Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 28 January 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht
Management of Sewage Sludge: Cré
We will now consider the management of sewage sludge and biofertiliser with representatives of the board of Cré – the Composting Association of Ireland. The witnesses are Mr. Percy Foster and Mr. Maurice Cremin and I thank them for their attendance.
I draw witnesses' attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I also wish to advise witnesses that the opening statement and any of the documentation they have submitted to the committee may be published on the committee website after the meeting has concluded.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Before we commence, I wish to make a couple of points. Producing compost is effectively a means of using what we once considered as waste and did not see much advantage or profit in it. It is environmentally-friendly and economically beneficial to us, especially when engaged in on a large scale. It is a key ingredient in organic farming, which is a growing sector in Irish agriculture, and it is also important as a natural cover in landfill sites and as a source of energy through the generation of biogas.
Composting on a large scale can help protect and develop ecosystems by control erosion, assisting in the reclamation of land and in the construction wetlands. On a smaller scale, many people engage in simple composting in their domestic gardens and this is also good for the environment. Nowadays it is a very common feature of housekeeping to see compost bins in people's back gardens.
Much of the same can be said in regard to biofertilisers. These can be used as a natural fertiliser and pesticide and help reduce the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides. They contain living micro-organisms which help to restore the natural nutrient cycle in the soil and greatly enrich its fertility.
I hope the witnesses will assist us in our consideration of this very important topic. It is very germane to our committee and that is why the witnesses are here. I know we will benefit from this meeting. I invite Mr. Percy Foster to make his opening statement.
Mr. Percy Foster:
I thank the Chairman for the opportunity to talk to him, Deputies and Senators about the management of sewage sludge in Ireland. It gives our association the opportunity to highlight the need for certain legislative changes we believe would improve the way sewage sludge is managed and protect our food safety record. This is an important topic as it affects our environmental sustainability as well as our food production and marketing. I am accompanied today by a colleague, Mr. Maurice Cremin, who will also be a witness.
In 2008, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland published a report on the management of organic materials going onto land in Ireland. On pages 18 to 21 of this report, it examined the management of sewage sludge in Ireland. The report outlined that the Food Safety Authority of Ireland had concerns about food safety. These were based on a number of exemptions provided for in the Waste Management (Use of Sewage Sludge in Agriculture) Regulations. The authority, in its report, made a number of recommendations and got commitments from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to make legislative changes to help protect food safety in Ireland.
Five years later in 2013, Cré decided to examine the current state of play on the management of sewage sludge. We compared the findings and recommendations of the 2008 Food Safety Authority of Ireland report to the current situation. Cré determined the facts by sending a survey to local authorities using the European Communities (Access to Information on the Environment) Regulations 2007. The results of this survey were collated and formed the content of the Créreport, The Management of Sewage Sludge in Ireland, which I have provided to this committee.
The main results from the 2013 Cré report were: the vast majority of local authorities were making it a requirement in contracts that sludge is managed according to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government's Code of Good Practice for the Use of Biosolids in Agriculture; five local authorities did not make the code of good practice a requirement - a further local authority said it made the code of good practice a requirement but was using the exemption in the legislation to spread the sludge untreated onto land; and approximately 23,793 wet tonnes of untreated sludge were land spread in Ireland in 2012. In addition to this figure, one local authority reported that it land-spread untreated sludge but the figure was provided in cubic metres and could not be included in the tonnage figure.
Cré has reviewed the management of sewage sludge in Ireland and is making the following recommendations: the Code of Good Practice for the Use of Biosolids in Agriculture should be put on a legislative footing; and a number of exemptions and provisions in the current regulations should be removed as they conflict with the code of good practice and give rise to food safety concerns.
Specific examples of the legislative changes required include: the regulations should be changed to prevent untreated sludge being land spread or injected into the soil; the regulations should be changed to prevent untreated residual sludge from septic tanks being land spread; the regulations should be changed to remove the exemption for wastewater treatment plants with fewer than 5,000 population equivalents; and in regard to section 51 of the Waste Management Act, lime stabilisation plants are exempt from a waste permit-licence if sludge goes onto agriculture land but this should be changed.
It should be noted that Cré's recommendations are aligned with those in the Food Safety Authority of Ireland report of 2008, which I mentioned earlier. In its report, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland outlined the commitment the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government gave to it that a limited revision of the regulations would be provided. This revision has not been carried out to date.
In its end of year report, Bord Bia valued Ireland's food and drinks exports at €10 billion, which is a major achievement and is worth protecting. The application of raw sewage sludge on land has the potential to put this in jeopardy. Cré believes the situation needs to be addressed now by the legislative changes outlined. This issue could easily become the next horse meat scandal.
I thank the Chairman, Deputies and Senators for providing us with the opportunity to present an update on the management of sewage sludge in Ireland.
