I move "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".
This Bill forms a key element in the Government's programme to combat water pollution. It is designed to strengthen the controls contained in the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act, 1977, and the Fisheries (Consolidation) Act, 1959, and, generally, to update the provisions of the 1977 Act in the light of some ten years' experience of its full operation. Before dealing with the specific provisions of the Bill, I propose to comment on some of the background issues involved.
Because Ireland was never a highly urbanised and industrialised country, water pollution did not pose a major problem until the 1960s when we experienced rapid development of industry, major growth of urban centres and the development of intensive agriculture. In 1971, a national survey of water quality revealed that while our waters were in the main unpolluted, some 7 per cent of them were seriously polluted. Subsequent investigations into the nature and extent of the problem and the adequacy of the existing legislative controls led to the first comprehensive legislative response to the problem in the form of the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act, 1977. That Act introduced a system of licensing for effluent discharges to waters, mainly as a means of tackling the pollution problems posed by industry. It also gave local authorities a wide range of powers to control pollution from diffuse sources — powers which have since been used extensively by local authorities and to great effect. In particular, section 12 of the Act, which provides for the issue of notices requiring measures to be taken to prevent water pollution, has proved to be a most useful tool in the hands of the local authorities in their on-going efforts to eliminate the problem. However, the incidents which occurred in the summer of 1987 indicated that strengthening of the law was needed and that the controls on pollution from diffuse sources, in particular, needed to be extended.
It needs to be put on the record that Ireland's waters are still amongst the cleanest in Europe. The most recent survey of national water quality, published in 1987, revealed that 74 per cent of Irish waters were unpolluted while a mere 2 per cent were seriously polluted — down from 7 per cent in 1971. The bathing waters monitored for compliance with our stringent national bathing water quality standards have also proved to be of exceptionally high quality in most areas. Our major problems with regard to water pollution are the increasing incidence of a slight and moderate pollution, and the need to control once-off pollution incidents, such as fish kills. These incidents can have dramatic effects and, if not effectively tackled, could distort the overall picture in relation to water quality here, with serious consequences for tourism and our economy generally, as well as for environmental quality.
I want also to refer briefly to the allegation that local authorities themselves are the biggest polluters, or that local authorities are above the law. The facts tell a different story. Local authorities can be and are prosecuted by the fisheries boards if they are guilty of pollution but such prosecutions have been necessary in relatively few cases. In fact, of all the fish kills caused annually, only a small fraction are caused by local authority discharges; but even that small number is still too many. That is why we must ensure that local authority waste disposal systems are run to the highest possible standards and, where necessary, that capital investment is undertaken to remedy deficiencies in existing systems. The need for local authorities to pay particular attention to this matter was specifically brought to their notice in 1988 and each authority was issued with guidelines and advice on the key areas of sewage treatment to which they should give regular and detailed attention. In addition, the local authorities have, at the Department's request, identified the individual sewage discharges which are contributing to pollution and this information is taken into account in planning the overall sanitary services programme.
In recent years, there has been considerable capital investment is providing and upgrading local authority sewage treatment and disposal facilities. Since 1980, nearly £30 million have been invested by local authorities for this purpose, using finance made available by the Government, and as a result, considerable progress has been made in eliminating pollution blackspots. New sewage treatment plants have been provided in towns such as Portlaoise, Fermoy, Carlow, Malahide, Swords, Killarney, Ardee, Listowel, Cavan, Tullamore, Newcastlewest and Blessington, to mention but a few. This programme of action to tackle pollution from municipal sources has borne results: as I mentioned earlier, water quality surveys show a significant reduction in serious pollution of rivers and streams since 1971 and much of this reduction is directly linked to the investment which has been made.
In 1989, over £62 million was provided for the sanitary services capital programme and the allocation for 1990 has been set at £67.5 million. The House may be assured that, in deciding on schemes to go to construction in the coming years, due weight will be given to the importance of building on the progress already made and ensuring that local authorities are enabled to play their full part in the drive against water pollution. Schemes already released by my Department, and which should go to construction next year, include a sludge dewatering plant at Dromin, County Kerry, which will give increased protection to the River Feale, and sewerage schemes at Athlone, Baltinglass, Ballinamore and Newbridge which will contribute to improvements in water quality in the Shannon, the Slaney, the Ballinamore/Ballyconnell Canal and the Liffey at these locations.
