Adjournment Debate. - Asbestos Waste Dumping.

Thank you, Sir, for allowing me to raise this very important matter. Let me first and foremost record my thanks to the Minister for the Environment for taking time off from his very busy schedule to attend here, late as the hour is. With the permission of the House, it is my intention to share my time with my constituency colleague, Deputy Liam Hyland.

Is that satisfactory? Agreed.

This is a matter of grave public importance in view of statements and counter-statements made by various interested parties since the discovery, by accident, of 17 plastic bags containing asbestos waste in Portarlington last weekend. There is a clear need for some type of independent inquiry in view of the conflict of evidence to date, and I hope the genuine fears among members of the public can be allayed as quickly as possible.

We had the spectacle last weekend of the ESB in a very cavalier manner admitting a mistake, having disposed of the waste in a very careless manner. At the same time, or shortly afterwards, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment appeared on TV speaking of the alleged dumping while under the glare of cameras we saw people remove plastic bags from the area. It is time for straight talking on the part not alone of the ESB, but of the Government as to what exactly they are going to do about this incident.

All we know is there was a mistake. The ESB in a very smug manner seemed to feel this was the end of their duty. I hope the Minister will pursue this matter with all vigour to ensure there will be no repetition in other areas and that the ESB and other bodies who may be engaged in similar activities are made fully aware of the regulations, national and international, laid down for disposal of such waste.

Portarlington is a small town with some 6,000 people. There has been public knowledge in the area in the past few months, in view of the closure of the power plant, that the ESB intended to demolish it. Prior to the demolition the body decided in their wisdom, rightly, that they would have to remove a thermal installation substance containing asbestos. The manner in which they attempted to do this has given rise to very grave public concern. Not alone were these bags found in an open field, but the open field is on the outskirts of a town within yards of a housing estate. Such a deposit must by all reasonable standards constitute an allurement for children in the area. If children find sealed plastic containers in a field, then children by nature will attempt to discover what is in them. I am sure the Minister is well aware of the grave dangers of inhalation of asbestos. I would like to know what exactly was in these 17 bags, and the exact nature of the asbestos fibres at present in the power station in Portarlington. I concede that the substance itself is not dangerous but the concentration of such a substance to which the worker is exposed can give rise to serious problems, depending on the type of asbestos — white, brown or blue. I hope the Minister in his investigation will endeavour to find out the nature of the asbestos. The hazards are quite clear. Experts are all in agreement that inhalation of blue asbestos gives rise to an incurable form of cancer.

The manner in which the ESB treated this matter before the discovery gives rise to serious concern. I understand they had sought tenders from various bodies for the disposal of this substance and as recently as 4 February a spokesman for the ESB was reported in a local newspaper as saying, and I quote: "The job of removing and disposing the asbestos has already been put out to tender by the ESB, whose spokesman ... said that it was a `fairly routine' operation". Lessons since then underline that the operation is far from routine and the routine manner in which the ESB handled this has shown their activities to be careless in the extreme.

I hope the full rigors of the law will be brought to bear on those responsible. The ESB spokesman went on to say, "We are talking about the work beginning fairly quickly". Unknown to the members of the public, the work had commenced and the fruits of such work were stumbled upon accidentally by parties over the weekend.

Let me quote from The Irish Times of 4 February prior to the discovery:

Materials containing asbestos used on the plant must be removed under the controlled conditions set out by statutory regulations the ESB said and the insulation material at Portarlington will be removed "safely and in such a way that will not cause any risks to the community or the environment now and in the future".

The way the ESB followed through on that suggestion underlines how they felt about the serious problem.

In may 1983 a BBC programme, "Tomorrow's World", described the process involved in removing asbestos insulation from power stations. Following that programme stringent regulations were introduced in the UK. It was felt that the material could be disposed of safely provided stringent conditions were met. Two of the conditions were that the material should be buried at least two metres deep and that all the waste material should be soaked in water and sealed in plastic bags. The ESB, in the course of their statement following the discovery of the mistake, admitted that the waste disposal bags were specially designed heavy duty bags with "Danger" marked on them. I hope the ministerial investigation will show that to be so.

