Dáil debates

Thursday, 16 December 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Coastal Zone Management

3:25 pm

Photo of Pat BuckleyPat Buckley (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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As the Minister will be aware, the MV Altaran aground in Ballycotten last February and unfortunately, it is still there. It has not been moved. It is a massive blight on the area of Ballycotten. We pride ourselves on the coastal area. It is also a health and safety issue that has been ongoing since last February and has not been addressed. I spoke to the landowner and contacted the Minister's Department last year.

A contractor would have gone down and removed the ship, with the permission of the landowner, but that was ignored. I have come back here again at the end of the year, unfortunately. I have read the report on the MV Altaby the Marine Casualty Investigation Board, MCIB. While I have read that, I have come across statements on the report by a barrister in which he stated "The Marine Casualty Investigation Board ... report into the grounding of the MV 'Alta' ... is deplorably deficient and should be withdrawn as a national embarrassment." I am quoting from this gentleman’s statement because it goes on to state that in the case of the MV Alta, the failure to make appropriate recommendations following previous incidents are the reasons for the current unnecessary problem. There is now, again, a failed MCIB report into the incident that cannot even identify the legal basis, we as a nation, have in place for such incidences. While the MCIB report states that the State is empowered by the Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks of 2007 to remove the wreck of the MV Alta, the review of that report notes that convention has not even been ratified yet, so the Department is coming from the wrong side. These are not my words but those of a review of the situation. It states that an issue arising from the MV Altagrounding is there was no indication that a derelict vessel was in Irish waters for some weeks. They reckon the ship was in Irish waters for approximately two months. A British naval vessel, however, had spotted the MV Altaafloat and Deputies may not be aware that the MV Altacame from somewhere over in the Caribbean.

I raise this matter because there have been other instances with marine tragedies over the years. The 35th anniversary of the MV Kowloon Bridgedisaster is coming up this month. As an island State, we seem to have no joined-up thinking when it comes to who is responsible for these wreckages. We could be met with a natural disaster at any time. We are the gateway in the Atlantic, for ships that go up north or come back down the other side of our country to get to France. Our seaways are extremely busy.

People in Ballycotton have raised the issue with me to ask why the Department has not got rid of this wreckage. On top of that, the Department gave responsibility for removing the wreckage to Cork County Council. They are not experts in salvage in Cork County Council. In fairness, the county council did tidy it up and they did make it safe. Unfortunately, as we speak, that wreckage is starting to break up. It is an absolute eyesore and nobody is taking responsibility for the wreckage. Yet, when there was an easy option of removing it from the rocks in Ballyandreen Bay, the Department unfortunately ignored it. That would have been a quick fix. The contractor intended to remove the ship for free because he possibly would have got the value of the salvage. The landowner would have had the peace of mind that nobody was trespassing on his land and that he was not going to be sued.

Could the Minister of State give a timeline or a date when the MV Alta will be removed from Ballycotton?

3:35 pm

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The relevant legislation that allows for the removal of abandoned vessels in Irish waters such as that referred to by the Deputy is the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Wreck) Act 1993. This Act gives effect to the International Convention on Salvage of 1989, to which Ireland is a signatory state. Section 40 of the Act provides that the Minister for Transport has the general superintendence of matters relating to wrecked or stranded vessels. The Act also sets out responsibilities from an operational perspective for other bodies. Sections 51 and 52 are of particular note with regard to the duty of the owner and the appropriate authorities. Section 51 places the initial responsibility for removing a wreck on the owner of the vessel, stating that "the owner of the wreck at the time of its sinking, wrecking, stranding, grounding or abandonment shall as soon as possible raise and remove it or otherwise render it harmless". The Act also provides for a number of appropriate authorities, such as a harbour authority, a local authority or the Commissioners of Irish Lights, to raise and remove the wreck or otherwise render it harmless if they consider a wreck is or is likely to become an obstruction or a danger to navigation or a threat of harm to the marine environment or to related interests, which include the health of the public.

Separate provisions apply regarding the sale of wrecks and a receiver of wrecks appointed under the Act deals with these matters. The Act allows for the receiver of a wreck to sell the vessel where the owner of the vessel cannot be located. However, the sale of a vessel is not always a viable option, as a vessel may be in such condition that it holds no significant monetary value. Furthermore, the Act does not contain provisions in relation to the costs associated with the removal of a wreck where the sale of that wreck is not possible and the owners of the vessel cannot be located.

