Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 3 July 2019
Committee on Public Petitions
Save Fermoy Weir: Discussion.
We will now deal with Petition No. P00036/18 from Mr. Paul Kavanagh, which is the subject of our public consultation today. I welcome the witnesses and the people in the Visitors Gallery. This petition concerns the Fermoy weir on the river Blackwater in County Cork. It states that the State has failed to adhere to the water framework directive and that the structures of the weir have deteriorated which, in turn, is affecting the safe migration of salmon and other species. This is the third time that the committee has considered this petition.
In accordance with procedure, I am required to draw the attention of attendees 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 the joint committee. However, if they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and 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 and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I wish to advise the witnesses that opening statements and any other documents 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 make him, her or it identifiable.
The opening statement and submissions from the witnesses have been circulated to members. I remind the witnesses that their presentations should not exceed ten minutes in duration but they may be shorter. The shorter the presentation, the more time there will be for a questions and answers session in order that we can shed some light on the issues at hand.
I welcome Mr. Niall Healy and Mr. Kevin Morey from Cork County Council; Mr. Denis Maher, Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment; Dr. Greg Forde, head of operations, Inland Fisheries Ireland; Mr John Sydenham and Mr. Ezra MacManamon, Office of Public Works; Ms Cliona O'Brien, wildlife inspector in the scientific unit, National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS; and Mr. Colin Byrne and Ms Deirdre Dunworth, Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government.
I invite Mr. Niall Healy to make his opening statement.
Mr. Niall Healy:
We are pleased to attend this afternoon to discuss the issues relating to Fermoy Weir and, in particular, to set out Cork County Council’s commitment to the matter. I am director of services with responsibility for municipal district operations and rural development. I am joined by my colleague, Mr. Kevin Morey, county engineer. I will take the committee through the initial part of this opening statement and then hand over to Mr. Morey to present the latter part of it.
It is important to present the background to Fermoy weir and outline how matters have evolved over the past ten years or so. Starting in December 2009, Fermoy Town Council received notice under section 116 of the Fisheries (Consolidation) Act 1959 from the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources advising of the need for the town council to undertake immediate repairs to the fish ladder on the weir in Fermoy to reduce the barrier effect of the weir on migratory fish species. Fermoy Town Council engaged with a firm of consulting engineers in 2011 to prepare designs for a rock ramp type structure and the reinstatement of the existing fish pass ladder. However, agreement was not reached with all parties and stakeholders and the proposed works did not proceed. The town council had set aside some limited funding at the time to enable the proposed works to proceed.
Fermoy Weir has proved to be a very contentious issue locally over the past ten years, with many diverse views being offered by local stakeholders on how best to proceed. It is particularly noteworthy that the views of Fermoy Rowing Club differ significantly from the position being adopted by the local angling club, the Department and Inland Fisheries Ireland. Given that agreement was not reached with all parties and stakeholders to proceed with the larger scale works, the town council instead proceeded to Part VIII planning stage in December 2012 to carry out the repairs to the existing fish pass ladder only. However, during the public consultation process, the Inland Fisheries Ireland lodged a submission to the effect that the proposed works would not be sufficient to meet the requirement of the unhindered passage of migrating fish species in accordance with the relevant Act and directives. The elected members resolved in 2013 to modify the Part VIII proposal to allow temporary repairs to take place while the proposal was reconsidered by the council. Such temporary repairs were carried out on the fish pass ladder in 2013.
In 2014, the matter progressed further insofar as Fermoy Town Council, with the support of its consulting engineers, prepared drawings for a fish bypass channel and significant structural repairs to the existing weir which would serve as a more permanent solution to the issue. It was estimated that the proposed works would cost in the region of €2.2 million, inclusive of VAT, which money Fermoy Town Council and Cork County Council articulated they did not have at their disposal. The council consulted the Department and Inland Fisheries Ireland on the preliminary drawings and following a number of meetings, agreement in principle was reached on the nature and scope of the proposed works. The matter of funding, however, remained unresolved. The Department invited Cork County Council to submit a request for capital funding for consideration as part of the national budgetary Estimates process and this request was submitted by the council in November 2015. An indicative timeframe for delivery of the works was also discussed should the necessary funding be secured.
In the meantime, the council committed to pursuing the acquisition of the land required for the construction of the fish bypass channel with the limited financial resources that were available to it. The land acquisition process commenced shortly thereafter and is now substantially complete. Given that the level of progress on securing capital funding was proving to be particularly challenging and having regard for local concerns regarding the ever deteriorating state of the weir, which was becoming apparent, Cork County Council set out to undertake temporary repair works to the weir in 2016. However, issues around planning compliance, the scope of the works and environmental impacts proved to be an impediment to these works advancing.
The council persisted with its efforts to progress the temporary repair works throughout 2017. A series of meetings took place with IFI and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, at which Cork County Council questioned the need for, and associated expenditure with, a fish bypass channel, particularly in the context of the deteriorating state of the weir. It was becoming ever apparent that IFI and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment were not for turning and that their priority was for the unhindered passage of migrating fish species in accordance with the relevant Act and directives. In this regard, the council acknowledges and respects the statutory responsibilities that both IFI and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment must have regard to in determining the overall scope of works that are required.
By early 2018, members of the Fermoy municipal district were growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of both any apparent progress on the matter or budgetary commitment from central government to funding for the capital works. It directed the council's executive to issue direct correspondence to a number of relevant Ministers, Government Departments and State agencies to seek financial assistance as a matter of urgency. The council made contact with five different Departments at ministerial and Secretary General level. These contacts have been outlined in our original submission to the committee and I do not propose to go through the detail here. There was limited progress made but what did become evident from the feedback received was that the responsibility for the provision of capital funding was proving to be very complex and unclear.
