Tuesday, 27 May 2008
Question 93: To ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the steps he has taken to introduce legislation that will apply the polluter pays principle to businesses and operators that damage the environment through their actions or failure to act in order that they would be made legally and financially accountable for the environmental damage they cause; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20788/08]
Question 121: To ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the position regarding the publishing of the Screening, Regulatory Impact Analysis of the Options for Transposing the Environmental Liability Directive; if there were submissions from the public; the timescale for publishing draft legislation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20790/08]
Question 125: To ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government when it is planned to bring in legislation that will ensure that if damage is caused to the environment by an oil spill from a ship, a leak from a chemical plant or damage from genetically modified organisms, those responsible for the environmental damage can be held legally and financially accountable; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20789/08]
Question 130: To ask the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the warnings or opinions Ireland has received from the European Commission on its failure to transpose the environmental liability directive; the steps that have been taken to respond to the European Commission; when the directive will be transposed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20787/08]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 93, 121, 125 and 130 together.
My Department has prepared a screening regulatory impact analysis on the options for transposing the EU environmental liability directive. This document is available on my Department's website, www.environ.ie. The views of interested parties were sought on it, and 29 responses were received from a varied group of respondents. These views have now been assessed. A summary of the views submitted will be published as part of the further consultation on the transposition of the directive.
Preparatory work on drafting the legal instrument for transposing the directive is under way in consultation with the Office of the Attorney General. I will publish the draft instrument for public consultation as soon as possible.
My Department has received, from the European Commission, a letter of formal notice and a reasoned opinion under Article 226 of the EU treaty about the transposition of the environmental liability directive. Responses to this correspondence issued to the Commission on 26 July 2007 and 31 March 2008, respectively. There has been no further correspondence from the Commission.
I thank the Minister for his reply and congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Finneran, on his appointment. The questions I put to the Minister relate to the need to transpose the environmental liability directive into Irish law. I have asked about this previously, most recently in December. At that stage, the Minister said he was preparing the screening referred to, that it was on his website, he was awaiting replies and preparatory work was already being done on the draft legislation. He has said more or less the same in his reply today, but has added that he has received 29 responses, will have further consultation and will then publish draft legislation as soon as possible.
We had three years from 2004 to transpose this legislation. The deadline for transposition was April 2007. A year ago we received a formal notice or first warning from the European Commission for not having met the deadline and transposed the law. The Minister responded to that notice on 26 July and this year received a reasoned opinion from the Commission, basically a preliminary to the Commission referring us to the European Court of Justice for our failure to transpose the legislation.
It is now almost four years since the directive was put in place. We missed the three-year deadline and now another year has passed. The Minister has been a year in the job and no progress has been made. If he was not in Government, this is the sort of delay the Minister would have said was a black mark against Ireland. The issue should be treated as urgent.
Why do we need this directive implemented? For example, if we had an oil spill off the coast — we have 1,600 km of coastline — like the one that occurred off the coast of France in 1999 when the ship Erica sank resulting in catastrophic damage to 400 km of the French coast and causing the death of tens of thousands of birds, we would have nothing in law to ensure the protection of our environment or to ensure that those responsible would be held legally and financially accountable. We need the directive implemented in order to deter operators of ships, incinerators and other facilities from causing damage to the environment. If it were implemented, they would know they would be held legally and financially accountable.
Why does the Minister not give more priority to this sort of issue? He is a Green Party Minister and the directive is about protecting the environment. The Minister could make his mark with this. He could put on the Statute Book something that would be there for good and protect the environment. However, he is just doing fiddly little things on climate change awareness and similar issues. Transposing the directive would be a concrete and significant move for the Minister. If he does not do it, he leaves us vulnerable as our environment may not be properly protected. What will he do about the situation?
Speaking about fiddly little moves, I noticed the Deputy had an interesting press release yesterday on the issue of clothes lines. The directive will be transposed by a combination of primary and secondary legislation. The timescale is dependent on the drafting and passage of the legislation, but I intend it will be completed before the end of 2008. As I said earlier, we will see what the Deputy has to say when it is completed. I wonder whether she will be complimentary then or whether she will find some other reason to criticise us, which I suspect will happen.
