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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 1 Feb 2001

Vol. 529 No. 3

Sea Pollution (Hazardous and Noxious Substances) (Civil Liability and Compensation) Bill, 2000: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The Bill gives effect in Irish law to the International Convention on Liability and Compensation for Damage in connection with the carriage of Hazardous and Noxious Substances by Sea, 1996 – HNS Convention – and also gives effect to the 1996 Protocol to the International Convention on Limitation of Liability for Maritime Claims – LLMC.

The main objective of the HNS Convention is to provide adequate, prompt and effective compensation for loss or damage arising in connection with the carriage of HNS on sea-going ships. The convention complements arrangements which have been in place since 1969 regarding civil liability and compensation in relation to oil pollution. The Oil Pollution of the Sea (Civil Liability and Compensation) Acts, 1988 to 1998, gave effect to those arrangements in Irish law. The Hazardous and Noxious Substances Convention is to apply to loss of life or personal injury, loss of or damage to property, environmental damage and the costs of preventative measures.

LLMC 1976 establishes the basis on which claims may be made arising on foot of the various risks incidental to maritime transport and how they may be prosecuted and set maximum aggregate limits depending on the tonnage of vessel in question for claims arising from any one incident. The Merchant Shipping (Liability of Shipowners and Others) Act, 1996, gives effect to LLMC 1976 in Irish law. The 1996 Hazardous and Noxious Substance Conference considered, however, that these limits would not be sufficient to provide adequate compensation for claims likely to arise under the new HNS Convention and contemporaneously agreed the proposed protocol which would increase the limits.

The effect of the Bill is to require Irish vessels everywhere and non-Irish vessels within a 200 miles nautical limit, in accordance with the terms of the HNS Convention, which are carrying hazardous and noxious substances, as defined, to carry compulsory insurance for the amount they may be liable to pay in compensation for any loss or damage caused by those substances. These are listed in the convention and include such materials as liquefied petroleum gas, liquefied natural gas, oils and fats, combustible chemicals and solvents but excluding radioactive materials which are covered under a separate convention.

The deliberate discharge of any of these materials into the sea is already a criminal offence under the Sea Pollution Acts, 1991-99. The Bill provides for enforcement by, among other, the Garda, the Defence Forces and harbourmasters. Penalties for non-compliance with the compulsory insurance requirements are, on summary conviction, a fine not exceeding £1,500 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, or to both, or, on conviction on indictment, to a fine not exceeding £1 million or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or to both. These penalties are similar to those set out in the sea pollution legislation.

The Bill extends Irish civil law jurisdiction to the matters covered by the convention and protocol so that parties here, including the State, can invoke the convention in the Irish courts in claiming compensation under it in the first instance from the shipowner and in the final analysis from an international fund operated by IMO and funded by a levy on imports of the materials in question into states which are party to the convention.

A shipowner may limit his or her liability to the amount prescribed in the convention and fireproof his or her vessel against arrest by lodging security for that amount with the court. This amount varies according to the tonnage of the vessel but is, in any event, limited to about £110 million. Up to approximately £275 million is available in all under the proposed arrangements in respect of any one incident.

The two-tier compensation arrangement mirrors that which applies to oil pollution. As with oil, contributions to the international fund are to be made by those who import the substances in question. On the basis of available information, it is not expected that contributions from Irish importers to the fund will be significant.

The Bill is essentially technical in nature. The definitions and descriptions set out in the convention were agreed and adopted following consideration by experts at the International Maritime Organisation. Deputies will note that for ease of reference a copy of the HNS Convention is set out in Schedule 1 and the LLMC in Schedule 2 of the Bill.

The Bill, however, must be viewed in the context of the legislative and other measures which have been introduced over the past 12 or so years and, in particular, since the Government came into office in 1997. The Department of the Marine and Natural Resources has adopted as a strategic goal the protection and preservation of the marine environment. Central to this strategy is the protection of the overall marine ecosystem, the maintenance of the highest standards in the quality of our marine waters, the prevention of pollution at sea and around our coasts and the provision of a rapid response to pollution incidents so as to minimise damage.