During 2018, in an effort to be proactive and prepared for any funding approval that might be received, the council set about preparing tender documents for the procurement of a consultant engineering-led design team for the project. At this time, the council put forward an offer that, should the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment not be in a position to provide full and final assurance regarding the overall capital costs, the council would be willing to fund 50% of the estimated cost of bringing the project to shovel-ready stage, approximately €200,000 inclusive of VAT, on the basis that the remaining 50% of the estimated costs would be funded by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. The council stressed that the works could not progress beyond this point without a commitment to national capital funding support. A key meeting took place in Fermoy on 16 October 2018. Council officials, together with members of the Fermoy municipal district, met the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, to explore the best approach to expedite works. Representatives from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, IFI and local community stakeholders also attended this meeting. The meeting was followed by direct correspondence from the council to the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, on 17 October and 30 November 2018 and the council awaits a response. A positive response was received from the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, by way of letter from the Minister's office dated 12 April 2019 wherein the council was pleased to note:
Under the River Basin Management Plan for Ireland 2018-2021 that the Minister launched in April 2018, this department is providing funding to Inland Fisheries Ireland to examine river barriers nationally in the context of their impact on migratory fish species. This will form the basis of a prioritised restoration programme to be implemented during the period 2022 to 2027. There is a possibility that the Fermoy Weir may fit within this long term programme when priorities are agreed.
The issue around the campaign to save Fermoy weir has emerged as a clear priority for the people of Fermoy, particularly the urgent need for repairs to the now badly eroded weir structure. This has been articulated very forcibly by the elected members of Fermoy municipal district and other public representatives, as well as the statement issued by Save Fermoy Weir in recent weeks. There is a real concern that failure to carry out urgent necessary repairs could result in further significant damage to the already weakened weir structure, thereby resulting in a situation where it may not be possible to safeguard the structure. Representatives from Fermoy municipal district and Cork County Council's senior management met with representatives of Save Fermoy Weir on 13 May 2019. An extensive discussion took place at which both sides openly detailed the challenges that were faced. A meeting note with respect to same has been attached to our original submission. The meeting noted that any works to the weir are complicated by the fact that the weir is a protected structure and the statutory consents that are required, combined with the narrow available timeframe for carrying out works in a river of this nature.
Cork County Council clearly stated that it is not in a position to carry out repair works without the necessary consents being in place. Failure to obtain the necessary consents would leave the council in a situation whereby it would be potentially exposed to legal action. At this stage, I will hand over to Mr. Morey to conclude the presentation of the statement.
Mr. Kevin Morey:
As Mr. Healy mentioned, there are a range of statutory consents which Cork County Council is obliged to secure in order to carry out any works with respect to the weir. We have received advice from our own internal planning department, our archaeologist and the Office of Public Works regarding statutory consents and have been advised that temporary interventions would require the same level of consents as permanent works.
Mr. Kevin Morey:
Any weir repair works being carried out by the local authority would require an application to An Bord Pleanála under section 177AE of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended. Our flood projects team has consulted the OPW and advises that any works to the weir, whether permanent or temporary, would require both a section 47 consent and a section 9 consent under the Arterial Drainage Act. In addition, we would need to consult fully with IFI regarding any in-river works in order to ensure that any proposals would not be detrimental to fish life, passage and habitats. We are also advised that, given proximity of the weir to Fermoy Bridge, approval will also be required from Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII.
I will move on to the current proposals for permanent reinstatement.
Mr. Kevin Morey:
In August 2018, following an extended period of drought, Cork County Council saw the opportunity to get an updated condition survey and have a full topographical survey of the weir carried out. Cork County Council commissioned these surveys and an associated report on repair works at a cost of €24,600. The report prepared on foot of these surveys set out estimated costs and timelines for rehabilitation of the existing weir as well as for the provision of a new fish bypass in accordance with the requirements of IFI. The report estimated that from the date of appointment of consultants, the process of securing planning and other statutory consents and developing a detailed design and specification would take approximately 18 months. This timescale would not be materially different if permission was only sought for the weir reinstatement and so it would be prudent to include the proposed bypass in the application process to avoid significant time impacts at a later stage.
The estimated cost to bring us to construction tender stage was estimated at €300,000 for the weir repair only and €400,000 for the weir and fish bypass combined. These figures were inclusive of VAT. The estimated costs, inclusive of VAT, for the construction stage were as follows; the repairs to the weir and fish ladder were €1.34 million; and the construction of a new fish bypass was €1.7 million. These estimates were provisional and, in order to get accurate costs, we would need to complete detailed design and go to tender. Construction works could take up to 18 months to completion, depending on seasonal restrictions on in-stream works relative to the contract award date. The nature, scope and extent of these capital works will require funding to be made available by Government at a national level. In October 2018, I wrote to the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, setting out the estimated costs and seeking support funding initially for consultancy costs to bring the project through statutory consents and detailed design. I also highlighted that the council had no funding source for construction costs. A copy of this letter and supporting documentation has been included in the submission. The letter was referred on to the office of the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
In recent months, Cork County Council advertised a tender for consultancy services for Fermoy weir and fish bypass. A tender assessment process has taken place and the 30-day appeal window for unsuccessful bidders will end in mid-July. The emerging tender cost for statutory consents and detailed design is in the order of €350,000. Members will note that Cork County Council committed to funding 50% of the overall costs associated with the design works on the basis that Government would fund the remaining balance.
We are pleased to report that following further lobbying, further progress has been made in recent weeks with regard to same. The office of the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has stated:
In relation to Fermoy Weir, the funding of the maintenance and repair of Weirs in general, including this Weir, would appear to be a matter for the Office of Public Works and/or Inland Fisheries Ireland and the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government has no function in this area and consequently has no specific funding line for such projects. However, in view of the strategic importance of this project to Cork County Council, on the basis that the appropriate body provide the substantive funding required for the consultancy to bring the project through statutory approval and detailed design and in due course to deliver the substantive project in partnership with Cork County Council, the Minister is prepared to make a contribution in support of the initial consultancy element. On that basis, the Minister would be prepared to make a once off exceptional payment to Cork County Council from the Local Government Fund in respect of the expenses to be incurred by Cork County Council in performing its functions in terms of social, community and economic development in County Cork in the pursuance of this project.
This is a significant and positive development and the council is pleased to report that the Minister has committed to co-funding the design consultancy costs involved. Written confirmation of the sum involved has been requested and is awaited.
We have an updated indicative timeline.Based on the foregoing, and upon receipt of confirmation of the necessary co-funding from the Department to the design consultancy costs, the following represents a best case timeframe for implementation of the overall works: summer 2019 - design consultant appointed and design works commence with an anticipated duration of 18 months; end quarter 4 2020 - design works completed, planning approval secured; quarter 1 2021 - tender process commences for procurement of a contractor; and quarter 2 to quarter 4 2021 - construction works commence and are under way. It should be noted that the above is an indicative timeline and is, inter alia, dependent on a range of factors, almost all of which are outside of the direct control of Cork County Council. These dependencies include securing the necessary capital funding of circa €3.5 million from central Government, no unforeseen or unanticipated issues arising with respect to the planning process through An Bord Pleanála, environmental impact assessment, statutory consents, construction works, and so on.
