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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 7 Oct 2003

Vol. 571 No. 4

Dumping at Sea (Amendment) Bill 2000 [ Seanad ] : Second Stage.

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

This Bill was amended and passed by Seanad Éireann on 25 October 2000. It is designed to clarify the law enshrined in the Dumping at Sea Act 1996 in a number of important respects so as to copperfasten long-standing practices. Early enactment is, therefore, most desirable.

As Deputies will be aware, the Government has delegated to me certain functions of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources under the Act. I should emphasise that the Act is an important regulatory measure which ensures only material adjudged on scientific advice as suitable for disposal at sea, mainly arising from port dredging, is disposed of at sea in an appropriate location and manner. In so far as it concerns the protection of important natural and archaeological heritage, the Bill, as passed by Seanad Éireann, specifically included the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands in the list of Ministers to be consulted by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources in relation to all applications for dumping at sea permits. The Bill now requires amendment to reflect the changes last year, as a result of which natural heritage and archaeolog ical heritage functions were assigned to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, who is already specified in the 1996 Act among Ministers who must be consulted regarding all such applications.

The Bill also specifically included any likelihood of interference with important natural or archaeological heritage in the particular matters to be considered by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources before making a decision on any application for a dumping at sea permit. Sections 2 and 4 of the Bill were designed to remove any doubt about the proper protection of important natural and archaeological heritage in the context of the operations covered by the Dumping at Sea Act 1996.

Ministers already specifically listed in the Dumping at Sea Act 1996 for consultation are the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government – regarding water quality, natural heritage, archaeological heritage and radiological protection following the Government changes in departmental responsibilities that I mentioned – and the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment – regarding any implications for industry. The reference in the 1996 Act to the Minister for Public Enterprise will also have to be removed by way of Dáil amendment to take account of those Government changes. Other Ministers of the Government shall also be consulted by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources where considered appropriate.

The remit of the heritage and planning division of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government as regards both the natural heritage and the archaeological heritage applies offshore as it does on the mainland. Applicants for dumping at sea permits are encouraged by my Department to consult that division at the earliest possible stage of planning any dredging or dumping to identify any important heritage areas to be avoided or to be approached with caution and expertly surveyed before any dredging or dumping goes ahead.

Section 2 was amended by Seanad Éireann – by the addition of paragraph (e) – to require the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to have the public register of dumping at sea permits published by electronic means from 1 January 2001 on the Department's website at That has been done for all permits granted since then under the Dumping at Sea Act 1996 and particulars of all further permits will be published as they are granted. This does not affect the statutory public register of dumping at sea permits already kept in book form and available for inspection free of charge at the Department's headquarters. It does not affect either the statutory requirement on the Minister to publish annually in Iris Oifigiúil particulars of all dumping at sea permits granted. In 2002, a total of 14 dumping at sea permits were granted, eight of which were for port and harbour dredging for maintenance and development purposes, as were 11 of the permits granted in 2001. Details of all of these permits are available on the Department's website.

In the interests of transparency and fairness of procedures, the Bill imposes a statutory requirement – in place of the present non-statutory one – on applicants for dumping at sea permits to advertise their applications in a local newspaper. Interested parties will have 21 days after publication of the newspaper advertisement in which to comment to the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources on the proposals in the applications, except in urgent cases involving navigational safety, where public advertisement only is being provided for. Those comments will be referred to the applicants for their response within a reasonable time, which will depend on the particular circumstances of the case. Both those comments and the response of the applicants will be carefully considered by me, under powers delegated from the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, before I make a decision on the application.

Section 3 of the Bill, which adds a new section 5A to the 1996 Act, makes specific provision for this. Section 3 of the Bill was amended by Seanad Éireann by the addition of subsection (7) to section 5A of the 1996 Act, requiring the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to publish by electronic means all applications for dumping at sea permits received on or after 1 January 2001 and all submissions or observations from the public in relation to such applications. The necessary arrangements were put in place and are working satisfactorily.

