Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 4 November 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht
Role and Functions: Environmental Protection Agency
We will now consider the current roles, duties and responsibilities of the Environmental Protection Agency with particular reference to its monitoring and enforcement of licences at industrial facilities. I welcome Ms Laura Burke, who is the director general of the agency; Mr. Dara Lynott, who is the deputy director general of the agency's office of climate, licensing and resource use; Mr. Gerard O'Leary, who is the director of the agency's office of environmental enforcement; and Dr. Ann McGarry, who is the director of the agency's office of radiological protection.
I wish to draw their 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 on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to 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. 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 them that their opening statement and any other documentation they have submitted to the committee may be published on the committee's website after this meeting.
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 him or her identifiable.
Before the delegates from the Environmental Protection Agency addresses the committee, I wish to draw Ms Burke's attention to a number of issues I would like her to address. How has the agency's merger with the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland worked out and what benefits have accrued from it? Has the agency adopted any new approach to radiological protection or does it intend to? How does the agency assess the benefits and risks before issuing licences or permits in relation to GMOs? How does the agency envisage its future role in the protection of water resources and how does it envisage its dealings and relationship with Uisce Éireann in this regard? Can Ms Burke comment specifically on the recent report on climate change and the need for urgent action? Can she comment on the agency's current research programme into the environmental impact of fracking? Has Ms Burke any views on the potential impact and risk, if any, to Ireland of the proposed Hinkley Point nuclear power plant in Britain? Lastly, she might also comment on the agency's policy of enforcement and how it decides on and pursues prosecutions. I call on the Environmental Protection Agency to deliver its opening statement.
Ms Laura Burke:
I have a brief opening statement. Then I can touch on the wide range of issues the Vice Chairman raised.
First, I thank the committee for the opportunity to attend this joint Oireachtas committee meeting. As the Vice Chairman stated, I am joined by colleagues from the EPA to assist in the work of the committee today.
The Environmental Protection Agency's mission is to protect and improve the environment as a valuable asset for the people of Ireland and to protect our people and the environment from the harmful effects of radiation and pollution. The ultimate objective is a clean, healthy and well-protected environment supporting a sustainable society and economy.
The EPA performs a wide range of statutory functions for the protection of the environment. In May 2011, an independent external review of the agency was completed and presented to the then Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Mr. Hogan. The report of the review group stated that the EPA overall has provided considerable benefit for Ireland's environment for the health and well-being of its people and that the environmental expertise within the EPA is a significant national resource. I take this opportunity to recognise the contribution of the staff of the agency in delivering on our objectives.
We have already provided the committee with an opening statement and I will now give a brief overview of the Environmental Protection Agency's role, duties and responsibilities, and information on the monitoring and enforcement of licences at industrial facilities.
First, on the merger of the EPA and the RPII, as part of the Government's public sector reform plan, a decision was made in October 2012 to merge the EPA and the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland. Legislation was passed in 2014 to give effect to the merger and the EPA's newly established Office of Radiological Protection commenced operation on 1 August this year. The merger was completed on time and on budget. With regard to the benefits of the merger, I suppose the first point to recognise is that we are only a couple of months in to the merger. Dr. Ann McGarry is here, and she can discuss further particular radiological protection issues. To date, we have merged the administrative functions of the radiological protection institute and the EPA so that we now have one corporate resources function, and we are investigating opportunities for technical and scientific synergies of the two organisations, and now, I suppose, the Office of Radiological Protection and other offices, for example, in areas such as our monitoring programmes and emergency response. We will be progressing these in the coming months.
On licensing and enforcement, the EPA has a key role in licensing facilities with the potential for significant environmental pollution to ensure that their emissions do not endanger human health or harm the environment. In 2013, we issued 176 licences and over 700 technical amendments. We also carried out over 1,300 industrial and waste site visits, 240 urban wastewater site visits and 55 drinking water site visits. Ten prosecutions were heard in the district court and two in the higher courts in 2013.
With regard to domestic wastewater treatment systems, the national compliance rate for year one inspections was 52%. The most common reasons for failure of an inspection related to operation-maintenance and-or de-sludging issues.
On sustainable use of resources, in 2013 the national waste prevention programme, led by the EPA, continued to deliver substantive results in preventing and minimising waste though EPA's BeGreenresource efficiency programmes. The 2013 results from the BeGreenprogrammes, such as Green Business, Green Hospitality and Green Healthcare, identified economic savings in excess of €7 million, with further potential savings of €7 million from an investment by the EPA of circa €1.2 million. A major new project, Smarter Farming, was initiated in 2012 in collaboration with the Irish Farmers' Association.
On climate change, greenhouse gas projections released by the EPA in 2014 indicate that Ireland faces considerable challenges in moving to a low carbon economy. Under the best case scenario, greenhouse gas emissions will remain relatively static up to 2020. As a result, emissions in 2020 will be 5% to 12% below 2005 levels and will not meet the 20% reduction target.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, synthesise report, which has just been released, indicates, as the executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCCC, stated, that there is no more room for debate about whether climate change is happening or not. It is happening. The influence is clear, it is human activity and action needs to be taken urgently. The EPA runs a significant communications programme to highlight climate change issues with public issues. In fact, we are privileged to have one of the authors of the IPCC report in the Mansion House in Dublin tomorrow night looking at adaptation and the adaptation issues associated with climate change. We would be delighted if any of the members of the committee could come and here at first hand what the IPCC is saying with regard to climate change and climate change adaptation.
On clean air, the EPA's report on air quality in 2013 found that air quality in Ireland continues to be good and compares favourably with other EU member states. In 2013, the EPA in conjunction with the HSE, Met Éireann and Department of the Environment Community and Local Government, launched an air quality index for health, which is available on the EPA website.
On water quality, clean, healthy and well-protected water is essential to maintain viable and vibrant communities across all areas of Ireland, urban and rural. The EPA's drinking water report for 2012 shows that public water supplies have improved year on year since the EPA created a remedial action list in 2008. The EPA issued 16 directions this year, with five of these relating to supplies in Roscommon. The EPA has also reiterated the need for Irish Water to develop a national lead strategy which has regard to advice previously published by the EPA on lead. I will talk a little more about Uisce Éireann in a moment. With regard to bathing water quality, in 2013, 97% of bathing water complied with the EU mandatory standards.
On research, following public consultation in 2013, a 24-month research programme on fracking is underway. The research programme has been designed to produce the scientific basis, which will assist regulators – both North and South – in making an informed decision about whether it is environmentally safe to allow fracking. No fracking will take place as part of this research.
With regard to our annual accounts, since the EPA was established in 1993, the Comptroller and Auditor General's office has issued a clean audit report in respect of each year's financial statements. The Environmental Protection Agency's 2013 accounts were signed off by the Comptroller and Auditor General on 30 September this year. The total budget available to the EPA in 2013 was €59.5 million.
The EPA has key roles in environmental regulation, provision of knowledge and advocacy for the environment. The economic recession continues to result in cuts right across the public sector, including the EPA. Our staff and financial resources are reduced; meanwhile, we face new challenges and have taken on new responsibilities. However, we will continue to deliver the valuable societal outcomes for which we are recognised.
The Vice Chairman specifically asked for our response on Uisce Éireann. The first thing to clarify is that the EPA has no role in water charges or economic regulation of Irish Water. The EPA is the quality regulator with regard to drinking water and urban wastewater. I wish to put water and water quality into context. The EPA has published a drinking water report every year since its establishment more than 20 years ago. In 2007 the EPA was appointed as a regulator for drinking water and in effect regulated the 34 local authorities. At this time the EPA identified E. coli as a key priority. To address this we targeted a national programme of installation of chlorine monitors in conjunction with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the local authorities. There has been a 92% reduction in E. coli detection as a result.
The EPA also identified drinking water schemes across the country requiring investment which resulted in the remedial action list I mentioned earlier. The number of schemes on the list has reduced year-on-year although more investment is needed in this area. The primary role of the EPA is to ensure that drinking water supplied by Irish Water to its customers is clean and wholesome, and meets the standards set out in the European Union regulations.
Drinking water priorities include reducing the number of boil notices affecting 23,000 people, which is unacceptable, as we have stated previously. We also need to upgrade drinking water schemes. There are 126 schemes on the remedial action list and although that is reduced from 339 in 2008 we still need the remaining ones to be addressed. Other priorities are the elimination of lead pipes and the introduction of water safety plans. Seven water safety plans have been completed with a further 45 in preparation.