I thank Mr. Foster.
It was Deputy Corcoran Kennedy and not me who suggested we should invite this group in. I thank the witnesses for providing details of the management recommendations that are adhered to in some locations. It is clear that Irish Water will have a role in this regard into the future. Responsibility for waste water treatment plants is being transferred to that body. Does Cré expect that new issues will arise in the context of the new arrangements? Has Irish Water engaged with Cré on this issue to date? I would like to ask about the tertiary treatment plants, the largest of which are taking in tankerloads of sewage in increasing numbers. A plant in my local area is causing all sorts of problems because the size of the tankers means that certain access routes have to be used. It appears that the new septic tank regime will lead to an increase in arrangements of this kind. The dry material that comes out at the end of the tertiary treatment process goes into landfill. Is that material of value for spreading on the land, or does it have to be sent to landfill? My final question relates to industries that discharge large amounts of waste into treatment plants. It could be problematic if certain substances used by industry as part of the manufacturing process - heavy metals, etc. - were found in the material that is discharged by such industries. How can that be dealt with?
Mr. Percy Foster:
The Deputy's first question related to Irish Water, which is in the process of assuming responsibility for waste water treatment plants. It is important that adherence to the code of good practice is a key requirement when Irish Water issues new contracts for the management of sewage sludge. The answer to the Deputy's question on whether Irish Water has engaged with us on this issue is "No". We have sent copies of our report to a range of key stakeholders, including Irish Water. A list of those stakeholders can be found at the back of the report. I am a little unsure about the Deputy's third question. Is she referring to septic tanks?
Mr. Maurice Cremin:
Traditionally, the Irish way of dealing with septic tanks has been to suck up the entire contents of the tank to be treated in one way or another. On the Continent, this work is increasingly done by removing the solids from the septic tank. The issue is the sludge rather than the liquid. The best place for that liquid is to stay in the septic tank, with the solids being removed periodically. The technology that is available on the Continent is quite advanced. Householders there can avail of the services of a contractor who sets up on site for approximately an hour, desludges the septic tank and takes away a small volume of material. The volume in question might be half a tonne if the septic tank is regularly maintained. It would be a question of taking away half a tonne of material, as opposed to the four tonnes of material that would be taken away if the entire thing were removed. If we were to adopt this model, a far smaller volume of sludge would need to be treated.
Mr. Percy Foster:
I think the fourth question related to industries that discharge into waste water treatment plants. I understand the EPA controls discharges from industry. Perhaps a representative of that organisation might comment on how it manages and deals with that. It controls the emissions and discharges from facilities as part of its role in licensing industry.
Are facilities such as anaerobic digesters available to support what Cré wants to happen and to enable it to go ahead? When the representatives of Cré talk about composting, they are talking about anaerobic digestion and the aerobic version of the process. Have they encountered problems in getting the facilities in question? I will explain why I am asking that question. Local authorities give planning permission for such facilities every now and then. I am thinking particularly of my local authority in Roscommon. The only factor that seems to be considered when planning permission is given for the development of a facility in a certain area is whether it is likely to be the subject of relatively little objection. In other words, the facility is located where the residents are least likely to cause trouble about it. The proximity principle always seems to be completely ignored when decisions are being made on where to locate these facilities. As a result, the amount of energy required to bring the stuff to the facility is greater than the amount of energy created by the facility at the end of the day. It seems - in my county, anyway - that planning decisions are made on the basis of how the wool can be pulled over people's eyes.
I will spell out what the consequence of that attitude is when something like anaerobic digestion is mentioned. This phenomenal and brilliant technology should be more widely used. We should look at what is being done in Germany. When the development of an anaerobic digestion facility is proposed, however, people use words like "incinerator" and assign to it every negative connotation they can think of. We seem to be in a heap in this regard at a time when facilities of this nature are needed. At present, meat processing plants have to transport material like belly grass to one of these facilities, whereas ideally they would be able to do this work on-site. One of the main worries that people in many of these areas have from a planning perspective is that there might be a smell in the local area. I suggest that those living near some of the plants to which I refer might have to endure less of a smell if there was one of these facilities on-site. It seems that the proximity principle is being ignored, sadly, so that people can be codded. As a consequence, we have very few facilities of this kind. Are there many facilities out there? Is there much hope of getting new ones? What way should we go with this?
Mr. Percy Foster:
There are composting and anaerobic digestion facilities across the country. The key thing is to make sure there is legislative certainty in this area so that those involved will be able to invest in the addition of capacity if it is needed. It is also important to ensure the legislation and the code of good practice, which specifies six different treatment processes including composting, anaerobic digestion, drying and lime stabilisation, will be adhered to if people build these facilities. They need to be given regulatory certainty when they are making an investment in this area.
