Local Government (Water Pollution) (Amendment) Bill 2018: Discussion

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We now move to detailed scrutiny of the Local Government (Water Pollution) (Amendment) Bill 2018, in respect of which I welcome Deputy Martin Kenny.

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Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I now invite Deputy Martin Kenny to make his opening statement.

I welcome the opportunity to present this Bill for detailed scrutiny. When I was elected, I promised the people in my constituency that I would try to address their needs in the Oireachtas. The issue of depopulation in the north west is a long-term and insidious blight on my county of Leitrim and other parts of the region. There are many reasons for this. We need jobs, infrastructure and transport, but we also need to fight to hold onto what we have. This Bill is designed to tackle the situation of young families who want to stay in rural Ireland not being able to get planning permission to build homes there. The problem lies in the nature of the soil in parts of the region and in parts of the south west and other parts of the country. It is particularly bad in Leitrim and west Cavan where the soil is very dense. In these areas, the current code of practice of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, has virtually halted construction of one-off dwelling houses in areas of heavy soil. The nature of the soil is such that the standard T-test, the percolation test, will not be passed. According to the EPA code of practice, there must be zero discharge of effluent, regardless of the efficiency of the wastewater treatment systems. The achievement of zero discharge is impossible in these areas and, particularly, in the Irish climate but it is possible in this day and age to install a system which will mean that the wastewater produced will be bathing water standard.

This amendment to the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act 1977 will allow the Minister to design and regulate a discharge licence which would be issued by local authorities for one-off houses where the percolation test fails. The Government has acknowledged that rural Ireland needs rehabilitation after years of neglect and austerity. In my own area, I can instance dozens of young families who, for the refusal of planning permission, have not been able to settle in their home place where they wanted to live for the rest of their lives. If discharge licences of this nature are granted in an appropriate and proportionate way, there is no danger to the environment from this amendment. I truly believe that this is a good move for rural Ireland and I propose this amendment in that spirit.

Refusal of planning permissions has been a problem in Leitrim for many years, including prior to the introduction of the EPA code of practice. The council has tried to develop alternative guidelines. Over the past 20 years, in almost all places where planning permission was sought mechanical treatment systems had to be used. Usually, they had to go to a percolation area where there was imported top soil or to a raised percolation. The council was trying to address this problem long before the stringent code of practice came into effect.

A lot of people in rural areas are conscious of the mindset that houses in clusters are good and one-off houses are bad - once described to me as the Animal Farm type mindset that all two legs are bad and all four legs are good. That kind of mindset does not recognise the reality of the world we live in. It is a closed mindset that we need to open up. There are hundreds of parishes around the country where there are no towns and people living in isolated rural communities. In my own parish of Aughavas in County Leitrim there are 600 people living in houses scattered around the countryside. There is no town or village but there is a small three-teacher school. For the past ten years, practically no new houses have been built in the community. There are at least a dozen young people who would like to live in the area but they cannot get planning permission to build. The aforementioned school will become a two-teacher school next September and will, probably, close within the next ten years. The situation is similar in all the small rural areas in County Leitrim, including Drumreilly and Gortletteragh. The response is often that those who want to live in these areas should live in the town. The nearest town is seven or eight miles away. People are living in rural communities because it is where they want to live. In terms of where I live, on leaving the main road, my house is the first house on the left-hand side of the L1511. There are 2 km between my house and the main road. There are a couple of hundred metres between my house and the next house. This is not about wanting to have houses close to each other, cluster developments, ribbon developments or over-development. Where that is proposed, appropriate planning is necessary.

In regard to the EPA guidelines, where problems arose in the past with heavy soils, Leitrim County Council and other councils developed other means of addressing them. I have come across many situations in west Cavan and Leitrim where people got planning permission having put in place reed bed systems to deal with the effluent, which was a natural way of addressing the problem. Willow beds can also be used. Willow trees are planted and as the sewage comes through from the septic tank the evaporation from the willows soaks up and deals with all of the nutrients. This is a very effective way of dealing with the problem. Mechanical treatment systems have been used in many cases. Most of them do an excellent job as well.

