Seanad debates

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Environmental Protection Agency: Motion


4:25 pm

Photo of John WhelanJohn Whelan (Labour)
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I move:

That Seanad Éireann:- commends the policy as set out in the Programme for Government for environmental protection, environmental controls and regulation, with particular reference to encouraging the use of recycling, resource efficiencies and to establishing a rigorous enforcement regime;
- commends the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government for his commitment to the highest international standards and to the use of the Best Available Technologies (BAT) in implementing this Government policy;
- commends the Minister for working to ensure that Government policies from all Departments are environmentally proofed and always take into account environmental impact and impact upon public health;
- commends the Minister for the particular efforts he has made at all times to mainstream Green/Environmental policies and legislation and, in particular, to advance the Climate Change Bill which seeks to tackle such issues as emission reductions, as outlined in the Programme for Government;
- proposes that the Minister would update Seanad Éireann on his work in the area of environmental protection generally; and, in particular, on the progress of his Department's review into the respective regulatory and enforcement roles of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established early in 2013, which seeks to examine current enforcement structures, to identify existing strengths and weaknesses and to make general recommendations; and
- proposes further that the Minister would update Seanad Éireann on the current level of political and public oversight, accountability and transparency in relation to the role, work and functioning of the EPA, and to its commitment to "protect and improve the natural environment for present and future generations.".
I am pleased to present the motion with the permission and co-operation of my colleagues. In particular I thank my colleagues in the Seanad and those from the Independent Taoiseach's nominees group who have facilitated the early taking of the motion. I was keen for the matter to be dealt with prior to the Houses rising for the summer recess. I am grateful and pleased to see the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan, taking the motion. I commend the Minister, in the spirit of the motion, as set out, on his tremendous work, much of which has yet to be fully appreciated. However, I believe it will be in the fullness of time. I was pleased three years ago when the Minister, Deputy Hogan, indicated his intention not to marginalise the green issue or the environmental issue, but to mainstream, embed and embody them in Government legislation and policy. I believe he has achieved that to a great extent.
I am not in any way being frivolous and I say it with affection as the Minister knows. I wish him well in his future endeavours, whatever they may be and wherever they take him. He is affectionately known around the Houses as "big Phil". I hope he performs better and succeeds better than big Phil did last night in the World Cup. Whatever the future holds for him this week I hope it does not come to a penalty shootout or any other kind of shootout as he pursues his ambitions and endeavours. Wherever they take him I am sure he will represent the people of the country well in whatever fashion that arises.
We have come a long way from the time that the country was an embarrassment in the sense of the number of plastic bags strewn up and down our highways and in our hedgerows. Much of this comes from a change of public perception and opinion. However, many things were left kicking around during the past 20 years. These were hot potatoes that no one wanted to touch or look at. However, the Minister, Deputy Hogan, addressed them. I commend the Minister on his work in the area of the registration of septic tanks. There are 440,000 septic tanks in the country. The Minister has taken a similar and correct approach to tackle climate change and the environmental issue. It should be done at a local level, one building block at a time. In future, the Minister will be recognised as a visionary and pioneering Minister in respect of the final establishment of an Irish water authority. There has been considerable debate about it. No one wants an extra bill in the door, especially in times of recession but, ultimately, this will prove to have been a good idea to ensure that the citizens of the State enjoy a safe, clean and secure supply of water in future. I commend the Minister, Deputy Hogan, on his efforts in this area.
This approach also fits the bill in terms of the reform agenda of the Government. Instead of having multiple agencies doing the same work we rationalise and, where possible and appropriate, we reduce the number of quangos which are not accountable to the Government, the citizens or the State. We should put those powers back into agencies that are accountable to the Government of the day, with proper oversight, transparency and accountability.
However, there is one significant fly in the ointment and it is in the area of the Environmental Protection Agency. When reports were brought to me initially in respect of its operation, function, oversight, inspection and enforcement, I greeted them with disbelief. It did not believe it was possible in this day and age for this to happen. I took the view that this could not be happening and that it would be an appalling vista that the watchdog, which the State and Government established to protect the public interest, public health and the environment, would not do its job in the most thorough, effective and efficient manner and in policing the environment and public health for us. I would have thought it was not possible. However, I am distressed and concerned that this is, unfortunately, the case. I do not believe the EPA as it functions is fit for purpose. It is not doing its job. It is not living up to the remit that the Minister and the Government have charged it with, that is, to protect public health and the environment from pollution.
I am not referring to an accident or one-off incident or something no one could have foreseen. I am referring to systemic and systematic failures. I am not just talking about local issues. This is the case throughout the country. I have been inundated with representations from members of the community and the public who all have the same sorry tale to tell. They all maintain they are living in misery because the EPA will not come to their assistance, believe them or help them. They believe the agency categorises them and routinely dismisses them as cranks and people who do not know and are not aware of what is going on.
Nowhere is this more shockingly manifest than in my home-town of Portlaoise. I raised this matter previously in April and I was hopeful that at that stage when we put it on the public record the EPA would be stung into action. On the contrary, unfortunately, the agency is still in denial. I say as much with reluctance and with full consideration of the seriousness of the charges I am making. There is nothing I would say in the House that I am unwilling to repeat outside the House. While I am no scientist, environmental scientist, chemist or physicist I know people who are damned good ones and the data are staring us in the face.

The evidence is staring the EPA in the face. It is aware of high levels of concentration of unlicensed, unregulated emissions from the industrial oil recycling plant in Portlaoise, Enva Ireland Limited, which is owned by a wealthy and profitable publicly quoted company, DCC. This is not a small time operation but a huge plant which operates on an international level. I am sorry to say it is emitting harmful toxins such as benzene, toluene and volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere on an weekly basis. This is not acceptable in this day and age. We have at our disposal best available technology and systems that could prevent this from happening and could stop it in the morning if there was a willingness by the EPA to enforce and implement the standards and by the company to invest in this technology and these standards. The company is on record as saying to the EPA that it is not willing to spend the money as public health is not worth the investment.

We have suffered in this country due to poor regulation, light touch regulation and lax regulation. By turning a blind eye, we know what happened in the area of child protection, in the area of financial services and the banking sector and in the charities sector. Will it take another tribunal, another "Prime Time Investigates", to expose the ineptitude of the EPA before we are stung into action? As public representatives we cannot turn a blind eye when information is brought to our attention. It is our duty and responsibility to protect public health and the public interest. Having appointed a watchdog, we thought we could sleep easy in our beds and that it would do its job, but we now have to second-guess whether it is doing its job.

I ask the Minister to take on board our concerns and representations. I know the Minister is a good and honourable man and will not allow this to continue. While the EPA has been established as an independent body, that does not mean it is not answerable to anybody or that it is not accountable. It must be held to account. I ask that we investigate what is happening in Portlaoise and the conduct of the EPA because it is no longer acceptable.

4:35 pm

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister to the House and, as Senator John Whelan has done, wish him well for the future; that includes Croke Park in September if his county manages to get there.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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We will be there.

