Dáil debates

Thursday, 18 May 2006

Priority Questions.

Departmental Investigations.

3:00 pm

Photo of Mary UptonMary Upton (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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Question 2: To ask the Minister for Agriculture and Food her views on appointing an independent expert, agreed upon by her Department and a person (details supplied), to investigate the possible cause of high mortality of cattle and the low productivity of other animals on a person's farm; if she will ensure that all reports, test results and analyses carried out by or on behalf of her Department are made available to the owner of the farm; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18938/06]

Photo of Mary WallaceMary Wallace (Minister of State, Department of Agriculture and Food; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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My Department, with other agencies and the private veterinary practitioners of the person named, has been carrying out investigations to try to establish the source of the problems on the farm in question. The problems relate mainly to ill thrift and stunted growth of a number of cattle on the farm as well as severe milk yield loss in the dairy herd.

It had been suggested that one of the possible causes of the problems might relate to possible exposure of the cattle to fluorine being emitted from a nearby factory. My Department has examined this aspect and carried out elective and general post mortem examinations on some animals from the farm. The findings of the post mortems, coupled with results from live animals, have not provided any evidence to date that the problems reported on the farm are related to fluoride exposure.

It was also been agreed that a herd health programme would be developed by private veterinary practitioners of the person concerned supported by my Department to deal with endemic diseases in calves and mastitis in cows. This programme is ongoing. In addition, it was decided that further environmental, ecological and epidemiological work would be undertaken to seek to determine whether other factors might be uncovered to identify the source of the problem. This work involves experts from a number of academic institutions as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and my Department. The person named and his veterinary practitioners have also been involved.

In view of the expertise already engaged in this investigation and its ongoing nature, the appointment of an independent expert would not necessarily contribute in bringing the matter to a satisfactory conclusion. The person named has been kept fully informed of the Department's investigations and test results have been made available to his private veterinary practitioners. The Department will continue to keep them informed and provide access to results related to work carried out by or on behalf of the Department on the farm. I appreciate the difficult position of the person named in this ongoing matter and my Department will continue to give priority and assistance to the investigations in conjunction with other agencies.

Photo of Mary UptonMary Upton (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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The Minister of State will agree that this is an unusual case in that Teagasc, local veterinary practitioners and a UCD professor of forestry, Professor Gardiner, all agree that the problems on the farm in question are not related to farm management or nutritional factors. Professor Gardiner, for instance, indicated in his report that the problems are consistent with pollution damage.

One of the factors missing from this scenario is the information gathered by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA, in its commentary, states that while the company has exceeded the emissions levels specified in the licence, the level is within the specified margin of error. It is unacceptable that the company should exceed the specified emissions levels. Furthermore, the details on emissions levels and the EPA report have not been made available to the farmer in question. This information is crucial to enable him to make a decision on how to address the issue. For this reason, an independent inspector should be appointed, with the agreement of the Department and the farmer, to investigate the matter.

Photo of Mary WallaceMary Wallace (Minister of State, Department of Agriculture and Food; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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It has not yet been proven that pollution damage is the cause of the problems on the farm. It is clear from the reports available to the Department that no evidence of a fluorine problem has been found thus far. Investigations into this issue are ongoing and while results from EPA monitoring of emissions from the factory in question are becoming available, they have not yet been analysed. Preliminary indications suggest, however, that there has been little deposition on the farm and levels of fluorine have been barely detectable.

The Department hopes to arrange for 2 June another meeting attended by all the parties involved. It is also hoped the EPA will make available further information on its findings at this meeting and that the farmer, veterinary practitioners and officials from the Department and various agencies involved will be present. Several meetings have taken place since last August when the herd health programme, an important aspect of this case, was put in place.

The Department has great sympathy for the farmer concerned given all that he has experienced. We advise him to continue to take expert advice on the segregation of animals, feed trials and management of the farm while tests are ongoing. I hope the meeting on 2 June will provide further information on the environmental position.

Photo of Mary UptonMary Upton (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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I understand the farmer has fully co-operated with the Department and agencies on the feed trials and experiments taking place on his farm. The evidence suggests that all his farm practices are entirely in line with normal practice and should not have any impact on the problems experienced on his farm for several years. I am particularly concerned that the EPA has not provided scientific data it must have accumulated through its routine monitoring of fluorine, a substance proposed as one of the possible causes of the problems on the farm.

Professor Gardiner from UCD states that the die-back in relation to foliage does not appear to have been caused by any fungal, bacterial or insect pest and is consistent with pollution damage. This gives a clear indication of the professor's views on where the problem lies. I ask that the Department and EPA make every effort to monitor all aspects of pollution at the farm, including historical matters.

Photo of Mary WallaceMary Wallace (Minister of State, Department of Agriculture and Food; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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I assure the Deputy that the Department and all the players at the table, including the EPA, Teagasc and the veterinary faculty of UCD, will continue to make an important input into this issue and make every effort to resolve it. I stress, however, that no specific source of the problems on the farm in question has been identified to date, despite the commitment of considerable expert and financial resources by the Department and other agencies.

As regards management changes on the farm, hutches were provided to facilitate segregation of calves and funding was provided for the treatment of mastitis and a vaccination programme. A great deal of work has already been carried out and a new crop of calves is being monitored to assess the impact of segregation.

To clarify the position, while results from the EPA's monitoring of emissions are becoming available, they are still being analysed. The Department hopes more information will be made available at the next meeting on 2 June. Decisions were taken at the previous meeting on 9 February on other matters which could be assessed at that point and further work that could be undertaken on epidemiology, the ecology and the environment. The results of work carried out since that date should be available to the farmer at the 2 June meeting. Although there are difficulties in providing the farmer concerned with the results of tests as they become available, the EPA is still analysing data on emissions.

Photo of Mary UptonMary Upton (Dublin South Central, Labour)
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While the decision to hold a meeting on 2 June is welcome, I ask that these matters be expedited because the farmer in question has suffered for a long time for reasons which appear to be outside his control. This has cost him and his family an enormous amount of money, which is a matter of great concern.

Surely EPA results from continuous monitoring should have been made available. I am concerned that no results have been made available. I hope all the relevant data will be provided to the farmer at the meeting of 2 June.

Photo of Mary WallaceMary Wallace (Minister of State, Department of Agriculture and Food; Meath, Fianna Fail)
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I hope we emerge from the meeting on 2 June knowing much more than we do today. The Department's veterinary department is preparing a detailed report on all the work carried out on specific animals on the farm and other matters. A large number of people have carried out a considerable amount of work on this issue. More will be done, however, and there will be no difficulty in making available to the farmer information as it arises.