At the time the EPA guidelines came into effect I was on Leitrim County Council. The general view was that they would lead to practically nobody in the rural areas getting planning permission. I think it was former Senator Paschal Mooney who organised a trip of representatives of the council to Leinster House for a meeting with representatives of the EPA and the Department who told us that what happened was an unintended consequence, that they had not foreseen that this would happen and that they would try to find a solution. Since then, Leitrim County Council and other councils around the country and the EPA have undertaken studies on how to achieve zero discharge. One of those studies is research No. 161 by Laurence Gill, which outlines the examination process in regard to the systems. I have a copy of the main findings of the study, which I can provide to members after this meeting, but I would like to go through a couple of them now. The study examined the evapotranspiration, ET, system.

In such systems, when a septic tank is installed, the percolation area becomes a shallow bed. A large area in the garden is dug out, an impermeable plastic layer is inserted and the hole is refilled with soil. The willows are planted and given a year to start to grow before the effluent is added to the bottom of the system. The system works very well. In the research paper's conclusions, it is shown that the system of using willow trees is unlikely to act as a zero-discharge system. The problem is the zero discharge, but why? The requirement for zero discharge was put in place to achieve zero effect. We want zero effect that has no impact on the environment. As is stated in the conclusion of the report, the evapotranspiration or ET system promotes excellent pollutant attenuation, significantly reduces the net discharge to the environment and, therefore, should be considered a viable passive treatment. The conclusion also states it would require a change to the current consent procedures to allow for such a controlled discharge to surface water. The conclusion of the EPA's report states the willow ET system produces an effluent of similar quality to the effluent from a system with no sewage discharge entering it. The EPA found the system had zero effect. If that is the case, we need to examine why we have a zero-discharge rule.

It was in that context I presented the Bill. In fairness, Leitrim County Council has since done more work on the ET system and continues to do so. It has a pilot scheme in place to try to minimise the rainfall entering the system. It found that it could achieve zero discharge for most of the year except in winter, when there was heavy rainfall, although it was mostly rain escaping rather than any pollutant effluent. The council is considering building willow beds and sloping it off in order that as little rain as possible can enter, to try to achieve zero discharge. My argument, which I consider logical, is that if there is zero effect, it will have the same impact as zero discharge. If one takes water from the river, puts it in a 40-gallon barrel, keeps it until night-time and returns the water to the river, it will have a zero effect on the river, which is exactly what the Bill provides for. There will be a zero effect.

I acknowledge that the Department has raised some issues with the Bill, which I examined. One such issue is that it appears that the local authority must issue a licence under section 4. I cannot find the word "must" anywhere in the Bill. Rather, it states, "Notwithstanding the generality of the foregoing nothing in this section shall prevent a water services authority from granting a waste water discharge licence [...]" That there is nothing to prevent a water services authority from granting a licence does not mean that it must. Similarly, the Bill provides that the Minister "shall" introduce regulations to provide for the application for a wastewater treatment licence. He shall introduce regulations to do it but will not insist that it must happen. It will happen only when a person or agent applies for a licence and meets the standards required.

The Bill further states: "The Minister may introduce such regulations as are necessary, incidental, supplementary or consequential for the purposes of giving effect to this section." This new section - section 13 - will do nothing to affect any of the other sections in the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act 1997, and vice versa. The present system of issuing a discharge licence is in place specifically for cases where there is a large number of houses or an industrial-type unit, which is fine. Provision needs to be made, however, for a different type of licence for single houses where a system is in place that will ensure zero effect and allow for minimal discharge. That is what we want to achieve. Others, such as the EPA and many of the local authorities, are working in a similar vein to try to do so but the sole obstacle in the way is the issue of zero discharge.

