Thursday, 11 July 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Bord na Móna
Some 24 days ago the Government published the climate action plan which referred to a just transition. That seems to have been ignored today as 148 employees from counties Roscommon and Longford, 72 of them permanent staff, are to be laid off by Bord na Móna. The justification for these lay-offs just does not add up. There have been long shut downs of Lanesborough and Shannonbridge power stations in the past, but these never resulted in the laying off of all seasonal and permanent staff.
The very least those 148 staff and their families deserve now is honesty and answers to the following questions. Has Bord na Móna delivered its contracted tonnage to the ESB under the public service obligation agreement? This lay-off comes after the lay-off of 100 staff by the ESB in Moneypoint due to the price of carbon emissions. Peat has a higher level of carbon emissions than coal. Is this the real reason peat production is to cease in Mountdillon? What is the opening stock of saleable peat on the Mountdillon bogs at the start of this season and what is that figure today? Why is production ceasing when only 62% of the harvest target has been achieved to date?
The justification that has been given for the closure of the plant is the Environmental Protection Agency's change of regulation relating to licensing. That change took place in 2013. It took the ESB five years to set out alternative options and five years to seek an alteration to that licence. That excuse does not stand up. The employees deserve answers to the questions I have raised.
In addition to the 75 full-time workers and 48 seasonal workers, 50 other subcontract workers are affected by this, such as lorry drivers and people not employed by Bord na Móna who now have no job either as a result of this announcement.
For about 30 years this hot water has been going into the river. As has been pointed out, this licensing debacle has been ongoing since 2013. Why, all of sudden, have we decided to shut it down and create more unemployment when it is because of the Government, through Bord na Móna, that 400 jobs have already gone and there will be 200 more now. The vision was supposed to be to 2027 and that it would then take two more years to use up the peat held in stock. Unfortunately, there is something that does not look right about this. Yesterday we listened to Deputy Dooley speak about the closure of the Moneypoint plant and now we have the closure of the power station in Lanesborough. What will be next? Is there an underlying trend or desire on the part of the Government and semi-State bodies to get rid of the power stations in the likes of Lanesborough, Shannonbridge and Moneypoint? We understand, as rightly pointed out, that there is a need for a just transition, but there is nothing about the 200 workers who had jobs a few days ago in an area that has not been focused on to ensure other employment will be created. Bord na Móna brought people to meetings who spoke about different ideas. They are five and seven years away, but to put food on the table the families in question need work. They deserve answers and want them now.
A total of 150 jobs are gone and it is a total shock. None of the Oireachtas Members or councillors knew anything about this until the news started to filter out this morning. It is deplorable and unacceptable. We might be talking about the hot water coming from the power station in Lanesborough, but by God, the Government is in hot water over this decision. As Deputies Fitzmaurice and Naughten pointed out, it is all very strange. Certain questions have been asked of the Government by the previous speakers and we have more. Before I get into them, I want the Minister to realise this is not just about 150 people. Today I was calculating with my brother who is a councillor and we estimated that 600 or 700 people would be affected by this decision. Think of the poor students who are trying to raise a few bob to go back to college. Think of the part-time farmers and others in part-time work who for years have relied on Bord na Móna and were taken on, as they thought in good faith, this year, but all of sudden - bang - they have been taken out of the equation. That is not acceptable in anybody's terms and it will not be accepted by the people of the region or their representatives. As Deputy Naughten pointed out, the decision affects counties Longford and Roscommon. What is the status of the planning application submitted to Longford County Council to extend the life of the plant for a period of years? We all know that there has to be change, but change can only come over a period of years with co-operation and assistance and everyone working together. Like Deputy Fitzmaurice, I have grave doubts about this story and how it is being developed. Honest and direct answers are needed without delay.
The decision this morning to lay off 148 people will have a devastating impact on those to be laid off, their families, the community of Lanesborough and much further afield. To my mind, the State bodies, comprising the ESB, the EPA and Bord na Móna, have been negligent in their attitude in dealing with these employees. They have failed them. They have failed loyal employees who have worked hard for the State; many of their families have done so for generations.