The EPA has published urban wastewater reports since its establishment. In 2007 a licensing regime for wastewater discharges controlled by the local authorities was introduced as a result of a European court judgment against Ireland. The EPA is the licensing authority for urban wastewater discharges and has issued 370 licenses and 520 certificates of authorisation. We have consistently highlighted the need for further investment in wastewater infrastructure to protect our rivers and beaches, and the economic activities that depend on clean water. Some 94% of Ireland's urban wastewater receives secondary treatment which is three times more than a decade ago. Some 71% of secondary treatment plants met main effluent quality and sampling standards in 2013, a 2% improvement on the previous year. However, raw sewage is still discharged from 44 areas in Ireland.
As I mentioned, the EPA is the quality regulator for Irish Water. We also recognise that Irish Water was only established in January of this year whereas the infrastructural investment and operational issues I have highlighted existed for many years prior to this. In addition, a PricewaterhouseCoopers report identified an historical underinvestment of €5 billion in drinking water and urban wastewater. Irish Water needs to develop a pathway to the satisfaction of the EPA towards the achievement of compliance with national and European legislation on water, in particular the 1998 drinking water directive and the 1991 urban wastewater treatment directive, and both short-term and longer-term actions are needed.
We also recognise that it is a period of transition in moving from 34 local authorities responsible for water to one utility. Ultimately, we see the benefit of having a single body looking at national issues - for example, as we stated earlier having a national approach to lead in water.
We have had extensive engagement with Irish Water and the Commission for Energy Regulation in order to ensure appropriate treatment of all drinking water supplies and urban wastewater. We will be reporting on the performance of Irish Water through our urban wastewater and drinking water reports in future. For example, the EPA collates data from more than 200,000 drinking water samples to determine compliance with regulations. So we have reported in the past and we will report in future on that.
I hope I have already answered the Vice Chairman's question on fracking and the research we are doing there. We would be happy to answer in more detail if he wishes. I might ask Mr. O'Leary to talk about the enforcement approach with regard to prosecutions and Dr. McGarry on Hinkley Point.
Mr. Gerard O'Leary:
I will outline our approach to enforcement. We get intelligence from three sectors. We do our own audits, and gather water samples and air samples. The director general has outlined the numbers - 1,300 in total in 2013. We also collect information from residents and have a form on our website allowing people to report incidents to us online and we will investigate them. The licences demand a lot of the licensee in terms of monitoring and providing information to us. If there is an incident at the plant, for example, a breakdown of equipment or the breach of an emission limit value, they also have to report that to us. It is an offence not to report incidents to the EPA.
We carry out about 800 audits and inspections between industrial and waste activities. We risk-rank those. All our A sites in terms of industry and waste would receive more attention than the lower risk sites. We also have a national programme looking across the 800, collecting the intelligence from local communities, information we get from our audits and inspections, allowing us to come up with an EPA priority list. Already this year we have ten on our list. It is a dynamic list and as things improve they come off the list. Out of 800, ten are currently on our dynamic list and they are taking up about 15% of the resources allocated to us.
The director general has outlined the number of prosecutions. We had ten last year and we have had more this year. There are 156 outstanding in terms of court dates.
We have published two reports this year on the enforcement area. We did a focus on enforcement report looking back over three years. In the past two weeks we did a specific report on just air emissions because not all sectors would have to deal with air quality. We would have targeted the air quality areas. In both reports we have named and shamed companies either that we prosecuted or that consumed a lot of our time.
In terms of our overall enforcement approach, we want consistency across the sector and we want to implement the polluter pays principle.
Dr. Ann McGarry:
I know the committee had correspondence last year with the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland regarding Hinkley Point. We advised that we had undertaken a series of investigations of the plants due to be built in the UK in coming years. That work was published in a report last year. Our investigation showed that the two EPRs that are planned to be built at Hinkley Point are unlikely to have any radiological impact in Ireland. Once they are operational we do not expect to see any consequence here, either in the terrestrial environment or in the marine environment.
As in the case of all other nuclear installations in the UK that have been of concern of us over the year, our main concern is with the potential for an accident at the site. We looked at five different accident scenarios that could occur at Hinkley Point. I stress that the likelihood of occurrence of these accidents is very rare and they range from one in 50,000 to one in 33 million per year. So they are extremely unlikely accidents. However, in the event of one of those unlikely accidents occurring, we found that food control measures would probably need to be introduced in Ireland. The extent of the contamination released from the accident would not be such that there would be immediate health impacts in Ireland, but there would be measurable levels radioactivity and for that reason food-protective measures would need to be implemented so that the food on sale in Ireland would be safe to eat.
Our estimate is that it is very unlikely that there could be an accident at this site but if there were, food control measures would need to be implemented.
Mr. Dara Lynott:
We have been regulating genetically modified organism activities for the past 20 years. We have issued about 540 permits over the course of that period of 20 years. These have been issued in the main to academic institutions. On the question of how we assess risk, the legislation allows for four levels of risk, going from contained use, which is the vast majority of the facilities we regulate - these are activities within labs in academic institutions - right up to field trials. Currently we have only one activity under an active permit which is the Teagasc research into the prevention of potato blight. We are aided by EPA staff who are experts in this area and by a genetically modified organism advisory committee which helps us with difficult cases. We present dossiers from Europe to the committee for its opinion and to which we have regard when making our decisions. Over recent years we have noted a change in the pharmaceutical industry in Ireland which would have relied on chemical synthesis 20 years ago but quite a number of companies, including a new facility which opened in the old Dell factory in Limerick, use bio-synthesis, using mostly genetically modified organisms.
I am happy to answer any other questions in that area.
I thank the delegation for its opening statement. Reference was made to boil water notices and also the direct discharging of raw sewage, with 44 cases cited. Are any of those cases in Tipperary? Does the number refer to 23,000 people or 23,000 homes affected?
Ms Laura Burke:
I will speak about the boil water notices and my colleague will talk about the raw sewage. This is not a new problem and the EPA has highlighted it in previous drinking water reports. Our 2012 drinking water report highlighted that 50,000 people had been put on boil water notices during the course of the year. Just because it is not a new issue does not mean it is acceptable. It is a priority issue for the EPA which we have highlighted to ensure all people on public water supplies have access to clean and wholesome water. The majority of the people affected are in Roscommon. Mr. Gerard O'Leary can talk more about the raw sewage and the boil water notices.
Mr. Gerard O'Leary:
I spent ten years working in Tipperary County Council so I have some interest in County Tipperary, even though I am a Cork man. There are no boil water notices in Tipperary. We published a list and reports on drinking water and urban wastewater which we hope to update in the next couple of weeks. Not to diminish the problem, the locations are mostly in coastal areas. I was asked about this previously and I wish to be clear that in those cases there is no treatment of sewage - the toilet is flushed and everything goes in - and many of these areas are popular bathing areas.
In last year's drinking water report we highlighted in particular the issue of boil water notices in Roscommon. Whereas boil water notices are not new, of the 23,000 we estimate that, of today, 21,000 are in County Roscommon.
I have a number of questions. The report on climate change issued last Sunday was very stark. I agree there is no doubt that there is a serious global problem and we are part of it. We have not had sight of the sectoral plans which state our ambition, or so we have been told. I presume the EPA will review them when they are issued. Ireland will miss the 2020 targets and we will be required to meet targets by 2030. Has the EPA a systematic plan for achieving the 2030 targets rather than waiting until 2028 and realising there is a problem that needs to be resolved quickly? It will be necessary to change behaviours as well as investing in public transport to deal with emissions and retrofitting our homes to save energy.
What is the EPA view on the Government's approach to the negotiations on agriculture? It seems the Government's obligation for reaching the target will be reduced. Will the 2030 targets be achievable if issues in the other sectors are dealt with?
I refer to two large wastewater treatment plants in Kildare which are of a high standard. They are worked very efficiently and the water is, by and large, from the Dublin region. The availability of water is on a knife edge and this could be improved if leakage were significantly addressed. Dublin appears to be one of the worst areas for leakages in the system.
I presume the EPA examines the quality of water going into these plants and that it examines the water quality in the river catchments to ensure the least level of intervention so that nothing is put in the water that may have a negative impact on public health. Does the EPA consider the issue of fluoride to be an environmental or health issue? Has the EPA a function in the use of fluoride in water?
Senator Mary Ann O'Brien has asked me to raise an issue on her behalf as she was unable to remain at the meeting. It is a concern of mine also and it is how the EPA licenses industrial processes. My experience is somewhat limited but I have the impression that the EPA works with the offender in many cases in an effort to nudge the offender towards compliance.
It may have been the case that some plants preceded the establishment of the EPA. Senator O'Brien has asked me to raise the matter of the Aughinish Alumina factory in Askeaton, County Limerick. The Haulbowline issue is similar where 500,000 tonnes of hazardous waste was removed and the bill was €40 million. It is estimated that there is a potential of 25 million tonnes of hazardous waste in Aughinish but there is no financial bond in place. The factory is located beside the Shannon and there could be major health, environmental and financial consequences for the State if a bond is not in place to cover that cost. Why would the EPA continue to grant licences in that scenario?