If we wanted, we could try to change the code of practice but doing so is difficult, which I understand because an application has been lodged with the European Commission. The code of practice states that if a house fails to pass the T-test, it must have zero discharge or a discharge licence. My Bill will put in effect a means of granting a small discharge licence to deal with that in an appropriate way where all other planning requirements are already met, and assessing how a zero impact on the environment can be achieved, such as with the type of ET system developed by the local authorities in co-operation with the EPA.

I welcome any questions.

Deputy Pat Casey took the Chair.

I will support the Bill because I support putting some system in place to address the issue. While County Leitrim was mentioned, other areas in counties Sligo and Cavan and elsewhere are dying, not least in the form of schools and football clubs, as Deputy Martin Kenny noted. Rural people from certain areas cannot obtain planning permission because of the current situation. We should most sincerely try to bring in a system where people can be allowed to live in their own areas. In farming communities, when young farmers take over family farms and so on, they cannot build on their own land. Deputy Martin Kenny's proposal is reasonable. It will allow a local authority to issue a discharge licence provided there is no pollutant in the discharge. I accept that the matter has persisted for some time and it is a big issue in many places. We should try to do whatever we can to facilitate the families affected. Not everybody can live in a town or village; some people must live on the land they farm and it is not viable to move away. We are trying to keep local rural areas alive.

I compliment Deputy Martin Kenny on his Bill, which we will support.

I thank Deputy Martin Kenny for attending and presenting his Bill with such passion. As someone who lives in a rural community, it is clear he knows and understands the issue. As Deputy Scanlon said, we must encourage and support people who wish to live in rural communities outside the cities and towns, but in a sustainable and environmentally healthy and responsible way. It is becoming an issue and Deputy Martin Kenny made a strong argument.

I worked with the school of botany at Trinity College Dublin, TCD, and, therefore, I am very familiar with its work on biomass in respect of willows and Salix. It is carrying out research on the matter and there is an ongoing body of work on the use of willows and the scheme in question. Deputy Martin Kenny may know something about that and, if so, he might share it with the committee.

Yes, that work is being done at TCD.

What is happening and at what stage is it? I am not familiar with the ins and outs of the school's work, apart from being aware that it was doing something related to the matter. The partnership is doubtless good and I have a sense that Leitrim County Council is proactively engaging with TCD. Will Deputy Martin Kenny comment on that?

As I said, the work the school has done on the ET system has been examined for a number of years. One of its objectives was to achieve a zero discharge. That was its logic. It found that, as of yet, it was virtually impossible to achieve a zero discharge, mainly because of rainfall rather than effluent entering it. In a standard house, less than 1,000 l of wastewater enters the system every day. TCD found that does not have an impact and was being addressed. The addition of rainfall, however, caused the problem.

The research paper states that the system was acting as excellent pollutant containment even if it could not fully achieve a zero discharge system on an annual basis. It cannot operate at a level of zero discharge but it can achieve a zero impact. That is the point I am making. The amount of water leaving was equal to the amount of water coming from a system that had not been fed any effluent. If the testers took samples from the run-off from the concrete yard at the back of the house and from the effluent that went through the evapotranspiration system, they were equal. There was an equal loading of phosphates and they were well within any standard. I know of an evapotranspiration system in a house outside Mohill near Loch Rynn Castle Estate. I know the old man there well. He said now and again the testers come and take tests. He got them to call him back. He said the man who called him back after carrying out the tests told him that the water was similar to bathing water standard.

The zero effect is what we need to achieve. All of us want that. No one wants to pollute or destroy our environment. We understand that the water in our rivers and lakes often ends up in our taps because it goes back through the system. We want to ensure that we have a zero effect. The natural systems involving the growth of willow or reed beds are best in dealing with these situations. This is the key question. Are we able to do it right every time? Are we able to ensure that we can come up with a system that will work at every site correctly? Can that be monitored and checked? Is it affordable? That research is now being done, but when the research is done we come back to the problem at the end of it. In fairness, the Environmental Protection Agency said at the time that unintended consequences can arise and that zero discharge blocks even that.

