Tuesday, 20 June 2017
Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter. I thank the relevant Minister, Deputy Denis Naughten, for coming in. I raised this previously and on that occasion it was dealt with by the Minister for Education and Skills who was standing in for him. I am glad he is here that I can bring it to his personal attention.
Irish Cement Limited has plans to burn initially 90,000 tonnes of toxic waste at its plant in Castlemungret, Mungret, County Limerick. There are 25,000 living in the immediate vicinity of that plant on the south side of Limerick city. This particular plant has an appalling safety record. There have been regular malfunctions and blow outs over several years and especially in recent months. In that context, my constituents are naturally very reluctant to accept any assurances coming from Irish Cement Limited.
I have had meetings with Irish Cement Limited on this matter. We have listened to what its spokesman have had to say. Its argument is that there are four cement plants on the island of Ireland - one is across the Border - three have moved from burning fossil fuel to burning industrial and toxic waste, so what is the problem with a fourth one doing so? It also argues that this process is wide spread throughout Europe and other parts of the world and that it has worked well, particularly in Germany. That argument leaves out a number of factors. First, it leaves out the extra filtration and mitigating equipment used in Germany, which is not proposed to be used here. More crucially, it also leaves out that fact that since various countries allowed this process, in accordance with rules formulated to cover it, science has moved on. In several European countries where this process takes place, particularly Spain, they have realised the danger it constitutes to public health and there has been a storm of protest. We cannot just swallow the argument that because they are there and they operate in accordance with the rules in operation when they applied. That does not mean they are not killing people or damaging them.
There is a wealth of scientific evidence that shows a very close connection between various forms of cancer and respiratory diseases and proximity to this type of operation. I am advised by people who know a lot more about this than I do, that the burning of toxic waste in a cement plant is infinitely more dangerous to the environment than a traditional incinerator. Irish Cement Limited have also claimed that burning this so-called alternative fuel, namely industrial waste, will reduce the carbon footprint. It will do nothing of the sort. I do not have time to illustrate why this statement is another sham but even if it did reduce the carbon footprint it would still be counterproductive because it results in an increase in the toxins and fluorines released into the atmosphere.
Limerick City & County Council, in its wisdom, has given planning permission for this plant to go ahead. The case is on appeal to An Bord Pleanána. Then it will be a matter for the EPA. I know my time has run out, but what I am asking the Minister is whether we cannot get this delayed until we review at least how the EPA is operating. He will be aware that there are numerous complaints about the EPA. It needs additional resources, additional ground rules and additional expertise. Seeing that science has shown us the dangers to public health of these operations elsewhere in the world, why should we allow one to go ahead here? The usual practice of the EPA is to give the go-ahead, the licence, if planning permission is granted, which calls into question, incidentally, what the EPA is for in the first place.
I firmly endeavour, in so far as I can, to be physically present for debates such as this.
It is understood that the facility to which the Deputy refers has submitted a proposed amendment to its licence to use certain waste materials as part of its fuel mix as raw materials in the manufacture of cement.
Industrial emissions installations are subject to a range of regulatory controls under national legislation, including the conditions attached to a licence issued by the Environmental Protection Agency on the operation and management of such sites. The Minister has no function in monitoring or enforcing the conditions attached to such licences and is precluded from exercising any power or control in respect of the performance by the Environmental Protection Agency, in particular in circumstances of a statutory function conferred on the agency. An application for a licence or an amendment to a licence must satisfy the EPA that the activity will not cause environmental pollution when carried out in accordance with the licence conditions.
The role of the Minister in respect of waste management is to provide a comprehensive legislative and policy framework through which the relevant regulatory authorities, such as local authorities and the Environmental Protection Agency, operate. The Government waste policy is set out in A Resource Opportunity - Waste Management Policy in Ireland and is predicated on the waste hierarchy, whereby the prevention, preparation for reuse, recycling and recovery of waste is preferred to the disposal of waste.
Thermal recovery activities, where the use of waste is to produce energy in the form of fuel, heat and power, sit on the recovery tier of the waste hierarchy and have a role to play in reducing our dependence on the disposal of waste to landfill. The State has made real progress in this regard. Landfill of municipal solid waste has decreased from 92% in 1995 to 41% in 2012.
In terms of national policy, the production of solid recovered fuel, SRF, from municipal waste and its use in thermal recovery is a better alternative to burying it in the ground, which is not only detrimental to the environment in terms of managing the resultant leachate and greenhouse gas emissions, but also detrimental to the creation of jobs and energy through the development of recycling and recovery processes.
Regarding cement production, the recovery of SRF and other specified waste streams under strictly regulated conditions can replace our reliance on imported fossil fuels, reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and help our transition to a more circular and resource-efficient economy.
As I stated earlier, the operation and monitoring of the facility is a matter for the relevant statutory authorities, including the Environmental Protection Agency, and I am satisfied the plant is subject to the proper regulatory controls.
Is the Minister satisfied? Is he aware of the criticisms of the EPA, namely, that it is insufficiently staffed, has insufficient expertise and operates a kind of self-regulation system whereby companies, such as Irish Cement Limited, monitor their own omissions and report occasionally to the EPA? He will find that when the emission levels are shown to have been exceeded, often the sensors are blamed and it is cited that they are contaminated. I have seen this myself. How many prosecutions have resulted from investigations by the EPA? Has a licence granted ever been withdrawn? I want answers to these questions and I want to know whether the Government has any plans to up the performance of the EPA.
Can the Minister offer any comfort whatsoever to my constituents? So far, 2,500 people have objected to the issue of the EPA licence. People are very scared. I am dealing with them regularly. We have had a number of large public meetings. I have walked around some of the estates in the immediate vicinity of the cement plant and I have seen the physical consequences: the white dust on cars, etc. I found it difficult to breathe after walking around the estate immediately adjoining the cement plant one day. People tell me constantly that while the EPA is pretty busy and while its representatives come up when contacted, etc., nothing is happening. The same things keep recurring. Now we are in the process of moving from burning fossil fuels to burning this industrial toxic waste, and people are scared out of their wits. Can the Minister say anything to me that will enable me to go back to these people and reassure them to some degree?
The Deputy raises a number of matters. First, it is not industrial or toxic waste; it is solid recovered fuel, which is material from municipal waste across the country. I wish to be quite clear about that. Toxic waste must be dealt with outside of this country.
To come to the other specific points the Deputy has raised, I understand where he is coming from regarding the issue of policing, but the reality is that the EPA has issued enforcement proceedings against a number of businesses. I do not have the figures off the top of my head but I will get them for him. It has forced the closure of a particular business in this country because of the impact of its operations on air quality, so yes, it has used its teeth. However, the primary focus of the EPA is to make an operation compliant rather than close it. Nonetheless, it has closed operations in the past.
As well as the monitoring of individual premises, we are now doubling the number of air quality monitoring stations across the country. Therefore, it will be possible not only to look at the individual site, but also to see the trends regarding air quality right across the country. This information will be available on the EPA website.
I have listened to what the Deputy has said and I will pass on a copy of the transcript of this debate to the EPA and ask it to respond directly to the concerns he has raised in the House. As he knows, while the EPA is under my authority, I cannot direct it on this matter. It is not within my competence to do so because the legislation as set out and passed by the Oireachtas is that the EPA is entirely independent of the Department and I am constrained under the provisions of subsections 79(3) and 86(5) of the EPA Acts from becoming involved in any way in the licensing of installations. Nonetheless, I will ask the EPA to respond directly to today's debate.