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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 15 Sep 2022

Vol. 1026 No. 2

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Waste Management

I thank the Minister of State for facilitating this debate at this late hour. Last Wednesday, I attended a safety forum in Darndale. Safety forums across the northside are meetings that take place to discuss issues of concern in the local area, attended by local city council officials and gardaí. They are an effective way for local communities to raise their concerns with local representatives, city council officials, the Garda etc.

The issue of this illegal commercial dump that has been in the general Darndale area for a number of years has come to a head. It has gone completely out of control. I visited the dump during the week with my colleague, Councillor Alison Gilliland, and was stunned by what I saw. There has always been a commercial dump, which has been an issue raised constantly with the city council, but now, possibly because of Covid but definitely in recent months, it is the number one issue in the area. It is out of control and dangerous. There are huge mounds of commercial waste and of earth. It is being overseen in an illegal fashion as a commercial entity.

I visited it again today and rats were clearly visible running around this illegal commercial dump, which is in close proximity to people's homes. They are citing issues of ill health in the local community and are demanding that the council and other agencies of the State work to remove the dump and utilise the ground for more productive purposes. It could be used for housing, leisure facilities or commercial entities. There are any amount of possibilities for that spot of land, but currently it is a disgusting, unhealthy, illegal mound of commercial waste.

My colleague, Councillor Gilliland, and other local councillors have called for a high-level task force to be set up. In other areas of my constituency such a task force has been successful. It has never been tasked with dealing with this size of a dump but that solution is being put forward as the way forward. On Monday, there will be a meeting of the local area committee on the north-central area of Dublin City Council. I believe the chief executive of the council has an interest in attending or, certainly, in being proactive about moving this material but it will need support from the Department and the Government because the council will not have the resources to do what needs to be done. Is the Department familiar with the problem? Is it liaising with Dublin City Council? If a task force is established and a way forward decided upon, will the Department be in a position to help the council to fund such a move for the benefit of the local community?

I am taking this issue on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan. Tackling illegal dumping and other waste crime is a priority for the Minister and his Department, which continues to provide substantial support to local authorities dealing with challenging waste enforcement cases.

The operation has resulted in the impounding of vehicles used for alleged unauthorised waste activities and the initiation of prosecutions. There are also investigations under way by DCC, with the assistance of An Garda Síochána, into ongoing breaches of the Waste Management Act 1996. Patrols, together with regular clean-up and maintenance operations by DCC, are continuing.

The ultimate objective is to clean up and secure the site as part of an overall and sustainable solution, which will include the development of the site and surrounding area by DCC. Specialist environmental consultants have been engaged by DCC to undertake environmental assessments to gauge the scale and types of waste involved and the subsequent means and level of clean-up that might be required. The clean-up of this site will be carried out in conjunction with the overall development of the area by DCC. Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications officials will receive further reports from DCC, via the NWESC, as this progresses. In the interim, DCC is actively engaged at a senior level with An Garda Síochána in ongoing efforts to eliminate illegal dumping in this area. Both the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and I are fully aware of the challenges that illegal dumping poses to our regulatory authorities and the impact it has on communities. I will be raising this directly with the Minister.

I thank the Minister of State and I am encouraged by what she said. It is true that this is fundamentally a responsibility for the local authority but what I get from her answer is that the Department is aware of the issue, that it is engaging with the local authority, DCC, and with An Garda Síochána on the issue. It comes to the stage now where it requires a multi-agency approach. It will require intervention and proactive action by An Garda Síochána to secure the site and it will require action by the local authority to clear the site and to ensure the future of the site is much more amenable. The Minister of State mentioned that in her response, so I am also encouraged by that level of vision within the answer.

What the residents require, however, is to be told in good faith that their representations are going somewhere. What the Minister of State said is quite positive but they need to see action. They need to see moves by DCC to begin to move this material. It will need to see physical boundaries put around the compound and actions being taken. It will need to see a Garda presence and some kind of action plan on what the future vision is for this location. I would make the point that it has been said to me that this would not happen anywhere else and that this would not be allowed to happen anywhere else. There is a sense of a lack of faith in the agencies of the State and a lack of faith that they care enough. We do not want to go back to another one of these forums that is populated by public representatives, city council officials and gardaí to talk to the residents if nothing has been done within that time frame.