Photo of Denis LandyDenis Landy (Labour)
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I cast people's minds back to the 1970s when I first became aware of the environment. In my town of Carrick-on-Suir and in many other towns there were open dumps, as they were known, landfills, while raw sewerage was running into the River Suir and there was no air quality monitoring. We also had the beginning of the famous Hanrahan v. Merck Sharp and Dohme case which finished ten years later in the Supreme Court in which Mr. Hanrahan, who lives three miles from my home, won a very important judgment against the US company. That set the scene and was the backdrop to the setting up of the EPA.
The EPA was established in 1992 under the Environmental Protection Agency Act. It was strengthened by the Waste Management Act 1996 and by the Protection of the Environment Act 2003. It was mandated to protect the environment, monitor changes in the environment, and detect early warning signs of neglect and deterioration. It was the body that was supposed to police local authorities and industry on behalf of the Irish citizen. Its primary functions were to licence, enforce, oversee environmental planning, monitor, analyse and report. It was also charged with environmental research and waste management control and it was supposed to carry out these functions without fear or favour.
Management of air quality is a major issue. Up to that time, municipal waste and commercial waste was disposed of in landfills across the country without any monitoring. Since 1992, the EPA has been responsible for this monitoring. How successful has it been in monitoring air quality, water quality and landfill? While local authorities still have control and have functions regarding landfill, air and other areas, the EPA is the overarching body. In 2013, the EPA, as the national agency for the protection of air, water and landfill, undertook 11 prosecutions in three counties in areas such as waste discharge, landfill and other waste areas. All of these prosecutions were against local authorities; none was against industry or commercial entities.
The local authority, as per the 1992 Act, must have regard to the instructions of the EPA and the EPA can instruct local authorities to carry out certain functions. How much of this is being done? Section 54 of the 1992 Act provides for the Minister to transfer any role or function from the local authority to the EPA. This has been done in many instances, as the Minister is aware, such as in the area of waste management. In view of what has been outlined by Senator John Whelan, I ask the Minister whether it is time to reverse this provision and give these functions back to local authorities who have local accountability through locally elected representatives so that the people on the ground can feel safe.
The 2002 programme for Government set up an office of enforcement to establish an audit performance system for local authorities. Who is auditing the performance of the EPA? In my opinion, nobody is doing so, and for that reason we do not know whether it is doing a good, bad or indifferent job.
I return to Hanrahan v. Merck Sharp and Dohme, the outcome of which was that John Hanrahan won the case in the Supreme Court. The outcome for the area where I live in south Tipperary was that we have a better environment and 350 jobs in Merck Sharp and Dohme, which is an excellent employer in the area and one of the biggest drivers of the economy. Therefore, industry and the environment can live hand in hand but the policing body is not doing its job. I support Senator John Whelan. If the EPA does not do the job properly, should it be in place?

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after "That Seanad Éireann" and substitute the following:
"recommends that the Government introduce the Climate Change Bill without delay."
I welcome the Minister and wish him the very best in the next 24 hours as he prepares for his inevitable departure. I look forward in the coming weeks and months to spending much time in his constituency canvassing for Kathleen Funchion in the by-election.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy is very presumptuous.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I look forward to that opportunity. The reason we have tabled an amendment is that in reality we need-----

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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He knows everything.

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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Not everything.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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Will the Senator please continue?

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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There are some things that are certain. One thing that is certain is that the Minister will be an EU Commissioner. I do not know who should be worried more, the people of Europe or himself, but that remains to be seen.

The reason I have tabled this amendment is because what really is needed is the implementation and delivery of the climate change Bill. While this was a commitment in the programme for Government, it still has not been implemented and three years into the Government's term of office, Members still await the Bill.

4:45 pm

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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It is a five-year term.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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If we can have the Senator without interruption?

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Acting Chairman. The heads of the Bill do not in themselves constitute a Bill and I will outline why I am concerned that although the Government may not see its full term, even if it does, less than two years remains to it. Consequently, I am concerned that even at this stage, the heads of a Bill do not in themselves constitute a Bill. The importance and urgency of having an actual Bill pertain to the following points. First, a climate change Bill would, by implication, be obliged to set targets. Second, it would be necessary to have public engagement with NGOs and interested parties on various aspects of the Bill. Obviously, there also would be a need to have some sort of report. Therefore, much work remains to be done before Members get to a Bill.

Climate change continues to be an ongoing issue both in Ireland and on a global level. In Ireland, the damaging impact of global warming has been seen all too frequently in respect of increased rainfall and of severe flooding, which extracts a huge cost from society in both human suffering and the monetary cost to local authorities and the State. This was seen most recently a few months ago, when there was severe flooding in many parts of the country, including County Waterford and some parts of the Minister's native County Kilkenny. The effects of climate change can be seen globally and felt locally, from floods in the cities and towns to rain-sodden fields of corn and to do nothing simply is not an option. The issue of climate change must be addressed and the implementation of a climate change Bill is required urgently, not simply the publication of the heads of a Bill. This is essential for economic growth, for protection of the environment and for global environmental justice.

A climate change Bill is needed that is both robust and has specific targets regarding emissions that are monitored by an independent body. As the Minister is aware, in 2013 Sinn Féin introduced such a Bill in the Dáil. This Bill was based on an updated and modified version of a climate change Bill that was published by a sub-group of the Oireachtas environment committee composed of current Government Ministers, of whom I believe the Minister was one. The Sinn Féin Bill was not introduced in a partisan manner but rather its aim was to offer a blueprint in an attempt to spur the Government into action.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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The Senator would never be partisan, would he?

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
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Sinn Féin's Bill was not perfect but we would have accepted amendments. The Minister could have taken the Bill and perfected it, if he thought it had problems or faults. The Minister is very good at finding fault but Sinn Féin would have been open to any amendments tabled by the Government. As the Minister is aware, Sinn Féin was seeking the implementation of a climate change Bill. As I stated, the Sinn Féin Bill is a redraft of a Bill produced by the climate change sub-committee in 2010, which was supported by the Fine Gael and Labour parties when they were in opposition. Consequently, there is no reason these parties cannot still support this Bill while in government. Sinn Féin's Climate Change Bill is comprehensive and could be the cornerstone for Ireland's low-carbon sustainable economic growth. It will give much needed certainty for industry and potential investors, particularly in the development of the green economy Had the Bill been passed, key actions would have been taken, one of which would have been the introduction of five-year carbon budgets. This is not a monetary budget but a limit set on the total amount of emissions that are allowed over the five-year period. This would have assisted in the management of Ireland's reduction of carbon emissions. A carbon budget would hold consecutive Governments to account. The Taoiseach of the day would be obliged to present this budget to the Dáil each year and would be open to questioning and scrutiny, which would have achieved greater transparency and accountability. It also contained a science-based target for 2050, namely, a reduction in emissions of 80% by 2050 compared with a 1990 baseline.

The Sinn Féin Bill would also have led to the establishment of a climate change commission. This would be independent of the Government, would prepare an assessment of the potential impact on the State of climate change and would review on an annual basis the progress made. It would advise An Taoiseach on steps to be taken to meet agreed targets. If the Governments policy of "hear no evil, see no evil" remains in place, it will have serious implications for Ireland and the wider global community. Sinn Féin's Bill had the potential to change all that and consequently, the Government must support such a Bill. It must stop playing silly politics and silly games on this serious issue and there must be delivery on what was a commitment in the programme for Government. It is clear that the Minister, Deputy Hogan, will not be the Minister who will be implementing a climate change Bill. Whoever the incoming Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government may be, I hope he or she perceives this issue to be a priority. If that is the case and if the new Minister brings such a Bill before the Dáil and the Seanad, it will have Sinn Féin's full support. I will conclude by again wishing the Minister well in his new endeavour.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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Briefly, does Senator Ó Clochartaigh wish to second the amendment?