The National Development Plan, 1989-1993, provides for substantial continuing investment in water and sewerage services over the five years to 1993. The pattern of expenditure proposed marks a change from that which has prevailed during the eighties in that the major portion of the investment will be devoted to new sewerage schemes. EC Structural Fund support for sanitary services will amount to £95 million over this period and there are good prospects that additional funding will become available when the reserve funds for less developed regions are allocated.
In planning the investment programme for the next five years, account has been taken not only of national priorities, but also of the need to ensure full implementation of European Community's water pollution directives. In 1988 alone, three sets of regulations were made giving full effect in Irish law to the bathing water, fresh water fish and drinking water directives. This year amending regulations increased to a total of 64 the number of beaches monitored for compliance with the national bathing water quality standards. Regulations giving effect in Irish law to the two surface water directives were made earlier this month and work is in progress on the preparation of further regulations to give effect to more recent directives. The various sanitary services schemes selected to go to construction stage in the next five years will make a very substantial contribution to the achievement on a consistent and universal basis of the high standards of water quality set in the various EC Directives and the even higher standards to which we aspire in some cases.
Looked at in the European context, we are one of the few countries lucky enough to have waters which are to a large extent unpolluted. We must ensure that this continues to be so by pursuing an integrated approach towards the problem of water pollution and by ensuring that resources are effectively targeted on the areas in most urgent need of attention.
Since 1987, a great deal of effort has been devoted to reducing pollution from diffuse agricultural sources which were the source of a large proportion of the fish kills in that year. The success of the integrated approach adopted in dealing with that problem is already apparent. Measures aimed at the identification of problem farms, measures to assist farmers in making their farms pollution free and activities designed to increase awareness among farmers of water pollution were adopted. The farm surveys carried out in each county by multi-disciplinary task forces led by local authorities proved to be a very worthwhile exercise. In 1988, over 12,000 farms in high pollution risk areas were surveyed. Of these 45 per cent were found to pose a medium to high pollution risk and the local authorities concerned are ensuring that the farmers involved take all measures necessary to make these farms risk free.
To assist farmers in carrying out necessary pollution control works, the western package scheme was extended last year to cover such works. Initially farmers in all disadvantaged areas, which comprise some 70 per cent of all land in the country, could qualify for grants of 55 per cent of the cost of slurry and silage effluent storage facilities. Young farmers could qualify for grants of 69 per cent. The scheme of grants has now been extended to the entire country as part of the national development plan and farmers outside the disadvantaged areas can now qualify for grants of 45 per cent towards slurry and silage effluent storage facilities, with even higher rates for young farmers. Up to the end of September 1989, 16,884 applications for such grants were received. Of these 8,469 have been approved representing a total estimated grant of £37 million and a total estimated investment of £75 million.
The activities of ACOT — and now Teagasc — have played an important role in heightening awareness of agricultural pollution among the farming community and in assisting individual farmers to design and carry through the necessary measures to avoid or eliminate pollution. The establishment of a specialised environmental advisory service was a particularly important development, as was the environmental awareness campaign developed with the support of the local authorities and the farming organisations.
Recent years have seen a more vigorous use by local authorities of the enforcement provisions of the Water Pollution Act against polluters generally. The figures for 1988 speak for themselves. In that year local authorities initiated prosecutions in over 100 cases. The number of notices issued under section 12 of the 1977 Act requiring measures to be taken to prevent pollution came to almost 1,000. Over 9,500 advice or warning letters were issued and investigations in respect of waters and discharges to sewers were carried out in more than 16,000 cases.
These statistics illustrate the generally high level of commitment by local authorities to implementing the 1977 Act, particularly during a period when the financial and manpower resources available to them were restricted. Clearly it is unrealistic to expect that each local authority would have available to them the depth of expertise necessary to fully assess all proposals for major and complex industrial projects. Detailed environmental impact assessments are required for such projects as part of the process of determining the conditions and controls to be applied to protect the environment. There is a need for a fully integrated approach to air and water quality protection and waste management to ensure that proper safeguards are imposed and are seen to operate and to be effective. For reasons such as these, the Government are committed to bringing forward separate legislation establishing an independent environmental agency which will, of course, have implications for the role of local authorities in water pollution control. It is my intention to consult with all interests involved in developing my detailed proposals for the agency and the House will, of course, have an opportunity to consider the matter in detail when the separate legislation which I already mentioned is brought before the House in the new year.