The ESB was first made aware of the change to the regulations on water discharges back in 2013. Why did it only recently submit an application to the planning authority? Will the Minister confirm whether it was withdrawn and had to be resubmitted because the first was not of good enough quality? We know that there has to be change, but the employees were promised, as some of the previous speakers said, a just transition to 2027. This is far from a just transition. There is a fear that there is a sinister attempt to use the EPA to close down the plant. The people want the truth which they deserve it. What is the bigger picture for the plant and the employees? When was the Minister made aware of this decision? What has he done to date to try to prevent the decision from becoming a reality? This morning he Minister was asked by two of my colleagues to bring the three organisations together to see whether the matter could be resolved in a timely fashion. Has he done so and, if not, why not? When will he bring the three organisations together? What supports are being put in place today for the affected families?
I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. I understand the concern expressed locally. It is an appalling shock for workers to receive notice that they have been put on protective notice as a result of decisions made. As the Deputies know, last month the ESB shut down the Lough Ree power generating station to carry out planned maintenance. The generating station was due to return to service last weekend, but the decision was taken on Friday, 5 July, to defer this for up to a three-month period in order to address environmental and legal issues. As a result, Lough Ree power generating station does not require peat supplies from Bord na Móna. This has had an immediate and adverse knock-on effect on Bord na Móna which has been left with no choice but to cease all operations at the Mount Dillon bog and place the 72 permanent fuIl-time employees and 76 seasonal employees on protective notice. The 148 impacted on staff will remain on a temporary unpaid lay-off from Thursday, 18 July, until Bord na Móna is informed by the ESB that Lough Ree power generating station will return to normal operations. This is expected to take a period of between four and 12 weeks
Bord na Móna fully acknowledges the impact the deicison will have on employees, their families and the wider community. The company has arranged a meeting tomorrow morning with the group of unions to work through the process and review all options. I am sure some of the questions raised about stocks will be answered at that meeting. Bord na Móna has committed to ensuring a range of supports will be available for the affected employees. All relevant State supports will also be made available to the workers impacted on by the announcement.
The situation has arisen from an issue with the integrated pollution control licence issued to Lough Ree power generating station. In 2018 the ESB applied to the EPA for a licence review for the station. A key facet of the application relates to amending the conditions imposed by the EPA in 2013 on the cooling water discharged by the station. The ESB has sought the amendment as monitoring of the river profile has shown that the station cannot comply with the new conditions during the summer months when river levels are lower. I understand that because it is a full licence review the EPA has had to have full consultations, which has meant that the application has taken some time to process. The EPA is considering the application and has requested a time extension of a further three months for its deliberations. I understand that last year, on foot of emissions in the summer of 2018, legal proceedings were issued against ESB in respect of the operation of the plant. It is in that context that the ESB has made the decision to keep Lough Ree power generating station shut down to avoid leaving the company open to the risk of further prosecutions over the operation of the plant. The ESB has its responsibilities, but I am nonetheless monitoring the situation closely. The EPA is an independent body that must make its decisions based on the processes set out in law.
It has conducted the necessary consultations and will, I understand, bring this to their board in due course for a decision in as timely a manner as possible. It has undoubtedly come as a major blow to have this occur when we are seeing a difficult transition from brown to green, as Bord na Móna describes it. It is acknowledged that the company is undertaking significant efforts to diversify and find new opportunities. As recently as last week, I was pleased to open one of those operations. Regarding the PSO, I have been advised that it has time to run and will continue to the end of 2019.
The stories from the ESB, Bord na Móna and the EPA do not add up. My understanding is that the contracted tonnage has already been achieved. I ask the Minister to get answers to the questions I have raised and I would like a copy of those replies as well. Some 400 families are directly dependent on Lough Ree power station. Hundreds more are indirectly reliant on those jobs. We need an immediate transition fund of €125 million to be established. That is 5% of the climate action, rural regeneration and urban regeneration funds ring-fenced to provide alternative jobs for employees of Bord na Móna, the ESB and the communities dependent on those jobs. That must be approved by the Cabinet before the end of this month. We can then leverage that fund to get EU and European Investment Bank, EIB, funding to make a real difference to the local economy right throughout the midland counties.