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Yes. May I speak at this stage?

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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No, the Senator can reserve the right to speak later. Can he second the amendment?

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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I reserve the right to speak later. Ba mhaith liom cuidiú leis an leasú atá molta ag an Seanadóir Cullinane.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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First, I thank Senator Whelan and his colleagues for this timely motion, as well as for their kind words on the work my Department has carried out over the past three years and which has been completed successfully. This praise of course must be shared more widely. I believe the links between environmentally-beneficial policies, sustainable growth and job creation are recognised centrally by the entire Government, which makes my role in environmentally-proofing Government policy that much easier. I note, for example, the Delivering our Green Potential document, which sets out Government policy on growth and employment in the green economy in Ireland. This document was published in November 2012 and aims to embed the green growth agenda across the relevant policy areas.

The Government recognises that the green economy presents a major economic opportunity for sustainable employment creation in Ireland. Ireland has significant strengths and advantages, which it can leverage to exploit business opportunities in major international sectors such as renewable energy, smart grids, sustainable food, tourism and energy-efficient products and services, as well as environmental opportunities for developing a sustainable, low-carbon society. Ireland also recognised the importance of the green economy issue in its medium-term economic strategy, which applies now that we have exited the EU-IMF bailout. This recognition is combined with a co-ordinated approach applicable to the green economy that involves all relevant Departments and agencies.

The development of the green economy is overseen by the Cabinet committee on climate change and the green economy, which is chaired by the Taoiseach. That same committee provides the same oversight and guidance with regards to the progress of measures contained in the framework document for sustainable development in Ireland, Our Sustainable Future. As the benefits of greening economic and social policy are centrally recognised, it follows that my Department is given and takes the opportunity to participate as an active partner in all the major economic and social policy initiatives, recent examples of which include national transport and tourism policy and a sustainable education strategy. The ability to demonstrate that environmental policies are contributing positively to economic reform and growth can of course only strengthen our message. I also wish to tell Senator Cullinane that the Government will enact a climate change Bill this year. I am pleased by the progress made this year on the heads of the Bill and on all the consultation that has taken place. The Government will be considering the publication of this Bill in the autumn, with a view to having it enacted by the end of the year.

I will now turn to other particular aspects of environmental policy. Waste policy is a key environmental concern and in this respect, the Government published its policy in July 2012 entitled A Resource Opportunity. The policy provides a roadmap on how Ireland will move away from over-dependence on landfill by putting in place the most appropriate technologies and approaches to reduce waste, while at the same time maximising the resources that we can recover from waste. The policy document, A Resource Opportunity, contains a commitment to complete a review of the respective regulatory and enforcement roles of the Environmental Protection Agency and local authorities by the end of 2013. This review was completed earlier this year. It recommends providing for the transfer of a number of existing waste enforcement functions currently discharged by local authorities to three regional waste enforcement teams or regional lead authorities. The City and County Management Association will shortly designate the lead authorities for purposes of waste enforcement functions, which is in line with what Senator Landy mentioned during his contribution. The specific enforcement functions to be carried out by the lead authorities generally will be those targeting waste enforcement matters that cross local authority functional areas or that have particular security risks attached for enforcement staff. The lead authorities also would have responsibility for developing regional enforcement plans that would take account of national enforcement priorities and for ensuring that local authority waste enforcement plans take the regional enforcement plans into account, such as those pertaining to cross-Border movements of illegally-laundered diesel in particular.

In addition, as envisaged by A Resource Opportunity, a national team or national steering group also would be established with a focus on organised and serious criminal activity in the waste area and on supporting the work of the lead authorities. I am confident this will clearly support the achievement of consistency of approach to waste enforcement generally across different authorities.

It will also help with the prioritisation across local and regional level authority areas and counter the perception of a lack of coherence in regard to the treatment of waste streams and would deliver efficiency gains in terms of getting the most out of the available funding. In addition, this structure would also clearly recognise the need to maintain boots on the ground at a local level as an immediate first wave response to the bulk of activities that would be subject to enforcement action. This would also facilitate the lead authorities becoming centres of excellence for enforcement functions in specific waste streams, for example, in end-of-life vehicles, WEEE, tyres, etc. Roll-out of the new structures will commence in the second half of 2014 with a view to going live in early 2015.

The EPA will play a pivotal role in implementing the waste policy. A key aspect of ensuring adequate waste policy is the EPA's environmental licensing programme. This helps to protect the environment by regulating integrated pollution prevention and control, IPPC, activities. These include waste, fuel storage, municipal wastewater discharge, extractive waste, GMO and dumping at sea undertakings in a manner that is risk based, proportionate and in keeping with the principles of better regulation.

The environmental licensing programme in this context is responsible for a range of tasks which could have an impact on the environment. In addition to licence application assessment, the environmental licensing programme also undertakes a broad spectrum of licensing work which includes pre-application discussion with potential applicants, article 11 inquiries, article 27 notifications on by-product status, article 28 notification of end-of-waste status, being statutorily consulted on developments that require environmental impact assessment, foreshore licensing, appropriate assessment, BREF development, regulatory design, licence transfers, and licence review requests. These activities are undertaken by the technical staff of the environmental licensing programme. Typically, the EPA receives approximately 15 new IPPC applications per year, 20 IPPC review applications per year, ten new waste applications per year, 15 waste review applications per year, 20 GMO applications per year, and five dumping at sea applications per year.

As mentioned in the motion, it is the EPA's mission "To protect and improve the natural environment for present and future generations, taking into account the environmental, social and economic principles of sustainable development."

At this stage, I wish to refer to what Senator Whelan raised in his contribution. I checked the matter because I expected him to raise it. I understand one complainant has expressed very serious concerns about emissions to air from four oil reprocessing tanks in Portlaoise. The EPA considers that these are adequately controlled under the conditions of the licence as the emissions are not pumped and have a very low flow rate. However, in response to the complainant's concerns, the EPA has undertaken extensive further assessments. The information gathered to date from these assessments does not indicate that these emissions are of significance. However, the investigation is continuing.

I note the serious concerns expressed by Senator Whelan and I will take an interest in this matter. I will ask the EPA to carry out a very detailed investigation and to provide a report to the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government on this matter. The report will then be made available to the public.

I urge Senator Whelan and others who believe they have evidence of any collusion in regard to these matters to report such evidence to the appropriate authority - the Garda Síochána. The Senator has raised serious matters and it would be remiss of me not to express the hope that we have, without fear or favour, an independent agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, which operates to the highest standards in terms of environmental sustainability and in the interests of public health and the environment.

Since its establishment, the agency has been at the coalface of environmental protection and policing and it is important the work it is doing in carrying out this role is done to the highest possible standards. In addition to its vital regulatory role, the EPA is actively engaged in awareness raising and education and regularly organises national workshops, conferences and public lectures as well as providing a wealth of information on its website in regard to its activities. It is also strongly committed to aiding businesses and organisations, through funding from the environmental fund, to grow a sustainable and resource efficient way to reduce waste.

In recent years, the agency has also increased the reach and depth of the EPA BeGreen resource efficiency programmes. The EPA has provided €300,000 in grant aid to businesses through the cleaner greener production programme, which is an example of the various initiatives being undertaken.

