Minerals Development Bill 2015 [Seanad]: Instruction to Committee

I move:

That, pursuant to Standing Order 154, it be an instruction to the Select Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment that it has power to make provision in the Minerals Development Bill 2015 to prohibit prospecting for mercury and primary mercury mining pursuant to Article 3.3 of the Minamata Convention on Mercury done at Geneva on 19th January, 2013, and to change the title of the Bill and make other consequential amendments required to take account of the inclusion of such provisions.

On Second Stage of the Minerals Development Bill 2015 on 22 February my colleague, the Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Seán Kyne, indicated to the House his intention to table amendments on Committee Stage to give effect to certain obligations under the Minamata Convention on mercury, which was signed by Ireland in 2013 and which will prohibit primary mining of mercury. In effect, the motion before the House allows for consideration of these amendments by the Select Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment in the context of its consideration of the Minerals Development Bill 2015 tomorrow, Wednesday, 17 May.

The convention, agreed to and adopted in 2013, is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of mercury. It focuses on a global and ubiquitous metal that, while naturally occurring, has broad uses in everyday objects and is released to the atmosphere, soil and water from a variety of sources. Controlling the human sources of releases of mercury throughout its lifecycle has been a key factor in shaping the provisions under the convention. The provisions of the convention include a ban on new mercury mines, the phasing out of existing ones, the phasing out and phasing down of mercury use in a number of products and processes, control measures for emissions to air and releases to land and water, and the regulation of the informal sector of small-scale gold mining. The convention also addresses the interim storage of mercury and its disposal once it becomes waste and sites contaminated by mercury, as well as broader health issues.

Ireland officially signed the Minamata Convention in October 2013 at the diplomatic conference in Kumamoto, Japan. The purpose of the Minister of State's amendments is to insert a new Part 8 into the Minerals Development Bill which will effect in Irish law a ban on primary mercury mining, implementing one of a number of actions necessary to allow Ireland to ratify the convention in 2017. No primary mercury mining occurs in Ireland.

Fianna Fáil will be supporting the motion. We firmly believe Ireland should immediately ban mercury mining. I have just come from a briefing on the Minerals Development Bill which is due to proceed to Committee Stage tomorrow. Obviously, the motion is necessary to enable the amendments to be tabled.

Banning mercury is a crucial step towards maintaining the health of Ireland's people and its environment and towards fulfilling our commitments under the Minamata Convention. The convention, as adopted in 2013, is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from the adverse effects of mercury. The focus is on mercury which is a naturally occurring element commonly found in everyday objects and which is emitted into the atmosphere, soil and water through a variety of means. Controlling the human sources of releasing mercury throughout its lifecycle has been a key factor in shaping the provisions under the convention. Fianna Fáil is a strong supporter of the convention and other protections of the environment. We recognise that the health, well-being and livelihoods of millions of Irish people, from those in fishing and agriculture to those involved in tourism and beyond, are intricately intertwined with their environment. If we jeopardise that environment, we jeopardise those communities, their employment and so much more.

The provisions of the Minamata Convention effect a ban on new mercury mines, the phasing out of existing ones, the phasing out and phasing down of mercury use in multiple products and processes, control measures for emissions to air and releases to land and water and the regulation of the informal sector of small-scale gold mining. While there is no primary mercury mining occurring in Ireland, there are insufficient protections to ensure this will not change. Therefore, an explicit ban on mercury mining is needed in order to bring us into compliance with the convention. I am aware of the timelines required in order to process the amendments on Committee Stage of the Minerals Development Bill tomorrow. Fianna Fáil and I are very happy to support the motion which I recommend to the House.

I welcome the Minerals Development Bill 2015 which has been many years in the making. It recognises the need for the regulation of mining in the State and it will modernise and consolidate the legislative framework underpinning a very important industry. Most important, the industry concerns the assets of the people.