Cré mentioned in the results of its 2013 report that five local authorities did not make the code of practice a requirement. Can Mr. Foster or Mr. Cremin name the five authorities in question? Do they know why the local authorities might have adopted such a position?
Mr. Cremin suggested that a better way of managing septic tanks would be to take the solids out. Why are we not doing that? Does he envisage any time in the future when we might do so? He also seems to have concerns over the sludge records from plants servicing fewer than 5,000 persons and suggests that we should introduce legislation to exempt this. What has given rise to his concerns over this practice?
I also asked about what Mr. Cremin said about the current management of septic tanks and using technology to remove the solids rather than the solids plus liquid. Will we be able to move to that or do we need new technologies? It is more efficient and better for the environment?
Mr. Percy Foster:
Denmark is very well advanced in this regard and is a model for Ireland to look at. In Denmark one collector is contracted by the local authority to collect septic tank sludge in a region. It has this mobile technology. Contracting one collector in a region gives economies of scale and security to the private company to invest in the technology. It also ensures the lowest possible cost for the householder. An open market with numerous collectors operating in an area might lead to a diminished quality of service. Ireland should examine the Danish market for possible use here.
The Deputy asked about our concerns over not having records of sludge for wastewater treatment plants servicing fewer than 5,000 people. That arises from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland report. It expressed concern that because there is no traceability of what happens to the sludge in plants servicing fewer than 5,000 people there is a breakdown in traceability and thus it has a concern that this emission creates a food safety concern. That is outlined in the 2008 Food Safety Authority of Ireland report.
I thank the witnesses for the presentation. I ask them to expand on the food safety concerns that have been mentioned. It is a very big statement in a few words and leaves a lot hanging there.
Have the witnesses done any analysis of the cost of changeover either nationally or at local authority level? From where will that investment come? Who will drive that?
Mr. Percy Foster:
There are exemptions in the legislation. We have a code of good practice which specifies that untreated sewage sludge should not go onto land. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government policy is that local authorities should follow this code of good practice. In practice we have found that not all local authorities are following this code of good practice because the legislation provides for exemptions allowing them to spread untreated sludge onto land. Where there is no guarantee that all the sewage sludge can be treated and processed to ensure no pathogens are introduced into the environment, I am concerned about that.
As I am not a member of this committee, I thank the Chairman for giving me the opportunity. The witnesses are right in pointing out that, as a consistent feed, sewage sludge is a very useful fertiliser for land spreading and the Chairman outlined its numerous uses. I ask the witnesses to comment on residues such as lead, arsenic, etc., that can be found in sludge. How frequently is that happening? I believe Deputy Catherine Murphy asked about chemical discharges from plants into sewage treatment facilities. How can those residues be eradicated?
Deputy Luke 'Ming' Flanagan asked about the processing capacity. There are the issues of aerobic and anaerobic digestion. What direction should we take in that regard? I believe we should choose the anaerobic digestion route because there are problems not only with planning but also with environmental issues regarding aerobic digestion and composting, such as smell and the location of such facilities. Particularly with anaerobic digestion, is there not also an issue with the consistency of the feed going in? When dealing consistently with sewage sludge, a consistent product is coming in thereby making it very easy to have a consistent product going out. If it is operating effectively there should be very little down side or smell. However, when septic tank sludge, which is a completely different product, is going into it, it can cause problems. The same applies when other feed is going in, including belly grass. I ask the witnesses to comment. These are genuine concerns over the industry as it operates at present.
Cré has proposed having no land spreading. Are the witnesses satisfied there is sufficient capacity to treat the existing sludge coming from municipal facilities throughout the country if the land spreading facility disappeared overnight? I have heard estimates of 1 million tonnes of untreated sludge coming from septic tanks every two to three years once the desludging regime comes in. That represents a significant additional loading on the system. Do the local authority facilities have the capacity to cater for the additional loading if land-spreading was not permitted?
I ask Mr. Foster to explain further his comments about the FSAI. Is there not a difference between land-spreading and trailing shoe? There are also different associated risks depending on the production type and whether it is arable, vegetables or livestock on the farm. I ask the witnesses to elaborate on that issue.
The witnesses made a valid point about the removal of solids rather than liquid because the liquid is the feed that can be used to keep a septic tank running effectively. How do we deal with the elephant in the room? Local authorities do not have the capacity to deal with the sludge they have at present never mind septic tank sludge coming in on top of it. That is a very inconsistent feed even if they are only taking the solids because of the nature of it. Considerably more than just sludge is coming into that, including stones and other debris. How can they deal with that inconsistent feed? Local authority systems are not able to cater for that type of feed coming in at the moment unless it is highly diluted. Does taking the solid off it not cause more problems than it solves?
