Skip to main content
Normal View

Wednesday, 23 Jul 2008

Environmental Protection Agency: Discussion.

I welcome the board of the Environmental Protection Agency to today's meeting, Dr. Mary Kelly, Director General, Mr. Dara Lynott, Director of Environmental Enforcement, Dr. Matthew Crowe, Programme Manager and Mr. Dan Harney, Financial Officer. We thank the delegation for travelling from Wexford and also for the briefing material. The format of today's meeting will involve a brief presentation by the delegation on the topics to feature in their next annual report and they will also cover some of the topics highlighted by ourselves before the meeting.

Before we begin, I draw your attention to the fact that members of the Oireachtas Committee have absolute privilege, but the same privilege does not extend to witnesses appearing before it. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against persons outside the Houses or an official by name in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

Dr. Mary Kelly

I thank the Chairman on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency for inviting us to address this committee. We are delighted to have the opportunity. My colleagues have already been introduced so I will dispense with that in the interests of time. With the Chairman's permission, I thought we would give an overview of the work we have been involved in over the past year to set a context for the Environmental Protection Agency. We have spoken with the previous committee, but not with this committee, so it would be useful if we could set some context. I am conscious that there are a number of specific issues various people want to get around to, and either within the presentation or after the presentation we will come to those. We are willing to answer any questions if we can, and send on information if we cannot.

The Environmental Protection Agency is an independent public body established in 1993. Our sponsor in Government is the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. All our powers to act are derived from Acts of the Oireachtas, in particular the Environmental Protection Agency Act and the Waste Management Act. We also have a number of statutory obligations in those Acts and regulations. We have freedom to act on our own initiative, and our independence in decision making is assured by a very strong provision in the EPA Act that it is an offence to communicate for the purposes of influencing improperly any consideration of a matter which falls to be considered or decided by the agency. We act independently in our decision making.

We are constituted as an executive board. I am the Director General, Mr. Lynott is one of four executive directors and each director has executive responsibility for one of four offices. These are the offices of climate licensing and resource use, environmental enforcement in the case of Mr. Lynott, environmental assessment and communications and corporate services. We are assisted in our work by a number of committees, mostly statutory committees. We have an EPA advisory committee, a GMO advisory committee, an advisory group on national allocations which looks after emissions trading and a national waste prevention committee. We have an internal audit committee we have constituted ourselves, with an external chairperson and representation for good governance.

Our headquarters are in Wexford. We are currently sanctioned for 340 staff in ten locations around Ireland, which is very useful when one considers we are looking after the environment around the whole country. The regional inspectorates are in Kilkenny, Monaghan, Castlebar, Cork and Dublin. We have two-person hydrometric offices in Mallow, Athlone, Limerick and Letterkenny. This gives us good coverage of the jurisdiction. Our budget is a mixture of Exchequer funding and earned income. The Exchequer funding is broken down into grant aid, moneys from the environment fund, particularly for enforcement and research, and that in turn comes from plastic bag levies and the tax on landfills into the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. We have also received specific funding on the water framework directive. Our earned income comes from fees for the licences we issue, enforcement charges for our enforcement and monitoring work, and recently from auctioning emissions on trading allowances. We also earned some money from services we provided to local authorities. Our budget for 2008 was almost €71 million. That was a 43% increase on our budget for 2007, mostly to cover new functions assigned to us in that time and a new tranche of staff which were also sanctioned.

In 2007 we looked at a new strategy, and we did something very different from what we did before. We looked as far as 2020 and set out what the EPA sees as a vision for the environment to 2020. We also dealt with our role in achieving that vision because the environment is not an area looked after by one organisation but by many. Part of the challenge we will have until 2020 is engaging other organisations, local authorities, the public and various other stakeholders in helping us to achieve our vision.

I will not go through it in too much detail, but we have set six goals, of which an important one is to limit and adapt to climate change. I know that is one of the issues committee members would like to discuss with us today. We also aim to protect our water resources, ensure clean air, and protect the soil and biodiversity. The latter is related to the issue of contaminated land which I know is of interest to the committee. Another goal is the sustainable use of resources, which deals with waste and packaging. Again, this is one of the issues raised by the committee. Integration and enforcement are also important because if environmental protection is not integrated with other areas of economic activity, we cannot realise sustainable development. We need to enforce environmental legislation to achieve this.