At the previous sitting of this committee, there was discussion of a proposal for a temporary boom. Cork County Council has not seen any detailed technical proposal for the installation of a temporary boom arrangement. However, from what has been outlined to date, we would not expect that a boom would achieve the objective of raising levels upstream. This would require a full-depth barrier which would need to be anchored in some way. Such a barrier would obstruct fish and significantly alter flows, with unpredictable impacts on the weir. This would also require statutory consents as detailed above. This was conveyed by Mr. Healy and me at a meeting held with stakeholders on 13 May 2019.
In response to the Save Fermoy Weir statement and proceedings arising from the Committee on Public Petitions, the council requested that a number of points and clarifications be noted, including the fact that there was no technical input into the Save Fermoy Weir statement submitted, there was no technical person present at its meeting with this committee, there was no ecological input into the statement submitted, there was no ecological person present at the meeting of this committee, and there was no technical assessment of the feasibility of the temporary boom proposal. There were also a number of inaccuracies. For example, it is not correct to state that no repair works were carried out to the weir in recent times. Temporary repairs were carried out on the fish pass ladder in 2013. The council again sought to undertake further temporary repair works throughout 2016 and 2017, but issues around planning compliance, the scope of the works and environmental impacts proved to be an impediment to these works advancing. The layout drawings that were developed for the fish bypass were initial indicative drawings only and were not appropriate to share publicly as they may have been misleading as to the final design solution and location of same. The council is happy to share these indicative drawings with the Committee on Public Petitions on the understanding that they will be treated as indicative only and not for publication. The council is seeking to appoint consulting engineers in order that detailed design layout drawings can be developed, and it would be premature and ill-advised to share any drawings publicly before this process is complete. It is not correct to state that a request for a meeting with senior council management was not facilitated. A request was made for a meeting and a time and date was offered which did not suit. An alternative date was then proposed and the meeting took place on that date, namely, 13 May 2019.
We wish to reassure the committee that Cork County Council is fully committed, funding permitted, to the refurbishment of the Fermoy weir and the actions taken by the council outlined in this statement clearly demonstrate this. The council fully supports and encourages any complementary efforts that are being made to lobby for political support in securing the necessary capital funding that will enable the works to proceed in an expeditious manner. We thank the committee and look forward to our discussion.
I thank Mr. Morey and Mr. Healy for their presentation. I invite Mr. Maher to make his opening statement. I understand it is a joint statement on behalf of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and Inland Fisheries Ireland.
Mr. Denis Maher:
Yes. The Department and its agency, Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI, appreciate the opportunity to come before the committee to clarify the role of the Department and IFI in respect of matters concerning the weir in Fermoy. It is a joint statement because IFI and the Department and have worked very closely for more than a decade in supporting the council in terms of its responsibilities in respect of the fisheries element. I extend the apologies of the chief executive of IFI, Dr. Ciaran Byrne, who is on annual leave, as is the regional director in the south west, who has been dealing with the council on an ongoing basis. Dr. Forde and I have both been involved heavily in the matter also.
It is important to clarify for the committee that the conflation of two distinct issues has caused some confusion in the matter over the years. The Department and IFI would wish to assist the committee in understanding those two issues. The substantive issue is the repairs or restoration works required to the weir in Fermoy. The works required there are entirely a matter for the county council and are not a fisheries matter for the Department or IFI. The fundamental issue in this regard is that Cork County Council is the authority responsible for carrying out and funding works in respect of the restoration and repair of its own infrastructure. Local authorities are responsible for their own infrastructure. The Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and IFI have no remit in the carrying out or funding of the required repair works. Our responsibilities are entirely of a regulatory and advisory nature relating to the inland fisheries resource. In that regard and to assist the committee, the focus of our evidence today is necessarily on the ancillary issue of fish passage, as the main issue of repairs or works to the weir is not within the remit of the Department or IFI. That matter can only be adequately addressed, as it has been, by the council.
On funding, the council has previously advised the Department and IFI that it had received a response to its request for funding from its parent Department, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, indicating that the permanent works could be progressed in the context of the river basin programme of that Department. It is understood that to accommodate the Fermoy rowing club and other community interests, the removal of the weir was not recommended. The optimal solution proposed is still to effect repairs to the weir and build a new fish pass. Our regulatory role is to support and advise the council on the issue of incorporating fish passage into whatever works it seeks to undertake as an element of the overall programme, in order that such works would comply with the habitats directive and avoid EU proceedings and potential large fines down the line. It is understood that the then Fermoy Town Council, now Cork County Council, originally agreed the repair works would be undertaken by the Office of Public Works, OPW. The OPW is here and may address that. That is our understanding of matters. Despite repeated clarification from my Department and from IFI about our advisory and regulatory roles and responsibilities, there is continuing inaccurate conflation of the overall issue of works required to the weir, which rests with the council, and the need to include the attendant issue of compliance with fish passage requirements under EU legislation.
In respect of our involvement, an important but entirely ancillary matter to whatever reinstatement or repair works are undertaken is the issue of fish passage. Our role is to ensure that the outcome of such works by the council complies with the requirements of EU environmental legislation, most notably the habitats directive.
An important aspect of this ancillary issue is that a complaint was made to the European Commission in 2005. The council has given a history since 2009 but this goes back some way further as to the fish passage issue. The complaint was that free passage for both salmon and lamprey was not afforded by the weir in contravention of the Habitats Directive under which both those species are protected. That complaint, 2004/4328, was made anonymously and was first indicated at a package meeting between the then Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht and the European Commission in 2005.
In April 2006 our Department issued a response to the European Commission on fish passage indicating that the then Fermoy Town Council was the owner of the weir and that we were going to undertake some works on it. The Commission advised
that it would hold off on the issuing of infringement proceedings.
I understand informal contact has been made recently by the European Commission with the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht seeking an update on matters regarding the fish passage issue but I have no formal confirmation of that, other than an indication in a telephone call from that Department.