The Minister should acknowledge that there are more than 150 jobs affected. Do people who are subcontractors not matter? It is always the case that no one thinks about the people in the lorries, the people who supply the lorries, the mechanics and the people in the shops who will be affected by this in the surrounding areas. Bord na Móna was left in an awkward position. I agree with Deputy Naughten on a transitional fund. We need to get to the root of this situation, however. Why, when planning was pending, could the power station not continue working? This has been going on since 2013. Is there a hidden agenda to wipe out the peat stations in Lanesborough and Shannonbridge and then take out Moneypoint as well? I want a straight answer to that.
The Minister can be in no doubt now after hearing the words of Deputies Naughten, Fitzmaurice, Troy and myself. This really is not good enough. The Minister spoke in his reply about the station being closed for up to three months. This issue must be acted on now. I call on the Minister, and his colleague, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Humphreys, to intervene in this situation. We cannot keep treating human beings in this manner. If this is the way that we are going to try and achieve our green agenda, it is not on. As I said earlier, that must be done by co-operation and people working together and not by sacrificing people's livelihoods. Many people in our region are going to be struggling because of this situation. Will the Minister become involved directly? Will the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, become involved directly as well? I challenge the Minister in regard to the situation of seasonal workers such as students, part-time farmers and part-time employees in other jobs. Will he ask the ESB, the EPA and Bord na Móna to try and place some of those seasonal workers in other jobs? Let us try to do that for them at least. It can be done if the will is there to do it.
As has been said, contradicting stories have come from the three different agencies. That is why they need to be brought into one room so that they cannot contradict the stories. The Minister is the person to do that. Since this issue was made known in 2013, why has it taken five years for the ESB to make an application? Where does that application stand now? When will we have a decision on that application? My understanding, and the Minster mentioned this in his reply, is that it will be as soon as possible. There are no statutory limits that the EPA must meet to make a decision within a specified time, in the same way as there are on the county councils and An Bord Pleanála. We need to have something like that. There is a need for transition and we must diversify. No one is arguing with that. It cannot be done overnight, however. What is the long-term plan for this plant? Is there a sinister attempt here to close it down in order to meet our climate targets? That simply cannot happen and we cannot play with people's lives. That is what is happening now. What supports are going to be put in place here and now for the families affected by this closure?
I assure Deputy Troy that the EPA has independent powers and, in the context of a full licence review of this nature, it is required to conduct a full environmental impact assessment, EIA. That is required. It is also required to have public consultation. The EPA, therefore, is meeting the obligations of its governing legislation. It is not for me to interfere in how it conducts that business. I will convey to all of the parties involved the urgency concerning this issue to which Deputies have referred. It is, however, a responsibility of each body to meet its obligations. That includes the obligations to meet the conditions of an integrated pollution control licence. I am conscious that the ESB is being prosecuted for its failures in that respect. This issue arose last summer. That is the backdrop to this issue.
I will seek some more information for the Deputies regarding the tonnages involved. Turning to the just transition, I recognise that is going to be a challenge for some time. We have to ensure that we support workers who are facing change. That means supporting them in retraining and in making an exit if they decide to cease work in this area. We must also develop new opportunities. To be fair to Bord na Móna, it has been exemplary in seeking to develop opportunities in a decarbonising world. It has sought to open up new generation capacity in the renewables' sector and it is also examining the waste management and resource recovery sectors. That sector is one where the company can develop opportunities. It is also looking at aquaculture and various horticultural projects.
It is clear that the regional enterprise strategies are also targeting supports to those very opportunities because there is a recognition of the need to develop those opportunities. There will also be support from the urban, rural, regional enterprise and climate action funds in response to proposals coming forward from regions adversely affected in respect of assisting with viable projects. That is the correct way to proceed. As the Deputies know, I have sought at EU level to have peat included in the same category as coal. The EU has set up technical support for regions seeking to transit out of coal and that are impacted by that transition. I am proceeding on all of those fronts to develop effective polices to support workers affected by the impact of the change that is coming. I assure the Deputies that there is no sinister agenda on my part. We have to make changes, as the Deputies have recognised. We are seeking to do that in an orderly way and to support people where they are particularly exposed to the impact of the changes that are coming.