Wednesday, 13 November 2019
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I wish to raise a very important and emotive local issue concerning applications to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for foreshore oyster bed licences in Ballyness Bay, County Donegal, which is adjacent to where I live. The area covered by the applications is very extensive. The overall footprint of the combined applications covers an area in the region of 46 ha. For anyone not from a farming background, 46 ha equates to 45 to 46 GAA pitches. We are talking about a small and confined bay in County Donegal. Ballyness Bay is a special area of conservation, SAC. It is one of the most beautiful areas in the country, with lovely golden beaches running along the coast, and is promoted as a tourist hotspot. A lot of work has been done in recent years to augment the tourism sector in that area to provide opportunities for local businesses.
It has come to light that in March and April of this year the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine advertised that a number of applications for oyster farms had been submitted. Notice was placed in The Donegal Democratfor one week only. The Donegal Democrat is not in extensive circulation in the area in question. A local community organisation, Save Ballyness Bay, tells me that only 15 copies of The Donegal Democratare sold in Falcarragh, the primary town near Ballyness Bay, each week. Other newspapers, such as the Tirconaill Tribune or the Donegal Newsare widely circulated in the area but the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine chose to advertise this in a newspaper that is not.There were 72 hours of public consultation afforded through being able to view the documentation in the local Garda station. However, the Garda station only opens from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and if gardaí are called out, it may not be open. Therefore, the public consultation was completely inadequate. The vast majority of people, including me, as a local public representative, did not become aware of the applications until June, so after the public consultation period had elapsed. The only reason I became aware of them was that a local concerned resident raised them with me.
There was a lack of consultation. It is very important to have consultations about these applications because it affords the Department an opportunity to garner a better understanding of how people in a local community feel about large-scale applications. Consultation also allows experts to make an input into the system. Therefore, the decisions that would be arrived at, following meaningful consultation, would clearly be better in public policy terms. This is a public policy decision. If these proposals in their entirety were to be granted, according to members of the local community, thousands of whom have signed petitions, it could devastate tourism potential of the area, not to mention the ecological damage it could cause to the SAC.
The Minister of State has a background in farming. This area is part of a special protected area or special area of conservation. If local farmers want to dig a drain, they must first get the permission of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, and they can only cut silage or hay at certain times of the year. However, in this case, there has been no consultation whatsoever, or at least there is no paper trail, between the Department and the NPWS in respect of these applications. There is something not right here and I call on the Department to set aside these applications and initiate further public consultation to afford everyone in the local community, including experts and applicants, an opportunity to have their say before a decision is arrived at. Otherwise, a decision will have been taken in the dark.
I am not satisfied with the appropriate assessment that was carried out for these applications. It was carried out by the Marine Institute, which is funded by the Department. There is a conflict of interest. The appropriate assessment should have been carried out by an independent organisation at arm's length from the Department to facilitate an objective analysis. I expected an environmental impact statement would have been required because every planning application for a one-off house in proximity to an SAC requires one. I have major questions about these applications.
I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his latitude.
I thank the Senator. I will deal with his specific questions in the second part of my contribution.
An aquaculture licence is required by law for the cultivation of finfish, shellfish and certain marine plants such as seaweed. My Department considers all applications for aquaculture licences in accordance with the provisions of the Fisheries (Amendment) Act 1997, the Foreshore Act 1933 and application EU legislation.
The licensing process involves consultation with a wide range of scientific and technical advisers, as well as various statutory consultees. The legislation also provides for a period of public consultation. In addition, the Department must adhere to a wide range of regulatory requirements and other legislation that impact on the licensing process.
On appropriate assessment, a key component of the aquaculture licensing process is a series of measures designed to address the impact of aquaculture on the environment. This series is known as appropriate assessment or AA. This process arose from a European Court of Justice case against Ireland in 2007. The European Court of Justice declared that, by failing to take all the necessary measures to comply with the EU habitats directive in respect of authorisation of aquaculture programmes, Ireland had failed to fulfil its obligations under that directive.
The EU habitats and birds directives have resulted in the designation of certain bays by the National Parks and Wildlife Service as special areas of conservation and-or special protection areas for birds. These are known as Natura 2000 sites and most aquaculture takes place within or adjacent to them.