The present non-statutory public consultation arrangements regarding port and harbour dredging and dumping at sea operations have not caused any delays in permitting any such operations, and I do not expect any delays to arise from enactment of this Bill. That goes for regular maintenance dredging as well as for dredging for development purposes. It is important that ports and harbours plan necessary dredging and dumping at sea operations well in advance, in consultation with customers and the public, so that the business of the ports and harbours can continue to develop without unnecessary disruptions.

The lack of such consultation could generate challenges to the proposed dredging and dumping and put at risk the business of the port or harbour in question. Any local concerns should clearly be identified at the earliest possible stage by all of the parties concerned and be appropriately addressed. At my Department's insistence, five year dredging and dumping plans for ports are being prepared and will be published as part of the necessary consultation with the public and statutory consultees regarding dumping at sea permit applications by the ports in question.

Already, five year dredging and dumping permits have been granted to the Dublin Port Company, Drogheda Port Company and Port of Cork Company. The Port of Waterford Company sub mitted a five year dredging and dumping plan for consideration but is currently in the process of carrying out a detailed monitoring programme in connection with its proposal. Shannon Foynes Port Company is expected to submit its five year plan soon for approval.

The preparation and publication of such five year plans makes sound business sense as well as appropriately informing the public of proposed significant activities on State-owned foreshore which could be of particular interest to them. Following the granting of a dumping at sea permit to a port for a period of up to five years, covering several dredging and dumping operations as detailed in the port's five year plan, it will suffice for the port in question to publish a notice of intention to dredge and dump within specific areas as needs arise. Such a notice of specific dredging and dumping is a timely reminder to any persons who may be affected to allow the approved and necessary dredging and dumping operations to go ahead without interference or delay.

Of the remaining sections, section 1 updates the definition of "harbour authority" in the 1996 Act, for enforcement and related purposes, to take account of later legislation including the Harbours (Amendment) Act 2000. Section 5 is a standard provision for the short title for the Bill when enacted and for its construction and referencing with the 1996 Act.

For the benefit of the House, I now propose to deal with the 1996 Act and policy developments to control dumping at sea. The Dumping at Sea Act 1996 has stood the test of time, a tribute to its sponsors. I pay particular tribute to Deputy Gilmore who piloted the Bill through this House to enactment. The Act strengthened considerably and replaced earlier legislation for the control of dumping at sea, in line with updated international obligations of the State as set out in the 1992 OSPAR Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic. The Act bans incineration at sea and the dumping of any radioactive substance or material or any toxic, harmful or noxious substances. It also extended the limit of Irish jurisdiction regarding dumping at sea, from 12 nautical miles offshore up to 200 nautical miles and beyond that to coincide with the continental shelf of the State.

The Act enables the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to grant permits for certain dumping, as specified in the permits and subject to such conditions as the Minister may specify in them. It also empowers the courts to impose such monetary penalty and/or imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, as they may decide, on conviction on indictment of any person for illegal dumping as defined by the Act. So far, those essential penal provisions have deterred illegal dumping at sea.

All applications for dumping at sea permits are carefully considered by my Department with the assistance of specialist advisers who form the marine licence vetting committee, which meets as frequently as business demands. Detailed guidelines have been published by my Department to assist applicants and copies of those guidelines are available in the Oireachtas Library. Those guidelines will be updated as soon as this Bill is enacted and will be published on the Department's website together with a consolidated text of the 1996 Act as amended by this Bill.

Applicants are obliged to consider thoroughly all non-dumping at sea options and, in particular, other beneficial uses such as beach nourishment and land reclamation. Non-dumping solutions have been successfully pursued in a number of cases already and more will be pursued in the context of the five year dredging and dumping plans being prepared by the ports I mentioned. Scientific advice governs what material may be dredged and dumped at sea and where exactly dredged material may be dumped.