It is interesting that neither Deputy Tuffy nor Deputy Wall, who also submitted a question on this issue, made any submission on the regulatory impact analysis.
The Deputy seems to have misunderstood the situation relating to the directive. She gave an example of an oil spill from a ship. The environmental liability directive, ELD, precludes its application to environmental damage or to an imminent threat of such damage arising from an incident in respect of which liability or compensation falls within the scope of a number of conventions which are in force in the member states concerned.
Let me give a specific example. For Ireland, this includes the International Convention of 27 November 1992 on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage and the International Convention of 27 November 1992 on the Establishment of an International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage. Where the damage to the environment is not covered by these conventions and is assessed by the competent authority as environmental damage within the meaning of the ELD, the operator of the ship concerned will be subject to the liability provisions of the ELD. Therefore, the scenario outlined by the Deputy is already covered.
It should be noted that under the ELD, water damage only concerns specific waters, including the territorial seas, which extend approximately 12 nautical miles out from the coast, while damage to protected species and natural habitats under the ELD extends to the exclusive economic zones, the 200 mile exclusive fishery limit.
The issues referred to by the Deputy are already covered. We are undertaking a thorough process to deal with the directive. We will complete the legislation and it will be a combination of both primary and secondary legislation.
The directive was spurred on by the sinking of the Erica, which is why I gave it as an example. There are obviously specifics in the directive about exemptions and defences. If there was an oil spill or damage was caused to our coast or our waters or if our land was contaminated or operators of facilities with an IPCC licence damaged the environment, the legislation would mean they could be held financially responsible for the damage. Therefore, the Government could recover the costs, if for example there was a threat to wildlife. The Government launched a report a few weeks ago about the threats to many species in protected areas. What if environmental damage was caused to habitats in protected areas? The legislation needs to be in place to ensure the safety of such habitats. It can help prevent damage by acting as an incentive not to cause damage, but if necessary it can help to recover costs and hold those who cause the damage to account.
The Minister said he hopes to have the legislation in place by end-2008. While long overdue, it will be welcome then. The Minister has been in office a year and has not got it done yet. As far as I know, it is not on the Bills list, although it should be if it is to be introduced in 2008. I do not understand why the Government must have so many consultations about straightforward legislation. The consultation on this legislation has already been done. We have had the three years plus another year for it.
This is a European directive which must be transposed into Irish law, which should not be difficult to do. We do not need loads of consultations and submissions. The Labour Party does not see the need for all of that. That is playing for time. The Minister needs to get the legislation in place now. When exactly in 2008 will he do that?
The delay in the transposition has been due to the complexities of the directive and its interface with existing national environmental legislation. As the Deputy may know, 15 other member states, including the United Kingdom, are in a similar position to Ireland in not having transposed the ELD. I intend to do so and have spoken to the Commissioner on the issue. I have assured the Commissioner that it is my intention and top priority to ensure EU environmental directives are transposed. That and the question of infringements are most important. The Deputy is correct that I published a report on the habitats directive. It was a warts-and-all report which spelled out in much detail that there is some way to go in the protection of some sensitive species such as the freshwater pearl mussel which is on the brink of extinction. I outlined in detail the steps I am taking to ensure this does not happen.
While the Deputy claims we have been in government for 11 months but have not yet transposed any directives, we have given extra funding, an increase of 42%, to the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Parks and Wildlife Service so they have the means of protecting our habitats and species.
This is one of three directives, according to the Minister's reply, that is outstanding for transposition into environmental law. It is one of 29 infringements about which the Commission has been in contact with the Department. There is a strong possibility that Ireland may be referred to the European Court of Justice this year and fined if the legislation is not given priority. When does the Minister expect to hear from the Commission on this matter?
So far no steps have been taken to refer Ireland to the European Court of Justice. Next week, I will meet the Commissioner for the Environment, Stavros Dimas, in Luxembourg. We have met frequently to discuss this issue. On taking office I made it clear that my first priority was to meet the Commissioner to assure him that this Minister puts the transposition of EU directives at the top of his agenda. Without that legislation coming from Europe, this country would not have the environment it has. We are dependent on it and it is one more reason people should vote "Yes" to the Lisbon treaty.