While I appreciate the Minister of State's answer, I cannot but implore how important it is to the local community that it sees that the agencies of the State will work to remove something that is illegal, prosecute those who need to be prosecuted and allow this entire area to be used for the benefit of the local community, not for the destruction of that area so close to people's homes.

I appreciate the seriousness of this issue and, as I said, DCC is actively engaged at a senior level with An Garda Síochána in the ongoing efforts to eliminate illegal dumping in this area. While enforcement action in this area is a matter for the local authorities, the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications encourages a multifaceted approach to tackling the problem, incorporating enforcement, public awareness and education. In that context, the Department provides significant funding to support the activities of the Waste Enforcement Regional Lead Authorities and the network of local authority waste enforcement officers. In addition, the Department has developed the anti-dumping initiative to work in partnership with local authorities and community organisations in identifying high-risk or problem areas, developing appropriate enforcement responses and carrying out clean-up operations. I will raise this directly with the Minister and come back to the Deputy on progress on this.

Wind Energy Generation

I wish to raise the issue of the Derrybrien wind farm with the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications. Obviously he is not here and I thank the Minister of State for coming even though it is not in her Department. I appreciate that there are probably a lot of places she would rather be than fulfilling duties outside of her departmental remit. Derrybrien is not directly in the Minister of State's constituency and I know the boundary between Galway East and Galway West changes occasionally but Derrybrien is pretty firmly in the Galway East constituency. However, everybody in the country is aware of Derrybrien and what it is. It is at the northern end of the Slieve Aughty mountain range, which comprises about 65,000 ha. The Derrybrien wind farm is about 345 ha of that, and some 70 wind turbines were granted planning permission there. There was quite a huge landslide in October 2003, which had a detrimental effect on the environment. An Bord Pleanála described it as having "significant... residual effects" that cannot be fully mitigated, with "significant effects on the environment". Ireland was taken to task by the European Commission for its failure to respect the habitats directive. That case against Ireland was successful and there was an environmental impact assessment carried out but it was found to be inadequate as a result of that court case, rendering the planning permission effectively invalid.

I do not think the wind farm should have been built and I do not think anybody would grant planning permission for it now but that is not necessarily the issue. The issue is that it is there, the damage has been incurred and we have taken all of the downsides of it. That includes the local community, the communities around Slieve Aughty and the environment. The issue now is if we can obtain a benefit from it. An Bord Pleanála, notwithstanding the inspector's recommendation this summer, recommended that substitute permission not be granted. It found that there were no exceptional circumstances. The requirement for exceptional circumstances was the subject of Supreme Court litigation where the State's planning regime was again found to be inadequate, although this time not by the European courts but by the Irish Supreme Court. The court found that there were no exceptional circumstances and I understand and accept that we cannot reward persons for flouting planning legislation, inadvertently or advertently, which is what happened in this instance.

The issue is whether a new application could and should be made. It is not right or proper that the ESB would benefit from this, or Coillte, which is the landowner for at least part of the wind farm. Perhaps this should be transferred to a local authority to make a new application with the explicit undertaking that any and all profits that are made from this development go back into protecting the environment of Slieve Aughty. This would include both remediating the damage and furthermore, protecting the environment of that mountain range, which is badly damaged by that wind farm.

That two wrongs do not make a right is, in effect, what I am suggesting.

I am taking this issue on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

The Derrybrien wind farm was first referred by the European Commission to the Court of Justice of the EU in 2006, case C-215/06, and has been the subject of infringement proceedings, and the subject of a lump sum fine of €5 million and significant daily fines of €15,000 per day until the terms of the judgment are met, as a result of same. To comply with the judgment, the intention was for the operator of the wind farm, an ESB subsidiary, to apply under amendments to the Planning and Development Act for "substitute consent", that is, planning permission for development requiring retrospective environmental impact assessment, following a request to make the application from the local authority, Galway County Council. ESB lodged its application for substitute consent with An Bord Pleanála for the Derrybrien wind farm on 21 August 2020. On 4 February 2022, An Bord Pleanála decided to refuse to grant substitute consent for the wind farm development at Derrybrien. On 15 February 2022, ESB paused the operation of the wind farm at Derrybrien following the decision by An Bord Pleanála to refuse to grant substitute consent.