Re-enforcing the cross-governmental nature of environmental policy, the agency has an input in its advocacy role for the environment, including, the Action Plan for Jobs and the policy statement, Delivering our Green Potential, both produced by the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; the Department of Health's Your Health is Your Wealth policy framework; the NESC's climate change review; the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine's Food Harvest 2020 strategy; and numerous reviews from my own Department, including the recent announcement I made about smoky coal regulations and building regulations. The agency's submissions highlight the importance of a good quality environment to the health and well-being of the nation and to economic recovery.

In recognition of the interaction between health and the environment, the EPA established in 2012 a health advisory committee under section 41 of the EPA Act to advise the agency in the carrying out of its functions. This will allow for a more structured, formalised and proactive interaction between the EPA and other authorities, in particular those with a public health remit. Topics discussed at recent meetings include health assessment, licensing, and a health research programme. This committee arose from a recommendation of the EPA review, which I asked to be carried out a number of years ago. The report of the committee was published in May 2011 and contained 58 recommendations across a number of different themes, such as governance, resources and licensing. As Members may be aware, the review was carried out by an independent group. The purpose of the review was to assess the performance of the EPA, its scope and mandate and to examine whether the agency has the optimum structure and governance arrangements in place to continue to deliver its objectives effectively, in particular in view of its expanding role and additional functions. The review found that the EPA has provided "considerable benefit for Ireland's environment and for the health and well-being of its people" since the foundation of the agency, but nevertheless it certainly made a lot of recommendations. On foot of the recommendations made in the review, the EPA, in conjunction with the Department, agreed on a plan to implement the various recommendations. A number of these have been implemented while others will continue to be progressed.

I would like to draw Members' attention to some priority actions which have been implemented already, including the establishment of an additional specialist advisory committee to address the interface between the environment and human health, which may be of assistance to Senator Whelan on the issues he raised in regard to emissions; greater access to environmental information for the public, in particular a dedicated web resource to complement the report, Ireland's Environment 2012: An Assessment; enhancement of air quality data mapping - the EPA developed a new air quality index for health and launched it in 2013, the European Year of Air; and to continue and extend progressively the process of making enforcement information available on the Internet. Since 2012 the EPA has placed all historical monitoring data from 2000 onwards on the EPA website. The agency also publishes every public drinking water supply audit online and works with local authorities to ensure up-to-date monitoring data and the details of any quality breaches are placed on their websites.

The Department has been in contact with the EPA in regard to its update of the priority actions identified for completion. The agency submitted an update on the actions in May 2013 and I will ask for further details on whatever recommendations have been implemented in the meantime. The Department intends to publish a progress report on the implementation of the review when finalised shortly.

The number of staff in the EPA has decreased from 340 at the end of 2009 to 310 at the end of 2013 while, at the same, time the level of statutory responsibilities assigned to the EPA has increased exponentially since its formation in 1992. For example, in 2012, the agency was involved in issues such as having a supervisory role in implementing the provisions of the Water Services (Amendment) Act 2012, helping Ireland to address the European Court of Justice judgment against Ireland, and reference was made to this. When I became Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, there were 31 European Court of Justice judgments against Ireland and they are now down to eight. We have enlisted the support of a lot of specialist people, including the EPA. The EPA got a good deal for Ireland in the negotiations with the European Commission on the septic tank and groundwater quality issue. Some of the staff have developed an expertise which has been very beneficial in regard to the water framework directive, which did not impose too much, as was mentioned by speakers, on the Irish citizen. It made sure the registration process was successful and that the solution found to be compliant with the European Court of Justice judgment was not too much of an imposition on the public.

The strategic plan for 2013 to 2015, Working with Others for a Better Environment, was published early in 2013 and is the fourth formal strategy since the EPA was established in 1993. It specifies nine strategic priorities for the EPA across its core functions of environmental regulation, knowledge and advocacy. The agency has developed a new EPA research programme for 2014 to 2020, further to the completion of STRIVE in 2013. The new programme consists of three pillar areas, namely, climate change research, water research and sustainable environment research.

I wish to reiterate that the EPA is an independent public body established under the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992. I authorised a review to be carried out and a significant number of recommendations - 58 in total - were made following that review.

They are in the course of being implemented. I am anxious to meet not only the spirit but the actuality of the issues that have been raised in this debate about openness, transparency and accountability for all organisations. The EPA review recognised the value of independence which is well provided for in the legislation. There are other legislative measures regarding the EPA and the radiological protection agency going through the Houses. If Members feel accountability should be strengthened for an agency, particularly the EPA and the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland, I am sure the Government will be glad to look at the matter. I am of the belief that we need an independent professional organisation that is able to deal, without fear or favour, with the environmental protection and public health issues of the day. I hope we can make the necessary changes and implement the recommendations in the EPA that will assure people that has happened. I note the serious comments made by Senator Whelan, in particular, and I will seek a detailed report on the issues he raised.

Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú:Tá fáilte roimh an Aire anseo um thráthnóna. A debate, or consideration, on the protection of the environment must be welcomed. Too often, the topic is seen as peripheral in nature in parliamentary debates. The people who express concerns for the environment are very often misrepresented as some type of loony hippy from the 1960s but nothing could be further from the truth. They are pragmatic people. A report compiled by the fifth International Panel on Climate Change left us in no doubt about the serious challenges facing us and is a wake-up call, but whether we hear it remains to be seen. If we do not put protection of the environment central in all our thinking, we have a serious problem facing us down the road.
I have head unfavourable comments about the EPA and perhaps they are true. Part of its weakness is a lack of legislative framework, particularly when one considers the relationship between the EPA and An Bord Pleanála. We can all point to cases from personal experience and wonder how these things happen given the concerns that have been expressed in this debate. I do not think any of us, and I mean that in a non-partisan way, should acquiesce in any kind of congratulatory comments on what has been done to date. That does not mean that a certain amount has not been done, but it is infinitesimally small when compared with what remains to be done.
Let us look outside the shores of Ireland to America, in particular, and the manner in which it has dragged its heels despite all the efforts being made in other countries. America dragged its heels when it came to a doing anything proactive to ensure our environment would not be destroyed. This life and environment are only on lease to us and will be passed on to the next generations. Based on the reports, backed by scientific evidence, we are not certain what we will pass to the second, third and fourth generations into the future. There is a degree of selfishness involved. It is like drinking the well dry while not caring what the future holds. In this particular case we can see the results of climate change. For instance, on television we can see tsunamis, flooding and all the other things that happen in the world, particularly the number of crisis areas, which must leave us in no doubt that they are related to climate change. To some extent, we have seen its effects in a more moderate way in this country. If that is where we have come from and where we are now, the question is how serious we are about tackling the problem.
We set out a stall that 2050 would be our goal and there would be no doubt whatsoever about that our goals and commitments would be leading up to 2050. However, we have not had sufficient courage as of yet, and I do not say that in a partisan way. None of us has had sufficient courage to put down a marker from here to 2050. If we do not do so it will not just be ourselves who will be damaged. The people who suffer the most from climate change are the poorest countries in the world, the countries that are least resourced in almost genocidal proportions. At times we can expound in a profound way about human rights, etc. but we do not avail of an opportunity to do something about climate change.
I hope that this debate, and I hope future debates are held sooner rather than later, will lead us to realise that we need partnership and not partisanship on this subject. Both sides of this House and both sides of the Dáil need to agree that this is one area where we must all work together with a sense of urgency and courage, where we would put down the markers leading up to 2050, but above all else that Ireland would use its position in Europe to ensure Europe does not fall behind in its responsibilities and requirements. We have a long journey to go. We need to admit to ourselves that we have failed dismally, not on the smaller issues, but on the bigger issues. Sometimes one must confront vested interests when dealing with a subject like the environment and its protection. I wish the Minister well in whatever role he has in the future. I would much prefer to see a partnership on this subject which to me is one of the most important challenges facing humanity and humankind.