What kinds of protections does the agency put in place? In Kildare, we watched a mountain of waste grow until it went on fire. Remediation cost a small fortune. When one can predict an environmental and health hazard, why would one continue to grant the licence without at least addressing the potential damage financially, bearing in mind the experience of Haulbowline in Cork?
Ms Laura Burke:
There is a wide range of questions. I will deal with some and my colleagues will deal with enforcement.
On climate change, it is envisaged in the current draft climate change Bill that the EPA will be secretariat to an expert advisory body that will be established and consist of numerous representatives, including from the EPA, Teagasc, the ESRI and SEAI. Other members are to include those nominated by the Minister. The responsibility of the body, with input from the EPA, will be to review the sectoral plans, including sectoral plans for mitigation and adaptation. I agree absolutely that there needs to be a systematic plan for how to get to 2030. As I said at the outset, we are not on track for our 2020 target. It is estimated that we will be from 5% to 12% below 2005 levels, as compared to the 20% target that we have signed up to. The EPA has estimated that emissions are projected to increase between 2020 and 2030, so they will be approximately 1% to 7% above the levels of 2005 in 2030. They are definitely going the wrong way.
Our role involves the provision of national greenhouse gas inventories, which we do annually, and greenhouse gas projections, which can feed into a systemic approach to meeting targets, rather than a last-minute one. We also have a role in the implementation of the EU emissions trading scheme. We have a role in research to assist Ireland in compliance in respect of both mitigation and adaptation.
With regard to plans for 2030, all sectors should play their part. Some, such as the energy sector, have more opportunities than others, but all have an opportunity to play their part. Teagasc, for example, had prepared marginal abatement cost curves for the agriculture sector. They identified carbon emission reductions of 1 million tonnes through efficiencies, etc. Therefore, there is a role although we need to recognise that Ireland's emissions profile is different from that in other countries. There are still steps the agriculture sector could take, and a sectoral plan would be needed in that area in addition to every other area.
The national targets with regard to 2030 have not been set so, although there is a commitment to achieve a 40% reduction EU-wide, its impact on Ireland or other countries has not yet been agreed.
With regard to water, the cleaner the water going into a plant, the less intervention that is needed. My colleague, Dr. Gerard O'Leary, might talk about water safety plans and having safe and secure water sources. If one protects the water source, it ultimately protects the consumer.
On fluoride, the EPA has no role in applying the current legislation on the requirement to fluoridate public water supplies, and we have no policy remit in this area. It is a health issue. We do have a role in monitoring drinking water quality parameters. That includes fluoride levels, which must be less that 0.8 mg per litre. The Irish standard is more stringent than the EU drinking water standard, which is 0.5 mg per litre. We have seen that out of approximately 932 supplies, approximately 24 failed to meet the fluoride parameter value in 2012. However, no supplies exceeded the EU drinking water directive standard of 0.5 mg per litre. I speak with regard to our monitoring role.
On the licensing of industrial processes - Mr. Dara Lynott might elaborate on this - we take our licensing role very seriously. This is effectively why the agency was set up 20 years ago. It is being reviewed by numerous bodies, and the reviews include the independent review of the EPA. The National Economic & Social Council, among other bodies, is also carrying out a review. Independent research has highlighted the benefit and strict requirements that the EPA imposes on all licensees to ensure they do not cause damage to the environment or harm human health. As part of our licensing process, it is open to anybody to make a submission with regard to the licence and potential licensee. All submissions are available on the EPA website, as is all documentation. We hold oral hearings as and when necessary also. We certainly do not work with the offender in any shape or form. We have had circumstances - Kerdiffstown is an example - in which facilities were up and running prior to the establishment of the EPA or its becoming the licensing authority.
Even before the EPA existed and was given responsibility for licensing landfills, the site in Kerdiffstown, to which Deputy Catherine Murphy referred, had almost 2 million tonnes of waste that had been illegally deposited there. It was a legacy facility that already existed and needed to be addressed. The Waste Management Act 1996 assigned responsibility to the EPA for introducing a licensing regime for the approximately 100 landfills in operation across the country. We did license the facility to bring it into a regulatory regime because it was not in one at that stage. From the commencement of licensing, the EPA pursued the licensee with all its powers to make it compliant with its environmental responsibilities, including through civil and criminal legal action. There is currently a criminal prosecution in the courts with regard to the facility, as the Deputy may be aware. The company went into liquidation and abandoned the site and the EPA is now ensuring a resolution to the matter and that the site does not represent a health and safety or environmental risk. We have been working actively with the local community with regard to it. A site investigation was completed to identify the appropriate remediation option. We are working with the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to make progress with remediation for the site. It was a legacy site in existence long before the EPA.
Mr. Gerard O'Leary will talk about water and Aughinish Alumina.
Mr. Gerard O'Leary:
Every year since 2007, when we published our drinking water report, we have talked about a sustainable model for safe and secure drinking water. We developed it on foot of what we saw unravelling in Galway city with the cryptosporidium incident. The local authority was effectively blending treated water with raw water. As long as the water in the Corrib was fine, blending was going to be acceptable. We assess drinking water quality against 48 standards, one of which involves fluoride. They are all set out in EU legislation and implemented in national legislation. The problem we envisage is that there are dangers in the catchment that have to be managed. Incidents can occur in the catchment that are dynamic and the quality of raw water can change. When there were flooding incidents, we saw that plants were overwhelmed. Therefore, the security aspect, which we have really been driving, is such that the water needs to be safe tomorrow morning and the week afterwards.
As such, the system needs to be robust enough and procedures need to be put in place at treatment plants to handle changes in water quality. For example, there were restrictions in Dublin last year because the chemistry of the raw water changed. The scientists in Dublin City Council had to adapt to treat it. Our model is to ensure that drinking water complies with 48 safety standards and, more importantly, its supply is secure. The latter point has been neglected, although we have been driving it. We have a number of water safety plans in place. We would like to see every area have a safe and secure supply of drinking water. Post its incident, Galway City Council was one of the first local authorities to have a water safety plan.
At the start of this year, we had €8.3 million set aside in various instruments for our industrial activities. We have built up that fund across all licensed activities to €77 million, but we need to do more, for example, various forms of security bonds, secured accounts and parental company guarantees. Following a public consultation process last year, we produced guidance this year on how companies can establish the risks. There are two types of risk. First, activity at a site may lead to an accident. Second, there is the inevitable closure cost. The figure of 25 million tonnes relating to the Aughinish Alumina plant stems from that process. Now and then, we need to adjust financial instruments so as to ensure that risks are clearly monetised. In recent weeks, we published a consultation document on the various types of instrument that we require for financial provision. Of paramount importance is that, when something happens, money must be available. When money was previously set aside in receiverships, it seemed to go to the receivers or the banks. In this regard, we are following up a case in the Supreme Court.
We have financial provisions across our activities and are building on same. Last week, we discussed matters with the European Commission and identified that this was not just a challenge in Ireland, but across the EU. We are reviewing all of our activities, including at the Aughinish plant, with a view to strengthening the financial instruments so that the inevitable cost of cleaning up sites can be met.
I welcome Ms Burke and her team. I appreciated their presentation. I wish to ask about a variety of issues. Can the EPA update me on the Greyhound facility in Clondalkin? The EPA has needed to involve itself in that site a number of times. As a Deputy for the area, I am curious about how matters stand.
I will ask a related, albeit more general, question. I will not necessarily pin anything to Greyhound, but suppose a company refused to change its ways after the EPA found it lacking. Could the company be closed down or would that be a decision for the courts? I would be interested in knowing the procedure.
I found the number of local authority inspections by the EPA as set out on page 11 of the delegation's submission interesting. Some 52% of the authorities passed the first round and further ones passed the next tranche of inspections. Overall, 24% failed. Which local authorities were they? As to the sorts of examination conducted, do they only relate to water, including wastewater, or are there other aspects? I would be grateful if the witnesses elucidated the situation.
Can the EPA comment on whether it regards fracking as safe? What impact would fracking have on our climate change targets, which we will not achieve anyway judging by what the witnesses have stated?
To return to my question on local authorities, raw sewage was being discharged in 44 areas. Were any of those in Dublin? Are there adequate sewage and wastewater treatment facilities in the greater Dublin area?
Ms Laura Burke:
The Deputy raised a combination of issues. I will address some of the broader ones and ask my colleagues to address the more detailed ones.
Regarding companies that refuse to change their ways, the EPA uses a broad range of enforcement tools: education and guidance; civil sanctions; criminal sanctions; and revocation of licences. We have revoked licences, but that is the ultimate sanction. Having made such a decision, it can be challenged in the courts, but the legislation gives the EPA the power to suspend or revoke licences.