It is still too early to say whether the programme of measures to combat pollution, undertaken since 1987, will have a lasting effect. The dramatic drop in the number of fish kills recorded in 1988 — from 122 in the previous year to 50 — was most encouraging. However, to date this year 108 kills have been reported. Agricultural pollution and low water levels were the two major causes giving rise to 22 and 21 kills, respectively. A further 17 kills were the result of industrial effluent, 11 were caused by enrichment, six by sewage and 21 were attributed to other causes such as creameries, drainage works, waterworks, etc. The causes of the remaining ten kills are as yet unknown. The reversal of the downward trend in 1989, though it was partly due to exceptionally low water levels, is a clear indication that we cannot afford to become complacent. We must continue to give a high priority to ensuring that the number and scale of fish kills is reduced as far as possible. In addition, we must give special attention to emerging trends in relation to the general condition of our waters. In particular, there is a need for action to redress the insidious pollution which in recent years has seen a significant increase in the extent to which waters are affected by slight or moderate levels of pollution. This Bill, by providing a more comprehensive and effective legislative basis for action by local authorities and fishery boards, will help to meet these needs.
It has been suggested in some quarters that the provisions of the Bill display a prejudice against the farming community and that they are unnecessary and unwarranted. It has been suggested also that the Bill will have the effect of bringing an otherwise law-abiding section of the community into serious conflict with the law and that the farming community as a whole will be made to pay for the negligence and misdeeds of a few. I wish to set out my position clearly in relation to allegations of this kind.
First of all, I should state for the record that the Bill is not intended to place unreasonable restrictions on the practice of modern farming. Secondly, the Bill is not intended to facilitate some form of witch hunt against farmers. Thirdly, nothing in the Bill should be taken as an indictment of the farming community generally nor, of course, is the Bill intended to make criminals of Irish farmers. Fourthly, no farmer who conducts his enterprise in accordance with the norms of good agricultural practice should have anything to fear from the provisions in the Bill. Finally, the Bill, in so far as it relates to pollution from agricultural activities and practices, is designed to do no more than enable local authorities to take action in relation to this form of pollution which would be no more stringent nor severe in its impact than the action they would have to take against other sources of pollution.
In considering the provisions of the Bill, we must remember that the concept of sustainable development is now being given central importance in the debate about development and the environment. In other words, it has come to be accepted that solid and lasting growth on the one hand, and environmental protection on the other, are interdependent. This is just as true of growth in the agricultural sector as it is in relation to other forms of development. Indeed, more than any other sector of the economy, our agriculture and our agri-food industries are dependent for their growth and prosperity on the maintenance of a clean and healthy environment here at home, and on the maintenance abroad of the image of Ireland as a green and unpolluted land.
It is against this background that we must view the implications for the environment of the shift to intensive — and in some cases almost industrial — farming which has taken place in recent decades. These new features of agriculture can pose an enormous threat to the environment. Developments in relation to animal husbandry have led to the generation and storage of enormous volumes of slurry. The replacement of the traditional practice of hay-making by the modern practice of silage-making has led to the generation of a form of toxic effluent which was not taken into account at all until recent years. Developments in relation to the size, layout and functions of farm buildings, and the introduction of new practices in the interests of hygiene and efficiency have led to the generation of far greater quantities of waste water in farmyards than were the norm some years ago.
These and other considerations support the contention that agriculture, as it is practised today, has a very considerable potential to pollute. While I fully accept that the vast majority of farmers manage their enterprises so as to ensure that the risk of pollution does not become a reality, I cannot accept that the law should ignore the pollution risks, even if the full rigours of the law will never have to be invoked in relation to the vast majority of farmers.
The potential of farm wastes to pollute is well illustrated by using the polluting effect of raw domestic sewage, in terms of its biochemical oxygen demand, as a yardstick. A quantity of milk is 400 times more polluting than the same quantity of raw sewage. Silage effluent is over 200 times more polluting than sewage and slurry over 80 times. These figures would need to be increased by a factor of 15 if treated domestic sewage is used as the yardstick to assess the polluting effect. The potential of farming to pollute is also well illustrated by reference to a herd of 50 dairy cows which is housed over a winter period of six months. The slurry generated would be equivalent in its polluting effect to sewage from a town with a population of over 2,200