It is important to reiterate that the repairs required to Fermoy weir are a matter entirely for the local authority. The role of Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI, relates solely to the ancillary matter of fish passage and ensuring that whatever works are undertaken by Cork County Council comply with the requirements of the EU Habitats Directive as regards fish passage and to assume any a role in the repair works issue would be at variance with our regulatory and advisory functions.
There has been ongoing liaison between our Department, IFI, and the council on the permanent solution to the ancillary fish passage issue and the council’s responsibilities therein. IFI’s and the Department’s role in this matter is entirely regulatory and specifically includes advising how any works proposed by the council comply with the directive.
Following a full range of consultation and liaison, engineering advisers for the council and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment agreed in mid-2014 the essential details, as confirmed by the council, of the ancillary fish passage solution - a bypass channel - to meet the regulatory requirements. The Department and IFI remain committed to assisting the council with this element of any proposed works by way of technical advice in line with our regulatory function.
As the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and IFI were satisfied that the bypass channel proposal met the requirement of the Habitats Directive, in July 2014 the then Minister of State, at the request of the council, agreed to vary the ministerial order originally issued in 2009 to resolve fish passage issue and satisfy the requirements of the Habitats Directive. The local IFI regional director has engaged regularly with the council since July 2016 in an attempt to progress the project. In the absence of any progress, myself and the IFI regional director travelled to Fermoy to met the council in November 2017. The council advised that it was engaged in land acquisition to facilitate the fish passage bypass and we asked for an update on the timelines for that. The Part 8 planning process was about to commence and would come before the elected representatives for approval.
In December, two months later, the council issued a request seeking funding assistance from a number of Government Departments, including our own, and we replied to the council’s letter on 11 January 2018. We reiterated in our response the advice given to the council at the meeting in November 2017, in all previous engagements and in numerous items of correspondence that the Department has no voted funds for such works and that, as the regulatory authority for the fisheries sector, the appropriate course of action is to provide technical advice to infrastructure owners, in this case Cork County Council, in their efforts to ensure compliance with the Habitats Directive. The Department and IFI, acting in their regulatory capacity, have consistently offered to support a funding application to the appropriate Government Department or Departments.
In that regard we have sought to progress matters with the council in relation to the ancillary fish passage issue but it is understood that the main issue of repairs and works to the existing weir remains to be progressed by the council.
In October 2018, our then Minister of State, Deputy Seán Kyne, was in Cork and agreed to meet with three groups in Fermoy, namely, council officials and councillors, local public representatives and stakeholders, some of whom are present today, to outline our role and responsibility, which I have outlined today. He also undertook to write to the relevant Ministers, saying he would be supportive of a central funding bid. He wrote to all the local representatives he met on the day to garner support for such a central Government proposal on the understanding that this issue was outside our remit. However, he offered to move it forward, one might say, politically.
Our new Minister of State, Deputy Seán Canney, wrote again to local Deputies and Ministers to try to progress matters. The Minister of State, Deputy Canney, also reiterated our responsibilities in this matter and that, as a regulator, it is not within our function to pay for the works to the weir. I reiterate that the conflation of the two issues here is important for clarity to committee members. The issue of works and restoration and repair to Fermoy weir is one thing. This is a protected structure. The original complaint was in 2005 and in 2009 the structure was designated a protected structure, which post-dates the original complaint made on the fish passage issue. The repair to the weir and the fish passage are separate issues but incorporating both is very important. If one repairs the weir without a fish passage, one is completely out of compliance with the regulatory requirement and the Habitats Directive.
I am happy to take questions at a later stage but that is an outline of our position.
Mr. John Sydenham:
I would like to thank the Chairman and members for the opportunity to address the committee on the matter of the weir on the River Blackwater in Fermoy. While the OPW acknowledges that the weir is in need of repair and that its poor condition is causing difficulties for river users, it is important to be clear at the outset that the OPW does not have any responsibility for the weir. The weir was previously in the ownership of the town council of Fermoy, and since the dissolution of the town council, it is owned by Cork County Council. The responsibility for the maintenance of the weir in Fermoy, therefore, lies with that local authority.
Prior to any flood relief scheme works commencing at this location, investigations revealed the poor underlying condition of the weir. There are photographs available that clearly show this. The OPW understands that the last major repairs completed on the weir structure were as far back as the 1960s, with the only repair works taking place recently being the temporary fish ladder repairs completed in 2012. Maintenance and repairs to the weir were identified as being required for a long time, with plans for capping and strengthening the weir drawn up as far back as 2008. However, these works were not carried out at the time and because of the lack of proper ongoing maintenance, upkeep and repair work, the condition of the weir deteriorated over time. The impact from trees floating downstream has had a high chance, therefore, of causing damage to the weir structure. Once breaches occurred the lack of cohesion meant further deterioration was likely, if not inevitable.
The OPW position on the damaged weir is clear. It rejects any allegation that the damage to the weir and the mill race wall, in particular, occurred during and as a result of the flood relief works in Fermoy. I can confirm that the works which were carried out in constructing the Fermoy flood relief scheme did not interfere with the weir in Fermoy in any way and did not undermine the structure of the weir, or result in any damage to the mill race wall or to any other property.
The Fermoy north and south flood relief schemes involved little interference with the River Blackwater, as the embankments and walls are largely set back from the river. There were no works required or undertaken on Fermoy weir as part of either the north or south flood relief schemes for the town. It is the OPW's position that the deterioration of the weir in recent years is due to other factors, such as large trees and other debris being washed downstream over many years. The in-river works as part of the flood relief scheme maintained a clearance between the works area and the weir, thus avoiding scheme works impacting on the weir.
The construction of the Fermoy flood defence works was not a contributing cause to the damage that has occurred to the existing weir. The works were completed away from the weir. The breaches identified in 2018 are away from the location of the in-river temporary sheet piles used during the flood scheme. These sheet piles were used as a temporary risk mitigation measure during construction and placed in a manner to ensure that there would be no risk of damage to the adjacent structures. The stone placed in the river as a working platform during construction was placed at a remote distance from the weir - a minimum distance of 3 m up to 7 m away from the weir at the location of the main breaches recorded in 2018. Furthermore, the permanent sheet piles installed along the line of the new flood defence walls at O'Neill Crowley Quay were, at a minimum, 10 m away from the location of the first main weir breaches as recorded in 2018. The buildings along O'Neill Crowley Quay are at a similar distance away from the permanent sheet piles as the weir and did not suffer any structural damage during the work.