Dumping is not allowed where fisheries or important resources or natural heritage or archaeological heritage would be damaged. Dump sites are monitored before and after dumping takes place, as the Department requires, to ensure that any dumping is properly carried out. Permission has been refused, and will continue to be refused, for the dumping at sea of any harmful materials found on the seabed of any port or harbour. Non-dumping at sea treatment is and will be insisted upon in such cases in consultation with the Environmental Protection Agency.

It is not policy to permit the dumping of ships or aircraft at sea. Such dumping could have an adverse impact on the marine environment not to mention the obvious navigational safety considerations. According to the 1992 OSPAR Convention and as provided for in the Second Schedule to the 1996 Act, the dumping of ships or aircraft will be formally banned from 31 December 2004 at the latest. The dumping of offshore installations could only be permitted under the Act if both Houses of the Oireachtas were to approve the making of a Government order for that purpose under section 5(13) of the 1996 Act. I have no proposals for any such order. Indeed, as a contracting party to the 1992 OSPAR Convention, Ireland has been proactive in ensuring that other contracting parties address seriously the dumping at sea of chemical weapons and munitions.

Ireland has also sought to ensure that radioactive discharges into the sea from the nuclear reprocessing at the Sellafield and other nuclear reprocessing plants is addressed also. My colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Cullen, and the Attorney General are spearheading Ireland's legal actions against the MOX fuel fabrication plant at Sellafield. A special OSPAR expert group has begun work to develop within three years procedures for the proper management of the risk associated with dumped chemical weapons and munitions.

I wish to signal to the House that I will propose a number of amendments to the Bill on Commit tee Stage. The amendments will be required to reflect changes in the titles and functions of relevant Ministers since the Bill was passed by the Seanad in 2000. Amendments to the Bill are also needed to give effect to a number of policies which have been developed in the interim. Biodiversity within and between species and ecosystems must be protected to reflect the Government-approved national biodiversity plan which was published in 2002. There must be an end to any exemption in the Dumping at Sea Act 1996 from the prohibition on the disposal at sea of fish waste from industrial fish processing operations to bring the Act into line with Regulation (EC) No. 1774/2002 and SI 248 of 2003.

Penalties must be increased for summary offences generally under the 1996 Act and provision must be made to include the hirers of vessels involved in offences under that Act among the persons chargeable with such offences to enhance deterrence against illegal disposals at sea and to provide flexibility, via ministerial regulations which either House of the Oireachtas could annul if it saw fit, for charging appropriate fees for dumping at sea permit applications by reference to different kinds of permits and circumstances to better reflect the costs of processing such applications. Charging provisions on those lines for other fees were included on 13 May 2003 on Committee Stage of the Fisheries (Amendment) Bill 2002 which became law on 1 July 2003 on its signature by the President.

I will arrange for the text of the proposed amendments to be tabled immediately after Second Stage of the Bill is agreed and for explanatory notes to be supplied to the Select Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.

While I welcome the introduction of the Bill, it is terrible as a new Deputy to observe how long it takes for legislation to pass through the Houses of the Oireachtas. I accept that this has nothing to do with the present Minister whom I cannot fault.

He has been there for a year and a half.

I am looking after him too well.

There have been many Ministers, including Deputy Fahey and Hugh Byrne, and it is very disappointing to have to wait this long to see legislation come before the House. I acknowledge the fact that a great deal of work has gone into this legislation which will prevent much of the dumping and pollution that continues to go on. I understand this Bill to be an amendment to the 1996 legislation introduced by the previous Ministers with responsibility for this portfolio. The 1996 Act went a long way toward bringing our laws on dumping at sea into the 20th century and into line with the OSPAR Convention.