The Government is anxious that our legislation complies with accepted EU and international standards while addressing specific Irish concerns. The Government and the Department accordingly recognise that action at EU and international levels is an essential element of any strategy for the protection of the marine environment and, to that end, continues to participate fully in the activities of relevant organisations, including the International Maritime Organisation, the OSPAR Commission and the Bonn Convention.

In December 1997, four sets of regulations were made under the Sea Pollution Act, 1991, to give effect to provisions of the IMO Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, namely MARPOL. Work is under way to adopt further provisions of MARPOL concerning the prevention of pollution from sewage from ships and the prevention of air pollution from ships.

The Oil Pollution of the Sea (Civil Liability and Compensation) (Amendment) Act, 1998, was enacted in May 1998. The Act, one of those to which I referred earlier, strengthens the law in relation to oil pollution by bringing it in line with current international conventions. As with other instruments relating to maritime safety and the marine environment, these conventions are currently the subject of discussion and assessment at EU and international levels in the wake of the Erika incident which occurred off the coast of Brittany in December 1999. Measures have been agreed, or are under consideration, in relation to the regulation of ship classification societies, the accelerated phasing out of single hull oil tankers, the strengthening of port state control measures and ship reporting arrangements.

The Sea Pollution (Amendment) Act, 1999, was enacted in June 1999. The Act gives effect in Irish law to the International Maritime Organisation's Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation (ORPC) Convention. Arrangements are in train to formally accede to the convention. The Act provides for the preparation of oil pollution emergency plans by harbour authorities and operators of offshore installations and oil handling facilities and their submission to the Minister for approval.

The IMO in March 2000 adopted a protocol to OPRC providing for response measures similar to those for oil pollution to apply in respect of HNS. Work on a Bill to give effect to the protocol is to be initiated as soon as possible. The Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North East Atlantic, OSPAR, came into force internationally in March 1988 following ratification by all the contracting parties.

A major assessment of the status of the marine environment of the whole North East Atlantic was carried out by OSPAR and published in December 2000. The quality status report – QSR – describes the main impacts of human activities on the marine environment and evaluates the effectiveness of measures that have already been implemented to tackle those impacts. The publication of the report follows assessments which were carried out at national and regional levels in the past two years.

For this purpose the OSPAR area was divided into five regions. Ireland and the UK were responsible in respect of preparing assessment for region III, known as the Celtic seas region. In the first instance Ireland prepared its own QSR. This involved several Departments and agencies and was published by the Marine Institute in 1999. The second stage involved a joint UK-Ireland QSR for the region. The final stage of the process involved fusion of all five regional reports into a single QSR for the entire area.

The assessment found that the Irish marine environment was generally in a healthy state but that there was no room for complacency and that particular attention would need to be paid to the scale of coastal development, pollution from rivers, sewage treatment disposal and the atmosphere.

My colleague, Deputy Byrne, Minister of State, serves along with his ministerial colleagues on the interdepartmental ministerial committee on nuclear safety. The Department's main area of concern at this forum relates to shipment of nuclear material by sea. In this regard, we continue to press for improvements to the irradiated nuclear fuel – INF – code at the International Maritime Organisation – IMO – and to agree effective bilateral arrangements for the notification of the passage of vessels carrying INF materials near our coasts with the states concerned, that is the UK, France and Japan.

In the meantime the European Union in 1998 at Ireland's instigation adopted a directive requiring all vessels carrying such materials bound for or leaving a Community port to comply with strict notification procedures and controls. Regulations transposing the directive in question into Irish law were introduced in April 1999 as required under the terms of the directive even though such vessels do not use Irish ports or transit Irish territorial waters. The EU controls in question now apply to all vessels en route to Sellafield.

The report of the task force on the dumping of radioactive materials in the maritime area was published in January 2000. The key conclusion of the report was that the risk to human health and to marine life from past radioactive dumping is extremely low and does not constitute a health hazard. The Government shares the concerns of many members of the public in this regard and is anxious that they should be allayed as far as possible. The Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland together with the universities are continuing with monitoring and other work in this sphere.

In December 2000, the European Union adopted a directive on port reception facilities for ship generated waste and cargo residues. The purpose of the directive is to improve the availability and use of port reception facilities for such waste. Regulations will need to be introduced to give effect to the directive in Irish law by December 2002 and arrangements made for implementation.

