Mr Phil Hogan T.D., Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, today (23 May 2013) presented the 2013 Blue Flag and Green Coast Awards at a ceremony at Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council’s headquarters in Dun Laoghaire.
The Blue Flag Programme has been operating in Ireland since 1988, and this year 74 Blue Flags are being awarded, 70 to beaches and 4 to marinas. This represents a loss of 13 Blue Flags over 2012, which was the highest number of Blue Flags achieved since the Programme was introduced. The bar has been raised significantly this year, with the application of stringent new water quality standards. To qualify for a Blue Flag under the new arrangements, beaches must achieve ‘excellent’ water quality by reference to the standards introduced in the 2006 EU Bathing Water Directive which updated and strengthened standards applying under the 1976 bathing Water Directive. The classification is based on an assessment over a 4 year period.
By way of illustration, most of the beaches that lost Blue Flags this year maintained the old higher standard (equivalent to ‘good’ under the new Directive) and all of them reached the mandatory standard (equivalent to ‘sufficient’ water quality under the new Directive).
Speaking at the event today the Minister said that the loss of some Blue Flags had been expected, given the application by FEE (the Foundation for Environmental Education) of the new standards this year but acknowledged that it is disappointing for the coastal communities concerned. The Minister also mentioned an issue that had arisen with the methodology prescribed by the 2006 Directive to check compliance with the standards. In rare instances, this can result in a perverse outcome whereby the 4-year assessment yields a water quality classification of ‘good’ when it should be classified as ‘excellent’. Because an ‘excellent’ standard of water quality is now required as one of the key determinants for a Blue Flag, the consequences of this statistical glitch can be serious. The Minister expressed his concern about the matter and said that his Department will raise the issue with the European Commission.
The Minister said that on the plus side, the Blue Flag has become more coveted than ever and is a signal of extremely high quality bathing water. He noted that overall, the quality of Ireland’s bathing water remains very high, with 97 per cent of bathing waters (132 of 136 identified bathing waters) complying with the EU mandatory values according to the EPA’s recent report on bathing water quality.
The Blue Flag is an international award for beach excellence which is operated in Ireland by An Taisce with support from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. The award is presented to beaches and marinas which have excellent water quality and which achieve high standards across a wide range of other criteria including environmental education, management of the environment, safety and other services.
2013 marks the 10th anniversary of the Green Coast Award in Ireland. 45 Green Coast Awards are being presented for 2013 which represents a loss of 11, with the decrease being mainly attributed to the application of the new more stringent water quality standards.
The awards are given to beaches which have excellent water quality but have less by way of infrastructure and facilities than Blue Flag beaches. It started as a pilot programme in Wales in 1999. In 2003, a partnership was formed between Keep Wales Tidy and Wexford County Council and in 2008 the programme was extended to cover the whole coastline of Ireland.
It is operated through a partnership between An Taisce, Tidy Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government has provided funding to An Taisce to support the nationwide roll-out of the awards and the authorities in Northern Ireland have similarly provided funding. The programme is also sponsored by Fáilte Ireland and Coca-Cola.
An important aspect of the Green Coast Awards is the involvement of Coastcare Volunteer Groups. There are now over 280 Coastcare groups established throughout the island. The Minister paid tribute to the work of these groups stating that they “provide a strong indication of the dedication that individuals have to the improvement of their communities and surroundings”.
The Minister encouraged beach users to make use of the bathing water information available on linked websites – www.beachawards.ie and www.bathingwater.ie – run by An Taisce and the EPA respectively, during the bathing season, saying: “The provision of the most up to date information on water quality, tides, weather and presence of lifeguards at our beaches is of great benefit to the general public”.