I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, on his appointment and wish him every success in his new brief.
Coming from one of the few Irish counties that has no coastline, some people might think it strange that I would speak on this Bill. Pollution, however, affects everyone in the State. Many speakers have mentioned Sellafield and the threat it poses to the environment in this country. It affects everyone, no matter where they are located. We should all be concerned about this and take interest in it.
The Bill deals with liability and compensation, following the Sea Pollution Act, 1990, and the Sea Pollution (Amendment) Act, 1998. It is difficult, however, to pursue an organisation for compensation, particularly if an incident occurs in international waters. Who should take responsibility and who is liable for the impact on the environment thousands of miles away? An action in one part of the world can have a serious impact in another.
Bio-pollution will become a greater issue in the future. I wish to deal with the issues of bio-pollution and especially ballast water which is becoming a major environmental risk to many of our ports. Large tankers carry sufficient ballast water to fill 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Hopefully, in the next few months we will have two such swimming pools here. However, it can be a Trojan horse. Ballast water is taken on board ships to maintain their stability when they are partially laden. When a ship is loaded with cargo, it empties its ballast tanks. In this way, ballast water is sucked up in one port and transported across the ocean to another port where it is discharged with any tiny stowaway organisms which may be present in it and may pose problems in the new environment in which they find themselves. In effect, this builds virtual bridges across the big natural barriers – oceans, mountain ranges – and causes the movement of species throughout the world.
For the most part, many of these organisms fail to gain a foothold in their new environment. However, there has been a handful of cases where serious ecological and economic damage has been caused by bio-pollution. The American comb jelly, similar to the jellyfish, is believed to have been transported in ballast water from the east coast of America to the Black Sea in the 1970s. It soon began competing with indigenous organisms for food, eventually crippling the local anchovy fishing industry. Similarly, in the 1980s the European zebra mussel, native to the Caspian and Black Seas, found its way to the Great Lakes of north America, where it proliferated widely causing serious fouling problems around water intake pipes in power plants and factories. In 1990, the US Federal Government pledged $11 million per year to tackle the problem. It has become a massive problem in the Great Lakes in the United States and has a huge financial impact in that part of the world. There is a belief that this bio-pollutant, the zebra mussel, has been transferred in ballast water from the Caspian and Black Seas to north America.
Ballast water can be a bio-polluter, a problem that is as old as travel itself, but it has been consistently ignored for many years. Research shows that the increased speed in recent years in transporting goods around the world and the greater efficiency of super tankers and cargo vessels means they are shipped faster around the world and there is a greater opportunity for the successful transfer of these bio-pollutants from one area to another. The speed and the efficiency with which they can transfer cargo and organisms has the effect of shrinking the size of the world. It is suspected that, as ships become faster, organisms are more likely to survive because of the shorter journey times. Some scientists believe pollution around ports may destabilise natural ecosystems, thus enabling exotic organisms to thrive. The issue of tiny aliens in ballast water may have major implications for the aquaculture industry. The aquaculture industry here has thrived over many years. In Australia substantial funding has been allocated to research in this area because of the threat posed to aquaculture. It is crucial, therefore, that we recognise the problem and set about putting in place the necessary safeguards to protect the vital assets off our coastline and the aquaculture industry. The Minister is well aware that oil tankers are probably the biggest carriers of ballast water around the world. That is one of the issues that has been debated in relation to this legislation.
In 1991 the International Maritime Organisation issued guidelines on ballast water management which were updated in 1997. These included not loading ballast water in shallow water or in areas where propellers could stir up sediment or discharging ballast water unnecessarily. The guidelines suggest that, in some cases, ballast water should be exchanged in open sea, pumping out water drawn from the port in the deep ocean and replacing it with water from the deep ocean, which is less likely to carry organisms or micro-organisms. Many organisms transferred from fresh water into the oceans cannot survive in that environment. It is a method of sterilising the ballast water in the super tankers. Other means of tackling the problem have also been investigated, including the use of heat from the ship's engines to treat the water, chemical treatment and filtration. It is crucially important these guidelines are put in place on an international statutory basis to ensure the protection of the aquaculture industry here and in many other countries around the world. The aquaculture industry is worth in the region of €76 million per annum to this country and should be protected. It is a vital sector of the economy and one that should not be ignored.