On 16 March 2022, ESB confirmed that it has decided to close the Derrybrien wind farm on a permanent basis. The statutory timeframe for other potential objectors to bring judicial review proceedings in this matter has now expired. On foot of the refusal by An Bord Pleanála to grant substitute consent for the wind farm, the environmental impact assessment, EIA, regularisation process for the Derrybrien wind farm has ended and the development is now deemed by primary legislation to be an unauthorised development. Section 177O(5) of the Planning Act is very explicit insofar as Derrybrien is now classed as an unauthorised development and the cessation of the activity is required. Any attempt to keep the wind farm operational would, therefore, be unlawful. It is, therefore, subject to mandatory planning enforcement by the relevant planning authority, Galway County Council, which will carry out this function in accordance with its statutory responsibilities.

There is no legal basis for Derrybrien's continued operation. It is very important in the context of compliance with EU law that immediate steps are taken to ensure the plant is decommissioned as quickly as possible, and discontinuation of the unauthorised wind farm should be a key factor in seeking to end Ireland’s liability to pay significant daily fines to the European Commission. Government officials are engaging with the Commission in this regard. It is the Government's view that the An Bord Pleanála decision and the acceptance of the ESB of this decision and its stated intention to decommission Derrybrien brings the State into compliance with the original judgment.

The full impacts of the closure of Derrybrien wind farm have been considered. There are limited global and European energy policy arguments to be made for the continued operation of Derrybrien. There are no substantive arguments to be made from a domestic security of supply perspective. Any attempts to retain the wind farm in operation would face planning and legal obstacles.

I find slightly surprising the conclusion that there are no substantive arguments to be made with regard to the security of domestic supply, given Derrybrien provides, on a good day at least, 1% of the energy needs of the State at a time of energy crisis. I am not suggesting that Ireland should flout EU law; it is very disappointing that it has done so and that it is has dragged its heels for so long. What I am suggesting is that another attempt be made to bring Derrybrien into compliance with European Union law. Maybe a better application should be made to mitigate the very negative effects of what has happened. Maybe an application should be made by a developer that is not the original developer, which has been in violation of the requirement for so long, albeit it may have been inadvertent at the time, and it may have been a failure by this House and the Department to properly transpose European legislation that gave rise to much of this problem. However, so too is the manner in which ESB, or its wholly owned subsidiary, Gort Windfarms Limited, went about building this.

Nobody is suggesting that those who flouted environmental norms be rewarded, but rather that the State would not be penalised. We have taken all of the disadvantages, as I have said. There is a real risk and a worry in the community that in seeking to decommission, we are going to cause further damage along the lines of the damage that was already caused.

The worst of it all is this. I do not know if the Minister of State knows the topography of the area well but Slieve Aughty is on the northern side of Lough Derg and Slieve Bernagh is on the southern side. Coillte is proposing to do exactly the same thing on top of Slieve Bernagh - this is a blanket bog on top of a mountain and it wants to put up turbines. It is going to endanger Slieve Bernagh and decommission a wind farm that can be seen across Scariff Bay and that has created environmental havoc in the past. Nobody is sympathising with that. What I am saying is that it may be time to cut our losses and to make a new application, and the State should consider the good that perhaps could come out of it.

The ESB is a commercial State company. It has accepted the decision of An Bord Pleanála and is in the process of preparing for the decommissioning and removal of the wind farm. As previously stated, the Government has explored all avenues and impacts in this regard and is satisfied that there is no legal basis for its continued operation. The Government is committed to pursuing the transition to a climate-resilient, biodiversity-rich and climate-neutral economy by no later than the end of the year 2050, as set out in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021.

Under the climate action plan 2021, CAP21, and the sectoral emissions ceilings, Ireland has a target of up to 80% of electricity demand to come from renewable energy sources by 2030. This will be comprised of up to 8 GW of onshore wind, up to 5.5 GW of solar and at least 7 GW of offshore, with 2 GW earmarked for the supply of green hydrogen. Under the EU clean energy package, Ireland has to maintain a baseline 16% renewable energy level in each year and meet trajectory points in 2022, 2025, 2027 and 2030, as set out in the national energy and climate plan. Under CAP21, at least a further 4 GW of additional onshore wind energy is required without taking into account the potential decommissioning of existing sites over the coming years. According to industry sources, there is an estimated 10 GW of onshore wind projects in the development pipeline. A supportive spatial planning framework for further onshore renewable development at national, regional and local level, as set out in the climate action plan, is essential to deliver on the onshore and solar generation targets.