Page 11 of the document refers specifically to the septic tank inspection regime, not to the broader local authority inspection regime. Mr. O'Leary can discuss septic tanks and our broader supervisory and inspectorate role in respect of local authorities' environmental responsibilities.
The purpose of conducting our research on fracking at a local level is to assess whether it can be operated without causing environmental damage. I am also conscious that, if fracking was to operate in Ireland, the EPA would be the regulatory authority and anyone fracking would need to be licensed by us. As such, we cannot pre-empt any decision that we might make. I will ask Mr. Lynott to discuss our research into fracking in more detail, but Mr. O'Leary might first discuss the issues relating to Clondalkin, septic tanks and raw sewage in Dublin.
Mr. Gerard O'Leary:
I am conscious that a case is before the courts, one about which the Deputy specifically asked. I will refer to the director general's comments, in that we have the options of suspension and revocation.
I can tell the committee that the enforcement of licences in the waste sector is quite challenging. The approach we take is a multi-agency approach. There are environmental issues, safety issues and fire issues. We are in contact with local authorities and the Health and Safety Authority.
I recognise that I am not directly answering the question but I am conscious-----
Mr. Gerard O'Leary:
On septic tanks, our role had been to publish a national inspection plan. The first year of the plan finished in July of this year. We have been analysing the data. Therefore, it is the first time that we have published the figures that are there. We had an interim report, which we released last January, because we wanted to ensure that the thousand inspections would be completed. Again, we did it on a risk basis. There are different parts of the country where there would have been bigger impacts, in terms of ground water and surface water. We set a minimum level, in the first instance, so local authorities could do more on that. This is not going to be a once-a-year inspections regime. Septic tanks inspections are here to stay. However, they are part of a wider campaign to protect our water resources. There are river basin management plans. They are going to be revised. Inspections that will be done on waste-water treatment plants and on agriculture septic tanks, which would be a pressure on the environment, would form part of that.
With regard to the question on local authorities, the agency has a supervisory role over the performance by local authorities of their statutory duties. It extends beyond the areas of waste water and drinking water - which are obviously now within the remit of Irish Water - and water quality. Local authorities would have a huge role in the area of waste management. They would permit a lot of sites while our agency would licence the larger activities. If I can draw the committee's attention to page 11 of the document, one of the things we have tried to do is the development of the "See it? Say it!" app. This allows a member of the public to download the app. They can take a simple photograph which will automatically be sent to a call centre, that we have set up, that transmits it to the local authority. We are hoping to have some development in that area later on this year. For instance, that would get recorded as part of the Fix Your Street campaign - which again covers more than just the environmental aspect.
We do a lot of work to help local authorities to carry out their functions. For example, a lot of our guidance, which would be applicable to all activities, would also be applicable to their permitted activities. Also, in the Focus on Environmental Enforcement in Ireland 2009 -2012 report which I referred to earlier, we tried to cover local authority activities. For example, on waste, they probably deal with more complaints than we would because litter would be a huge issue that has a local dimension. We have a function. Also, if a function is not being carried out by a local authority, a member of the public has recourse to our agency. We will start what we call a section 63 process. We will ask the local authority for a report. We may then instruct them to undertake actions.
On water quality, Deputy Murphy mentioned the supply issue. In terms of drinking water, quality is a huge issue, for example, in the western part of the country. The bigger challenge in Dublin is capacity. It is on a knife edge. We saw it last year with the Ballymore Eustace plant. When the chemistry of the water changed, the plant was still able to deal with it and produce water. However, although production did not stop, it was not at a sufficient rate. Huge numbers of people were inconvenienced from the point of view supply. The quantity is on a knife edge.
We will be publishing a report in the next number of weeks on the Ringsend sewerage treatment plant. In terms of compliance with the EU directive, it is not complying. Last time round, it was very close to achieving compliance. There is a huge capacity issue there. Again, it is on a knife-edge from the point of view of treatment. While there is a big plant there, there is also a huge load getting into the area. It is borderline in terms of compliance. We will have an updated report in the next number of weeks and I will be happy to furnish it to the committee.
Mr. Dara Lynott:
The reason we are interested in fracking is that under European law, the EPA would be required to license it. Therefore, we initiated our research into this area by commissioning a desktop study for approximately €5,000 to give us an overview of fracking and where it is at in the world. That laid out a number of areas that we needed to look into. From that, we have set up a significant research fund of about €1.5 million that is being funded by the EPA and a number of other agencies in Ireland and the North of Ireland. The main focus of that research is on hydrogeology and the geology of the shales that underlie Leitrim, Sligo, up through the North, and continue on into Scotland. We do not have a lot of ground water wells, bore hole wells, that would give us the kind of information we would require to determine whether there would be an impact. The research would suggest that the main impacts will arise from the construction of the wells and from the storage and transportation of water, sand and chemicals associated with fracking. To help us with the research, we set out terms of reference which we finalised this year after receiving approximately 1,200 submissions on what they should be. The terms of reference were finalised by an inter-agency group set up by a number of Government Departments, North and South. The research has been commissioned following a tender process and Camp Dresser & McKee, CDM, have got that research. It has just begun and it will take about 18 months to complete. There is a commitment that there will be no licensing of any sort of fracking in Ireland until that research is concluded. I presume we will know about it the next time we come back to this committee.
Thank you, Chairman. I welcome the representatives from the EPA here today. I invited the EPA here a number of months ago to discuss a number of the issues with which we are dealing today. I welcome its report. Would the EPA agree with me that the confidence of the public in its role as the protectors of the environment is paramount to the success of the organisation? On the number of inspections and visits, is a visit classed as an inspection or is there a difference between them? In the well-put-together presentation that was furnished, the agency indicated it had carried out 1,370 visits and that there were 12 prosecutions as a result of that. My rough mathematical calculations put that at 0.009% of visits resulting in prosecutions. To me, that either means the people with whom the EPA are dealing, mainly those in industry, are highly compliant or else there is something wrong in the system.
On the concern of the public in many counties across this country, can the director give his view as to whether the EPA has the public confidence of the people in Kildare, Limerick and Cork, as already alluded to, in Tipperary, as I will allude to, and in Co. Laois with which I will deal in greater detail in a moment? Could the director also clarify who carries out the inspections for the EPA? Does the EPA carried them out itself or are they farmed out to private consultants? If they are farmed out - I understand that they are - how are these people selected? What expertise do they have and what is the reporting mechanism to the EPA? Is it a fact that only one in three facilities are monitored on an ongoing basis and some are only monitored once a year?
Is it also a fact that advance warning is given to industries before the EPA goes into the premises to inspect? If that is the case, how much advance warning do they get?
On septic tanks, I am reading from a press release issued by former Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Mr. Phil Hogan, on 1 July 2013 which indicates that there are 497,000 septic tanks in the country, of which 446,000 were registered at that point and I note from the report that 987 inspections were carried out. That is roughly 2%. If we continue like this, it will take 50 years to carry out inspections of all septic tanks in the country. Can the witnesses respond to that and can they further indicate to me whether the people doing the inspections are EPA staff or staff from the local authorities who have been trained to do this work?
On prosecutions, the witnesses indicated that a number of cases have gone to the High and Supreme Courts. Are these on licence issues or other issues? Can the witnesses tell us what companies are involved? It is referred to in page 9 of their report.
There was an independent review on air quality. Who carried out that review and how independent was it?
Will the witnesses update the committee on the ongoing complaint about the Enva waste recycling plant in Portlaoise, into which the Minister called for an investigation earlier this year amid ongoing concerns over unlicensed, unregulated and potentially hazardous open vent emissions from the plant, which is situated in a built-up residential area and commercial district in the middle of Portlaoise? Will the witnesses also tell the committee what has been done to bring this company to heel regarding the problems it is causing within that community?
What is the EPA's overall budget and how much of it is spent on inspection and prosecution? Related to that, how many industry locations are visited by the EPA on each year?
Ms Laura Burke:
It was. I will answer some of them and my colleague, Mr. O'Leary, the director of enforcement, will answer others. With regard to the confidence of the public in the EPA, the confidence of the public and the engagement of the public in environmental matters is something we have highlighted throughout the history of the EPA. With only about 300 staff there is only so much we can achieve in the protection of the environment, but we must engage with Departments, other organisations, and members of the public for everyone to realise the importance of the quality of the environment for the public and for people's health and well-being. An independent external review of the EPA, which we highlight in the briefing document, found that overall the EPA has provided considerable benefit for Ireland's environment and for the health and well-being of its people. There were also other reviews, including an independent research review of the EPA licensing regime, which found that the reduction in industrial emissions because of EPA licensing was significant, and a National Economic and Social Council review, which highlighted the fact that the industrialisation of Ireland had not resulted in environmental pollution, largely because of the work of the EPA in licensing and enforcement of facilities.