The OPW is satisfied that the evidence and expert advice available to it regarding the manner in which the flood relief works and associated temporary works were organised and carried out support its position that these works were not a contributory factor in the damage to the Fermoy weir. I thank the committee for the opportunity to address it this afternoon.
Mr. Colin Byrne:
Good afternoon. I am the senior water adviser representing the water division in the Department. I am joined by my colleague, Ms Deirdre Dunworth, assistant principal officer in the same division.
We welcome the opportunity to appear before the committee to discuss the issues raised in the petition regarding the weir at Fermoy. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government has policy responsibility for the implementation of the Water Framework Directive in Ireland. The directive is important environmental legislation that aims to protect and improve our natural waters in terms of water quality and the physical condition of water bodies. The directive applies to rivers, lakes, groundwater, estuaries and coastal waters and is implemented through the River Basin Management Plan for Ireland 2018-2021.
The challenges that must be overcome in order to achieve the directive's ambitious objectives are significant. To put them in content, there are almost 5,000 water bodies in Ireland, which generally must achieve what is considered to be good ecological status. Deterioration is not permitted. The plan has placed a major emphasis on establishing the right governance and delivery structures for an effective catchment-based approach. Clear priorities are set out in the river basin plan, which will ensure that all stakeholders are working together with a strong focus on delivering positive outcomes.
National authorities retain responsibility for the implementation of national programmes, with regional structures driving the implementation of prioritised supporting measures. Meaningful stakeholder and public engagement is being led by the recently established Water Forum, or An Fóram Uisce, and the local authority waters programme. The former facilitates public and stakeholder engagement in water policy at national level while the latter drives public engagement, participation and consultation with communities and stakeholders at local and regional levels. This engagement is further supported by various websites run by the EPA, including catchments.ie, the site watersandcommunities.ie, which is operated by local authorities, and by a wide range of other engagement activities.
While the Department has responsibility for leading the development of the river basin plan, it is important to point out that, much like the climate action plan, implementation depends on a large number of public and private bodies and individuals, all of which have their own responsibilities.
Regarding barriers on rivers, including weirs, the primary concern of the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is to ensure that they do not impede natural processes such as natural fish migration. Measures have been identified in the river basin plan to improve the assessment of river barriers that may be impacting on a range of migratory fish species. In this context, the Department has provided some funding to Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI, to develop a national inventory of barriers to fish movements on rivers. According to the latest count, that could be in excess of 76,000. The IFI research will inform a prioritised programme to improve fish movement over barriers in the next river basin planning cycle, which will operate between 2022 and 2027. The funding of such a programme would need to be considered across various Departments in the context of the next plan, on which we are starting preparations now.
While our Department is supporting research on the barriers to fish migration, it does not have a direct role in the construction or removal of same. In view of the strategic importance of this project to Cork County Council, however, the Minister is prepared to make a contribution in support of the initial consultancy element, which is considering a solution, as mentioned by the county council earlier, and on the basis that the appropriate body provides substantive funding in the longer term. The Department is engaging with the county council in that regard. These communications were also referred to earlier.
The Department's primary concern is to ensure that any work carried out on the weir takes full account of the objectives set out in the river basin plan. This includes ensuring that modifications to weirs, such as that at Fermoy, do not negatively affect natural fish migration and will preferably improve it where considered necessary.
I thank members for their attention. We are happy to answer whatever questions they may have.
I thank the witnesses for attending and giving of their time. There is much to take in, so I will try to be as brief as possible.
There seems to be some confusion, in that the left hand does not know what the right hand is doing at times. My feeling from the presentations is that there are a number of organisations that cannot pull together towards the reinstatement of the original weir and the original fish pass. Given the European directives, I understand where IFI is coming from as regards an alternative fish pass, but I am confused by the fact that some bodies are only supporting certain aspects, for example, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment, IFI, Cork County Council and the stakeholders.
This has been going on for ten years and, unfortunately, the weir is deteriorating further. I am worried about the larger social impact of that. Many sporting organisations are losing out. The water levels are bad. Since my background is in mental health services, I am viewing this in terms of the social impact on disabled users accessing the river, for example, via the wheely boat. A great deal of work has been done on this issue. Is there any way for us all to pull together and try to get the weir reinstated to as close as possible to its original status?
Some fish run up the fish pass, but some do not. According to IFI's presentation, this situation may affect migrating species. "May" means there is a possibility.
As it stands, the weir's condition is affecting many people along the River Blackwater. As far down as the old estuary, I am worried about the tourism side of the situation. It seems that we could be discussing this for a further ten years and it still might not get done.
Could the various parties come together, go to the European Commission and state that although there are directives which apply, there are also issues within this country and that we have our own rules? The common-sense approach is to acknowledge that it is broken and then go about preserving and fixing what we have. Is there any way this can be done whereby everyone can be facilitated in the short, medium or long term? Those are my questions for the moment. There is an awful lot to go through in respect of this issue.
They are directed at anyone who is willing to answer. As I stated, Cork County Council is hindered and can only do so much. IFI has advised on another site but cannot guarantee that it will allocate funding and does not want the weir reinstated to its original condition. If the weir has worked for 200 years, surely, a short-term solution is to reinstate what is there and to go forward with planning. If it takes ten years thereafter to put in a new fish pass, so be it. At least the benefit that has been enjoyed for the past 200 years by the people of Fermoy and along the River Blackwater would be restored, which should be the first priority.
Mr. Denis Maher:
I thank the Deputy. I will address the fish passage issue as best I can, although I cannot address that relating to the repairs to the weir. As I stated, we do not have a remit in that regard and are not involved. On the fish passage, a solution was agreed between the engineers engaged by the council and our engineer, who has 25 years of experience in the context of working on fish passages. We have invested a significant amount of time and effort in terms of personnel and engaging with the council. The sad reality is that the fish passage issues envisaged in the 1959 Act have moved on with the habitats directive. The original fish ladder does not and will not work. It is of its day as it was designed for salmon but there are now more species involved under the habitats directive. I stress that we are not in the business of imposing a solution on anybody. A solution was agreed by the engineers engaged by the council and our engineer. Drawings of a solution to the fish passage issue were prepared. The council is correct in that they are preliminary drawings, but they are quite detailed. I am unable to comment on the repairs to the weir because that is not within our remit, but it is the kernel of the fish passage issue. Matters have moved on. The weir built 200 years ago and the little fish passage that served it simply do not work any more.