5:05 pm

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. As was said, we must wake up to the problem. The Minister has been, and has been shown to be, very courageous and wide awake. He went into the Department with his eyes wide open and his actions have demonstrated courage. He could never be accused of not being courageous. He has been a very courageous Minister who took a stand where necessary and on issues where other Governments failed.

Today we are talking about the climate change Bill. Before I became a Senator I looked at things from the outside and had great faith and hope that something would done about climate change, particularly as the Minister at the time was John Gormley. Perhaps he got an anaesthetic and slept during his watch. However, I commend and compliment the current Minister, Deputy Hogan, on his assurances.

I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht. The committee worked on the heads of the climate change Bill and the policies and made recommendations. I will comment further on the matter but I could not resist replying to Senator Ó Murchú's remark about going to sleep. The earth is our only home which we share with seven billion people and, therefore, we must mind it, protect it and ensure it is protected. The Environmental Protection Agency and the RPII, which it was agreed today will merge with the EPA, are charged with protecting the environment.

I have great confidence they will do so. Environmental issues, whether ozone depletion, greenhouse effect, global climate change, environmental pollution, the green economy, biodiversity reduction are all important elements on which we must ensure that positive steps are taken to protect our environment. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan has been very positive in ensuring that our environment is protected. Thanks to his achievements in the Department, environmental policy is no longer a niche or peripheral area but has become mainstream Government policy in recent times. This is very progressive and shows that as a society and a Government we have evolved and recognise the importance of conservation and environmental protection.

The Minister has had to implement many reforms that were not popular and were criticised. It took courage to implement them, particularly to work on the EU recommendations. When he took office he was faced with 32 infringements of EU law and he has reduced that number to eight. He did not say how much money that saved the country. Had the infringements been allowed to continue, the Government would be out of pocket by €12 million annually. If we had to continue to pay that €12 million, as had been paid prior to Deputy Hogan becoming Minister, the country would be in a sorry state. By ensuring the environmental infringements were corrected on his watch he has addressed the significant financial implications this had for the country. They have been reduced to eight and the Minister is still working, and may be in the Department long enough, to get the number down to zero.

The Minister referred to Delivering our Green Potential and the waste policy document A Resource Opportunity. That contains a commitment to complete a review of the respective regulatory and enforcement roles of the Environmental Protection Agency and the local authorities. This review was completed in early 2014, just a couple of months ago. I am aware that 91 submissions were received in response to the consultation document.

Ireland is performing well in EU terms on the issue of recycling and is meeting the majority of the annual targets. The rates of household recycling in Ireland have increased dramatically since the late 1990s. The EPA is the agency with overall responsibility for environmental protection in the State and it monitors the rates of recycling as well as other areas, that were referred to earlier. Repak is the principal organisation for recycling. Ireland, at 79%, has the second highest rate of recycling, just behind Germany. That is an achievement that those involved in recycling can be proud of. We rarely hear about the positive stories, because that does not make news.

The concept of best available techniques, BAT, was introduced as a key principle in the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control, IPPC, Directive. The Minister alluded to this in his speech so I will not elaborate except to say that this policy is being implemented. The EPA is bound to ensure that modern technologies are used in testing and other work.

The general scheme of the heads of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill, together with the national policy position on climate action and low carbon was released on 23 April 2014. I do not know whether the Senator who said that no action was taken and that it was only the heads of a Bill was aware of all the work of the Joint Committee of the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht on the Bill and I wonder if he was asleep when its report was released just two months ago. As the Minister said, the work has been done and the Bill will be ready at the end of the year. The national policy position on the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill has progressed the national low carbon transition agenda, national policy position and the general scheme which are parallel and complimentary pillars. The Environmental Protection Agency is fundamental to achieving a sustainable environment for the future and regulation enforcement and ensures the public and commercial-----

5:15 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I must ask the Senator to conclude.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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I will. I did not get a chance to speak on the positive aspects.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I am afraid you will not be able to, Senator.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
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The Minister has been courageous in taking action and introducing charges. Many other Ministers would not have had the courage to do what he has done and he has succeeded during his watch in doing things that had needed to be done for years. I congratulate him.

My experience during my time on South Dublin County Council with the EPA has been second to none. I had a very positive experience of its enforcement measures in South Dublin County Council. I will refer in this regard to what the EPA did about the case in Portlaoise.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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With the permission of the Chair, I wish to share my time with Senator Barrett.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Yes, the Senators have three minutes each.

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
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I am pleased the Minister is in the Chamber. I know this is not his swan-song because he is probably going on to greater things, but he can look back at the past three and a half years of great success. The Minister was present to hear the contributions by Senators Whelan and Landy. Senator Whelan spoke with such vigour, courage and concern about the experiences he has had. Senator Landy spoke about his experience with the Hanrahan farm in his area. It is a reminder of what those who are close to these things have to do and also of their concern about the EPA.
I wish to raise hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it is called and the use of shale gas. This issue has a potential interplay with the quality of water, something the EPA will continue to monitor alongside Irish Water. What is the EPA doing in this regard? Is it conducting studies on the environmental impact of fracking? I would like to see it do more so that we can come to a decision on whether we go ahead with fracking. As in many other areas, the Government simply commissions studies and then nothing is done. Correct me if I am wrong but given the political implications of fracking, it is clear that some politicians are even afraid to say the word, "fracking". I am not for or against it per sebut I believe we should have a debate and a decision should be made on that basis. Look at the fact that other countries are racing ahead in this area. It has the potential to create perhaps up to 100,000 jobs and drastically reduce our reliance on foreign energy. The use of fracking in the United States has drastically reduced energy bills for businesses and for households. If that was replicated here it would be a massive boost for our economy.
We have not had a discussion on fracking, so I urge the Minister to do something about it. The EU Energy Commissioner - I do not know what job the Minister will have if he goes to Europe - was quoted last year as saying that energy Ministers recognise that the boom in shale gas extraction in the United States is a game-changer, which has had knock-on effects in all areas of energy. He said that EU member states are open to shale gas and the European Commission will accompany this process by overseeing the environmental concerns through water legislation. I believe that this is something that needs to be done. If the Minister goes to Europe I hope he finds that whatever job he has, he will be able to influence this area because the answer to future challenges in regard to energy rests with us.

Photo of Sean BarrettSean Barrett (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister and I give him my best wishes in all fields of endeavour. One of the things I noted about environmental scientists in TCD, which I liked, was men and women wearing Wellingtons as they headed off to do the work in the field. I was surprise to read in the EPA report that the site visits to establish air emissions are carried out by external contractors. Why do the people we appoint not put on their Wellingtons and go out and do the work rather than contract others to do it? When one reads on further in the report, one sees that the sites are monitored only once a year.

A lot more data will be required in order to do this. While a few sites consistently breach their licences, 75% to 80% are fully compliant. We accept between 20% and 25% non-compliance and let somebody else do the work. Out of the budget of €57 million I want to see people doing it themselves.