Ms Laura Burke:
A wide range of people and organisations were involved in the review, including the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, an independent person who had been with the environmental protection agency in the Netherlands, Professor Anthony Staines from DCU, and Dick Budden, a member of Repak and managing director of Wellman, a recycling facility in Meath. I cannot remember the names of the other people involved, but they are all on the EPA website. It was a wide range of people, and they sought submissions from members of the public and other organisations on their views of the EPA. They received around 180 submissions and they brought in a number of people, including representatives of the Irish Environmental Network and the Environmental Forum from Limerick, to get their direct, oral feedback on the performance of the EPA. There was very wide consultation. It was independent, it was external and overall the findings with regard to the EPA were extremely positive.
We can advise on the number of inspections and visits. With regard to who does the inspections for the EPA, the EPA does the inspections itself for urban wastewater treatment facilities and industrial facilities. We have contracted out the auditing of some functions related to waste electrical goods, usually to shops, businesses and facilities like that. Their compliance with those regulations and some external air monitoring is also contracted out. We can give more detail on that in a moment.
On septic tanks and the inspections of septic tanks, it has clearly been assigned to the local authorities and the inspections are a local authority function. The EPA's role is to set out an inspection plan for the country and then it is up to the local authorities to do those inspections.
On Enva, we take all complaints to the EPA very seriously. We have done a full assessment with regard to Enva and can give more details on that. We have also done some ambient monitoring in the locality because there was concern that the air quality was being compromised. Ambient monitoring has demonstrated that all the air quality guidelines are being met in the locality.
Ms Laura Burke:
They are being met. The budget of the EPA, as I said in my opening statement, is €59.5 million. The vast majority of that is spent on staff, because we employed 323 pre-August 2014 and now employ 360 after the merger. Another €8 million is spent on funding research. We also have €2 million for the environment fund for the office of environmental enforcement. Approximately €2 million is allocated for our national waste prevention programme, to which I also referred in my opening statement. The largest proportion of our budget is on staff and on overheads, for example, on things like IT systems to facilitate more efficient operation. In the context of public sector reform, we try to ensure as much of our work as possible is done electronically, including electronic engagement with our licensees and others. IT development is a key part of our work in that regard.
I might ask Mr. O'Leary to talk about Enva-----
Ms Laura Burke:
If the Senator gives me a moment, I can break down the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, for him. As for salaries and pensions, approximately €22 million of the EPA's budget is spent on salaries and pensions and out of that, our staff - including our approximately 80 staff members in enforcement - are paid. Information management and technology is approximately €6 million. Programme expenditure, which includes, for example, the Water Framework Directive, is €15 million and as I stated earlier, €2 million is for the work of the office of environmental enforcement, national waste prevention and our research programme.
Mr. Dara Lynott:
I might add that we charge industries on an annual basis for enforcement effort. This charge on an annual basis is in the region of €7 million to €8 million, which represents an 80% payback of the time and expense spent in this regard. The €2 million we get from the environmental enforcement fund may be added to that, which brings it up to approximately €10 million. It would take a bit longer to get an exact figure right down to a task but in general, €7 million to €8 million is charged on enforcement charges for licence enforcement. In the past, we have estimated that approximately €2 million is spent on drinking water enforcement and we also get €2 million that is specifically funded from the environment fund on that. Approximately €10 million to €12 million goes to enforcement but getting an exact figure would require a bit more calculation.
On the EPA and the need for Irish Water to develop a national strategy on lead, has this started? Is it just beginning or what is its current status? Has the EPA been in contact with Irish Water on the national strategy? While I had a question on fracking, most of it has been answered except in respect of Mr. Lynott's statement that €1.5 million has been allocated from the EPA's own funding for fracking research. While this is a lot of money, it is necessary because fracking is such a contentious issue. However, it is not an unknown issue, particularly in America, Poland and elsewhere. Is it necessary for the EPA to reinvent the wheel because the type of rock to be found in Ireland and in particular near Enniskillen is widespread? Obviously, the EPA does not need to bore a hole for every investigation and I presume this has been taken into consideration.
To change the subject, I refer to wastewater discharge and the lack of treatments. Members have heard the debate on that, on water and on what should have been done. I am aware that two cases are before the courts at present and while I will not mention them, are other cases imminent? When the EPA first inspected the domestic wastewater treatment facilities, there was a failure rate of 38%, which is very high. It improved on the second inspection on foot of money being put into them. However, the failure rate remains at approximately 24%, which means a great number of wastewater treatment facilities still are failing and obviously money is required for this. I did some research on the PricewaterhouseCoopers report mentioned by Ms Burke and note it stated there was an underinvestment in water of €5 billion. This money must be found somewhere and this is an issue that members are discussing and have been discussing for some time.
On climate change, I believe Deputy Catherine Murphy mentioned the new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the recommendations therein. Ms Burke has just stated that Ireland will find it difficult to meet its 2020 target and that its emissions have remained static, perhaps from 2008 onwards. As the joint committee will be dealing with the climate change Bill, the EPA should provide the members with five specific recommendations as to what they should be doing. As Ireland is a country with high agricultural outputs, what must we do and seek in this regard? Another scenario is if we were obliged to import food from countries that are not as environmentally-friendly as Ireland. This must also be taken into consideration in the context of any climate change facility or discussions that take place. I will not comment further on this because obviously members will be having discussions on it later.
On the national radon control strategy, the EPA has undertaken to conduct research to underpin the strategy. What is the current status of that research and when does the EPA hope to have it published? The merger of the EPA and the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, RPII, went very well, even though some thought the world was going to fall in when the merger was originally proposed. I had a note about the new app, "See it? Say it!", on which Mr. O'Leary reported. I seek a comment regarding the EU directive that has been transposed to Irish law on water pricing and the full price recovery of the cost of water. It is an EU directive, Ireland is bound in law to do it and is late in implementing it. How long will it be before Ireland is fined? Just as someone asked Mr. O'Leary when will his patience run out, when will the patience of the European Union run out if we do not transpose the aforementioned directive into law?
On the water, I compliment Ms Laura Burke on using the correct terminology in her statement of "Uisce Éireann". She is one of the few to have done so. I hear it being referred to all the time as Irish Water but in the legislation, it is Uisce Éireann. I keep repeating that point but only Ms Burke and I appear to be doing it at present. Nevertheless, I ask her to e-mail the figures she gave in response to the question on Irish Water, as I do not believe they are contained in her own presentation. I ask her to forward this information to the joint committee please.
Ms Laura Burke:
I am more than happy to do so.
As for the strategy on lead, we are in discussions and active engagement with Irish Water on that but it has not been approved by the agency as of yet. Consequently, I do not wish to comment further or to try to have a discussion through the joint committee, as the Senator can imagine.
On the issue of fracking, we of course have no intention of reinventing the wheel. A huge amount of research has been carried out, at European level as well, with regard to fracking and what we need to do in the context of the research we are doing is to localise it. That is the reason that when Mr. Dara Lynott was talking about the work we are doing, it is very much about looking at how it would have an impact on an Irish situation. We are spending a significant amount of money on this research. There is a benefit from North-South engagement on this, in that it is being co-funded as it has an impact on both jurisdictions. However, the research is needed in order that we can make considered decisions with regard to fracking and whether it is something that should happen within Ireland.
On urban wastewater discharges and cases before the courts, I might just ask Mr. O'Leary to elaborate on that. On the domestic wastewater treatment systems and the overall failure rate of 24%, because this is a risk-based approach in which we target areas of highest risk, it is unsurprising in a way that one will get that level of failure. We are deliberately looking for inspections in areas in which we believe there may be more of a risk. Again, Mr. O'Leary might talk a little more about that. As for climate change and recommendations, the key is to have sectoral action plans because it is an issue about which we need each sector to play its part. Some sectors will be able to do more than others and one sector we certainly have highlighted is the energy sector and electricity production. There is a need, both nationally and internationally, to move to zero fossil carbon energy. This is a sector that makes a large contribution to emissions in Ireland at approximately 21%. There are technologies that are known and have been proven to reduce emissions in this sector.
It is also a sector that can assist other sectors, for example, low-fossil electricity production can help the residential and transport sector as well. It is a prime sector, if one is looking for a key area for action, and this is something the EPA has highlighted previously.
The merger itself went well. It is now at a stage of integration and ensuring that we get the best efficiencies and opportunities out of the combined forces of the EPA and the RPII. That is why we say that we have done this bit but ask are there other opportunities, for example, as I stated, in the monitoring area. It has been a success because of the attitude and the engagement of staff, and leadership from the RPII as well as the EPA. Everybody engaged proactively in ensuring that this would work.
