I thank all of the Deputies for raising this serious matter. I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly. Like the Deputies who have spoken, I am also concerned about the reports of alleged pollution discharge at Lough Ross, County Armagh, entering the River Fane system. As we all know, this is the primary source of the drinking water supply for Dundalk. Deputies have referred to media coverage to date, which has covered the losses to the Exchequer as a result of this illegal fuel laundering as well as losses to the taxpayer and the loss to individuals who have had their engines and cars wrecked. However, the issue has been elevated to a far more significant level now, as outlined by the Deputies, because of the very real threat to human health that this alleged pollution could potentially cause. My Department and I recognise that this is a serious issue. It is totally unacceptable and should concern all Deputies of all sides in this House.
I understand that Louth County Council on behalf of Irish Water has already contacted the water pollution inspectorate in Northern Ireland to investigate this specific allegation. The council carries out regular sampling at various properties throughout the water distribution system for Dundalk and drinking water sample results for 2014 are fully compliant with the drinking water regulations.
The Local Government (Water Pollution) Acts carry a general prohibition on the entry of any polluting matter to waters. Any persons causing or permitting polluting matter to enter waters is liable, on conviction on indictment, to a fine not exceeding €15 million or imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years, or both. The primary responsibility of ensuring prevention of water pollution rests with local authorities, which are, in turn, supervised by the EPA for this purpose. Water inspections account for about half of all local authority inspections.
Local authorities issue hundreds of enforcement notices every year under section 12 of the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act 1977, as well as section 23 of the Local Government (Water Pollution) (Amendment) Act 1990. These enforcement notices require respondents to carry out actions to prevent or remedy water pollution. They are followed up by prosecutions where necessary. Prosecutions are also taken for allowing polluting matter to enter waters or in respect of licensable discharges.
Enforcement relating to illegal diesel laundering activities is primarily a matter for the Revenue Commissioners from the point of view of avoiding loss of revenue to the Exchequer. However, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government assists local authorities in carrying out their role as competent authorities under waste legislation. This role involves taking the necessary measures on behalf of the State to ensure that any waste generated and left abandoned by diesel launderers is disposed of without endangering human health and without harming the environment and, in particular, without risk to water.
I assure the Deputies present that the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government will assist the local authorities and the EPA to take whatever steps are necessary to stamp out this illegal practice which, as the Deputies have outlined, is a threat to human health.
Approximately 1,200 incidents of diesel laundering waste dumping have been dealt with by local authorities since 2008 and to date the Department has reimbursed all of the costs associated with such disposal on a case by case basis. Almost half of the clean-up operations have taken place in County Louth alone with 596 incidents having been dealt with there at a cost of approximately €4.8 million to the State. This is significant expenditure, borne at present by the environment fund. The Department, as part of ongoing co-operation with the Northern Ireland authorities on the repatriation of illegally deposited waste in Northern Ireland, has held recent discussions with authorities in Northern Ireland on the need to develop a mechanism for dealing with waste from cross-Border diesel washings which would be factored into the overall discussions on waste repatriation. These discussions are ongoing.
A complete solution to this problem must necessarily involve effective and coordinated enforcement of the law from both a Revenue and waste management perspective. The Minister has committed to meeting his counterpart in Northern Ireland, the Minister for the Environment, Mark Durkan, MLA, to highlight the problems being faced in the Border counties represented by the Deputies here today. This is a matter of the most serious concern for the Department and I assure Deputies that the Minister is treating this as a matter of priority. He will be taking this issue up with his Northern Ireland colleagues and urging them to give it the same priority.