The concern of the Department and IFI is that if the weir is restored, it would be an even more significant barrier to fish, would cost a significant amount of money and would leave us completely out of alignment with the habitats directive. If that problem is not overcome, we may end up facing fines. That is not a matter for the Department, but I know from my experience that this is what happens. The weir has been breached to such an extent that there is fish passage. However, as a responsible agency, we cannot accept that as the outcome. The river is used by the local rowing club and other amenity users in the town and we met stakeholders to discuss that aspect in October 2018. Consideration must be given to that element.
We want an all-encompassing solution whereby whatever work is done to put the weir back to where it ought to be would contain a fish passage element such that we do not end up with a regulatory problem having carried out a lot of work on the weir. We are conscious that we could walk away and state that the weir is breached and that there is fish passage, but that would not be an acceptable solution.
Ms Cliona O'Brien:
I am a wildlife inspector with the scientific unit of the NPWS and I wish to add some comments on the regulatory context that might help to explain why reinstatement of what used to be there, namely, a weir with a fish pass that was not working well enough, would not be sufficient under the habitats directive. The NPWS has not been involved in the discussions on the weir through the past 15 years or so. To our knowledge, the last time we were involved was in a meeting approximately 15 years ago, which was probably around the time of the complaint to the European Commission. Obviously, we are happy to be here to answer members' questions.
The Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, through the NPWS, is the lead statutory authority in respect of nature conservation. We have lead responsibly for the implement of the habitats and birds directives in Ireland, along with the associated transposing regulations which are primarily the European Community birds and natural habitats regulations. We are a statutory consultee in the planning process and, as such, although we do not have a direct role in regard to the weir or its repairs, as a prescribed body, any comments we make today will be without prejudice to any observations we make in due course to any planning application.
The birds and habitats directives are critical to environmental legislation in Ireland. Their aim is to ensure the restoration of a range of protected habitats and species throughout Ireland and the EU to favourable conservation status. In the context of the River Blackwater, this includes the salmon and the lamprey. The Blackwater is a protected site and a special area of conservation under the directives because it is an important home to several protected species and habitats, including the otter. Parts of the river downstream are protected for birds, with two special protection areas for the whooper swan, the wigeon and the black-tailed godwit. In spite of the measures we have taken in the past few years in Ireland to improve our compliance with the habitats directive, there are many challenges, such as in regard to the water framework directive, to the extent that Ireland is currently subject to several infringement proceedings by the European Commission for failing to implement sufficient conservation measures to restore and conserve our protected species. I am attending this meeting because my colleagues are in Brussels for a meeting relating to those infringement proceedings.
Ms Cliona O'Brien:
Not specifically. If, however, a complaint were to be made regarding the weir, it could probably be included in the discussions that will take place tomorrow. One of the steps we have taken in the past decade to improve the implementation of the directives was the introduction of the birds and natural habitats regulations which I mentioned. There are also key provisions included in the planning and development Acts which relate to this issue. This puts two important responsibilities in place. There is a responsibility on all public authorities not to undertake any activity in a manner that would cause deterioration to the protected sites. This would include a local authority doing something like repairing or reinstating a weir. In addition, there is a requirement for appropriate assessments to be undertaken as part of the planning process. If the county council were to proceed with works, it would need an appropriate assessment in that regard and that application would go to An Bord Pleanála for consideration. All public authorities, including Departments and State agencies, must comply with these requirements. No deterioration to the conservation status of the protected habitats and species is permitted under these directives or the water framework directive.
A key part of an appropriate assessment process when a public authority wishes to carry out works is to identify what effects the works may have on protected sites on habitats and species. Would reinstating the weir affect fish passage in the River Blackwater? Yes, it would. As such, the public authority would have to put in place mitigation measures to ensure no impediments to fish passage happened, among other things. It would have to take into account all the protected habitats and species. The fish passage or bypass channel is like a mitigation for the works which may be carried out on the weir. If what was in place was not working well enough for the habitats directive, its reinstatement would simply not be compliant. I defer to IFI on the science of workings of the fish passage, the channel, etc.. A public authority must put in place mitigation to ensure any works it wishes to carry out comply with the habitats directive.
I thank the delegates for attending and for their presentations. I acknowledge the campaign to save the weir.
I am smiling because I am wondering what Solomon would do if he were here. Somebody must take responsibility. Who is in charge? All the contributions were excellent. I want to be fair. I know some of the people in this room and have worked with them. They are thoroughly professional and do a wonderful job. However, we need all sides to be brought into a room and for them to come out with an action plan. To be fair, I know the witnesses are trying to arrange this. However, we seem to be on a Groundhog Day roundabout. I hope we do not see our shadow because if we do, we will be doing this for - is it ten or 20 more years?
Somebody must live up to the responsibility or concede, put his or her hands up and say, "We will do this." We are receiving correspondence about Fermoy weir. I am becoming an expert on it, which I never thought I would be. I do not mean to be frivolous about this because it is a very serious issue. We have the cancellation of sporting events and all the consequences of that from an economic point of view. We need a pathway to a resolution. Funding between the county council and the Department was recently announced. It is our third time here discussing this. It is controversial. From talking to Fine Gael councillors who brief me on this, I know that if one reads The Avondhu, one will see articles and letters on the matter almost every week. I have talked to Deputy O'Keeffe, the Chairman, Deputy Buckley and the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, about this. All we want to do is ensure we get a result.
This goes back to the original proposal of the petition. It is about somebody's failure to adhere to the water framework directive and about putting in place a solution to what we have been speaking about. I do not have the answers. I do not really have a question because I just do not know what to say. We need to come back to this and review where we can go. I thank the witnesses for being here and for their excellent presentations. I have to catch a flight. I apologise for that.