On the EU directive on water pricing, I was asked how long will it be until the EU Commission loses patience. I suppose I cannot answer that one. We must wait and see. The EU's patience wears thin faster than did previously, when matters were quite long-drawn out. There is a process for faster infringement nowadays that we are aware of.
I might ask Dr. Ann McGarry to speak about the national radon control strategy and Mr. Gerard O'Leary might speak more about the cases before the courts.
Dr. Ann McGarry:
We were asked about the research underpinning the national radon control strategy. As the committee will be aware, the strategy was launched early this year by the then Minister, Commissioner Hogan.
One part of the research that we are undertaking is to update the national survey. The national survey was undertaken in the 1990s and we are undertaking a further piece of research to ensure that we have the up-to-date baseline information on radon levels and the number of houses likely to be above the reference level at the start. It would be our intention, as the strategy develops and we role it out, that at regular intervals we would repeat this work to see whether the work is being effective. As the committee will be aware, the overall aim of the national radon control strategy is to reduce the number of deaths from radon in Ireland.
Other work that has been undertaken is on the research on the effectiveness of passive radon sumps and radon barriers together. Only yesterday we held the second meeting of the inter-agency group that oversees the implementation of the control strategy. We agreed that this is important work that needs to begin now and it will begin in the next number of months.
We also discussed at our meeting yesterday the issue of radon awareness. The RPII, now the Office of Radiological Protection within EPA, has for many years undertaken work to improve the awareness of radon among members of the public. What we need now is to review the work that has been done to date with a view to having a national radon awareness campaign. It was agreed at the group yesterday that we should begin that now.
There will be a report to Government on the implementation of the strategy in April 2015. A lot of the detail of what is going on at present will be included in that report. We agreed that it is important that we have a report to the public as well and that will form part of the work.
Mr. Gerard O'Leary:
I will briefly touch on the issue of lead. In terms of the broader environment, we removed lead from paint in the 1950s, then we got lead removed from petrol in the 1970s and since then there has been an overall drive to reduce the exposure to lead.
In the late 1980s, the European Commission would have flagged a progressive reduction in lead in drinking water. We published guidance in 2009 as to how local authorities would identify lead in their areas. When that information became available in terms of the mains, some local authorities were progressive in terms of the removal of lead while others were not. The current standard, which came into play in December 2013, 10 mcg/l, is challenging. The overall approach to lead mains is to remove them. In terms of court cases, we have one local authority and also Uisce Éireann in court in regard to lead removal because we surveyed direction on the local authority and the lead was not removed.
In terms of wastewater, we have two cases before the courts - Clifden and Killybegs. On our overall approach in taking those cases, because there are considerable challenges in terms of many wastewater treatment plants, Clifden in County Galway is a designated bathing water area and in successive reports we identified E. coli. Whereas they have primary treatment, it is the obvious case in point. The directive dates back to 1991. Therefore, it was flagged when various urban areas required treatment. The case of Clifden required secondary treatment, and possibly further, by 2005. The second case we have before the courts is Killybegs. The treatment there, because of its size, dated back to 2000. In the case of Killybegs, there was no treatment. We have one other case, a drinking water case, before the courts but there is currently no more in terms of urban wastewater.
I welcome the witnesses for the EPA here today. A lot of questions have been asked.
In the presentation by the director general, one item that strikes me as of great concern is that there are 162 urban wastewater treatment plants operating without licence. I understand these unlicensed plants were not built in the past year and some of them have been functioning nearly for decades. What I would like to know I can guess, but maybe they could spell it out. Is it because of resources on the part of EPA that it cannot process the licences or is it down to the chilling fact that these wastewater treatment plants are not up to scratch and are in desperate need of investment, which, I suppose, brings us into the debate of the raison d'êtreof Uisce Éireann, which, as the Senator clarified, is the title to be given to it?
Of the 162 wastewater treatment plants, how many of these wastewater treatment plants are in the charge of local authorities, how many are in industry and how many are public-private partnerships? How many of these wastewater treatment plants are discharging into special areas of conservation, SACs, natural heritage areas, NHAs, or other environmentally designated areas? It is happening in my county. Raw sewage is going into designated shellfish areas and special areas of conservation. Mr. O'Leary mentioned Donegal and Galway. The same can be said of Mayo. We are building our reputation on tourism - above all, of course, there is the people - and this is going into our waters and to our fish. The scale of it, and how long this has been going on, is of considerable concern. How many of those wastewater treatment plants pertain to my county, which is Mayo?
In terms of Irish Water, how many of these wastewater treatment plants are on the capital investment programme that has been laid out for the next two years? Have many of these been addressed and is that why the EPA hopes that they will be licensed by the end of the year? How many of these wastewater treatment plants are under warning and how long have these licences being pending? It is my understanding that some of them are pending for many years and it is a holding mechanism for them to be allowed to operate at a substandard level. I would appreciate clarification on that.
How many, where there are wastewater discharge licences, are not meeting the EPA's conditions on the level of discharge and the quality of treatment that is required for sewage?
Does the EPA require all wastewater treatment plants to have tertiary treatment as a minimum? Is that the EPA's aspiration? Ms Burke mentioned how many prosecutions are pending in the District Courts and in higher courts. How many local authorities are under warning from the EPA to get their act in order? That deals with the wastewater treatment plants.
The last time Dr. McGarry appeared before the committee it was for a presentation from the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland. It was very reassuring to have a body such as the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland protecting the public health interest. I was very impressed that day to hear of its activities.
One concern that prevails with the public relating to the monitoring of air quality for anything in the air that might be bad for us is non-ionising radiation. I know responsibility for that did not come under the remit of the RPII. The equivalent agencies in other countries looked at it, particularly from the point of view of electromagnetic field emissions from 400 kV power lines. Has the EPA studied this in any way? The EPA is not being asked to license these power lines. Can I, as an ordinary member of the public who does not particularly know anything about this, take assurance that it is not identified as an environmental risk from the EPA's point of view and consequently not a public health risk?
On climate change, the witnesses spoke about the need for zero fossil carbon emissions from the electricity sector. We have a big challenge in delivering infrastructure across the board. We have just spoken about the funding issue for wastewater treatment plants. There is considerable resistance to wind energy as part of this. It has been suggested that wind energy is a fraud because we need to import concrete and do all sorts of things meaning that wind energy is not the solution. I must temper my comments by saying that if I go to an area where people are opposed to wind turbines, they want biomass. If I go to an area where it is proposed to build a biomass wood-burning power plant, they favour wind energy.
Will the witnesses comment on the viability of wind energy and its desirability or otherwise in achieving our zero fossil carbon emission targets? How critical is it in that regard? What else could be suggested? What priority should be given to wind energy? Is the Government policy of giving priority to wind energy, as it does with the REFIT scheme, the way we should be going? With all issues of public health and concern over the direction we are taking, everything should be on the table for debate. I would appreciate hearing the views of the witnesses representing an independent expert body on the matter.
Ms Laura Burke:
I will start with the non-ionising radiation question and then we can talk about the water side of things. As recently as July of this year the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government commissioned the national institute for public health in the Netherlands, RIVM, to prepare a report that synthesises existing research on non-ionising radiation with a particular focus on the health effects of electric and magnetic fields arising from high-voltage power lines and also electromagnetic fields from base stations for mobile communications. It will also assess the management of electromagnetic fields related to issues in other jurisdictions - how other countries address the matter. The countries chosen are France, the Netherlands, Slovenia, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The goal, as I understand it, is to have a final report that includes balanced scientific information on the health effects and on how other countries deal with the issue. I understand the report will be completed in the first quarter of next year and will lead on to the question of whether there should be a different approach in Ireland. As the Deputy rightly said, the EPA has no current role in this regard. Whether we have such a role in the future will depend partly on the outcome of this report. The EPA is represented on the group's steering committee. That is the situation at the moment, but I know there is active work by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government in that area.
With regard to climate and zero fossil carbon energy, the first thing to say is that the EPA is not an expert on wind energy. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland has done a considerable amount of research in this area and would be the expert body. We agree with the Deputy that everything should be on the table. Wind energy, hydro, wave and biomass all need to be considered and assessed. We made a submission to the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources on the Green Paper on energy. I would be more than happy to supply a copy of that submission to this committee if it was of interest.
Ms Laura Burke:
I want to be clear: we do not have expertise in saying whether it should be 40% wind energy. The EPA's role with regard to climate change is not in the area of assessing wind energy or the percentage of wind energy in the system. I do not want to start talking about something in which we do not have expertise because it would not be appropriate.
I will ask Mr. Lynott to talk about the licensing of wastewater treatment plants and Mr. O'Leary can talk about the work we have been doing on enforcement.