In respect of the Portlaoise case on which Senator Whelan spoke so eloquently, one of the complainants is another State company. It is not a case of environmentalists seeking to make life miserable for people in Leinster House or for Ministers. There is a complaint that the groundwater near this Enva oil boiling premises is at 1,000 times the EPA limit for groundwater wells. The response is that there are no wells within 5 km of the facility in Portlaoise. I dispute that. I do not know of any place in Ireland that is 5 km away from wells. That has to be independently monitored. I would like to see independent monitors go out from each regional technical college or universities, at the Minister’s request. If the watchdog is not barking, Parliament has to get somebody to bark at, or instead of, the watchdog. More independence in the monitoring sector is needed.

In respect of air, 19% of licensed sites had an EU exceedance of some type. The visits occur only once a year. We need more frequent monitoring of everything, including roads and safety. In respect of the Portlaoise case there must be some independent monitoring. There is undoubtedly a difference of opinion between those who spoke to Senator Whelan and what has been reported to us. It is no harm that every agency faces checks, balances and scrutiny, as we have always said. For the €57 million we need some urgent answers and inspections more frequently than once a year. The people in the organisation that we pay to do the job need to do it.

I wish the Minister well and I am glad to hear that the climate change Bill will be introduced, even if the Minister will not be here to present it.

5:25 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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Before I call Senator Kelly I would like to welcome the Public Gallery the former Minister of State, Mary Flaherty, and a former member of this House, Alexis Fitzgerald. They are very welcome.

Photo of John KellyJohn Kelly (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. I compliment my colleagues, Senators Landy and Whelan on bringing up this issue. It is very important and in some of the cases cited the issues are very serious. It is quite amazing that the EPA does not seem to have the power to insist on higher standards for the protection of people’s health. The Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA shut down the accident and emergency department in Roscommon hospital because it was not safe enough. We are not asking for that here. We want the EPA to insist on higher standards to be put in place in this plant in Portlaoise.

Years ago, in my own town of Ballaghaderreen, there was a problem with a landfill site that was too close to people’s homes. There were regular methane emissions from it. The locals were getting sick. They went through serious pain and suffering. The county council denied for years that there were any emissions. The EPA came in but all it did was log the complaint and said that it would deal with it. It had to be pushed kicking and screaming to go to court and fine the county council €1,200 or €1,400 and continue as normal. Many people have serious reservations about the independence of the EPA. It is there to protect the people, not local authorities or big businesses, as in the Portlaoise case.

Senator Quinn mentioned fracking. I have not heard any Minister say we will not progress with fracking in this country. The best response we can get is that there will be an EPA report. No matter how many reports on fracking are commissioned, nobody will definitively prove that once a drill is stuck in the ground, which drills for hundreds of metres, that water will not be contaminated. There are also problems associated with pylons and wind turbines. Senators Whelan, Landy and I have raised this issue over the past three years. The EPA has done nothing to protect people from these problems. The message seems to be job creation at any cost.

The EPA is supposedly an oversight body but we need another body to oversee it because An Bord Pleanála and the EPA are playing ball with one another and An Bord Pleanála is not independent. Many agencies are set up to protect people’s health but jobs seem to come first and health second.

Photo of John CrownJohn Crown (Independent)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I support Senator Whelan and his colleagues on this motion. When I read the documentation he provided it sowed a seed of doubt in my mind about the adequacy of the current oversight arrangements. The Minister’s commitment to an investigation is appropriate. This should be an opportunity for concerned citizens and their public representatives to make submissions.

I have got into trouble before for stating things I believe to be true, such as that the Chernobyl disaster had far fewer health consequences than is generally assumed in the lay press. No increased incidence of congenital malformations has ever been verifiably attributed to the Chernobyl disaster, with the exception of the sad occurrence of thyroid cancer which undoubtedly affected children in the area. There has been no evidence of a long late cancer causation associated with the disaster.

That does not mean that there are not environmental consequences from chemical, radiological and other emissions. There have been many huge disasters caused by regulatory failures. One of the classic examples was Minimata Bay in Japan where the poisoning of water by mercury from an industrial plant, which went undetected until it was too late, resulted in a colossal environmental disaster, with many people getting mercury poisoning, dying, being crippled or suffering irreversible brain damage. As a result of appropriate environmental regulation, we now limit the use of materials such as asbestos, benzene and other hydrocarbons. These regulations are based on good science, not on some kind of fluffy bunny-hugging, Luddite, anti-industrial policy. There is sound science, medicine and epidemiology behind them all. The concerns about specific chemicals associated with hydrocarbon disposal are very real. It may well be that there are adequate processes in place for the supervision of the safe disposal of these products but the contention as advanced that it is not adequate is plausible and requires full evaluation and I urge an appropriate, health-only focused investigation, taking into account the data presented by Senator Whelan.

With respect to the other issue, to say I was troubled would be too strong but a tiny bit of unction arose when I read the text of the Minister’s reply with its heavy emphasis on job creation, troikas etc. Being concerned about the environment does not make one unpatriotic, unconcerned about economics or jobs, but if we store up real health disasters now, we will have to pay for them later. There is an appropriate balance. All of these decisions need to be based on good science, medicine, epidemiology and public health. Let us get this one right.

Photo of Tony MulcahyTony Mulcahy (Fine Gael)
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I support the motion proposed by Senators Whelan and Landy. I would like to include Shannon in this because in that area we have had experience of dealing with the EPA and Enva.

In 2002, the seed bed for the waste water at the Schwarz Pharma plant in Shannon was not working. It took between a year and half and two years to convince the EPA that this was the problem. The company repeatedly denied it. After it was proven in court, the company was fined €200,000 by a judge, while still denying it was the cause of the problem. During that whole period, the EPA was a disaster in my opinion. I do not think anything has changed since then.

Last year, I attended a meeting at which the horrendous smell that caused a serious problem in Shannon for the last couple of years was discussed. The smell was coming from the treatment plant, but I have always asked what was going into the treatment plant to cause the problem. There are 350 inadequate treatment plants around the country, but they do not all cause such a smell. We received figures from Enva in Shannon last year. These figures are on the public record. In 2005, Enva dumped 10,000 liquid tonnes of leachate, which is the run-off from Gortadroma dump and a dump in south Galway, into the Shannon treatment system. That figure was 6,000 tonnes in 2008, but by 2012 it had increased to 25,000 tonnes. The figure was 17,000 tonnes last year. The EPA will try to tell us the leachate is not the cause of the problem because it is treated in the plant. The problem with this kind of self-monitoring system is that when one calls to give two weeks' notice of one's intention to call out, one can be sure the boys will have the figures well doctored by the time one gets there. I absolutely believe the dumping of this leachate into the treatment plant in Shannon was the cause of our smell. I have no doubt in the wide earthly world that this is the case. I have asked Irish Water to investigate the matter. The problem is that this thick black liquid substance - one can imagine the run-off from a septic tank or a silage pit - stays in the system.

I attended a meeting last year at the invitation of the local town council. An EPA official, Mr. Peter Cunningham, was in attendance. I do not mind putting his name on the record because he wrote this letter. One of the three council officials in attendance was the council chemist, who is a super lady. This top-class woman has tried her best over the years to break down the walls of the EPA and many other groups. During the course of the meeting, approximately ten minutes into the presentation, I asked a simple question. I wanted to know whether the council officials were happy that the EPA was telling us the truth. There are two answers one could give in response to that question - "Yes" or "No". There was stunned silence before the council official, in fairness to her, said "No, I am not happy that we are being told the truth". Therein lies the problem.

