As indicated by Deputy Gilmore, he is seeking to achieve a situation where all exemptions to the offence of causing water pollution would be terminated while provision would be made for the Minister to prescribe certain exemptions under regulations which would incorporate controls to protect the environment. Essentially the amendment would reverse the position provided for in the 1977 Water Pollution Act and in this Bill.
The Deputy had an identical amendment on Committee Stage which was debated at some length. As I stated then, the amendment, if adopted, would lead to a number of undesirable consequences.First, it would render all licensed trade effluents subject to prosecution under section 3 thus removing any incentive for industry to comply with the licensing provisions of the Act. Second, it would extend the ambit of the Act to waters outside the functional area of local authorities and to discharges which are already adequately catered for and controlled by the various Acts referred to in section 3. I believe that the approach adopted in the amendment is incorrect in that it would take the axe to exemptions that have not given rise to problems generally and indeed are necessary for the orderly operation of an effective régime of water pollution control.
I think it is important to recognise the distinction that exists between the exemptions allowed under subsection (5) and those catered for under subsection (6) of section 3 of the 1977 Act. The activities covered by the former are either caught by the controls under other sections of the 1977 Water Pollution Act — as, for example, is the case in relation to trade effluent discharges which are required to be licensed under section 4 — or under other legislation, such as the Fisheries Acts and the Harbour Act, 1946, or the activities take place in areas such as the foreshore which are outside the functional area of local authorities.
The pollution of tidal waters by any matter discharged from, or dumped by, vessels is also listed among the exemptions allowed under subsection (5). Such activities are subject to control by the Minister for the Marine, under legislation such as the Oil Pollution of the Sea Acts and the Dumping at Sea Act. The control regime in this area will be improved under the Minister for the Marine's proposed Sea Pollution Bill to be discussed in this House later this week. The exemptions in respect of vessels, the foreshore and harbours are essentially intended to avoid duplication of controls under the specific legislation dealing with each of these matters and under the more general Water Pollution Act. The various exemptions allowed under subsection (6) restate exemptions provided under earlier legislation in respect of the Fisheries Acts. These exemptions follow a similar pattern in that the Minister for the Marine may require the particular body concerned to take such precautions as he considers adequate to protect fisheries when executing certain works. The works may include the execution of schemes by the Electricity Supply Board, or drainage schemes by the Office of Public Works, the production of peat by Bord na Móna or a range of activities by local authorities, including the making of drains, the removal of obstructions in water courses, the widening or deepening of water courses, the diversion of water and the construction or repair of walls or embankments.
Clearly these works may be carried out on an extensive scale and in view of their nature it would not be practical to expect that they could be executed always without some material entering waters which could have adverse effects on quality, fish life or other users. Similarly, they would not, in all cases, be amenable to the kind of control regime available under the licensing system for fixed point effluent discharges as operated under section 4 of the Water Pollution Act.
After this legislation is passed I will be conducting an in-depth review of all exemptions to see to what extent, if any, they could be repealed and, in particular, how a higher level of environmental protection could be achieved by the imposition of restrictions or conditions appropriate to the particular works and activities. Priority will be given to the review of the situation in relation to Bord na Móna developments which are a cause of great concern in a number of areas. Account will be taken of the findings of a special study currently under way for the environmental research unit of my Department on a possible link between organic substances originating from developed bogs and nutrients which give rise to eutrophication problems in fresh waters. I believe that exemptions should remain only where they are absolutely essential for the provision of public utilities and, where such exemptions exist, the works should be carried out under the direction and guidance of the proposed environmental protection agency.
With regard to the point made by Deputy Gilmore, there is only one case to my knowledge where the fisheries board have prosecuted for works carried out under the Local Authorities Works Act, 1949, and in that case they were not successful.They took a case in relation to works that were being carried out on a reservoir at the Dodder River, but the court found that the works were essential in the interest of safety and that they had to be carried out on an emergency basis and in the manner in which they were carried out. It was not possible to secure a conviction in that case. We have to ensure that we do not restrict either local authorities or other State agencies from providing essential public utilities in the interest of the common good but at the same time, when those works have to be carried out under exemption, they should be done in a specified manner and in accordance with the highest possible environmental protection standards.
Following the implementation of this Act, which will give me power to review these exemptions, I propose to review them all and to repeal or limit them where it is found necessary and where they remain to ensure that works be carried out in accordance with the highest standards as laid down, perhaps, by the Environmental Protection Agency.