The OECD carried out an environmental performance review of Ireland during 1999. The principal aim of such reviews is to help OECD countries improve their individual and collective performance on environmental management. An interdepartmental working group was established by the Department of the Environment and Local Government to co-ordinate inputs from the different Departments affected. Material was fur nished and departmental officials attended as required at meetings with OECD representatives which took place in October 1999. The OECD report was launched by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government in November 2000. As with the QSR the review expressed satisfaction with the Irish situation and the measures which had been introduced but advised that the situation required close ongoing monitoring and vigilance.

Returning to the Bill, a diplomatic conference convened by the IMO adopted the HNS Convention in May 1996. The convention has not yet entered into force. It will not enter into force until 18 months after both of the following criteria have been fulfilled: at least 12 states must have expressed their consent to be bound by the convention, typically, through ratification or accession – this must include four states each with a registered fleet of at least 2 million units of gross tonnage, more than ten times the size of the Irish fleet and contributors in the states that have ratified or acceded to expressed their consent to be bound by the convention must, between them, receive a minimum of 40 million tonnes of contributing cargo covered by the general account.

Periodically, informal meetings have been held to discuss the implementation of the HNS Convention. States attending these meetings agreed that it would be desirable to co-ordinate their ratification of the convention. EU member states at the Transport Council in December 2000 undertook to prepare the necessary legislation in this regard as soon as possible. I am committed to meeting this undertaking, not least to ensure, in view of the importance of our marine resource, that Ireland is in a position to benefit from the terms of the convention as soon as it comes into force.

As has been emphasised in the recent studies to which I have referred, there is no room for complacency as far as the protection of the marine environment is concerned. We must continue to build on our achievements in order to get the full benefit of the measures we have introduced.

The Bill is an important part of the process of advancement undertaken at national, EU and international level in order to protect the quality of the marine environment. I know that Deputies from all parties share this objective and I accordingly look forward to their comments.

I strongly recommend the Bill to the House.

I am standing in for my colleague who is unavailable. I welcome the Bill and the Minister's comments in relation to improvements for protecting the marine environment. Being an island off Europe we would have to agree that many things have happened which were not helpful to the marine environment. That 14 countries have signed up to this convention is extremely important and worthwhile for the long-term effect.

As the Minister said, the Bill is complicated. However, I wish to raise a few points to which I hope he will reply. He said the Bill provides for enforcement by, among others, the Garda, the Defence Forces and the harbourmasters. What is the cost to the State? Is there any contribution from those who have ships on the seas transporting hazardous waste, other waste and hazardous material which can cause serious damage?

I note from the Minister's contribution that his colleague, Minister of State, Deputy Hugh Byrne, serves on the interdepartmental ministerial committee on nuclear safety. The Minister informed us of the position on transport to Sellafield. Are there any guarantees regarding the transport to Sellafield, which is located across the east coast? Is the Minister happy with the plans and with the conditions shippers are supposed to adhere to when handling this cargo? I welcome the report, referred to by the Minister, on the safety implications following the damage done from dumping at sea. However, can its findings be taken fully on board? Many comments have been made on the damage to marine life.

With regard to the strategy adopted to protect the environment and given the ongoing discussions, can improvements be made on a continuous basis, even above what is in place at present? Is the Minister happy with the current guarantees and the proposals regarding protection and prevention? The Minister and his predecessor have repeatedly said that further work is required in this area and more improvements are needed, including additional care and controls, to ensure that the marine life, not only around Ireland but across the world, is duly protected.

When was the funding allocated to implement the convention? Will it be shared by the 12 states who are party to it or will the EU provide a substantial allocation of funds to assist in ensuring that the protection required is provided? There is provision to impose substantial fines for breaking the law. How many different companies have breached the rules and regulations set down by the convention? Is every vessel on the seas checked before it leaves or arrives at port? What is the mechanism for ensuring that the regulations in place are adhered to? Is it done before or after ships come into our waters?

The proposals must be welcomed by all who work around our coasts. How is it proposed to inform them of what has been agreed in the convention and how this legislation will affect them?

Debate adjourned.