There is literally no contact with the local authority in any of the regions unless the EPA is dragged pulling and screaming into making contact. The same EPA that licensed the Shannon treatment plant in 2006, and said it could not take any more effluent, subsequently licensed Enva to dump extra material into the system. In fact, some 200,000 tonnes have gone into the system since that time. I acknowledge that the Minister, Deputy Hogan, gave us €4 million for the upgrade of the Shannon treatment plant. While I thank him for that money, he might as well throw it out into the car park as long as those boys are putting that volume of stuff into the system because it cannot work in such circumstances. Other towns around the country that have treatment plants which take in the normal domestic effluent - some of them have industrial stuff going in as well - do not smell like the town of Shannon smelled when it was reeking for months on end. The problem was particularly bad in the summer, when the stuff in the system heated up. The smell traversed the whole town because the Smithstown industrial estate is on the north side of the town and the treatment plant is 5 km away on the south side of the town.

The EPA says it trusts the companies that are self-monitoring, but I do not trust them at all. Having seen the EPA in action, I know what it has done. It constantly uses phrases like "we did it right" and "we got it right" as a defence. When I asked EPA officials whether it is possible that the leachate could be contributing to the smell, they said it could be but they could not say for definite. Surely the tonnage of stuff that is going through a normal treatment system - this is not happening in any other town - must be contributing to the smell. While I missed the earlier part of the debate, unfortunately, I would agree with everything Senator Whelan has said. I am asking for an independent investigation into the leachate that is going out of Enva and into the Shannon treatment system. I have put Irish Water, which trusts the figures it is given by the EPA, on notice that this needs to be investigated properly before a new treatment plant is built and this is allowed to continue.

The local authority officials need to have actual teeth with the EPA. When there is an issue, council officials should be able to go in and investigate these sites at short notice. This should be done jointly with the EPA so that the agency cannot take the "I'm all right Jack" attitude all the time. The EPA often says "you could not be right, you are just county council officials, what would you know?". Four years ago, some 300 m of the pipe network was wiped out when nitric acid was put into the system. This is the kind of dodgy stuff that is going on. There is a lot of stuff on these sites. I would say we have had six or seven issues with two companies in Shannon, Enva and Chemifloc. There was an explosion two years ago. This goes far beyond this great agency, which is very arrogant when it is questioned. Its officials do not like having to answer questions. Senator Whelan found that out directly when he asked certain questions. I would like investigations to be carried out in Portlaoise and Shannon. The common denominators here are Enva and the EPA. The same company and the same agency are involved. Nobody is going to tell me there is no problem. I am living in the problem.

5:35 pm

Photo of Mary Ann O'BrienMary Ann O'Brien (Independent)
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I join other Senators in congratulating Senators Whelan and Landy on the introduction of this motion. Senator Whelan spoke very well earlier. Nothing is more important than the environment, and the protection of the environment, for the future of our country and its citizens. Everyone who has spoken - we have heard a rainbow of speeches - seems to have a similar story about the EPA. I would like to refer briefly to my story, which comes from the beginning of my research. Coincidentally, in light of Senator Whelan's motion, I met some people from Askeaton, County Limerick, in recent days. New evidence has emerged to suggest that a report carried out by the EPA into sickness among animals and humans in Askeaton since the early 1980s was seriously flawed. I wish I could join Senator Landy in talking about the wonderful victory that was achieved some years ago. I come from the same area. I live right across the river from Merck Sharp & Dohme. This is not a story of a wonderful victory, however. The EPA has written a report on the Askeaton case. Reports have been authored by many other bodies, including Teagasc. According to a report by Adrienne Murphy, a journalist who has investigated this case:

It is impossible to say that the authors of these reports deliberately got it wrong. But the effect, in my view, was that they covered up the industrial poisoning of a community on the basis of the evidence I have analysed .... The Aughinish Alumina plant is a huge aluminium processing plant, located beside the farmland of Askeaton. Waste streams are discharged from this plant, which are stored in ‘open waste lagoons’ directly adjacent to the farms. Aughinish’s Annual Environmental Reports (AER), which are on public record and were therefore accessible to the EPA, document that some of their waste streams contain fluoride as a contaminant at concentrations of up to 9,000mg/k. According to Declan Waugh, the Irish scientist who has been researching the dangers of fluoride [Senators will be familiar with him] this makes the Aughinish waste lagoons not just the biggest single source of fluoride pollution in the country but also one of the most fluoride-contaminated sites in the world. The prevailing wind blows right across these lagoons towards the area of Askeaton.
Animals in the area have died and have had miscarriages. Ladies have had miscarriages at the same time. Farmers have had to sell up and move to Tipperary. There is a farmer still there whose farm is useless. I will not read any more of this long report by Adrienne Murphy other than to record her assertion that "what is utterly shocking in the context is that the EPA - the acronym stands for Environmental Protection Agency - apparently made a conscious decision not to investigate the possibility of fluoride pollution in the area, citing the 'absence' of industrial sources of fluoride in the area as its justification". I intend to drop a note down to the Minister, Deputy Hogan, about this matter. These people need help. Senator Whelan has thankfully brought the EPA to account this evening. This is another example of an area in Ireland that needs to be properly investigated. The citizens need to be assisted in this regard.

Photo of Ivana BacikIvana Bacik (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on these important environmental matters. I commend my colleagues, Senators Whelan and Landy, for putting forward this motion with the support of all of us in the Labour Party group. I thank the Minister, Deputy Hogan, for the speech he made earlier, which was a comprehensive response to the issues raised in the motion. I note in particular his comments about the work and vital role of the EPA. Other speakers have focused on different aspects of the motion, but I would like to comment on the fourth paragraph of it.

The motion “commends the Minister for the particular efforts he has made at all times to mainstream green-environmental policies and legislation and, in particular, to advance the climate change Bill”. We have also commended the policy in the programme for Government for environmental protection, as well as the Minister and the Department for their commitment to the use of recycling, resource-efficiencies and so on.

Climate change is a significant issue and the biggest challenge facing us internationally. It is creating environmental catastrophes across the world with floods becoming more frequent in some parts while in others, droughts occur. Developing countries are worst hit by climate change, which we know from being an international aid donor, while developed countries produce most greenhouse emissions. It is important that countries like ours are early adopters of legislation to take action to reduce our emissions. That is why I welcome the commitment in the programme for Government to take legislative action in this area.

In 2007, when I was first elected to the Seanad as an Independent, I introduced a Private Members’ Bill, the Climate Protection Bill 2007, with Friends of the Earth Ireland, which would have signed us up to binding emission-reduction targets. The then Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government had a commitment to similar legislation but, unfortunately, it was unable to agree the text of a Bill.

I commend the Minister, Deputy Phil Hogan, for the progress he has made in this regard. It is significant the heads of a climate action and low-carbon development Bill were unveiled on 23 April, following long consultations with different stakeholders with a huge input from the relevant Oireachtas committee. Earlier versions of the planned legislation were criticised by quite a number of environmental groups. There were also critiques of these heads produced in April for containing no specific medium-term or long-term targets for the key dates of 2030 and 2050. It is accepted, however, the Bill commits Ireland to meeting international climate change targets which has been welcomed by IBEC, the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, the IFA, Irish Farmers Association, and environmental groups which have asked for specific changes. The Government has clearly set out that there will be a binding commitment to EU and UN climate change targets for between now and 2050. This legislation will, accordingly, tie the State to an unequivocal commitment to future and present obligations.

