Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 14 October 2021
Public Accounts Committee
2020 Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and Appropriation Accounts
Vote 29 - Environment, Climate and Communications
Chapter 9 - Remediation of Landfill Sites
Mr. Seamus McCarthy:
The appropriation account for Vote 29, Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, indicates gross expenditure of €428 million was incurred in 2020. This was distributed across five diverse expenditure programmes of varying size. The largest expenditure programme related to energy, accounting for €204 million, or 48%, of the total spent in 2020. A total of €127 million was expended on energy efficiency programmes promoted by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, a decrease of 16% when compared with the expenditure outturn in 2019. The 2020 energy programme also includes expenditure of €50 million for the purchase of statistical transfers from other EU member states as a result of a shortfall in the achievement of Ireland's 2020 obligations under the renewable energy directive. Provision has been made in the 2021 Estimate for further statistical transfer purchases.
Expenditure on the communications programme in 2020 was just under €89 million, which was significantly less than the amount provided for the year of almost €158 million. Expenditure on the information and communications technology programme, at €53 million, was only around half the level provided for, due to delayed deployment of the national broadband plan, NBP, network. Given the scale of the plan, it would be useful for the Department to consider giving it its own subhead in the future.
The Department spent more than €81 million of voted funds on the environment and waste management programme in 2020. More than half of the voted expenditure went to support the operations of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. In addition to the voted expenditure, the Department spent just under €17 million on environmental projects and initiatives from the separate environment fund in 2020. The Department spent almost €33 million under the inland fisheries programme and just over €21 million on a range of services covered by the natural resources programme.
Receipts that could be used by the Department to support its voted expenditure amounted to €13 million in 2020. The surplus remaining unspent at year end was just over €101 million. With the agreement of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, the Department was able to carry over €38 million in unspent capital funding to 2021. The balance of €63 million was surrendered to the Exchequer. In addition, the Department transferred directly to the Exchequer €123 million it received in regard to the operations of the EU emissions trading system, as disclosed in note 4.3.
Members may wish to note that the Department was responsible for the oversight of a broad range of public sector bodies, including regulators and a number of major commercial State bodies that do not receive ongoing grant funding. The bodies are listed in an appendix to the appropriation account.
Chapter 9 of the Report on the Accounts of the Public Services 2019 reports on the findings of an examination of the costs associated with landfill remediation. Landfill is no longer used as a general strategy for waste disposal and, at the end of 2019, just three landfill sites continued in operation. However, historical sites continue to pose environmental risks and may require monitoring and expensive remediation. Costs incurred by the Vote associated with landfill remediation amounted to €12 million in 2020.
As at July 2020, a total of 611 landfill sites had been identified in the State. They comprise 117 sites licensed and regulated by the EPA since March 1997 and 494 unregulated landfill sites recorded on a national register. More than 70% of the unregulated sites are pre-1997 local authority-operated landfills, approximately 21% are privately operated sites and just over 8% are identified illegal landfill sites.
The EPA monitors environmental risk factors on an ongoing basis at the 117 landfill sites it regulates. The agency does not monitor environmental risk factors at the unregulated landfills but has a role in authorising proposed plans for their remediation. At the time the report was being completed, 152 sites operated by local authorities pre-March 1997 had been assessed as being of either moderate or high risk for the environment. Remediation plans to address the environmental risks identified had been submitted to the EPA in respect of 19% of those sites, and certificates of authorisation to commence remediation had been issued in respect of only 11, or 7% of the total.
By the end of 2019, the Department had provided more than €158 million under a grant scheme for assisting remediation of 122 landfill sites. This included €52 million contributed from the Vote for the remediation of a site at Haulbowline Island in Cork Harbour. An additional €25 million was spent on this project under the marine Vote. The Department had spent €33.5 million on the remediation of two large landfill sites, at Kerdiffstown in Kildare and Kilconnell in Galway, and further significant expenditure was anticipated. Both of those landfill sites were formerly privately operated under EPA licences but are now being managed by the respective local authorities.
Financial provision arrangements as part of EPA licensing of private operators are intended to ensure there will be sufficient resources available, without recourse to public funds, to pay for restoration and aftercare costs when landfill sites close, or when pollution incidents occur during operation.
Financial provision arrangements as part of EPA licensing of private operators are intended to ensure that there will be sufficient resources available, without recourse to public funds, to pay for restoration and aftercare costs when landfill sites close or when pollution incidents occur during operation. Kilconnell landfill is an example of where the financial provision arrangement in place failed to provide the funds required to meet closure and aftercare costs. Instead, the Department has had to fund substantial costs associated with the closure, remediation and ongoing monitoring of the site.
The report includes recommendations for the Department to review the governance and oversight arrangements for landfill sites, ensure the completion of outstanding risk assessments for all sites and develop medium-term estimates of the future costs associated with landfill remediation.