We have all heard appalling stories of unauthorised dumping at sea. A great deal of dumping takes place about which we know nothing which is why I welcome the provisions to extend the limits from 12 miles to 350 miles. I am pleased to see that people will now have to obtain a licence to dump at sea. Polluting and dumping at sea include the reckless abandonment of vessels along our coastline. The dumping of boats and helicopters to lie on our sea bed as described by the Minister of State is absolutely terrible. They may pollute now or later. It is great to hear that all this will be cleaned up and that any shipping accident which results in a sinking will not mean a vessel will be left at the bottom of the sea like the Titanic. Vessels have been abandoned after major accidents especially where there have been tragedies.

I am aware of vessels which represent eyesores and which still threaten to pollute. The Minister of State will be well aware of the large vessel at Salt Mills, Wexford, which it is absolutely terrible to see in such a beautiful place. Although that vessel is only by a river, such wrecks are also abandoned along our coastline. I would like to see that eyesore removed though I realise it might cost a great deal of money. I see many ships which are of no use to anybody being pulled in and left along the Wexford coast to rust for many years. It is deplorable to see this practice given the beautiful, scenic coast right around the island of Ireland. One often sees large cranes and ships in old ports where dredging was once carried out. I hope the Dumping at Sea (Amendment) Bill 2000 will see an end to these things.

I do not remember any very serious oil spillages in Ireland, but one need only look at France and Spain to see what can happen. While we have had spillages one might view as serious, other countries have had spillages wash up on their shores which have taken months and years to clean up. Ireland has many beautiful beaches, especially in my own county, Wexford, the coastline of which is absolutely lovely. It would be terrible to see a major oil spillage destroying the fish in the sea and ruining our beaches. While one often seas oil washing up on our strands, we have been very lucky that no major catastrophe has occurred which would take a long time to clean up. We depend totally on our coastline and from Killybegs in Donegal to Kerry, Cork and Wexford fishing is of great importance to our economy as the Minister of State will be aware. Any incident of major pollution would be a great disaster.

The 1996 Act as amended by this Bill will ensure the control and curtailment of pollution. While no one can legislate for the major accidents which may happen at sea, it is important to enact legislation to deal with any problems that occur. To be in a position to act immediately, it is important that rules and regulations are in place to address any major accident that happens off our coast. As the Minister of State has said, the Bill before us will copperfasten existing legislation while safeguarding our coastal communities, harbours and coastlines. I would like to see the Minister of State investing more money in harbour boards like the one in New Ross which, like others, has done great work with little in the way of resources. Will the Minister have direct control of harbour boards following enactment of the Bill? I am concerned that all harbour boards are given financial assistance.

A concern of mine and I am sure of many Members is the plant at Sellafield. People living on the coastline from County Louth to the south-east are concerned about the plant polluting the sea and there are many questions to be asked about it. I am aware that the Minister, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Attorney General are trying to get some answers from the authorities at Sellafield. On a recent visit I was frightened to see what went in and out. If an accident happened, because of the closeness of our coastline, we would be in serious trouble.

I would like to ask a number of serious questions of the authorities at Sellafield. We can ask questions but they will always give a political answer. They will only give an answer that suits them but will never give an honest answer. I believe an accident is waiting to happen, something about which the public is very concerned. In particular, families with children are concerned about their health and the health of marine life in the Irish Sea.

I am aware that every Member of the House is of the same view as myself. I would like to see the plant close down because it would make people happier and more content. It would also make a major difference in terms of the well-being or our people, the quality of our seas and the air. That aspect is of the major concern, and my party is fully committed to dealing with it. I favour the closure of the plant and hope this comes about as soon as possible.

Any pollution caused by radioactive substances in the sea is of great concern to the community, particularly those on the east coast. I come from a county which has a coastline with many holiday homes. The Minister is aware of the number that have been built in County Wexford in recent years.

Too many. All the Dubs are coming down to us.

I agree with the Minister of State. I am concerned about sewage being released onto our lovely coastline. I frequently call on the Government to put money into sewerage systems to ensure we clean up our act. I realise they cost a good deal of money but do not want to see any sludge being released into the beautiful seas around Ireland. Deputy Broughan may not be too happy when I say Dubliners come down to our lovely coastline in County Wexford to live—

He has strong Wexford connections. Perhaps he has a holiday home there.