We are fortunate to have escaped in the past because of our poor trade links and the lack of utilisation of our ports. However, these ports are beginning to develop. We have had previous legislation which allows the ports to develop independently. Over time that will bring in additional volumes of traffic to those ports. We have spoken in the past about the need to develop our ports. As they develop there will be a greater risk of ballast water pollution impacting on the aquaculture industry. A good example of that has been the zebra mussel coming into many estuaries. It is crucial that we examine these issues now and not in ten years' time when they have impacted on our ecosystem. This is a serious problem and is a risk to the environment. There has not been the opportunity for this to happen in the past because our ports have not been developed to the same extent as others around the world. However, now more than ever, this is being recognised as a major pollutant. The UK has invested significantly in maritime research.
It is much easier to prevent such invasion than try to control it subsequent to the pollution arriving on our shores. We cannot recall this biopollutant once it has been released into the environment, unlike oil for which we have, to some extent, mechanisms to clean up oil pollution. It is virtually impossible to clean up bio-pollution once it happens. There are instances where, with great effort, they can be eradicated or brought under control but the cost involved is significant. It poses a significant risk to our aquaculture industry and the environment and needs to be looked at. It will probably become one of the significant pollutants of this century. As time goes by and as international trade continues it will pose an even greater risk. This is a matter of concern not only on an international basis but on national and regional bases. Statutory agreement has to be sought at international level and the law enforced here and throughout the European Union.
I hope the Minister will ask his officials to examine this area, bring proposals to his colleagues at European Union level and take it from there to the international stage. This issue has been ignored in the past and it will become an even greater threat in the future. It is imperative we address this issue now and not in ten years' time when we will be faced with a significant problem that will threaten the viability of the agricultural industry.
The issue of oil pollution was also raised during the debate. We have a huge problem regarding oil pollution of our estuaries, coastline and inland waterways. There is an added problem in our inland waterways regarding the issue of pollution. If pollution takes place along our coastline it can be diluted by way of tidal functions thus dissipating it or bringing it out to sea. We do not have such a mechanism to protect our inland waterways.
The Shannon-Erne waterway is a significant asset which if developed has the potential to create enormous income and develop a sustained economy throughout the midlands which is the blackspot of this country. We now know the poorest counties are not along the west coast, they are located in the midlands. We must look at ways of developing the facilities needed to promote and encourage investment on the Shannon-Erne waterway. It has enormous potential from a tourism point of view and in generating income in local economies. One of the problems we are faced with as we develop that sector is pollution, an issue that has been ignored to date. We have been forced, through international treaties, to look at the issue regarding our coastline and international waters but we do not have the same type of legislation in place to protect our inland waterways. I ask the Minister, in conjunction with his colleagues, to look at that issue to ensure we have in place the necessary legislation to protect our inland waterways for future generations.
Deputy O'Dowd referred earlier to Sellafield, an issue extremely close to his heart and on which he has campaigned for a considerable time. He raised the issue of the emission of technetium 99 into the Irish Sea and his concerns about a possible agreement between the British and Irish Governments in that regard. That gives rise to significant concerns.
The issue of pollution of the Irish Sea and nuclear radiation is becoming a matter of major concern. We are all aware of concerns regarding radon gas and today's newspapers carry articles regarding uranium found in wells. While we have put in place mechanisms to ensure our water supplies are not polluted we must now carry out testing of water supplies throughout the country. Where we have an opportunity to protect our environment we are faced with the possibility of the British Government, through BNFL, pumping more pollutant into the Irish Sea. The Minister must look again at this issue which is causing major concern throughout the country.
Deputy O'Dowd also raised the shipment around the world of nuclear fuel from the BNFL facility in Sellafield. A recent shipment sent to Japan with falsified documents had to be returned to Sellafield via the Irish Sea. The return of the shipment and its cargo increased the risk which Irish people face. A French oil tanker was rammed on the route taken by that shipment. The level of security provided on such shipments gives rise to serious concerns. It is now agreed, in light of the incident with the French oil tanker, there is an urgent need to put in place naval protection for such shipments. We have witnessed the number of incidents involving groups such as al-Qaeda in recent years, particularly in the past 18 months. The simplicity with which they planned their actions – they did not try to ship bombs to areas where there were large numbers of people – is significant. They can quite easily hijack a vessel and ram a cargo ship. We need to address the issue of the shipment of nuclear products. If we cannot get co-operation in this regard from our counterparts in the United Kingdom, I hope we can address this issue at European level in the immediate future.
There is enormous potential, in addressing the issue of oil pollution, to look at research regarding micro-organisms and genetic engineering to resolve much of the pollution we have witnessed in recent years. Very little research is being done in this area. It would be very difficult for Ireland to undertake such research on its own but it could be done at European level. I hope the Minister will take into account the issues I have raised when he meets his colleagues in Brussels. Perhaps he will report back over the next couple of years on the successes he has had in addressing these issues.