I wish to say a few words about climate change. Our ambition to limit and adapt to climate change has been set out as a goal. Last year was a watershed, mainly because climate change gained high public awareness due to the efforts of international, national and local politicians. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a fourth report which assessed where we were as a planet in terms of climate change. The issuing of that report was a key milestone in changing attitudes towards climate change. The fact that the IPCC and Senator Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize jointly for their work on climate change brought the issue further up the agenda and made it very topical. In the EPA we have a number of functions relating to climate change. In setting out our strategy we decided to put all these functions together. Because this is such an important matter, we made some structural changes and established a new climate change unit. We made a specific presentation on the issue to members' colleagues at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security. We have included that presentation in the pack and anyone who wishes to ask questions on it may feel free to do so.

Emissions trading is one of the measures we administer. There are 111 installations which hold valid trading permits which we administer. Ireland is 100% compliant with the scheme, as it stands, and we have prepared a first and second national allocation plan. As a country, we have done everything we need to do in this area.

We also deal with the emissions inventory. The EPA is the body which reports to the United Nations on the levels of greenhouse gases emitted in Ireland. We have recently taken on new work dealing with emissions projections. This is work which the European Union and the United Nations need done and the EPA has been assigned the job of doing it. We will be publishing our projections early in the autumn and have done much work in this area. We also represent and support the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on technical issues at international conferences. For example, we were in Bali last December.

We also conduct quite an amount of research in the field of climate change, an area where much more research is required. The challenge for Ireland in meeting the targets set under the Kyoto protocols and the further ones to 2020 is so onerous that we really must invest in research in all kinds of areas in order to come up with ideas and ways of meeting those targets. We co-ordinate climate change research in Ireland from an environmental point of view. We also co-ordinate a committee that ensures there is no overlap among all the funders in the area of climate change and that funding is channelled in directions that are synergistic.

One of our innovations during the year was a lecture series on climate change. The lectures were held in the Mansion House in Dublin at the end of 2007 and the beginning of 2008. We invited a number of very distinguished speakers, mostly people who had contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC. It was a series of seven lectures for the public. We thought that about 120 people might come to meetings on Tuesday evenings in Dublin but we had about 450 people. At one meeting there were 600, while the average was about 380 at each lecture. We had to move the venue to the Mansion House because the first place we chose was packed. This experience shows how engaged the Irish public is with the whole issue of climate change. Many of our speakers commented to us that the audience was very engaged and sophisticated in terms of understanding some highly complex issues. We were conscious that we could only hold the lectures in Dublin so we video-taped them and they are available on our website. On view is a snapshot of Martin Manning, one of the first speakers we had. We encourage people in schools and universities, or those who just wish to know about the subject, to look at the lectures on the website. Some are about the science and others are about the politics of the subject. We found the series to be very useful.

I know that members are interested in the issue of greenhouse gas because it is one of the subjects they identified for us. I have included some slides to show present trends in the greenhouse gas study. On view is a simple bar chart depicting change from 1990 to 2006, the latter date being the last year for which we have official figures. We will produce figures for 2007 in the autumn. There is a clear timetable for the United Nations and the EU on that matter. The chart shows that we have increased emissions from about 55 million tonnes in 1990 to about 70 million tonnes at present. The figure peaked in 2001 and there was subsequently a small reduction which was really more of a stablilisation than a genuine reduction. The figure went back up again after that. There are reasons why that reduction happened. We must get below 56,000 tonnes for our 2020 targets and that will be a very difficult job for us.

The following slide shows another version indicating the different sectors that give rise to greenhouse gas emissions. In the case of transport, the red-brown line rises very clearly and continues to do so. Agriculture on the green line is the highest and it is unusual in the European context to have a very high percentage of greenhouse gases from agriculture. While it is high, it is either falling or stable. It is not easy to find reductions in that area. Members can see that the transport line is rising relentlessly. We can return to that matter later on.

A second goal for us is clean air. Everyone will agree that clean air is something to which citizens are entitled. We are lucky in that air quality in Ireland is very good. The EPA reports on key indicators of ambient air quality every year. We have in place an air monitoring network to comply with various EU directives. Some of those monitors are stationary and some are mobile. In the bigger cities and towns, we would have stationary monitoring on all the time and we have real time monitoring which we make available on our website. If one wants to look at Winetavern Street, Pearse Street or Rathmines in Dublin, one can just click on and see what the air quality is like. We have mobile ones which go to the smaller towns. Last year we had them in Wexford, Ennis, Donegal and Knocklyon. We move around the country and then we publish the data which citizens can find on our website. We also give that information to Met Eireann and they publish it in their weather forecasts. It is very important for people who have asthma or respiratory problems to be able to access that kind of information because it can affect their health.