I could not afford one.

I realise we have to protect our environment but would not like to see sludge being released into our seas.

Dublin Bay was polluted. That was the problem.

In my county there is a need for a good deal of money to be spent on sewage treatment plants, with which the Minister will agree. Like other Deputies and I, he is constantly fighting against raw sewage filtering into the bays and causing pollution. I ask him to ensure money is spent on treatment plants, particularly in coastal towns. We all know the importance of marine life and our beaches. It is important that the legislation recognises what has to be done in this area.

Those seeking a licence to dump at sea should be made advertise in the local and national newspapers. It is important that the Minister and his Department determine what is happening in this area because illegal dumping is a major problem which I am concerned will get out of control. I have made representations to my local county council on whether illegal dumping is being carried out, and presume every Deputy in the House has done the same. It takes a long time for the problem to be sorted out in terms of the legalities. It is important that the Minister ensures illegal dumping at sea is not being carried out and that people have licences. I read in the Bill that if they are caught breaking the law, they will be reprimanded. They have to be reprimanded because if they are penalised on the first occasion, not many others will break the law subsequently. If they advertise in local and national papers, it will give others an opportunity to object, as is the case with planning permission. The sea is part of our lives. We are surrounded by water which people do not want to see being polluted. This provision will give them an opportunity to object if that is happening. It is a sensible way to carry out our business.

I intend to table some amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage. Dredging works are an important part of the Bill. Dredging work has to be carried out and will be carried out in the future. I presume much more would be carried out if funding was available but we should ensure other material is not dumped at sea when such work takes place.

The most important aspect of the Bill is that it will protect our waterways, fisheries and beaches. I welcome it for that reason.

I, too, welcome the Dumping at Sea (Amendment) Bill 2000. I find it astonishing that it has taken three and a half years for the Bill which was discussed in the Seanad over three years ago – the Minister referred to amend ments, of which people were notified at that stage – to get into this Chamber. I asked about it on a number of instances because it was scheduled to be taken in the House on nine or ten occasions since the Government came to power. It is extraordinary that it took so long. It was tabled for some of the famous Friday sessions which most Fianna Fáil Members missed until they were caught out by a vote in the House.

On a serious note, the lethargy the Minister of State and his senior Minister have shown in bringing the Bill before the House to amend the 1996 Act is an indication of the lack of importance given to all things marine. The Government even tried to exorcise the title "Marine" from the Department's title, and the length of time the Bill has taken to come before the House illustrates the problem.

The Bill hopes to strengthen the 1996 Act. I thank the Minister for the kind comments he made about my colleague, Deputy Gilmore, who steered the original Bill through the House. The 1996 Bill was a response to a horrendous history of abuse of the seas off our coastline. In the earlier debate in 2000 many referred to the dumping of munitions off the northern coast in the Beaufort Dyke which for decades was used by the British Government to dump all kinds of deadly old munitions. During the years we have also had to contend with thousands of tonnes of radioactive material being dumped in the Irish Sea from the plant at Sellafield – the old Windscale facility. The attempts in the 1996 Act to ban incineration and toxic and harmful materials being dumped within 200 miles of our coast were important.

I asked the Minister what sanctions or fines had been applied to those who had allegedly behaved badly in the management of fish farms. It appeared from his answer that none had been applied. He said he would give me an answer on the issue but it seems there was a regime where anything went and where the sea was vast enough to take any kind of abuse and toxic materials. Importantly, the 1996 Act sought to bring to an end this myth once and for all. We live in a fragile ecosystem, of which the sea is the major part.

I welcome the key elements of this short Bill which seeks to extend the 1996 Act, especially the definition of the word "harbours" to include local authority, Iarnród Éireann and other incorporated harbours. I also welcome the inclusion of the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands among the Ministers who must be consulted in relation to licences for dumping as well as the process which the Minister has sought to initiate whereby third parties can have their comments and ideas considered in the context the 1996 Act and, I hope, the 2003 legislation.