I just want to make a few observations. I am not pointing the finger at anyone. As Senator Buttimer said, this is about trying to find a solution and getting joined-up thinking. We can read through all the excellent submissions but I have marked just one that is very worrying. It states: "It is understood that in order to accommodate the Fermoy Rowing Club and other Community interests, the removal of the weir was not recommended." It further refers to the optimal solution to complying with the habitats directive and avoiding proceedings or potentially large fines but states that it was instead proposed to lower the weir and build a new fish pass.
In this little passage in the submission there was a bit of a plan. It suggested we all pull together, engage with the stakeholders and start again. At least an optimal solution was referred to and it was suggested that it was possible that this could all come together.
I have only one other question. Much of this has to do with certain habitat directives and the water framework directive. Much of this is European. Is there a European fund that all stakeholders and bodies represented here can tap into? In that way they could say, "We are putting our hands up. We need this to be done. We know that you want it to be done this way. Can we get funding for it?" Can anyone answer that?
Mr. Denis Maher:
The paragraph Deputy Buckley read out is from our submission. As part of that, we have agreed the solution to the issue of the fish passage. The solution as to what happens to the weir is very difficult to comment on. Deputy Buckley makes a valid point about people coming together, but the issue is funding and who has responsibility for it. We have no voted funds for this. I do not think the other Department does. Not to put too fine a point on it, but if we were to use voted funds for a reason other than that for which they were voted, we might be in front of a very different committee, if members know what I mean, so it is not simply a question of whether we can come together and fund this. That is why our Minister had written to other Ministers to ask whether there could be a central bid for funding in a budgetary context outside of the voted funding issue. Quite apart from the fact that this is outside our remit, there is the funding issue as well.
I cannot answer the other question.
I will go straight into some questions. My first is for the local authority representatives. I do not think there is any ambiguity about the fact that the structure is owned by Cork County Council. That is correct, is it not?
We have a submission here which is an observation from the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. It is one of the documents which is part of the file before us. I will quote directly from it.
It is also understood that Fermoy Town Council (now Cork County Council) originally agreed the repair works would be undertaken by OPW as part of the Fermoy Flood Relief Scheme, and would be paid for by the Council. However, the Council did not proceed with repair works as part of the Flood Relief Scheme, but rather advised DCCAE [that is, the Department] that the works on the ancillary fish pass solution were included as part of the tender process for Phase II of the Flood Relief Works. The Council then advised that as tender prices received were in excess of what was originally envisaged, they were proceeding with the Flood Relief Works but would be investigating the procedures for retendering separately for the fish pass.
Can either Mr. Healy or Mr. Morey clarify how they interpret this statement from a local authority perspective?
Mr. Kevin Morey:
To give the committee a little context, when the flood relief scheme was being developed, an opportunity to carry out some remedial works to the weir was presented. The reference to this being carried out by the OPW may be a little misleading, probably not deliberately. There was an opportunity to have work carried out, not funded by the OPW but by a contractor who would be there on the bigger flood scheme. There was an economic advantage to get works done at that time. What was envisaged was relatively minor work: reinstatement of the fish ladder and minor repairs to what was obvious on the weir at the time. However, we have now had a good opportunity to see the structure of the weir and the effects on it of last year's severe drought. It is a very old structure which is effectively at an end-of-life stage, and the work involved in remediating it is now estimated to cost €1.34 million. It is a major infrastructure project. In normal circumstances the local authority looks to Government for funding for such a project. Not only that, but the habitats directive is a changed circumstance which imposes another huge obligation. It is not a minor mitigation input; it is a further €1.7 million on top of the weir. Here we face the question of scale, which is way beyond our resources.
I assume Mr. Sydenham is, from an OPW point of view, corroborating that statement by Cork County Council in respect of the observation made by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. Forgive me if we are getting into surreal territory here but, as a local public representative and a Teachta Dála, I find it extraordinary that we have all the silos of Government in one room. Whether a local authority, IFI, whichever Department or the OPW, there is a certain amount of: "We do not hold the funds to do the job." The points have been made by previous speakers. There needs to be a whole-of-government approach to this. We take at face value and in good faith every statement made today. Regarding overall Government expenditure, I do not buy the arguments about voted expenditure or voted funding and line Departments. Creative mechanisms can always be found to find a relatively small parcel of money to do a job that would meet all the State's obligations, and that is the point. It is the State that has these obligations in respect of EU legislation and directives.
As Chairman, I perceive that we are hiding behind certain directives. We are saying that there is a statutory obligation and that statutory consents are required. This has been very enlightening because it has highlighted the clear line of demarcation that seems to exist between Departments in respect of who holds the can.
The times in which we are living are not as constrained as 2011. Considering the figures of €1.34 million and €1.7 million in their entirety in the context of overall Government expenditure, one would be hopeful that all stakeholders could come to some agreed, co-ordinated and unified position in tandem with the stakeholders on the ground so that this could be funded. I fail to understand what the €350,000 will buy. We have heard from TJ O'Connor and Associates and White Young Green. There have been other reports on the needs in this regard. For the sake of argument, we will call what is on the table a northern relief pass. There is also a repair and restoration project. They represent two discrete budget lines. The council says that it does not have the funding to carry out either project. It has extended its lámh amach to the Minister for a few bob, a small amount of money, for more consultation. Does it not understand why the people of Fermoy are exasperated and weary at this stage?
Mr. Kevin Morey:
As to what we get for the €350,000, all we have to date is a non-intrusive assessment. We have had a condition survey, which involves people looking at the exterior of the weir and assessing its condition. If we are to progress a project here, there will be a significant amount of work involved in geotechnical assessment and in carrying out slip trenches through the weir to assess its structure and foundation. That will all have to feed into all of the necessary interactions with a plethora of parties who are statutory consultees or who are required to give approval for what we want to do. That whole process is both time consuming and expensive. It all feeds into the central application to An Bord Pleanála. There is consultation associated with that, which will include consultation with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, Inland Fisheries Ireland, Transport Infrastructure Ireland, the Office of Public Works, and so on. That is a time-consuming and costly operation. There are no two ways about it.
Everybody, including the various stakeholders here, agrees that Cork County Council owns the structure and has responsibilities in respect of heritage, conservation, protecting local amenity, and the migration of fish under the habitats directive and the water framework directive. If the Department of the Minister, Deputy Murphy, is saying, as I interpret it, that it is an issue for the OPW or Inland Fisheries Ireland, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment is saying that it is a matter for the council, and the OPW is saying that it is not a matter for its office, it seems that all roads lead back to the council. In the absence of any signal from the witnesses representing the line Departments or of a political cheque being written, is it beyond the bounds of possibility that this could be funded through an EIB loan facility? I am not playing devil's advocate here. I am trying to find a solution or to find some ground on which we can start talking about solutions. Would Cork County Council consider such a proposal?
