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.