Thursday, 10 April 2014
I wish to raise with the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government a shocking matter of grave concern. In fact, it is the most serious matter that has ever come to my attention. I am not raising it lightly and it is causing me serious distress and anxiety. I ask the Minister to immediately call to task the Environmental Protection Agency over its lax oversight and light touch regulation of the ongoing and long-running unlicensed, unregulated, potentially harmful and hazardous open-vent emissions from the Enva waste oil recycling plant in Portlaoise. This is happening despite a litany of public complaints dating back over 15 years.
I have irrefutable, irrevocable, empirical, documented and scientifically established evidence that this plant, which processes 20,000 tonnes of waste oil annually, is pumping hazardous and harmful emissions into the atmosphere in direct and total breach of its licence and regulations. I am absolutely certain that the Environmental Protection Agency is privy to this situation and is aware of it. In fact, the EPA is colluding with the company in what is a cover-up of what in some instances are carcinogenic emissions going into the atmosphere and wastewater in the vicinity.
People in the Portlaoise area, including residents and workers in nearby plants, are unnecessarily being exposed to hazardous emissions. They should not have to be in this position. If we have a watchdog we should be able to rely on it. What is the point in having a watchdog if it does not bark, much less bite? I believe it is the corporate culture of the EPA to work hand in hand with corporate elements and industry rather than putting the public interest and public health first and foremost.
A litany of documentation proves a series of non-compliance. The people who have come forward have been fobbed off and categorised as cranks, while a blind eye has been turned to what is going on. This is an Erin Brockovich scenario where people are living in silent fear and do not know what to do. It is our duty and responsibility as public representatives to ensure that this is not allowed to continue any further.
I have documentary proof that the harmful and hazardous emissions, some of which are carcinogens, from the Enva Ireland plant in Portlaoise measure up to 32 times and in some instances up to 1,000 times more than the accepted levels as set down by the Environmental Protection Agency and other authorities. This matter was brought to my attention in the past two months. I have gone to lengths to verify this information and ensure it stands up. I have a litany of paperwork and documentation, including letters from Irish Rail management at the sleeper factory in Portlaoise. They wrote on behalf of the workers to Enva and the EPA imploring them to do something because the workers were repeatedly complaining of nausea and headaches. I hope that is the full extent of the problem being created by these harmful emissions because chemicals such as benzene are being pumped into the sky within 100 m of homes where people are living, including elderly people and young children. These open-vent emissions should be brought to a halt immediately. I am calling on Enva to clean up its act and on the EPA to do its job. This is another example of the watchdog falling asleep at the wheel. We have seen it in financial services and the charities sector and now we have it in the environmental sector. The EPA should do its job and protect the public health and the public interest.
I am taking this Adjournment matter on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan. I thank Senator John Whelan for raising this issue. Under section 60(3) of the Waste Management Act 1996, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government is precluded from exercising any power or control over the performance by the Environmental Protection Agency or, in particular circumstances, a local authority of a statutory function vested in them, including enforcement functions. Issues concerning the enforcement of waste management legislation are a matter for the appropriate regulatory authority and, therefore, should be pursued with the Environmental Protection Agency or the relevant local authority, as appropriate.
The treatment and management of waste material is subject to a registration and permit system by local authorities or licensing by the Environmental Protection Agency, as appropriate. The particular facility is licensed by the EPA, as the Senator has said. The primary purpose of the licensing, permit and registration scheme is to facilitate appropriate controls on waste facilities and activities to ensure good and consistent waste management practice and the implementation of high standards of environmental protection.
The role of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is to provide a comprehensive legislative and waste policy framework through which the enforcement authorities operate. The Government's waste policy, A Resource Opportunity - Waste Management Policy in Ireland, published in July 2012 sets out the actions through which Ireland will make the further progress necessary to become a recycling society with a clear focus on resource efficiencies, the virtual elimination of land-filling and a rigorous enforcement regime.
The Minister and the Department are working to implement in full the objectives set out in the policy. In this regard, the policy document contains a commitment to complete a review of the respective regulatory and enforcement roles of the Environmental Protection Agency through its office of environmental enforcement and local authorities. In early 2013, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government established a group to carry out the review through examining current enforcement structures, identifying the existing strengths and weaknesses and making recommendations for the future. The group is comprised of representatives from local authorities, the regional waste management offices, the Environmental Protection Agency, the national transfrontier shipment office, the national waste collection permit office and An Garda Síochána. The group has made recommendations and these are currently being considered by the County and City Managers Association and the Department.
Further to the obvious concerns of the Senator I believe it is always in the best interests not only of the agency but the people it serves that when a complaint like this comes to their attention, it does not simply act on it but it is open about its findings.
I respect that the Minister of State is replying on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, but my fears are not in any way allayed. I accept that the EPA is an independent regulatory authority. I am saying it is not doing its job. Are we now saying there is no ministerial or Government oversight of this agency or authority? The agency is turning a blind eye to what is going on in Portlaoise. Why has the EPA not taken any action and allowed Enva to continue to release unlicensed, hazardous and harmful emissions from the plant? I assure the Minister of State that I appreciate her response but I will be taking this further. I will be calling on the Minister to conduct an inquiry into the matter and to bring in the director general of the EPA to be held to account. What is unfolding in Portlaoise is not acceptable and must be brought to a halt. People's concerns are genuine and they must be listened to. This has been going on for the past 15 years and it must be brought to a halt now.
The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government established a group to carry out a review by examining current enforcement structures. As I have already pointed out, that group is comprised of a wide variety of representative groups. The group has made recommendations and these are currently being considered by the County and City Managers Association and the Department.
I take on board what the Senator has said. I repeat my view that when there is a complaint and when there are clearly concerns about any issue they must be addressed. We do not know whether the EPA has carried out an investigation. It may well have done so. In the event that we do not know, we should know. Certainly, the people most directly affected should know and the agency should be more transparent about it. After all, if people have concerns about where and how they live, it is a serious matter.