Wednesday, 18 December 2019
Environmental Policy: Motion [Private Members]
We have a responsibility to pass on this planet to the next generation in at least as good, if not better, condition than we received it. We have a symbiotic relationship with the planet and the environment. Even if we have no regard for the rich diversity of animals and plants on the planet, if we damage the planet we damage ourselves in the long run. As a generation we have degraded the planet and the environment like never before. For all the greenwashing, the photo opportunities and the hollow language about sustainability, we are unsurpassed as a generation in actively destroying the environment. The numbers of insects, reptiles, amphibians and mammals are all in retreat. We are also poisoning our own citizens. This has been discussed here in the context of the number of people who are dying due to particulates in the atmosphere that lead to major respiratory problems.
I do not have a lot of time so I will speak to just a couple of the issues as they relate to the motion. I welcome that the Labour Party has tabled the motion. I specifically want to refer to the quarry industry. People may have seen the very interesting RTÉ "Prime Time Investigates" programme on this sector very recently. Perhaps the Minister could pay as much attention to the issue here because it blights many different families and communities in the State.
Litigation is being used as a tool by some owners to stop enforcement of legal standards and regulations by local authorities. The initiation and maintenance of litigation is allowing unauthorised quarries to continue because the matter is in the courts. While cases are being determined, unauthorised developments are being permitted to continue, sometimes to the point of exhaustion. It is interesting that the RTÉ "Prime Time Investigates" programme had a lot more detail it wanted to broadcast, which had to be pulled at the last minute due to threats of legal action over what the programme was about to do. I put it to the Minister that this is key. There is a logjam in our efforts to regulate the quarry industry. Unless it has ministerial focus I do not believe it will change whatsoever. Will the Minister institute legislative procedures to prevent litigation from being used as an excuse by local authorities not to enforce closure of illegal quarries and pits?
I shall give an example from my area in County Meath. A quarry in the county had an enforcement order served on it in 2013. A judicial review was brought against Meath County Council on the pretext that another case in Mayo was being determined. The unauthorised quarry in Meath was allowed to carry on. Now in 2019 it is alleged that the quarry owner is continuing to extract. What kind of rubbish system would allow a local authority to institute an enforcement order in 2013 and then have its hands tied for the next six years, while the alleged illegal practice continues unabated? That the whole system just stands idly by at the side and watches this happening is very frustrating.
One of the issues that came hopping off the screen during the RTÉ programme was the that local authorities do not have the resources or the competencies necessary to be able to do the job in this area. Will the Minister explain why enforcement notices are not enforced? Why are there no penalties whatsoever around the contempt of those court decisions? If there is no cost to the contempt of those decisions why would there be any interest in adhering to those court decisions? Why is it up to private individuals and NGOs to pursue enforcement of court decisions in the extractive industry? Why has it to be a neighbour or some environmentally aware local organisation protecting their community?
There is also a major problem with the finance around planning conditions. I would ask the Minister to have audits carried out to look at what finance is still outstanding to local authorities for the planning applications that have been submitted - or not submitted in some cases - by certain quarries. I do not want to blight all names of all quarries in the State because there are quarries that operate perfectly legally and in sync with the needs of their localities. Without such quarries we would grind to a halt in many areas of transport and industry. We need an overarching statutory body that carries out enforcement in this area. This would take it out of the hands of individuals, the NGOs and the local authorities.
I shall turn now to a tangential case, which is another example of the weakness of local authorities' ability to carry out enforcement. It applies to another case in County Meath that I have also raised with the Minister previously. The case had been brought before the Oireachtas Committee of Public Accounts. It surrounds an allegation of illegal dumping of possibly 56,000 tonnes of waste from road construction into a number of fields in south Meath. Meath County Council is the authority tasked with regulation of the enforcement in this area, yet the EPA has rejected a tier 1 and tier 2 assessment by Meath County Council of the site. I have spoken with the EPA on this. It is seeking legal advice on how to enforce the law in this regard. It has been, however, seeking this legal advice for a year. Why? It is because the EPA does not have the resources to be able to process the legal advice and the agency is hamstrung. There is absolutely no point in having legislation, law or regulation on anything in the State if we do not give the necessary enforcement authority the ability and the resources to enforce. It is necessary to have a national statutory body with the ability to enforce.
I want to touch on one other issue. It is very frustrating when we hear the Government talk of its environmental credentials. As an example I will cite the experience of Meath people again. This morning, more people left Meath to go to work than actually work in the county. It is a startling fact. It happens in none of the other 31 counties on the island that the majority of the workers leave their county to go to work as opposed to working in their own county. On average Meath people commute further than any other people when it comes to work commutes. This is because we have been left as a dormitory or commuter county that does not have the necessary industry. The Minister is a Meath man himself so he should be able to relate to this to a certain extent.
Navan is the biggest town in the country without a rail line. People are commuting up to three hours a day into Dublin for work. Many people are leaving Navan and County Meath before it is bright and they only get back when it is dark. People have told me that they just meet their kids on weekends because they do not get back from work on time to see them. Dublin and the commuter belt is grinding to a halt. A transport catastrophe is happening in the lives of so many people, which is worsening by the day. Proper public transportation is needed to alleviate this. We have called for a rail line to Navan for at least 20 years so the centre of the county can have a proper, environmentally friendly and efficient way to get into the city centre. This, however, has not been met with any positivity by the Government. Will the Minister be able to use his influence at the Cabinet table to start to push public transport and rail transport higher up the hierarchy of this Government's objectives?