Bus Services

This Monday, commuters, public transport users and schoolkids in Dunmore East, Passage East and Portlaw heard the news that the operator they have relied upon for bus services for generations was withdrawing from the sector. The managing director, Brian Lynch, reached out to local Oireachtas Members and media outlets to let us know that Suirway Bus and Coach Services will be ceasing to operate its public transport services after 31 October and that it has informed the NTA that it will not be renewing its route licences.

I will discuss the implications for the community of Dunmore and Portlaw shortly but I would like first to acknowledge how difficult a decision this must have been for Brian and his family. Suirway has been a family business for three generations. It is hard to believe but Suirway has been in the public transport business since 1899, when it first offered public transport services consisting of high quality tyred traps. Its first bus did not arrive until 1928 and it is one of the earliest public transport services to operate in Ireland, predating the Road Transport Act 1932, which established the national public transport system.

The company has survived two world wars, the energy crisis of the 1970s and all the boom and lean times of the last 123 years. The impact of Covid-19, however, followed by the spike in energy prices precipitated by Russia's illegal war in Ukraine and the future challenges of decarbonising our transport fleet, have left Mr. Lynch in a position where he does not see a future for his business. Suirway is rightly proud of its history and this decision has been taken with a heavy heart. I acknowledge the role the company has played in Waterford for a century and more.

The loss of Suirway means we have six weeks to solve a transport problem that will impact the almost 2,000 people who live in Portlaw and the nearly 2,000 people who live in Dunmore East, not to mention the people living in the hinterland of those towns and along those bus routes. Dunmore East is to the east of Waterford city and the existing bus service accesses the city via the Dunmore Road corridor, which I have discussed with the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on many occasions. There is no secondary school in Dunmore East, so children have to travel to the Gaelcholáiste, Waterpark College, the Ursuline secondary school, the Newtown School and the De La Salle College, all of which are on or close to this route. The bus also passes University Hospital Waterford, UHW, and the likes of Ardkeen Stores, Lidl and Tesco, where people from Dunmore East pick up their grocery shopping. Most people living in Dunmore East work in Waterford city and significant traffic also moves in the other direction, with people from Waterford city travelling out to Dunmore East for a swim, a bite to eat, etc.

Portlaw is on the other side of Waterford city, to its west. The services there bring children into St. Paul's College, my former secondary school, and the Presentation secondary school. The bus route also passes through Kilmeaden and Butlerstown, the UPMC Whitfield Hospital, the industrial estate and the main campus of South East Technological University, SETU, on the Cork Road. Portlaw has a high proportion of households experiencing transport deprivation, that is, they do not have a car or struggle with the cost of running a car.

This matter is a litmus test for our commitment to the Connecting Ireland strategy that seeks to improve public transport services in rural Ireland. We know the challenge we have ahead of us in respect of decarbonising our transport systems and ensuring that people living in small towns, such as Portlaw, Passage East and Dunmore East, have access to the services they need to reach our larger towns and cities. The people of Portlaw, Passage East and Dunmore East are worried, and rightly so. Has the Minister engaged with the National Transport Authority, NTA, on this issue? Will we be able to provide continuity of service on this route from 31 October onwards?

I thank Deputy Ó Cathasaigh for raising this important topic, which I am taking on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. As the Deputy will be aware, while the majority of public transport in Ireland is provided by the publicly-subvented bus and rail services funded through NTA's public service obligation, PSO, programme, the public transport system also includes non-subvented bus services provided on a commercial basis by bus and coach businesses of varying size. I understand the Deputy's question concerns the impact on the people of Dunmore East, Portlaw and Passage East in County Waterford of the recent decision by one such commercial bus operator, Suirway, to cease operating its services in the area.

I advise the Deputy that the decision taken by Suirway to withdraw its commuter services in east Waterford, including in Dunmore East, Portlaw and Passage East, at the end of October, is a commercial decision for the company. The Deputy will appreciate that Suirway, like all other commercial businesses, is responsible for managing its own resources in respect of its commercial services. It is my understanding that Suirway has taken the decision to withdraw these services following a prolonged period of difficult trading. The Deputy eloquently outlined the history of the company in the area and the difficulties it has been facing. He will also be aware that the Covid-19 pandemic had a profound impact on the public transport sector. This impact has been mitigated by several Government decisions over the last two years. In particular, these include the decision to substantially increase the 2020, 2021 and 2022 budgets for the existing PSO system and to introduce new, temporary financial support for non-PSO licensed services provided by commercial bus operators in June 2020. In acknowledgment of the difficulties facing the sector, these supports for the commercial sector were extended several times over the past two years, most recently up to 30 June 2022.