In relation to the MV Alta, which washed onto rocks close Ballycotton, County Cork in February 2020, Cork County Council took the lead in dealing with this wreck in its role under the 1993 Act as the appropriate authority. In this role, Cork County Council is taking a number of actions, such as removing stores, including fuels and lubricants from the vessel and engaging consultants to carry out a number of reports on the vessel. These included reports on the wreck compiled by a marine surveyor, an environmental and ecological impact study and an assessment of hazardous material.

I wish also to highlight a working group established by the Department of Transport on foot of recommendation in a report published by the Marine Casualty Investigation Board on the grounding of the MV Alta. While incidences of wrecks coming ashore on the Irish coasts are rare, this group was established to explore the risks and potential costs to the State presented by derelict ships entering Irish territorial waters and coming ashore in Ireland and to make proposals for means to identify, monitor, track and interdict derelict ships before they endanger other ships and seafarers in the vicinity. The group, which is led by the Irish Coast Guard has met on a number of occasions and the Irish Coast Guard is currently liaising with the European Maritime Safety Agency, EMSA, with a view to evaluating satellite options for identifying vessels of this type in the future. Officials in the Department of Transport are available to support relevant appropriate authorities in the exercise of their functions, as set out in the legislation in question.

Photo of Pat BuckleyPat Buckley (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Minister of State for his reply. He mentioned the section of the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Wreck) Act 1993, which gives effect to the International Convention on Salvage of 1989. However, it says that the Minister for Transport has the power to appoint an official, known as a receiver of the wreck, to organise the process of dealing with it. If I go back to where we are today, that ship is still below. The onus, from the Minister of State’s reply, is on Cork County Council but that council will have to do it for free because there is no money, so we are back in the same situation again.

It is amazing, because the MCIB that was set up does not seem to have any joined-up thinking. The Court of Justice of the European Union, in the European Commission v.Ireland, found that the MCIB lacks independence, contrary to EU law. The aforementioned review notes that it is also deficient, incompetent and:

engages chronically underfunded or supported investigators to carry out statutory investigations on a shoestring [budget]. This report is a dreadful indictment.

These are not my words but came from the barrister referring to that case taken in the European Union's court.

The information I am trying to get from the Minister of State - and I appreciate his reply - is the fact that I cannot get a response here. The Minister of State at the Department of Transport has the power under the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Wreck) Act 1993 to send somebody down there to remove that wreckage and remove that eyesore in Ballycotton. It is a danger. It is still attracting people to go down and try to board the ship. It has been done on a number of occasions. Unfortunately, we will be here, perhaps next year, and will be using the line, “I hate to say I told you, so but I told you so”. God forbid that somebody is killed.

It is a red flag for this country. We need a proper marine investigation board to nip these things at the bud, as I said. This ship was floating for months or weeks in Irish waters. It was never spotted until it washed up in Ballycotton. We need to get it removed.

Photo of Joe O'BrienJoe O'Brien (Dublin Fingal, Green Party)
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I thank the Deputy for the points he has raised. While the legislation in question that deals with salvage and wreck matters outlines roles and responsibilities for an appropriate authority, it does not specify provisions in relation to the costs associated with the removal of a wreck or the sale of that wreck. It is not possible when the owners of the vessel cannot be located, as has arisen in this instance. The Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks of 2007 provides the legal basis for states to remove, or have removed at the shipowner's expense, wrecks that may have the potential to affect adversely the safety of lives, goods and property at sea, as well as the marine environment. Primary legislation is required to ratify the convention and it is intended to progress this as part of a future merchant shipping Bill. However, I must stress that the convention does not cover all wreck removal scenarios.

For example, when the owner of a vessel cannot be located and insurance details cannot be found, pursuing that owner for costs will continue to be difficult. As I stated in my opening remarks, the incidence of wrecks coming ashore on the Irish coast is rare and not being able to locate the owner of the wreck has added further complexities to securing or removing the vessel. Engagement between the Irish Coast Guard and the EMSA on satellite options for identifying similar future scenarios will be of assistance. Officials from the Department of Transport have attended interagency meetings on this issue and will continue to be available to support the relevant appropriate authorities in the exercise of their functions, as set out in the legislation. I will bring the Deputy's specific points to the Minister for Transport when I see him next.