Dáil debates

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Job Creation

Coastal Protection.

12:00 pm

Photo of P J SheehanP J Sheehan (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise the important issue of a restriction on the amount of sea lettuce that can be removed from the beaches at Inchydoney and Courtmacsherry and the coastline of Clonakilty Bay and Courtmacsherry Bay in south west Cork, which have been blighted by huge swathes of rotting and noxious smelling green tide with its foul odour being detectable up to 4 km inland. There is a proposal by a commercial operator to use the dried ulva as an ingredient for animal and fish feed by operating a €1.5 million drying and processing facility in south west Cork, which would create local employment and remove this dangerous scourge from the beaches and coves of these two bays.

I understand that a progress report has been completed by the local task force and this has been submitted to the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources for consideration. I have been invited to a briefing on the report on Friday week by Cork County Council. I have raised this issue because that it has been reported that a limit of 50 tonnes has been proposed in this report on the amount that can be removed by commercial operations for use, while it has been scientifically calculated that up to 200,000 tonnes is washed ashore annually in south west Cork.

Sea lettuce has been an ongoing problem since first recorded in 1995. One reporter described it as follows:

The other morning the vast lawns of sea lettuces looked beautiful in the sunlight, like dark green golf courses or the Serengeti after the first annual rain. However, when it dries over the cord grass it appears like stretched grey skin with ribs protruding from beneath. The Serengeti suddenly seems to be ringed with corpses of dead elephants.

Last August, unprecedented amounts of this algae sea lettuce washed up on the beaches of Brittany, France, causing a major public health scare as it decomposed. The rotting leaves produced large quantities of hydrogen sulphide, a toxic gas. In one incident a horse rider lost consciousness and his horse died after breathing the seaweed fumes. In another incident, a lorry driver passed out, crashed and died, with toxic fumes claimed to be the cause.

Sea lettuce is not only an environmental nuisance, but is potentially lethal. I do not want reports going right around the world of tourists deaths in my constituency, Cork South West, because a bureaucratic committee decided to pussy foot around the issue. The cause of this problem has been identified in a report commissioned by the EPA and sitting gathering dust in its offices since March 2007 as nutrient enrichment provided by sewage and animal waste. The operator behind the proposed industrial development is considering an alternative site in Brittany, France, to base his operations if he is not allowed to commence operations here as he needs the go ahead soon to commence operations for this year. We cannot afford to lose these jobs, which are badly needed in this area. The operator and his company would do us a favour by removing the sea lettuce before it stinks to the high heavens. By removing the sea lettuce they will save Cork County Council hundreds of thousands of euro in clean up operations.

I call on the Minister to publish the EPA report immediately in order that the remedies can be tackled, including the installation of sewage treatment facilities. I doubt he will have the resources during the rest of his term of office of two years and one week from today, provided the Government goes the full term, and, therefore, I ask him not to put a limit on the amount of sea lettuce that can be removed for commercial purposes rather than sitting on his hands and letting this problem rot for another 15 years. I want to go home to my people in west Cork at the end of this week and say the Minister has taken a small step in the right direction. His remaining time in office is short and, therefore, the time for action is now. He should publish the EPA report, licence the removal of the sea lettuce and pursue the commissioning of sewage treatment plants in this area.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister of State with special responsibility for European Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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That was a spirited performance as ever from the Deputy. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle and I were raised within sight, sound and smell of the Safe in Wexford. We are fully familiar with the problem of sea lettuce. The Deputy waxed eloquently about how it looks when the tide is coming in in the early morning but anybody who has been in the vicinity of a large amount of sea lettuce when the tide is out will recognise the Deputy's description of its noxious nature.

Accumulations of sea lettuce have become an increasing nuisance and this is recognised by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Sea lettuce is a naturally occurring seaweed that can multiply and reach very high volumes where conditions are favourable. Large deposits on beaches are unsightly and where allowed to decay can present a potential health hazard. Fishing interests too have reported their equipment becoming fouled by the seaweed while it is still waterborne. In recent years, Cork County Council has removed sea lettuce from the affected beaches but the problem in 2009 grew to such an extent that a more sustainable approach was required. Some 10,000 tonnes of sea lettuce was washed up on the beaches in the vicinity of Clonakilty Bay.

My colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who up to January of this year had responsibility for all foreshore matters, recognised the impact that this phenomenon was having on locals and tourists in west Cork and established a task force to examine this problem in October 2009. The taskforce was asked to advise on the scientific, engineering, public safety and policy aspects relevant to the management and control of the sea lettuce problem.

As the Deputy indicated, the taskforce was made up of representatives from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, the EPA, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Cork County Council and the Health Service Executive, under the chairmanship of Dr. Terry McMahon of the Marine Institute. I understand that the taskforce has now completed its work and the Minister, Deputy Gormley, expects to receive its report shortly.

The Deputy has raised the question of whether a limit has been placed on the amount of sea lettuce that can be removed from the beaches for the purposes of processing into fish feed. I can advise him that no such limit has been imposed - by either the Department or the local authority. I also understand that the taskforce report will not make any recommendations relating to limiting the removal of sea lettuce. Deputy Sheehan can go home happy this week. A person who swims every day knows the problem of sea lettuce.

Photo of P J SheehanP J Sheehan (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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I hope the Minister of State will not let the report gather dust in his office.

Photo of Dick RocheDick Roche (Minister of State with special responsibility for European Affairs, Department of Foreign Affairs; Minister of State, Department of An Taoiseach; Wicklow, Fianna Fail)
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It is not in my office. However, I accept the undertaking is important to Deputy Sheehan and his constituents. It is important to remember that the priority must be the safeguarding of the beaches and those who use them in the summer. These beaches, including Inchydoney blue flag beach, are key to west Cork tourism and must be protected. I understand that water conditions may soon again be favourable for growth of the lettuce and the removal of the material from the beaches must be undertaken promptly. While the Minister, Deputy Gormley, is concerned that any possible solutions to the disposal of the material will fully exploit the potential for reuse or recycling of the sea lettuce, I am sure the Deputy will agree that the early removal of the material is of prime importance.

As regards the plan to tackle the problem this summer, I am advised that Cork County Council intends to be in full readiness for the clean-up and disposal operation when it is required. The council has already sought expressions of interest from commercial interests on the most efficient means of disposal of the sea lettuce. As Deputy Sheehan heads back down to that beautiful part of this country the news is probably more positive than it was when he started speaking tonight.

Photo of P J SheehanP J Sheehan (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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Actions speak louder than words.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 28 April 2010.