Mr. Dara Lynott:
The driver for the licensing of wastewater treatment plants was the fact that Ireland lost a case in the European Court of Justice for implementation of the dangerous substances directives. Under the waste control of dangerous substances going into the environment, discharges must be licensed. Part of the negotiation to close out that case, which is closed out, was putting into force legislation that would provide for the licensing of more than 1,000 wastewater treatment plants. The timeframe that was set by the Commission was to have everything licensed by the end of 2015. A precondition of that was that the smallest discharges should be licensed first.
The statistics are presented on page 5 of our submission. To date we have issued 70 licences and 520 of certificates of authorisations, which are for the smallest ones. A further 162 remain to be licensed, which we anticipate licensing by the end of next year. The lack of resources has been an issue in the past four or five years but in the past year we got sanction from the Department for a number of temporary staff to ensure we meet that target of licensing everything by the end of 2015.
Is there any reason those 162 are left? No, there is not. We prioritised, for example, the 42 discharges that are untreated and they are all licensed. We targeted all the discharges that were near shellfish, for example, on the Mayo coast. We looked at the impact on the shellfish grounds. We worked with the Marine Institute on that. We require within our licences that the shellfish should be tested for viruses to determine if there is any connection between the discharge and the shellfish grounds. If there is, we have a requirement with our licences to put in ultraviolet treatment that would knock out anything that might infect the shellfish.
Historically, certain discharges go into groundwater or near special areas of conservation. These are not new things. The agency was given in one fell swoop under legislation 1,000 facilities to license in 2007 and we are working through those. The habitats directive requires that an appropriate assessment be done for each of those discharges that is next to or near a special area of conservation. A particular priority for us was rivers that have margaritifera, mussels that need to be protected under European law.
Irish Water has to provide us with the information. All the licences transferred from local authorities to Irish Water on 1 January. We are working Irish Water to give us the information when we need it in order that we can license in the most efficient way possible.
The appropriate assessments are still being carried out for some of those facilities but we have worked out a scheme with Irish Water to get the information at set periods of time.
Mr. Dara Lynott:
The capital programme is outside the control of the agency. We have made a submission to Irish Water to say that certain priorities must be achieved within the capital programme, such as dealing with untreated discharges, UV treatment in shellfish areas as well as a priority to meet EU requirements. The PwC report has shown that there has been chronic under-investment in this area for the past number of years. Whether Irish Water will get all the funds it needs to do everything required to comply with all legislation, is doubtful. We are pushing for certain priorities and our priority as an agency is to have everything licensed by 2015. We act without fear or favour as to which ones are licensed under environmental law.
Mr. Gerard O'Leary:
If I may reply to Deputy Mulherin's question. I referred earlier to 44 areas across the country which did not have water treatment. We are about to publish a report on urban wastewater but to be helpful to the committee I refer to the appendices to the report. Two towns in County Mayo, Belmullet and Killala, have no treatment. The others we have deemed to have failed are Balla, Belcarra, Foxford, Geesala and Louisburgh. Castlebar has nutrient reduction along with secondary treatment and this indicates that it has passed. I note Swinford. Westport has nutrient removal along with secondary treatment and it has passed.
I ask for clarification on one point from Mr. Lynott. I asked him the reason and he said it was a question of resources. He talked about the organisation and that it has a deadline of the end of 2015 for licensing these plants. I am pretty familiar with our wastewater treatment plants in Mayo. The critical problem is there has been no investment in wastewater treatment plants. That is the bottom line. The local authorities had no funding from the Department to invest in the plants.
I am not a member of the committee and I thank the Vice Chairman for allowing me to contribute to this discussion. I have some questions for the director general of the agency. Shortly after her appointment she stated in an interview with The Irish Times that in her opinion the EPA should not be racing to prosecute business for non-compliance with environmental licences and regulations. Was this her personal opinion at that time? Did it perhaps come from her experience in her previous life with her involvement with IBEC and Indaver? Is this the policy being adopted by the EPA? In my view, the fact that the director general has made such a statement gives the message to big business that it can continue to pollute without the possibility or even the fear of prosecution. She stated in that interview that she wants to move away from the idea of the EPA being a watchdog and an enforcer. In my view the main role of the EPA is to protect the environment and by extension, its role is to protect human and animal health and to safeguard communities against possible polluters. As she said then, economic recovery is certainly important but in my view, human health must take precedence. If big business and big companies perceive that regulation is light-touch or a less than enthusiastic approach to prosecuting people, this sends the wrong message about how we deal with them in this country.
The review group was referenced in a number of previous contributions and it seems to have been glossed over. Even though the review group lauded much of the work of the EPA and was mainly positive in its findings, as the director general said, the same review group also asked that alleged maladministration or complaints against the EPA be investigated by a separate environmental court or an environmental ombudsman. I ask if the director general thinks this is a necessary step and if she would be in favour of the establishment of an ombudsman to investigate allegations against the EPA.
The review group noted its concerns that section 15 of the Act grants the EPA immunity from prosecution. Has this section been invoked previously? Why is this provision necessary? I stated in the Seanad that we have confidence in the work being carried out by the EPA but if this work is carried out properly and effectively there should be no need for this immunity from prosecution.
Are the previous statements by the director general her personal opinions or do they reflect the policy being actively pursued by the EPA?
Ms Laura Burke:
I will clarify what I said at the time. I said that the EPA has a very important role in regulation but we also have a role - which we talked about it earlier in the meeting - with regard to encouraging behavioural change and encouraging people in their homes, businesses and communities to be resource-efficient and to protect the environment. To be very clear, we have roles in regulation, in knowledge of the environment and in advocacy. Specifically our advocacy role is set out very clearly in our statement of strategy and it is that we aim to influence positive behavioural change by supporting businesses, communities and householders to be more resource-efficient. With regard to regulation we look at the full range of enforcement tools - I talked about this earlier - including education and advice, warnings, civil sanctions, criminal sanctions and licence revocation. We have used and we will continue to use all of those tools, as appropriate. We are not, we have never been and we will not be in the future, a light-touch regulator and this will be highlighted by the number of reviews and independent assessments of the EPA.
In our statement of strategy we note that a clean, healthy and well-protected environment lies at the heart of economic recovery. We stated that we will continue to carry out our core functions of environmental regulation, enforcement, monitoring, assessment, research and reporting, in an exemplary manner, but we will also work with others to build awareness and to achieve the behavioural change needed in our homes and communities and at policy level, to enable us to become a low carbon resource-efficient economy and society. As clearly highlighted by Senator Keane earlier, Ireland depends on its clean, green image for economic recovery. Two areas highlighted are agriculture and tourism. We cannot have a situation where Ireland is aiming to be portrayed or where we portray ourselves that we are clean and green but we are unable to demonstrate it. Whether that is the case in the agricultural sector or whether it is a case of raw sewage being discharged into waters, it does not marry; we cannot say we are clean and green unless this can be demonstrated.
With regard to the review group and two particular recommendations, both the review and a follow-up on implementation are available on the EPA website. It was published earlier this year. As regards the EPA's absolute statutory immunity, recommendation 7.6.3 of the review group was that the EPA's absolute statutory immunity should be revised, particularly with regard to damages. This is something for the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to assess. The update states that a number of other State agencies currently have statutory immunity, including the Health and Safety Authority and the National Asset Management Agency. In the case of the latter, it was provided for under legislation as recently as 2009. The Department has highlighted that it is particularly important to examine the potential impact of any change in this provision on the ability of the EPA effectively to discharge its statutory functions. It is up to the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, legislators and the Office of the Attorney General to examine the implications.
With regard to the Ombudsman, recommendation 7.6.4 of the review identified that the EPA should be subject to the Ombudsman's jurisdiction in respect of alleged maladministration, and appropriate resources should be made available to the Office of the Ombudsman. The EPA has no objection to falling within the remit of the Ombudsman. In that context, it is stated in the update that the EPA review group recommended that it should do so in respect of issues of maladministration only. In drafting the Ombudsman (Amendment) Act, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government engaged extensively with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Office of the Attorney General on this issue to achieve an acceptable legislative wording to enable administrative procedures to fall within the legislation, but excluding the quasi-judicial function of the EPA. A satisfactory form of wording was not finalised so the EPA remains exempt for the purpose of the Act. However, we have no objection to falling within that Act.
There were a couple of points that were not adequately answered. With regard to the licensing of companies, there are some companies in my area and one knows that one would only have to give them the standard and they would keep to that standard, even if they never received a visit. They would want to be absolutely compliant and would stake their reputations on it. There are some very good examples. Often, however, that gives a skewed impression in terms of the others who are non-compliant.