In any debate on the disposal of such waste from any town, particularly a town the size of Portarlington, it is important that the incident is not hyped up to such an extent that it will give rise to false claims by some people. I am sure the Minister will agree that there are ways of disposing of the substance safely and that if the regulations are complied with such disposal should not give rise to concern. We run the risk of people going overboard on such an issue but it is important to stress that the ESB did not comply with the regulations. It is precisely because of that that we have to give an assurance to the community that, to the best of our knowledge, this did not occur before and that all precautions will be taken in the future.

I should like to put a number of questions to the Minister and I hope he will bear them in mind when ordering the inquiry. Did negotiations take place with the Department of the Environment prior to the removal of the waste? Was a licence or permission to dispose of the material sought or granted? What type of asbestos was involved? Was it white, blue or brown? In order to allay public fears it is important that we should know the type of asbestos that was involved. I should like to ask the Minister to give us details of the find. How deep was the pit? How many were found? Will the Minister give us details of the size and strength of those bags? Had the asbestos been soaked in water? Was specialist advice sought from the ESB and, if so, from whom was it sought? Will it be possible to determine who removed the substance? Were outside specialist contractors engaged?

In the course of their statement the ESB said they were in the process of putting the removal of this waste out to tender and I should like to know if contractors were involved or if ESB workers were concerned. If ESB workers were involved in the operation I should like to know the circumstances under which they worked. Were they wearing protective clothing? Are they trained for such work? Were they informed of the type of material they were removing? Will the Minister say how much thermal insulation is in the Portarlington plant and what proportion of it has been removed? Will the Minister comment on a disturbing report published in the issue of The Irish Press of 6 February to the effect that red faced ESB officials would attempt to find out how a highly toxic substance was left exposed for months near a disused generating station? How long was that substance left in the open? If The Irish Press report is accurate, and we are talking about the substance being left exposed for months, the Minister must be seriously concerned about the matter. Will it be possible to obtain an assurance from the ESB that this is the first occasion such an incident occurred? What action does the Minister propose to take to ensure that the full rigours of the law are brought to bear on those responsible for the disposal of this waste? I understand that this evening there is a report of concern about the disposal of waste by another organisation in County Laois. I should like to thank the Chair for giving me permission to raise this matter and to inform him that I am giving the remainder of my time to Deputy Hyland.

I should like to thank Deputy Flanagan for sharing his time with me and to thank the Minister for the Environment for taking the debate. As I see it there are two issues involved in the disposal of asbestos waste from the closed Portarlington ESB generating station. The first relates to the discovery of the waste close to the station. That was alarming and it calls into question the responsibility of the ESB to dispose of toxic waste. By their irresponsible action the ESB have shown a complete disregard for the people of Portarlington and the environment generally. They have shown, in particular, a complete disregard for the health and welfare of the workers involved in the removal of that waste. It is only right to assume from the irresponsible way that the material was dumped that the workers did not have any protection when removing the waste. That is a serious matter because it is possible that the workers involved were not aware of the toxic nature of the substance they were moving. It is possible that they did not know of the damaging effects it could have on their health. We should be told if those involved in the work wore protective clothing.

My second point related to the disposal of the remainder of the asbestos waste from that plant. What plans have the ESB to dispose of such waste at other generating plants which will, within a certain period, be de-commissioned? It is important that the Minister, and his Department, initiate safe procedures for the disposal of asbestos waste from all ESB plants and other concerns where asbestos is in use.

Prior to this incident Laois County Council had been involved in serious negotiations with the ESB concerning the safe disposal of the asbestos waste from the plant. Our county manager in Laois, on behalf of the council, sought and was given positive assurance that the highest possible level of precautions and security would be implemented by the ESB or the people commissioned by the ESB to dispose of the waste. Following the weekend episode we must seriously question the credibility of the ESB with regard to such assurances. It is frightening that we could have such an occurence in the the town of Portarlington, a fairly large rural town with the usual population mix of old and young people. In the town there are very young people who because of their very inquisitive nature might stumble on a dump such as this and expose themselves to a very serious health hazzard.