Let us suppose we had a system that produced potable water, and it was only letting out 1 litre per day. Given the rigidity of the system we have at the moment, we are not allowed to discharge that water. That is a ridiculous situation in any context. Really, we need to work with the EPA, Trinity College, Laurence Gill and the others who have done this research to ensure we can come up with a system. Everyone involved in the process to date is confident that a system can be found that would have zero impact but it will not have zero discharge. It will have a certain level of discharge mainly due to rainfall. Once we achieve that, we come back to the problem of the zero discharge rule. The way to get over the zero discharge rule is to put a small licence in place that a local authority can issue. That is how to solve the problem. That is what the Bill intends to do. Of course, if people in the Department have particular issues that they would like to see resolved, I am open to hearing about it. Sensible amendments can come from anywhere. We are not all geniuses in this situation. We all know that there may be unintended consequences somewhere that we do not see but we can find a way to overcome all of those. That is what we need to work on.

Thank you, Deputy Kenny, for your presentation. I will make some comments. I come from a rural area myself. Having dealt with one-off rural housing for the past 15 years I know that it is probably one of the most frustrating processes any family can go through. Not only do they have to deal with qualification rulings, location details and the visual impact that a house might have on the area, they also have to deal with traffic regulations and the increase in traffic from one-off rural housing. Now, there is the question of effluent discharge raised by Deputy Kenny today. In my county of Wicklow there are areas where there are complications but we seem to be able to get over them by raising the bed and importing a different soil type. Deputy Kenny referred to areas in Cavan with similar heavy soils getting planning permission for one-off rural housing. Was that based on reed beds or willow beds? If it is a similar situation, how can the local authority in Cavan grant permission? Can Deputy Kenny explain that?

It is a similar situation. In Leitrim approximately 80% of the soil is dense. Anyone who goes to a funeral in County Leitrim and looks into a graveyard can see that six inches down we have good soil but when we look below that we have dog heavy soil. That is what we find in much of County Leitrim. In west Cavan we have a similar situation, but west Cavan has considerable mountainous areas and we do not have as many planning applications, although we have some. It is equally difficult for people to get planning in some parts of west Cavan. There is a similar situation in some parts of Sligo and Donegal. In counties where a lower percentage of the soil is heavy, people have more options to find land that has good enough absorption for building a house. A person could have 40 acres but maybe only an area of three acres has suitable soil. That is where the person will build the house. That option many not be available in large parts of County Leitrim.

If we go back ten or 15 years before these regulations came in, many planning permission applications would have been granted in these areas. They would have used willow beds and reed beds in parts of Cavan, Sligo and other counties.

I will ask Leitrim County Council about it when council representatives make their presentation. Does Deputy Kenny have any indication of how many planning applications are refused? We have figures on planning permissions granted. Does he have any indication of the number of applications that are refused?

What the Vice Chairman is really asking is how much of a backlog there is. I do not know how many planning applications have been refused. However, I know how many people would go and meet with a planning officer and say they were thinking about applying for planning. People are always encouraged to have a pre-planning meeting. In many of those pre-planning meetings they are told they have no hope and they do not even apply. That is the case for 90% of people who wish to apply for planning. There are parts of Leitrim where people still get planning where there is good land. In different areas around Manorhamilton people get planning permission in some cases. Annaduff is another parish. If I go down through Dromod towards Carrick-on-Shannon there is reasonably good land there where the odd person will get planning permission. It can be difficult even there. Anyway, in most of County Leitrim it is difficult. People do not seek planning because they have been told in the pre-planning meeting that they do not have a chance. That has created a backlog. If we had a situation in my parish where people could get planning, there would probably be eight or ten houses that people would like to build. In the entire county there might be 40 houses. Then, that number would quickly go back down to ten or 12 per year. We are not talking about vast numbers of houses. The numbers are small but the fact that these small numbers of houses are not being built is having a detrimental impact on the rural community. Part of our environment is our people. If we starve our rural communities of people then we run into a major problem.

I thank Deputy Kenny for attending today and engaging with the committee.

Sitting suspended at 10.35 a.m. and resumed at 10.40 a.m.