Thursday, 24 January 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Chamber. I know this is matter is not his specific area but I will address it and, hopefully, receive some response. On 4 October 2018, by statutory instrument, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment removed from local authorities the power to require an environmental impact assessment for prospecting, which means drilling for mineral deposits such as gold or zinc. On 24 October, a circular was forwarded to local authorities advising them not to conduct their own EIAs. Through a statutory instrument the Department has put in place the exact same environmental impact assessment process that exists for offshore drilling for fossil fuels.
The body that promotes Ireland as an international destination for mining companies is now the body that regulates mining. We know well how this will work out as the offshore fossil fuel industry has never once, in its entire history, conducted an environmental impact assessment in Irish waters before drilling. According to the annual survey of mining companies conducted by the Fraser Institute of Canada, the mining policies written by the Department have been ranked the number one most attractive to the industry out of 91 jurisdictions, and that has been the case for five years in a row. Ireland's policy and regulatory system for mining is so lax that we are more attractive than Guatemala, Bolivia or South Africa, where local communities have risen up and protested against this type of prospecting.
After nuclear, the global minerals industry is the most damaging industry on the planet. Whole mountains have been stripped for gold in Romania. In 2000, the multinational company Aurul leaked cyanide into the Some River in Romania, leaving rivers destroyed across the country. Thousands of people had to leave their homes and many others developed cancer from breathing the toxic dust that resulted from the mining processes, which released chemicals such as arsenic for up to 100 miles. Yet, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has allowed over 25% of the Republic of Ireland to be opened up for prospecting without the following: a public consultation; a strategic environmental impact assessment; and without proper debate in the Dáil or Seanad. MOAG of Toronto operates in Carna, which is in Connemara. The company has the right to drill without landowner consent across 50 km, even in special areas of conservation. Over the Christmas holidays townlands in Waterford, Cork and Galway were opened up for exploration, and again without local authority or county councillor oversight.What is the Minister of State's intention in this regard? A prospecting licence for six years costs between a mere €1,250 and approximately €3,000, so it is a pittance which grants these companies the right to drill over 35 km, accessing people's private lands. If anything commercial is found, not only does the State get a mere 25% of the royalties, but the taxpayer must compensate the company for all costs incurred. Is it worth it?
I wish to make the Minister of State aware of what communities in the Sperrin Mountains in Northern Ireland face. The Canadian multinational, Dalradian, plans to create the largest gold mine in Europe in the Sperrins. To do this, it has drilled 500 exploration wells, none of which has planning permission. Local authorities have no power, as the Department for the Economy in Northern Ireland licenses exploratory drilling and prospecting. The largest cyanide processing plant in Europe is to be built to facilitate the mine. Due to this lack of democratic oversight and accountability, conflict is starting to tear the community apart. We remember all too well what happened with Shell in north Mayo.
It is 100 years since the first Dáil, and I find it shocking that here we are giving away our rights to companies that have poor track records. I am just very concerned. There has been no public consultation and now local authorities have been stripped of any powers they have. I ask for the Minister of State's response to this.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter. The Minister of State, Deputy Canney, is taking oral parliamentary questions in the Dáil at the same time as this, so it is just one of those scheduling issues, but I will respond on behalf of his Department and relate to him the questions raised.
It is important to note that mineral exploration drilling projects do not ordinarily require planning permission as they are generally non-invasive, low-level activities. The competent authority for mineral exploration drilling consent is the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment. In accordance with the planning Acts, mineral exploration is an exempt activity and, in general, planning permission is currently only required where a screening for environmental impact assessment, EIA, determines that a full environmental impact assessment is required, in which circumstances the exemption from planning falls and the matter is then referred to the relevant local authority.
Until 2018, it had been considered that the environmental impact assessment process, under Directive 2011/92/EU, as amended by Directive 2014/52/EU, did not apply to mineral exploration activities, including mineral exploration drilling. In June of last year, however, the Department received legal advice to the effect that mineral exploration drilling should be considered to fall within the scope of "deep drilling", as referred to in the EIA directive. As a result, the exploration and mining division of the Department prioritised the transposition of the directive to ensure that all mineral exploration "deep" drilling was subject to screening for EIA.
While work on the transposition was under way, a further problem was identified arising out of SI 543 of 2014. This statutory instrument provides that all "deep" drilling would require mandatory EIA, save in circumstances where the relevant local authority or An Bord Pleanála or the appropriate Minister within the meaning of the Foreshore Acts determined that the "deep" drilling concerned would not have a significant effect on the environment. This was enacted before the Department received the legal advice to the effect that mineral exploration drilling was covered by the concept of deep drilling in the EIA directive.
The result was that there was an unintended lacuna in the legislative framework in respect of the powers of the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment and, for a time, a situation arose whereby the Minister, as competent authority, was unable to carry out his function in this area. This also meant that for a period mineral exploration drilling proposals could only be screened for EIA by the relevant planning authority or, in the case of the foreshore area, by the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, even though mineral exploration drilling is generally not subject to planning permission. An immediate stay had to be put on the granting of consents by the Minister for all mineral exploration drilling in the country until such time as the legislative anomaly could be rectified. This took a number of months to resolve because of the legal complexity and, regrettably, a number of jobs were lost in the industry during that time.
The necessary amending legislation, SI 384 of 2018, which provided the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment with the legal basis for undertaking EIA screening, was eventually enacted on 2 October. It should be reiterated that this statutory instrument does not have effect for planning purposes as mineral exploration drilling is in general not subject to planning permission unless it is determined that a full EIA is required. I should also like to make clear that the signing of the statutory instrument did not take any authority from local authorities and that section 5 of the planning Acts remains in place, as was previously the case.
I thank the Minister of State and appreciate the clarification on the matter. It must be made very clear that where an EIA takes place there must also be community involvement because the last thing we want is to have multinationals coming in and creating chaos in communities. I thank the Minister of State for the clarification.