Mr. Niall Healy:
The seeking out of this loan facility shows how proactive the council is in trying to secure funding from a range of sources. We have a range of competing needs and demands. We recognise that this is probably the biggest single issue for Fermoy as the river is the centrepiece of the town and a good deal of economic development and tourism activity derives from it. There are, however, a series of terms and conditions attached to that EIB financing. There are a number of funding partners involved. A series of prerequisites must be met.
To unpack what Mr. Healy has said, the loan facility is not guaranteed. It has not been secured and therefore the repair and restoration of the weir and fish pass is not being considered as a potential project to fund through it. Is that a fair assumption?
It falls outside it. That is the unambiguous answer I am looking for. If it cannot be funded through the loan facility, we are now back to either the local authority's own resources or central government. It is effectively one or the other. Is that a fair assessment?
Mr. Niall Healy:
We have a capital programme for three years, but because this project is not co-financed by any other Department or arm of Government, it does not fall directly within it. For this particular project we are depending on revenue and resources which are limited and which are committed across a range of programme groups. We have done our part in identifying seed funding to get the process started because we are looking at an 18-month design period and cannot afford to lose any further time. That is very clear. The people of Fermoy are very clear in articulating that.
Mr. John Sydenham:
I have been involved in other committees, as the clerk to the committee will confirm. The Chairman has outlined the central problem, which is that each Department or entity gets an allocation to carry out certain works. Once an activity falls outside of that allocation, there is a problem. There is no mechanism for situations like this which would allow us to go straight to central government, make the case, and get funding. That is the problem in a nutshell. Previous speakers have outlined the complexity. It is not as straightforward as going in and repairing the weir. There are many consents to be secured and EU regulations to be got around. As is the case for many things, a solution and a way forward can be found, but that will bring us to the ultimate challenge, which is finding the money. Perhaps the stakeholders should get together and make a joint application to Government seeking funding for this. Our people did some assessment of the condition of the weir. As Cork County Council outlined, we does not know what will be found or what it will cost once we get in but it will be reasonably expensive to get this done properly. The ultimate question is where we get the money. That is the challenge.
Mr. Kevin Morey:
I will address the earlier question about the process for European funding. Cork County Council has engaged with potential lenders about an indicative programme. We have given indications of the types of interventions that might be involved. These will be dictated by the standards of the banks, which will consider particular interventions and an initiative where we can demonstrate a benefit to the town in terms of growth. We have an indicative list but it does not have specifics locked in.
I think I understand what Mr. Morey is saying. We live in a world of couched language here. Will Mr. Morey distil his point so that I can internalise and understand it? Is he saying that the parameters or loan criteria are being set out in general terms?
Mr. Kevin Morey:
Yes. The projects that will be funded under that loan arrangement, if it comes to pass, will be an ongoing matter with reference to our capital programme in the county. We will start with the three-year capital programme which is in place. That is a baseline and it does not have Fermoy weir on it, for example.
We are back to central government again. There is a political prerogative which has to be brought to bear here. That seems to be the bottom line. Rather than concluding matters here, with the agreement of the committee, I suggest that we have to digest what has been said. Some of us are familiar with this issue and have an overview of it because we have had meetings at individual level with the witnesses over the years. I believe that this may be the first time that all of the stakeholders have come into one room and given their positions. We now know what those positions are, as frustrating as it may be to hear him, although I say that respectfully. We are talking about individual silos and not a cross-governmental approach to this. I accept the witnesses' bona fides. They all have vast experience and we have had personal experience of that in the past, with quite robust interactions in some instances. With the permission of the one member who remains, Deputy Buckley, I propose to express our gratitude and then take the witnesses' submissions under advisement and consider them further. Perhaps the committee will then draw up a set of conclusions based on the submissions received. The petition would remain open. Did Ms O'Brien wish to speak again?
Ms Cliona O'Brien:
The Chairman mentioned that all the stakeholders are in the room. If the reinstatement of the weir is primarily for the tourism and recreation purposes of the people in Fermoy, which we take seriously, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport may have the capability to fund the reinstatement. I have no idea whether it has an allocation in its Vote but it is now present.
Ms O'Brien has just opened another silo but we will engage with the Department. The witnesses will all be back in three weeks and officials of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport will be here. I appreciate Ms O'Brien's intervention.
We are trying to distil this and reach a fair assessment of what the positions are. Some of us have been living and breathing this issue and the people of Fermoy know the issue inside out at this stage. It should be accepted that there is one stakeholder group that involves local angling and rowing interests and has an interest in local amenities, including providing for people with disabilities. Rowing has become a key sport in the country and we have to recognise Fermoy's status in that regard. The Munster Blackwater is a key reference river for salmon, although there are questions about that status. We all want to find a solution and we will all work with Government to that end.
I propose that we leave the petition open. I thank the witnesses for attending. I believe all documents, no matter how indicative they are, even drawings or schematics that have been laid before us, should be placed in the public domain. That includes the local authority document but the witnesses can discuss that with their colleagues. It does not necessarily mean that they will be interpreted by people accessing them in the public domain in a literal fashion if it is clearly communicated that the documents from the consulting engineers, TJ O'Connor & Associates, are merely indicative high level documents and are not to be interpreted any other way. I note the request that the witnesses have made about not having these be published on the website. I ask that they reconsider that. The committee tries to publish all materials and keep everything online so that everybody has access. The witnesses' public statement has been to the effect that it is a high level document and not a finished document. The witnesses might consider that, if Mr. Morey and Mr. Healy want to come back to us.
We will send the opening statements to the petitioner. We intend to keep the petition open because there is more work to be done on this. We are genuinely grateful to the witnesses for attending and giving their time. This is our final meeting before the recess. I thank everybody who has submitted a petition and those who have attended. I thank the staff in the secretariat who do an excellent job in preparing documents and interfacing with the public. They are the A team in that regard. I thank all of the staff who record these proceedings and our press people. Much work goes into preparing a committee meeting and I acknowledge those who work on our behalf.