Environmental noise maps are quite interesting. This was a new piece of work we did last year for a directive on environmental noise at European level. Those maps are not published on our website yet, but they will be accessible shortly. It is fairly predictable. Around the big cities there is a fair amount of noise, but the contributions to noise levels of motorways and transport are very clear. Particulate matter is another area we deal with.

A very important goal area is the sustainable use of resources. We set up a resource use unit within the organisation. We made some changes to make sure our organisation was structured in the correct way to deliver on the goals identified. In the resource use unit we have a national waste prevention programme which produces its own annual reports. I have picked out a few key points from it. Under the local authority waste prevention demonstration programme we partner with individual local authorities, 14 at the moment, to put in place at local level initiatives to prevent waste arising. We are all very conscious that the amount of waste disposed of in landfill is rising every year. What we at the EPA are interested in is trying to reduce that figure. It is very difficult. We are hoping to get the other local authorities on board once the demonstration programme is finished. We have had a lot of interest in that.

One of the questions was to do with packaging waste and we can come talk about that specifically later on. We have a packaging waste prevention programme which we are running with Repak. The companies who are members of Repak are trying to cut down on the amount of packaging around their products. It is a multi-annual programme which has only just started. We do not have any results from it yet, but we hope it will concentrate minds on trying to move away from over-packaging and putting things in packets and boxes which are much too big for the product.

We also have green business and green homes initiatives. We have had a very good project with Irish hotels where they have been able to save money and energy, cut down on their waste and save water emissions. It has been a win for the environment and on the economic front. The programme will be expanded to other hotels. The model is so good that we can target various business sectors and work specifically within those sectors to help them do those kinds of things. Producer responsibility is an area where, in the last year, we have acquired more responsibilities. We have had responsibility for packaging for some time. WEEE is the Waste Electronic and Electrical Equipment directive. I am sure the committee is aware that one can bring back used electrical equipment to a store when buying something new. We co-ordinate that and it has been a real success story for Ireland. The local authorities and the private sector companies got involved and it has turned out to a real success.

We are now collecting 7.4 kg per capita of electronic waste in Ireland, compared to an average of just over 4 kg in Europe. One does not often hear that Ireland is ahead of others, but this is one of those areas that was well designed, well run and is working very well. The public have bought into it so well because it is very convenient for them to bring back their materials.

Other work in that area is the compilation of the national waste report. We have a statutory obligation to produce a report every two years, and we produce an interim report every other year as well because we feel we need to keep those statistics up to date. We are interested in looking at the trends, how much waste is being generated, breaking it into various streams, how it is treated and whether it is increasing. Unfortunately, the amount of waste generated continues to increase every year. That is a function of our economic boom over the last while, our increased population and so on. Nevertheless, it is a trend which needs to be reversed. We are finding it extremely difficult across Europe to reverse that trend; it is the same in all countries. That is why we have our waste prevention programme in place.

One of our statutory obligations is to produce, every four years or so, a national hazardous waste management plan. We have a draft in circulation for consultation and that will be published in September or early October. We do a lot of research on the waste side, some of which would be to do with finding market uses for waste. Some of it has been very interesting in terms of what will make people change their behaviour in terms of generation of waste or dealing with waste or recycling.

The area of protected soil and biodiversity is not one in regard to which the EPA has a real mandate under the law. It is an area for Teagasc, the National Parks & Wildlife Service and other agencies. Nevertheless we felt we could not produce a strategy with a vision for the environment without having a vision for clean soil and good biodiversity. We, therefore, set up a very small unit within our own organisation to co-ordinate any interfaces we have with these areas. On the soil side, for example, following a direction from the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, we have developed a code of practice for old waste sites. This is an issue about which the committee will probably want to question us later. The code of practice involves identifying and assessing risk and looking at remediation of all old waste sites around Ireland, and the implementation of that has commenced.

We are also running an abandoned mines project with GSI. We update the CORINE landcover map. We have a national soils archive in collaboration with Teagasc. We commissioned some research around this area, mainly to find out the state of various parameters in order that we can make suggestions or recommendations or, if it is our duty, do something ourselves. We have the landcover maps, the soil and subsoil maps. These are all available on our website. We are making available to the public as much information as we can.