I am sorry to interrupt the Deputy but the time has come to hear the reply from the Minister for the Environment.

I will begin by outlining the legal controls which exist in relation to the disposal of asbestos waste. This waste is a toxic and dangerous waste for the purposes of the European Communities (Toxic and Dangerous Waste) Regulations 1982. Each county council and county borough corporation is responsible under the regulations for the planning, organisation and supervision of operations for the disposal of toxic and dangerous wastes in its area as well as for authorisation of the storage, treatment and deposit of such waste. Accordingly, insistence on the specific measures which need to be taken to rectify the situation which has been found to exist at Portarlington power station is a matter for Laois County Council. The Department will keep close touch with the county council in relation to this matter.

It is an offence to store or deposit asbestos waste other than in accordance with a permit issued by the local authority. A permit can include conditions governing a wide range of aspects including of course the methods of disposal and the precautions to be taken in storing or depositing waste. Failure to comply with permit requirements or indeed any other requirement of the regulations is an offence which carries a penalty of up to £1,000 on summary conviction. A prosecution for an offence under the regulations is a matter for the local authority.

Asbestos waste, while it is dangerous, particularly in the form of dust or fibre is not a difficult waste to dispose of. It does not burn and sophisicated incineration systems are not therefore needed. Landfill, either on specialised sites or even in conjunction with domestic waste is the internationally recognised method of disposal and this is totally safe if certain requirements are met. These requirements relate mainly to the safety and protection of personnel engaged in the waste disposal operations and to the security of the site from any risk of leaching to ground or surface waters. The primary disposal requirements are that asbestos wastes be suitably packaged in strong double-walled plastic sacks or other suitable containers and that they be deposited at least two metres from the surface or flanks of the tiphead. Guidelines on disposal have been given in various circular letters issued by my Department and local authorities have also been reminded on a number of occasions of the need to provide suitable landfill outlets for the asbestoes wastes arising in their areas.

Asbestos was of course widely used for many years for its heat resistance and other properties and this usage was particularly extensive in large industrial plant such as power stations, chemical plants etc. These would almost certainly be the major sources of asbestos waste particularly following removal of old lagging material.

With regard to the facts of the Portarlington power station waste the ESB have issued a press statement accepting the blame for the unsatisfactory waste disposal situation and there would be little point in my berating them on this account. There was negligence in some quarters and this must not be repeated. My Department have drawn the attention of the ESB management to the need to ensure that the necessary statutory obligations are fulfilled and essential precautions taken not only in relation to disposal of any asbestos wastes arising at Portarlington but for any other location or installation where a similar situation may arise. As to the detailed investigation it is a matter for Laois County Council in the first instance to appraise the contention by the ESB that there was no risk to public health in this instance. I understand that the local authority's engineers were on the site on Monday morning investigating the quantities of waste involved and the state of the disposal site. I am told EOLAS have been engaged to undertake a comprehensive examination of the site to establish whether surface or ground waters have been contaminated in any way and whether any airborne asbestos fibres are present.

As to the final disposal of the Portarlington asbestos, I understand that the intention is to have it deposited on the local authority landfill site subject to approval and supervision by the county council and in accordance with the best international practice. The proposed disposal at this tip has been examined and approved by EOLAS. The State sponsored body involved on this occasion have a good environmental track record up to this incident, but we must not play down the seriousness of the incident. It was a case of bad management and corporate responsibility has been expressed by the body. I am satisfied that the coherent plan and planning being put in place between Laois County Council and the ESB will deal effectively with the remaining problems. I am not underestimating the difficulty that has arisen nor am I minimising what the Deputies have said, but it is our intention to see that whatever needs to be done to satisfy the requirements of the community and the Department and the county council will be done in so far as the further disposal of any such asbestos waste is concerned.

The Dáil adjourned at 11 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 9 February 1989.