In the negotiations to address the ECJ judgment, the Department agreed a process with the European Commission and the NPWS that would govern the State's processing of aquaculture licence applications. The appropriate assessment process is managed, in the main, by the Marine Institute via environmental and scientific contractors commissioned by the institute to carry out the necessary fieldwork and desk analysis. To date, the Marine Institute has submitted appropriate assessments on 32 bays to my Department, of which Ballyness Bay is one.
Ballyness Bay in County Donegal has been designated an SAC. There are also a number of other special areas of conservation and special protected areas close to Ballyness Bay. Full consideration was given to the likely interaction between these areas and the proposed aquaculture activities. No aquaculture operation currently operates within the Ballyness Bay special area of conservation.
The appropriate assessment considered 20 applications for aquaculture operations in the bay, which consisted of 14 for the cultivation of oysters only, five for the cultivation of oysters and clams and one for the cultivation of clams only. The number of sites being applied for has subsequently been reduced to 18 applications as applications for two sites for oysters were withdrawn.
As part of the statutory and public consultation process, the legislation requires periods of statutory and public consultation in respect of these applications. All observations received within that period are carefully considered by the Department.
In accordance with the applicable legislation, notice of the applications concerning the Ballyness Bay was published by the applicants, not the Department albeit under the instruction of the Department, in the Donegal Democraton various dates between 14 March and 26 March. From the date of the relevant notice, the public had four weeks to make written submissions or observations to the Department on the applications specified in the notice. During that time, the application documentation was available for inspection in the Garda stations specified in the public notices and on the Department's website.
In addition, the legislation governing aquaculture licensing provides for an appeals mechanism. Any member of the public who wishes to appeal a ministerial decision may do so by submitting an appeal to the aquaculture licences appeals board, which is an independent body established by statute.
The Department has received a number of representations from members of the public and public representatives on the licensing process as it affects Ballyness Bay. In addition to general complaints concerning the appropriateness or otherwise of intertidal aquaculture in Ballyness Bay, there have been specific concerns expressed concerning the consultation process. Specifically, the placement of public notices in the Donegal Democratis regarded as inadequate by a number of members of the public and public representatives. However, the procedures in respect of the public notices adhere fully to the legislative requirements.In addition to the public notices, the applications were available to view in specified local Garda stations and on the Department's website.
In conclusion, the licensing process in respect of Ballyness Bay conforms fully with all legislative requirements. The legislation is designed to protect the public interest, including the applicant. The statutory and public consultation phases in respect of the applications referred to in Ballyness Bay have concluded. It is, therefore, essential that I do not engage with parallel discussions outside of the statutory process. As the applications referred to by the Senator are the subject of ongoing detailed considerations as part of the process, it would not be appropriate to comment further pending a conclusion of that process.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. As expected, he gave the standard reply from the Department, which is very disappointing.I think that the manner in which this has been dealt with by the Department is grossly disingenuous. I hold the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in very high regard. It is an excellent Department with excellent officials but it has got this wrong. The fact that all of the local sentiment is not being taken into consideration prior to a decision and ministerial order being made regarding this application is dreadful. A public meeting was held in August that was attended by over 700 people. A petition has been signed by over 3,000 people. The reply referred to a number of members of the public. Over 3,000 people are concerned about the process and that number is growing. The process within the Department has now alienated applicants from those who have concerns, which is wrong.
I call again on the Minister to review this. The case of Ballyness is not an isolated one. This is happening all over the country. The manner in which these applications are being dealt with is wrong. Local communities in the areas concerned deserve to have an input. What is striking is that the National Parks and Wildlife Service is completely silent on this application. I do not know why. I know the Department may have stayed within the legislative framework but the process is wrong.
I will certainly bring the Senator's concerns back to the Department but I must call out one thing. In his first contribution, the Senator inferred that the Marine Institute was not independent. This is carried out on behalf of the Department. It is the applicants who have made the application, not the Department. I will defend the independence of the Marine Institute and I do not think any inference should be made that it is anything but independent. It is correct to say that it is funded by the Department, as are many State agencies, including An Bord Pleanála and the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board, which was set up under statute as an independent body. Lest there be any confusion here, let me say that the Marine Institute is an independent entity funded in the same way as many other statutory bodies such as the NRA and Transport Infrastructure Ireland.