The Bill has been described as more robust than previous versions. The Minister will be required to produce a national low-carbon roadmap every five years rather than every seven. The other major change is the enhancement and strengthening of the role of the expert advisory body. Under the heads, its membership will be increased to as many as 11 and its role will be analogous to that of the fiscal advisory committee. It will make recommendations to the Minister on compliance with every relevant climate-related obligation of the State under EU and other international agreements.

The fiscal council is required to publish reports within ten days of giving them to the Minister whereas the expert body on climate change will not have to publish its reports until between 30 and 90 days. Friends of the Earth Ireland has argued if this relatively minor provision could be changed, it would create greater transparency around public debate on climate change policy. The heads of the Bill do not include global climate justice as a principle to be considered, despite the fact the Government has spoken in support of initiatives taken by Mary Robinson in this area. A strengthened Bill would provide for that.

The Bill should also deal with some sectorial inputs to the national roadmap. I note the Oireachtas environment committee recommended drawing up the national roadmap before the sectorial ones. The draft heads of the Bill do away with the sectorial roadmaps, leaving just the national one.

Ultimately, there are several changes that could be made to the final draft of the Bill which would strengthen the level of environmental protection it can offer and our commitments in the programme for Government. It would be worth doing this to prove we are early adopters and serious about tackling climate change. The critical point is that a climate change Bill will be published and enacted during this Government's tenure. Despite all the consultations, failure to deliver this type of Bill was ultimately the big failure of the previous Government. I hope our Bill will be published in the summer and introduced, hopefully, in the Seanad rather than the Dáil in the next term.

5:45 pm

Photo of James HeffernanJames Heffernan (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy McGinley, who is deputising for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan. Maith thú for the excellent job you have done so far as the Minister of State with responsibility for the Gaeltacht and I hope you will continue in this role. I commend the Labour Party Senators, in particular Senators John Whelan and Denis Landy, for tabling this motion and their contributions earlier.
I also want to give a warm welcome to Pat and Nuala Geoghegan from Askeaton, County Limerick, to the House, a welcome which has not been extended to them by many State agencies. They, along with many other families in the area, have lived in the shadow of the Aughinish Alumina plant there for many years. There has often been an omertaamong public representatives when it comes to the pollution emanating from the plant. While there is a tacit acknowledgment by public representatives that pollution and poisoning has been taking place in County Limerick for many years, many of them have been afraid to speak out about it because of the implied threat to jobs in the area. I want jobs in my county as too many of my friends and relatives are living abroad. I do not want the health of people who voted for me, as well as those who never voted and who may never vote for me, to be put in jeopardy because of the need for jobs, however. Pat Geoghegan and the Irish Environmental Forum have fought tirelessly to bring the issues of harmful toxic emissions from Aughinish Alumina and elsewhere to the public arena. Along with others in the Askeaton area, they have maintained a very dignified, well-researched and well-documented campaign since 1997.
In that year, the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, began an investigation which took four years and cost £5 million, a bizarre length of time and cost for such an investigation. While the investigation was ongoing, the EPA granted an integrated pollution control licence to Aughinish Alumina, a point made in a Hot Pressarticle. I also challenge the mainstream media to look more into this matter. It seems investigative journalists do not want to touch this area. There is a sense in Askeaton of a massive State cover-up of the industrial poisoning occurring in the area.

This raises serious issues of a conflict of interest. The question needs to be asked as to who is policing the police. I will reference another example given by the Irish Environmental Forum regarding a complaint made to a Dr. Kelly about polluting premises which had an integrated pollution prevention and control, IPPC, licence. Dr. Kelly passed on the complaint for investigation. The reply showed the person who investigated the matter was the same inspector who recommended the known polluter for an IPPC licence ten years earlier, and the same person who supervised the premises for years as it continued to pollute and destroy the environment. This is not good enough. It is unacceptable. An outside investigator or independent ombudsman should be appointed to investigate possible breaches of the licence.
Section 15 of the Environment Protection Act 1992 Act states:

No action or other proceedings shall lie or be maintainable against the Agency or any body referred to in section 44 or 45 for the recovery of damages in respect of any injury to persons, damage to property or other loss alleged to have been caused or contributed to by a failure to perform or to comply with any of the functions conferred on the said Agency or body.
What is the EPA afraid of? If it is carrying out its role properly and investigating matters properly, why is there a need for immunity from prosecution? One of the Minister's predecessors, John Gormley, asked for a review of this. This review was done and the report, which issued in May 2011, stated the EPA blanket statutory immunity when carrying out its functions is difficult to justify in a modern context and should be revised. I believe it should be abolished. I challenge the Government to live up to commitments made in the programme for Government to provide an ombudsman for all statutory bodies. This is the gauntlet I lay down to the Minister and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. Get rid of the immunity. Why be afraid? Proper powers should be given to an outside body to investigate what are serious breaches of regulations.

5:55 pm

Photo of John WhelanJohn Whelan (Labour)
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I am overwhelmed and extremely grateful for the extensive cross-party support we have received this evening on this motion on this important issue. It is stirring and heartening that we can agree on matters of such national importance for all our citizens. I thank all colleagues for their contributions and support. I say to the EPA that we in this House will not relent until we have satisfaction, resolution and solutions to the issues we have raised this evening. We are not just going through the motions. We will stick with this until we have a result and resolution for the families who trust us and have asked us to help.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister, Deputy Hogan, for his courteous, comprehensive and considered contribution. He is open-minded. I am glad he confirmed an ongoing investigation is taking place into the situation in Portlaoise regarding Enva, and that he has asked the EPA for a report on the matter. He has also confirmed he is open to accepting contributions and submissions from Oireachtas Members and others who may have evidence or data to submit. The report and investigation will be all the more thorough, comprehensive and credible if it accepts independent and verifiable scientific data. Our case is not based on frivolous grounds but substantive data.

I take exception to one remark with regard to the EPA to which the Minister referred. It was suggested I go to the police if I have a problem. I do have a problem, but with regard to environment and pollution, the EPA is the police. I have gone to the police who have turned a blind eye. It is a good job the Garda does not police in the same way as the EPA does. If the Garda was to enforce regulations in the same way as the EPA, it would notify everyone in advance where the speeding or drink-driving inspection roadblock would be, would only carry out inspections once a year on a particular stretch of road; and when one was stopped, one would be asked whether one was drinking or speeding, to which one would answer one did not believe so, and one would be told that is grand and whatever one thinks oneself. This is how the EPA conducts regulation, inspection and monitoring. Self-regulation is not regulation.

We are foursquare behind the climate change legislation which the Government committed to introducing this year. Climate change starts here. We cannot save the planet unless we get our own house in order. Dealing with climate change starts when we clean up our own act. I am looking forward to further engagement with the Minister on this issue and with the EPA. This saga continues.

Amendment put:

The Seanad divided: Tá, 5; Níl, 44.

Tellers: Tá, Senators David Cullinane and Trevor Ó Clochartaigh; Níl, Senators Paul Coghlan and Aideen Hayden.

Amendment declared lost.

Question put: "That the motion be agreed to."

The Seanad divided: Tá, 34; Níl, 15.

Tellers: Tá, Senators Paul Coghlan and Aideen Hayden; Níl, Senators Ned O'Sullivan and Diarmuid Wilson.

Question declared carried.

6:05 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Maurice CumminsMaurice Cummins (Fine Gael)
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At 10.30 a.m. tomorrow.