(Limerick East): Public hospitals generate about 4,000 tonnes of health care risk waste annually. Until recently this waste was disposed of in small hospital based incinerators. When the EU introduced the current standards on incineration it was not technically feasible to bring these small incinerators up to EU standards. The Deputy will be aware that when she was Minister in 1992-3 the building of a large modern incinerator in the grounds of St. James's Hospital was considered but the Government of the day did not proceed with this option due to public opposition. Unfortunately the Government, as in many other cases, allowed the matter to rest and no solution was put in place. We were then in a position where it was contrary to EU standards to keep the small incinerators, with which we were all familiar in hospitals all over the country, in operation. The only alternative was to get private contractors to export to the United Kingdom. The UK was quite happy to take this waste on a temporary basis. In negotiations with my colleague Malcolm Moss in Northern Ireland, we have agreed an all-Ireland initiative on the disposal of hospital waste as there are similar problems in the North. Initially we invited submissions from over 30 companies. This has been reduced to a tender list of eight who expressed an interest and showed particular expertise. Those eight companies have tendered and we hope to have a contractor selected before Christmas. We hope to have a system in place which would allow for the disposal of hospital waste in this country without recourse to export.
In the meantime, because decisions were not taken in time by the Government, of which Deputy Geoghegan-Quinn was a member, we have to export waste. We had an agreement with the United Kingdom that on its Protocol for the disposal of waste it would include hospital waste from Ireland supplied by private contractors. The pressure on its incineration system increased dramatically with the BSE cull. The incineration of cattle arising from the culling of herds, because of BSE, has put such pressure on its system that it reorganised its Protocols in terms of prioritising what would be dealt with in its incineration. We received notice from some private contractors involved in this business that the UK authorities would no longer take Irish waste. Then the Minister for the Environment who has primary responsibility in this area contacted his equivalent in the United Kingdom. I had previously made a submission to Mr. Stephen Dorrell and within a short period the United Kingdom reversed positions and, thankfully, it is now obliging us by taking the waste.
In the meantime some of the contractors sought alternative countries who would take our hospital waste and succeeded in reaching an agreement with authorities in the Netherlands. Since that agreement the UK authorities have again agreed — and I thank them — to take our hospital waste. The export of waste which was stored has recommenced to the United Kingdom. No waste has yet been exported to the Netherlands but an arrangement was made to do so and it is prudent to keep that alternative open. One of the health boards has also entered negotiations with Denmark and that is another alternative. We must look at this in the overall context. We are talking about 4,000 tonnes a year, which is a very small amount of waste compared to the amount of waste generated by any reasonably sized town. We can solve that problem domestically and, because the amount is so small, we can solve it more economically on an all Ireland basis than with separate North and South initiatives. That is what we are proceeding to do.
In this, as in other matters, I reject the criticism being levelled at me. I would not have this problem if those who came before me had taken this action several years ago.