Right to Know wins case over access to records from Coillte on peat-slide at windfarm in Donegal

The Commissioner for Environmental Information has told Coillte to release records it holds on a massive peat slide that took place three years ago.

The event happened at Meenbog windfarm, Co Donegal in November 2020 when thousands of tonnes of material were dislodged, causing significant damage and pollution at a local river.

In 2021, Right to Know sought copies of records held by Coillte on the peatslide in a request made under the Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations.

The state forestry agency identified fifty two documents but refused access to all of them on a variety of grounds. At internal review, they upheld that decision.

We appealed to the Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information (OCEI), who in a 42-page decision has found entirely in our favour.

It was a complex case during which the OCEI had to seek submissions from nine different third parties.

During the course of the investigation, further information held by Coillte was also identified that should have been scheduled as part of the original request.

The question of whether a peat slide could cause “emissions into the environment” was also raised with Coillte saying it couldn’t.

However, the OCEI disagreed and said in circumstances where drinking water supply was affected, discharge caused by the event clearly had a damaging impact on the environment and could be considered an “emission”.

Coillte had also claimed that multiple agencies were considering action over the peatslide.

When asked to provide evidence of that, they supplied a list of eight public bodies in the Republic and Northern Ireland, all of which had to be contacted as part of the investigation.

None of them raised any objection to release of the records.

The Loughs Agency, which had taken a prosecution over the incident, said their case was concluded and they had no issue with the documents being made public.

Coillte also made vague arguments about legal privilege; however, the decision gave little credence to that.

The forestry agency also made some tenuous arguments about the records being protected as the “internal communications” of a public authority.

The OCEI said a small fraction of the records might fall into that category but the public interest still weighed in favour of disclosure, especially given the passage of time.

It’s a very lengthy decision and we hope this gives a reasonable summary of it.

Coillte have two months in which to appeal to the High Court if they wish.