To refer back to the experience with Kerdiffstown, the EPA had responsibility from 1996. The mountain of waste grew from then every year. Kildare is a very flat landscape and it ended up with a mountain where there was none before, and it was a mountain of waste. Much of it happened under the EPA's watch and it was only when it went on fire, which was a major emergency, that a remediation process was seriously put in place. There were complaints for a long time about it. However, that happened and it is over and done with, although there was a very large bill at the end of it which is being picked up by the taxpayer. How do we ensure something similar does not happen somewhere else?
That brings me to the Aughinish Alumina plant. The evidence shows that once companies that are non-compliant have stripped every penny out of something, they will wish to disappear and leave the trail of destruction behind them. That is the reason there must be bonds in place, so at least it will not be necessary to fall back on the public purse to remediate a site. Why was there a continuation of the issuing of licences where a known risk was involved and where there would have to be a remediation process for the end-of-life of the facility? Why was the taxpayer not protected, for example, by a bond being in place to make it absolutely certain that the individual or the company would not cut and run? That is what happens when there are non-compliant companies. There is an ongoing problem in this case and it is located beside a major water course, the largest river in the country.
The witnesses speak about changing behaviour. Sometimes sanctions and laws change behaviour. Certainly, bonds change behaviour. One often finds that companies will want their bonds back or they will not want to be exposed to being obliged to pay a charge to stay in place. Having gone through the experience with Kerdiffstown, for example, why is it that an industry is allowed to be licensed where there is a known risk, without a bond being in place to ensure that where there are environmental and health risks and the working through of the end-of-life of the facility is not guaranteed there is at least money there for that? I am not referring to the health risks.
Ms Laura Burke:
Mr. Lynott will talk about both of those situations. With regard to Kerdiffstown, there were both civil and criminal sanctions. There were a number of High Court injunctions against the company. There is currently a Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, case outstanding and open, so we must be conscious of what we say specifically about that case. However, Dara Lynott can talk about the licensing and bonds issue.
Mr. Dara Lynott:
The history of Kerdiffstown is that there was landfilling there since the 1960s. Obviously, legislation was introduced in 1996 but the agency did not issue a licence until a number of years after that, by which time it received an application that was suitable for us to issue a licence. That licence required the building of a modern landfill cell at the site. The business model presented to the agency was that the operator would go into the historical waste, recycle what it could and put what it could not recycle into the new landfill cell. The new landfill cell was built, a bond was put in place and it demonstrated to the agency that the cell was to be used. The cell was never used until near the end.
We quickly realised that the storage of waste was becoming a problem in that site. The agency reviewed the licence to restrict the storage of waste on the site. Within a year of that we realised that the storage of waste was continuing there and we then prepared a dual case, one to the High Court and one to the DPP. The nature of these cases is quite complex. It took over a year to prepare them. The agency successfully brought the case to the High Court. The High Court sided with the EPA and demanded that the company cease the deposition of all waste on site. Within a number of months of that successful High Court case the company went into liquidation and abandoned the site. Subsequently, there was vandalism at the site and the fire started. The DPP case is ongoing. The latest date we have is that it will come to court in October 2015.
There is quite a strong case of regulation, but the agency can only implement the powers that it has and it exercised all power available to it in respect of Kerdiffstown.
With regard to Aughinish Alumina, again that site has been licensed since 1996 or 1997, which is quite a long time. There have been a significant number of inspections and audits at that site.
The financial provision that the agency accepted in 1996-97 was a parental guarantee by the owner of the site at the time. There have been a reviews of that licence in the meantime to facilitate not only new legislation under the mining waste directive and other legislation such as the industrial emissions directive but also a major expansion of the facility to include a repository for red mud. The red mud has been the subject of considerable debate as to whether it is hazardous or non-hazardous. In February 2013, the European Commission wrote that, in its view, the red mud was a non-hazardous material. That is not to say that hazardous materials are not dealt with at the site in question. It deals with salt cake which, by reason of its pH, has hazardous properties. The Commission looked into and reviewed the licensing of the facility by the Environmental Protection Agency under all applicable European Union legislation, namely, the integrated pollution, prevention and control, IPPC, directive and industrial emissions directive as well as requirements under the habitats directive and the environmental impact assessment directive, and found that the agency has licensed the facility appropriately. As with every bond or financial provision that is put in place, however, things change. When a facility expands, the financial provision must also expand. The EPA is in negotiations with Aughinish Alumina to provide, to the fullest extent, for the financial provision that is necessary.
Mr. Gerard O'Leary:
We have a log of complaints about the Kerdiffstown site, on which I will provide some statistics. In 2010, which is about the time we took control of the site, 310 complaints were made. The latest information I have for 2014 is that three complaints have been made about the site this year. I understand the joint committee has been briefed by my colleagues on the remediation options.
I thank the Vice Chairman for allowing me to contribute a second time. If I had been given answers to my questions the first time around, I would not need to ask them again. As to whether I will be brief, that will depend on how long it takes the witnesses to answer my questions. I have here a photograph of the tailing pond at an Aughinish Alumina site. If anyone wishes to argue that this pond does not have a detrimental environmental impact, I do not know what to say. I will not pursue the matter as we have been given some detail on it.
Will the witnesses clarify whether the visits to which the report refers are the same as inspections? Are inspections notified in advance of the attendance of EPA staff on sites? Is it correct that the 1,370 visits or inspections carried out by the EPA resulted in only 13 prosecutions? What proportion of monitoring activity is done by private consultants each year in the various areas to which the witnesses referred, primarily, electrical items, waste, air monitoring and septic tanks?
On septic tanks, will the witnesses clarify-----
Mr. Gerard O'Leary:
The majority of our inspections are unannounced. While there may be reasons to have announced visits on occasion, the vast majority of inspections are unannounced.
Senator Landy asked a question on the 1,374 inspections. This figure is broken down into 844 inspections in the area of industry and waste and 530 monitoring visits, which are specifically for taking water samples. I would be pleased to provide a written response to the Senator's question if it would help create a better understanding of the issue. The definition of inspection varies across Europe. In terms of the industrial emissions directive, from memory, a site visit is deemed to be an on-site visit and requires that activities take place once every three years. As we indicated, we rank sites by risk. I would love to be able to have the plan with which we start each year implemented in full but we have priorities. Approximately 40% of our activities are unscheduled, for example, we must respond if a fire breaks out at the Kerdiffstown site. We must be able to adjust to complaints and so forth.
As I indicated, we have drawn up ten priority sites on the basis of intelligence and complaints and these sites consume 14% of our time. If I do not respond specifically to Senator Landy's questions on any matter, I will be pleased to provide him with a written response.
In terms of air emissions, we published a report on this issue only two weeks ago. The key pages list all of the inspections we carried out. In 2013, for example, there were 114 air emissions inspections. The trend in other countries has been to cease the practice of carrying out spot checks and establish instead controls by way of continuous monitors. This is highly specialised work which is contracted out. For the most part, however, inspections are done by our staff, whether taking water samples or making site visits for audits. The inspections are graded depending on risk. Again, I would be happy to provide this information in writing.
Mr. O'Leary has clarified one of the issues I was about to raise. I understand from the EPA's initial analysis of the 2013 figures that the failure rate of septic tanks is 48%. This means that every second septic tank does not meet the regulations.
According to the circular provided on the EPA's website, the purpose of which is to inform owners of septic tanks what they can expect from the inspection regime, inspectors will carry out a visual inspection of the domestic wastewater treatment system . I presume this will involve removing the cover, examining the tank and making a decision on that basis.
Mr. Gerard O'Leary:
That is correct. The Environmental Protection Agency sets the overall plan in terms of the framework, which does not relate only to inspections. The overall approach has been to try to promote compliance with the septic tank regulations. For example, a major issue arises in respect of private wells, many of which are contaminated with E. coli. We encourage local authorities to spend as much time on citizen engagement as on inspections to encourage people not to view the septic tank as an enemy but a facility that owners and their neighbours need to protect. If a septic tank is leaking, the effluent may enter a private well. The issue is as much about citizen engagement as inspection.
From speaking to officials in local authorities, one of the issues on the shopping lists of people buying a house is to check whether the septic tank has been inspected. Over time, I hope a combination of education and inspections will improve the position.
While I share Mr. O'Leary's hope, the hard reality is only 1,000 of the almost 500,000 septic tanks are inspected each year. At that rate, it will take 500 years to inspect them all, by which time a great deal of damage will have been done.
To return to Enva Ireland Limited, as I indicated, the former Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Mr. Phil Hogan, established an investigation into the company earlier this year.
Could the witnesses comment on whether the inspection has commenced, is ongoing or is completed?
That concludes our consideration of this topic. I thank the witnesses, Ms Laura Burke, Dr. Ann McGarry, Mr. Gerard O'Leary and Mr. Dara Lynott for assisting us in our consideration of it. The witnesses are now excused.