Having perused the Bill, there are a number of issues to which I hope to return on Committee Stage, or ask the Minister to consider. I refer to section 3 which deals with notices in newspapers. I believe the Minister said there were 14 such licences in the last year or so and 20 in the previous year. They should be advertised nationally because often they affect a significant part of our coastline.

In relation to subsection (3) of the new section 5A, 21 days is a short period of time within which a third party is allowed to submit comments on an application for a licence. I would find it difficult. I engaged in a similar exercise today in relation to general planning legislation where one has 35 days to submit a submission or an objection to perhaps a huge development deeply affecting one's constituency. I ask the Minister to extend the timeframe to at least 42 days.

In regard to the Minister sending comments from an objector or a person who has made a submission to the individual who has applied for a licence, the timeframe is vague in that subsection (5) states, "the Minister shall as soon as may be". Subsection (6)(b) reads, where “the Minister is satisfied sufficient time has elapsed since a copy of the submission”. This should be specified more clearly.

I welcome the fact that the Minister said he would proceed with the amendments promised in 2000. A number of those amendments refer to the fees which can be charged. The exclusion of those who hire vessels was a huge omission from the Bill which was intended to improve the 1996 Act. I welcome the reference to issue of biodiversity.

It is extraordinary that aquaculture and fish waste were excluded from the 1996 Act. This exclusion will end under this Bill. I am not clear but believe the Minister will still have the power – certainly, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has – to severely punish those who have dumped on land and in our bays in a cavalier fashion as charged by the "Prime Time" programme. I welcome the fact that the Minister will bring forward those issues and strengthen the Bill in that regard.

The history of the Department and the management of our marine resources show that we have an important responsibility for the seas around our coast. It has been well said we could have made a stronger and more determined case on the Sellafield problem had we had in force a much stricter regime for the management of our coastal areas, the Irish Sea, adjoining seas and the Atlantic. The fact we did not have such a regime and did not seem to care too much about what was dumped in the Beaufort Dyke, off Sellafield or anywhere else by the British and other dumpers during the decades has considerably weakened our case.

The famous report, The Ocean: Our Future, by the Independent World Commission on the Oceans, chaired by Mario Soares of Portugal, highlighted the fragility of the ecosystem on our blue planet. It also showed that there was a huge responsibility on each island nation, such as ours, to take care, in every respect, of the adjoining seas. The commission said oceans could no longer be considered in isolation from land areas. That is true of our country because of sewage and other pollutants which have been allowed to run off into streams and rivers and, ultimately, to pollute the seas.

In this context, it is deplorable, despite the fact that the Government has been in office for six and a half years, we have not seen the coastal zone management Bill about which one of our Green Party colleagues has asked month after month. During the last Dáil Deputy Sargent was promised that it would be published in the next term but we are still waiting. It is listed for publication in 2004 on the Chief Whip's current list of legislation. Why do we have to wait seven years, given that when my colleague, Deputy Gilmore, was Minister of State, the next step following the passage of the Dumping at Sea Act was the introduction of the coastal zone management Bill?

One of the most deplorable actions in the recent history of the Government relates to the management of Bantry Bay to which Deputy Jim O'Keeffe referred. Some 70% of the people living there, certainly on the Beara Peninsula, depend on fishing and the sea directly for their income. It was extraordinary that the community in south-west Cork, the constituency of my party colleague, Senator McCarthy, got together and drew up the Bantry Bay charter and set in train a management system for the bay and began to develop what I thought was an important process for that part of our coastline. About six or nine months ago resources were needed by the Department and the Minister, Deputy Ó Cuív, but the carpet was pulled from under that group and the Bantry Bay charter, effectively, no longer exists. This was one initiative known to me and others in the House where an effort was being made to promote local coastal zone management but the Department would not support it.

Debate adjourned.