We welcome the motion on the Minamata Convention and the intentions of the international agreement. It is estimated that 15 million to 19 million people worldwide are directly at risk of mercury poisoning. Children are especially susceptible and vulnerable to such environmental threats. There are specific periods in the development of children when exposure to chemicals or physical or biological agents may result in adverse health outcomes. The mercury problem is mainly man-made and, therefore, can be minimised by implementing efficient measures. Banning mercury mining outright in Ireland is the way to go. For our part in Sinn Féin, we fully support that measure.

Let me refer briefly to the amendments tabled for Committee Stage. I welcome the Government's amendment to delete section 82 of the Bill. The section allowed the Minister to sell State assets. We do not want to see any loss to the State when it comes to mineral rights. I raised problems with this section many times previously in the House, as did my predecessor.

The Bill is lengthy, but there are a few overarching issues that must be to the fore when examining legislation on mining rights. We must consider possible environmental implications and potential damage to health, farming, tourism and agriculture. I refer to working mines, in addition to those that have ceased operation. We must examine the safety concerns of workers and members of the public. We must consider the financial benefits to the people of the State who, after all, own these assets. The State must always guarantee that the people are getting the best deal. It should not be like a jumble sale. We need to guarantee that we will not cheaply hawk the family silver. Unfortunately, past Governments did so with our offshore gas reserves. That has happened and we have an obligation to ensure current and future Governments will not do so. The natural minerals listed in the Bill are the property of the State and to be used to the benefit of all the people of the State.

This is not small business. We must remember that ware not dealing with a small niche business tucked away somewhere; rather we are dealing with a wide variety of mineral deposits. In respect of some minerals, we are dealing with a considerable amount of deposits. In 2012 there were 1,373 full-time jobs in the industry and the revenue to the State was €56 million. Turnover was €426 million. Ireland is the largest producer of zinc in Europe, with 30% of European output. It is the tenth biggest zinc producer in the world. It is the second largest producer of lead concentrate in Europe. For companies undertaking mining, output as measured by sales turnover amounted to €426 million in 2012, a considerable sum of money. Companies mining in the State receive many financial benefits from the Exchequer and capital allowances, including write-offs for exploration and development and expenditure on plant and machinery. There is an immediate tax write-off of up to 100% on exploration and development expenditure. The costs of rehabilitation after closure are also tax deductible.

We are concerned about the issue of royalties for the State. We are concerned that the public and the Exchequer might lose out on potential gains. Under the Bill, the setting of royalties payable to the people is to be determined by the Minister on the basis of what is "fair and reasonable", having regard to all of the circumstances in the case. Potential loose legal provisions need to be addressed. We need to ensure the highest safety standards are met in mining for workers, on sites that have permanently ceased operation and in access to these dangerous environments. There are concerns about a number of locations. Private entities running mines must be compelled to ensure the highest safety standards which must be enforced by the State. Once minerals are taken, there is another concern, that is, the ongoing environmental and agricultural impact and the rehabilitation of the surrounding environment. The example that comes to mind first is the case of the Silvermines. A considerable amount of State money was used to address what was left behind around the mines after the company had taken away the profits. Look at what has happened to the landscape there, with the tailing ponds, the dangerous run-off and the dangerous chemicals getting into the water system and surrounding environment.

The manner in which we manage, use or abuse the environment has considerable implications. I refer, in particular, to the threat to agriculture. We have enough difficulties with Brexit and everything else. We will have to ensure we are able to stand over our green image and that food produced here is safe. The only way we can gain an edge over other countries is by producing high-quality food in a good environment, with farming based on sound practices.

We must not have any threats to that, be it from mining or anything else. Economic issues and jobs are part of the Minister of State's brief and he will understand that, in rural areas in particular, many smaller producers are coming under pressure because of Brexit. It must be ensured that Ireland has the edge in producing high quality food in a safe, clean environment compared to more industrialised European states.

We welcome the Bill but we will seek amendments to address our concern. It is timely to consolidate the relevant legislation and, in the main, it is a positive development. I look forward to the Bill being passed.

Question put and agreed to.