacted on during the construction and this is a breach of the Wildlife Act.
There are likely to be numerous areas along the route that are of importance to Frogs and Newts which are protected under the Wildlife Act. There is extensive habitat for these protected species along the general route of the pipeline.
In addition to impacts on the habitats of Loughs Funshinagh (a priority Annex I turlough habitat) and Lough Ree there will be a significant loss of habitats along the route, and these habitats could include protected Annex I calcareous grassland habitat which is known to occur in this area.
Non-native invasive species (NNISs) could be introduced and dispersed during both the construction phase. Machinery and materials imported into the site during the construction phase present a biosecurity risk to both lakes. Mitigation for biosecurity was required and this would have triggered the requirement for AA.
There is uncertainty about the impacts of installing the pipeline which will be up to 8m deep and run through a karst / semi-karst landscape. Lough Funshinagh has drained quickly in the past and it is possible that the large-scale construction works could have unintended and catastrophic impacts on the hydrogeology which could permanently damage this priority turlough habitat in an Internationally Important protected SAC site.
Even of there is not a catastrophic event it is very likely that more localised impacts will occur with the pipeline trench causing drainage of smaller wetland areas and streams. There are a number of smaller turloughs and lakes in this area that could be affected. There is no ecological information available for these sites.
Significant quantities of waste will be generated during this major construction project. This will include material dug during the trenching for the pipeline, and also from materials brought to the site. There is always concern in relation to where this waste will be disposed of and when this is unregulated and not set out in an Environmental Impact Assessment Report (EIAR) and Natura Impact Statement (NIS) the waste material from the trenching could be used to fill in wetland areas along the route at the request of the landowners.
Waste will also be produced from the site compounds and welfare facilities. A Construction and Environmental Management Plan and Waste Management Plan was required for this project. These plans are mitigation and should have been presented in an EIAR and NIS.
Operational phase impacts
Abstracting water from Lough Funshinagh has the potential to affect water quality in this lake. Reducing the lake volume will concentrate pollutants and reduce the waste assimilation capacity of this waterbody. The pipeline being installed will essential act as an abstraction from Lough Funshinagh. As this is a pipeline then an abstraction licence will be required.
Piping of water quality from Lough Fushinagh to Lough Ree could affect water quality in the recipient waterbody. Lough Ree contains a number of water quality dependent qualifying interests and the impact of this discharge needs to be assessed. Water quality in the Lough Funshinagh is likely to be different to that of Lough Ree and the impact of this discharge has not been assessed. This pipeline would also require discharge license before water could be discharged into Lough Ree. This abstraction and discharge required full assessment and consideration in an AA.
Abstracting water from the lake at the intake / overflow point is also likely to affect the hydrodynamics of the turlough. Currently there is no surface water outflow from this lake. The impact of an abstraction at this point could affect the ecology of the lake in many ways. Having an outfall could affect stratification, nutrient recycling, zooplankton/phytoplankton ecology, food webs, etc. It is likely that a number of rare /notable invertebrate species occur in this lake. This has been acknowledged by NPWS yet no studies have been done. Any impact on plankton could also affect birds that feed on the lake.
Lough Funshinagh also includes a number of fish species and these could be affected by the water piping in a number of ways. Fish could also be entrained into the outfall and end up in Lough Ree. This is very likely to occur with juvenile fish. Non-native fish species could also be dispersed in this way. Fish diseases could also move between the waterbodies by this mechanism.
The project brings significant risks in relation to NNISs introduction and dispersal. Also, having a pipeline linking the two waterbodies could allow species to move between the Lough Funshinagh and Lough Ree. This could occur in both directions. For example, Zebra Mussels and Quagga Mussels are known to colonise pipes such as the one being installed. These most unwanted NNISs are present in Lough Ree but currently absent in Lough Funshinagh. Mitigation for biosecurity was required and this would have triggered the requirement for AA. The introduction of one or both of these invasive mussel species into Lough Funshinagh would have an integrity level impact on this sensitive turlough habitat.
Appropriate Assessment is required under Article 6 of the Habitats Directive (92/43/EEC) in instances where a plan or project may give rise to significant effects upon a Natura 2000 site.
The safeguards set out in Article 6(3) and (4) of the Habitats Directive are triggered not by certainty – but by the possibility of significant effects. The question of whether an AA is required or not “is simply whether the plan or project concerned is capable of having an effect”. “It follows that the possibility of there being a significant effect on the site will generate the need for an appropriate assessment for the purposes of Article 6(3)”. “There is no need to establish such an effect; it is [ ] merely necessary to determine that there may be such an effect” (C-258/11). A significant effect is “any effect” that may reasonably be predicted as a consequence of a plan or project that may affect the conservation objectives of the features for which the site was designated (excluding inconsequential effects). This project involves taking water from Lough Funshinagh SAC and discharging it into Lough Ree SAC/SPA. This is a major construction project likely to have wide ranging environmental and ecological impacts many of which are not fully understood at this stage. When assessing the significance of potential effects, DoEHLG (2010) recommends that “a precautionary approach is fundamental and, in cases of uncertainty, it should be assumed the effects could be significant”. There is no doubt that the Lough Funshinagh Flood Relief Scheme required Appropriate Assessment to assess the potential impact of the scheme on Lough Funshinagh SAC, Lough Ree SAC, and Lough Ree SPA. Constructing this scheme without completing an AA is a major breach of EU law.
It was also mandatory that the Lough Funshinagh Flood Relief Scheme be subjected to Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). EIA is mandatory (see DHPLG, 2018) for “canalisation and flood relief works, where the immediate contributing sub-catchment of the proposed works would exceed 100 ha or where more than 2 ha of wetland would be affected or where the length of the river channel on which works are proposed would be greater than 2 kilometres”. EIA is also mandatory for “works for the transfer of water resources between river basins not included in Part 1 Schedule 5 where the annual volume of water abstracted or recharged would exceed 2 million cubic metres”. The Lough Funshinagh scheme is expected to exceed both of these thresholds therefore EIA was mandatory. Constructing this scheme without completing an EIAR is again a major breach of EU law.