Despite these and other wider Governmental supports, trading conditions remain challenging, with passenger numbers remaining below pre-pandemic levels in many areas and the associated fare revenue having yet to rebound fully. An unfortunate consequence of these challenging conditions is that some commercial operators, such as Suirway, are deciding to leave the market. I advise the Deputy that the NTA, which has statutory responsibility for securing the provision of public passenger transport services nationally by way of public transport services contracts and for the allocation of associated funding to the relevant transport operators, will assess whether Suirway's decision to withdraw its services in Dunmore East, Portlaw and Passage East at the end of next month will give rise to any loss of connectivity in the area. The NTA will also consider whether there is a need to provide additional PSO services in the affected areas.

I reassure the Deputy that the NTA has advised that this matter is a high priority for it and that it will advise the Department of its findings as soon as its review process is complete. I also assure the Deputy that the Government is committed to ensuring essential transport services are protected and supported. Services providing vital regional and rural connections will continue to operate if a loss of connectivity is identified, and a replacement service will be put in place. A key Government objective is to provide all citizens with reliable and realistic sustainable mobility options and public transport plays a key role in the delivery of this goal.

I thank the Minister of State for her response, but I could nearly short-circuit the NTA process of assessing whether this impending situation will give rise to any loss of connectivity in the area. It will, because no other operator provides services from Dunmore East and Portlaw into Waterford city centre. I received word previously that this matter is a high priority for the NTA, but I would like a timeline in this regard. The clock is ticking. Six weeks remain in which to decide that a PSO route must be put in place or to see if Local Link operators in the area - and we have an exceptional such operator providing services from the west of the county - will be asked to take on this route or to determine how this problem is going to be solved. In any event, we have six weeks in which to provide continuity of service for all people in Dunmore East, Passage East and Portlaw who rely on it.

I reiterate that there certainly are instances of transport deprivation in these towns, especially Portlaw. There are people who rely on this service and without it, they will not, for example, be able to get their children to school, get to the doctor or be able to access groceries. There are no supermarkets in these towns and people rely on Waterford city for these types of services. There is, therefore, a need to accelerate this process.

We also need joined-up thinking in this regard. Portlaw is 5 km from Fiddown, which used to have a train station. Perhaps we should be considering reopening a station along that line and having more commuter trains, perhaps battery operated, running from Clonmel into Waterford. We need the different organs of the State's transport system to talk to each other. Can we get an idea of the timeline on the process the Minister of State referred to because, as I said, the clock is ticking? People rely on this bus service as their mode of transport and they need certainty that there will be continuity of provision.

I raised this issue regarding the timeline with the Minister to try to get clarity for the Deputy. Licensed bus and coach operators are an integral part of the overall public transport system, especially in areas not covered by existing public service bus and rail services. While it is regrettable that a family-owned bus operator like Suirway, which has been providing services in the east Waterford area for more than 100 years, is ceasing its operations, I reiterate that any decision concerning the continuation or cessation of specific routes or services by a commercial operator is, ultimately, a decision for the company itself. I again assure the Deputy that the NTA has prioritised carrying out a detailed assessment of whether Suirway's decision to withdraw its services in Dunmore East, Portlaw and Passage East at the end of October will result in any loss of connectivity in the area. As part of this assessment process, the NTA will consider whether there is a need to provide additional or replacement PSO services in the area.

Regarding alternative transport options in the region, the NTA has also advised that passengers travelling from Kilmeaden to Waterford city will still be able to access Bus Éireann Expressway route 40, which runs six times daily each way along this route. I trust this clarifies the position regarding the impact of the closure of Suirway's bus services on the people of Dunmore East, Portlaw and Passage East. I will raise the issue of the timeline in this regard directly with the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar athló ar 11.10 p.m. go dtí 2 p.m., Dé Máirt, an 20 Meán Fómhair 2022.
The Dáil adjourned at 11.10 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 20 September 2022.