Access to Information on the Environment
EU and Aarhus Convention - Background to Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) in Ireland
Directive 2003/4/EC on Public Access to Information on the Environment and the first Pillar of the Aarhus Convention, have been transposed into Irish law through the European Communities (Access to Information on the Environment) Regulations 2007 to 2014 hereafter referred to as the AIE Regulations.
The AIE Regulations provide a definition of environmental information, outline the manner in which requests for information may be submitted to public authorities and the manner in which public authorities are required to deal with requests for example, timeframes for response.
The AIE Regulations also provide for a formal appeals procedure known as an internal review in the event that a person is unhappy with the decision about their request. If an applicant is still unhappy after an internal review they may apply to the Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Information (OCEI) for an independent decision on the matter.
Definition of Public Authority under AIE
The AIE Regulations broadly define “public authorities” to encompass all bodies that have a role in public administration. It is important to note that this definition is broader in scope than the definition of “public body” in the FOI Acts.
Definition of Environmental Information
The AIE Regulations define environmental information as:
“any information in written, visual, aural, electronic or any other material form on—
- the state of the elements of the environment, such as air and atmosphere, water, soil, land, landscape and natural sites including wetlands, coastal and marine areas, biological diversity and its components, including genetically modified organisms and the interaction among these elements,
- factors, such as substances, energy, noise, radiation or waste, including radioactive waste, emissions, discharges and other releases into the environment, affecting or likely to affect the elements of the environment,
- measures (including administrative measures), such as policies, legislation, plans, programmes, environmental agreements, and activities affecting or likely to affect the elements and factors referred to in paragraphs (1) and (2) as well as measures or activities designed to protect those elements,
- reports on the implementation of environmental legislation,
- cost-benefit and other economic analyses and assumptions used within the framework of the measures and activities referred to in paragraph (3), and
- the state of human health and safety, including the contamination of the food chain, where relevant, conditions of human life, cultural sites and built structures inasmuch as they are, or may be, affected by the state of the elements of the environment referred to in paragraph (1) or, through those elements, by any of the matters referred to in paragraphs (2) and (3);”
Obligations on Public Authorities
Under the AIE Regulations, information relating to the environment held by, or for, a public authority must be made available on request; subject to certain exceptions. The AIE regulations also oblige public authorities to proactively disseminate environmental information to the public.
In general, a public authority is required to respond to an AIE request within one month of receipt of the request. Where a public authority is unable to respond within the one month timeframe due to the complexity or volume of information requested, they are required to write to the applicant within the month, indicating when a response will issue. This date should not be more than two months from the receipt of the original request.
If the public authority does not have the information requested it can either transfer the request to another public authority or advise the applicant of where it believes the request should be directed. In either case, it is required to notify the applicant.
There is no initial fee for making an application under the AIE Regulations. However, a public authority may charge a reasonable fee for supplying the information requested. Public authorities should not charge for access to registers or lists of environmental information or for the examination of such information in situ.
Further information on Access to Information on the Environment can be found on the Department of Communications Climate Action & Environment website at Access to Information on the Environment (AIE).