Mr. Percy Foster:
The question on the removal of heavy metals is a good one and I will revert to the committee with information. I have not studied the area in great depth. The next question was on capacity with regard to composting versus anaerobic digestion. Each has its own merits. Anaerobic digestion has the potential to produce a biogas from which electricity can be produced. Having a consistent product like sewerage sludge is good because one must be careful not to shock an anaerobic digestion system with dramatic changes of feedstock. A way around this is to slowly introduce a new feedstock over time. I am not against land spreading across the board; what I am against is land spreading of untreated sewage sludge. The code of good practice states there should be no land spreading of untreated sludge. If sludge is treated to a certain standard by composting, lime stabilisation or drying, it can be land-spread.
The committee may not be aware of the study done through the EPA's STRIVE research programme on septic stank sludge and capacity. I believe the report will be concluded shortly and I look forward to seeing its conclusions and recommendations on how we can deal with septic tank sludge. After mobile dewatering one does not necessarily have to bring the dewatered sludge to a local authority wastewater treatment plant. It can be brought directly to a composting plant, a lime stabilisation plant, a drying plant or an anaerobic digestive facility. It can be diverted away from local authority wastewater treatment plants.
Mr. Foster's proposal on land spreading septic tank sludge pre-empts what will come out of the EPA report. Huge capacity issues arise. I ask Mr. Foster to correct me if I am wrong, but neither his industry nor public wastewater treatment facilities have the capacity to deal with the tonnage which comes from desludging if we are to comply with the European standard. We are speaking about up to 1 million tonnes of sludge per annum, which is a serious amount of material.
Mr. Foster is correct that one cannot introduce a new feedstock into an anaerobic digestion system. Does that not mean that a new feedstock ends up being stored on site until the bugs have built up a tolerance to it so the system is not shocked? If one was dealing with consistent sewage sludge from the local municipal wastewater treatment facility and then decided to take in belly grass, the belly grass would be on site composting on its own while it was slowly introduced to the feedstock before it could be processed. Does this cause problems with neighbours for these facilities and reputational problems with regard to smells?
I am surprised Mr. Foster has come before the committee advocating land spreading of treated sludge when he has not dealt with the issue of heavy metals, which is the downside. It is a fundamental question. How does one deal with the heavy metal issue? Through the EPA local authorities have provided discharge licences to companies, many of them here through foreign direct investment. How can Mr. Foster advocate it without dealing with a fundamental challenge for the sector?
What information is available on the heavy metals and pathogens which might end up getting into the water supply? Having examined this issue, I have found that the only way a digestate fertiliser type of material from an anaerobic digester containing heavy metals has been dealt with over the years is to use it on land growing a product which will not be eaten such as willow or other nitrophilic fast-growing plants. Has the issue been examined from the perspective that the last thing one wants is for this to end up on grass which will be eaten by cows which provide us with milk? Putting it on a willow plantation seem to be an available option. What else is there?
Mr. Percy Foster:
There is not enough capacity in the industry at present in the composting, anaerobic digestion, lime stabilisation or drying sectors. Once security is provided people will invest and build extra facilities to provide the treatment capacity. With regard to anaerobic digestion plants taking in material which potentially might shock the system, as I mentioned, people slowly introduce new materials over time. Smells and odours are highly controlled through the local authority waste permit or the EPA waste licence. With regard to the heavy metal content of sludge, our main focus was to examine the overall management of sewage sludge and whether it is managed in accordance with the code of good practice and what type of treatment process it goes through. We did not examine the heavy metal content of sewage sludge in great depth, but we can do so and revert to the committee. I ask Deputy Flanagan to repeat his question.
The issue of reputation must be dealt with if we want to achieve something with this. At present one could come up with any word in the dictionary and it would be more acceptable than "anaerobic digestion" in Tibohine in County Roscommon and one would win a prize. It is the enemy, because attempts were made to just put a plant there and get away with it even though it was a daft place to put it. The industry must tackle this but it is not doing so. As far as I can see it is the one issue holding it up.
Mr. Percy Foster:
Everybody knows what composting is but anaerobic digestion is a complex process and many people do not understand it. Something for us as an association, and other authorities involved in the area such as the SEAI, to examine is an education campaign for the general public on what anaerobic digestion is. I have heard before that people believe it is like an incinerator, which it is not. There is definitely scope for a public information campaign.
I propose we forward a copy of Mr. Foster's presentation, a copy of the document from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland entitled "Food Safety Implications of Land-spreading Agricultural, Municipal and Industrial Organic Materials on Agricultural Land used for Food Production in Ireland" and a transcript of today's meeting to the Ministers for the Environment, Community and Local Government and Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I also draw the Ministers' attention to the transcript of this meeting. I thank Mr. Foster and Mr. Cremin for their attendance. We will now suspend to allow the next set of witnesses to take their seats.