One of our biggest jobs in the Environmental Protection Agency is licensing and enforcement of licences. We license all major industrial facilities and waste facilities. Last year we issued 121 final decisions. We issue a draft decision first and then it is out for public comment and then a final decision. There are two stages for the board. One is a draft and the other is a final decision. The figures are there; I will not go through all of them. There are a few highlights. We held one oral hearing. We do that with controversial sites or issues where there is significant public interest. One oral hearing we held last year related to the Corrib field and there were two oral hearings that have not reported back to us yet on other waste infrastructure.

We also issue certificates of registration for smaller waste facilities such as civic amenity sites and other such areas. We are also the organisation that gives consent for genetically modified organisms use including contained use, which is mostly laboratories, and deliberate release, which is for people intending to plant, although we have not done any of those this year. We also inspect the people who are using it but currently it is mostly concerned with laboratories in universities.

When we issue all those licences our obligation then is to enforce the conditions we put in them. Dara Lynott's unit in environmental enforcement does that by way of audits, inspections and compliance meetings. The numbers of meetings are listed.

We also take many complaints about facilities on which I have given members some figures. We had 374 complaints about industrial facilities but of those, three facilities account for 38% of the complaints. It is clear there is an issue in those companies and we generally get somebody in to sort it. Similarly, on the waste side, four facilities account for almost 70% of the complaints. Those are older facilities around landfills. It is clear that the public is using our system to tell us when something is going wrong and we generally get somebody in to address it. It is not always easy to address the complaints but we will have somebody in place to try to do that.

In terms of prosecutions, the legislation allows us to take summary prosecutions in the District Court but for more serious cases or cases on indictment we must go to the Director of Public Prosecutions as in the case of the gardaí. We sent two files to the DPP last year and another one this year. Three files, therefore, have been accepted by the DPP for more serious cases which are to be prosecuted on indictment. As members can imagine, that is a fairly labour intensive job. We have been doing a great deal of it in the recent past and have had to increase our capacity and capability in the legal area.

Last year we tried to help the public and others to make an environmental complaint if they see something going wrong. Under the banner "See Something? Say Something!" we have produced a small brochure, which is in the pack provided to members, which outlines who is responsible because it is not always clear to members of the public who they should ring. We have given them a good deal of information on the people they should get in touch with, and we have a process for dealing with those complaints and following up on them.

Given that we are also responsible for supervising local authorities in terms of their environmental obligations we have set up an environmental enforcement network, which is an innovative way of getting work done. It is leveraging all those involved in environmental enforcement in the various agencies throughout the country, including those across the Border. There is a major cross-Border element to this in that we work with our colleagues in the Environment and Heritage Service and with the Police Service of Northern Ireland on cross-Border issues.

We have a national complaints procedure, which is outlined in the brochure distributed. We have an illegal dumping line. We have a number of working groups that include local authorities, fisheries boards, the gardaí and various people involved in enforcement. We train the local authority staff in enforcement techniques and develop an enforcement plan with the local authorities, which we approve. We have a well co-ordinated approach to enforcement across the EPA, local authorities and other people.

With regard to public authority enforcement, local authorities have licences from us, as does the private sector, and we enforce those licences in the same way but we also supervise local authorities in terms of some of their other functions, for example, drinking water and waste water. We conduct audits and investigations on foot of complaints. We issue advice and recommendations under various sections of the legislation available to us.

In recent years, because of powers we have been given, we have engaged in a new activity involving the issuing of binding directions on local authorities to implement various measures when we see they are not doing them. I have included an example of a very badly operating waste water treatment plant. Members will see that it is overflowing and is badly managed. It was possible to have it cleaned up on foot of a direction from us. A second direction was issued to the same local authority enjoining it to improve the quality of the water discharged. We find such directions extremely useful. Local authorities always respond to them and that new tool in our armoury is useful for getting real work done.

We are responsible for co-ordinating environmental research in Ireland. Under the current national development plan the EPA administers €91 million for environmental research. Before we started doing this work only a very small amount of environmental research took place. It was unfunded so that the researchers were not really able to make the most of their study. Now there is a very vibrant environmental research community across the universities and other research institutions. We have expanded into the economic and social side of environmental research and do not confine our work to scientific research. We have launched a new programme for the next national development plan. In line with Government policy of trying to increase Ph.Ds we have grant awarded many doctorates, reaching our 100th Ph.D in 2007. This is a huge step from where enviromental research had been before. It is very important to make sure that funding for research is kept going because research is not something that can be switched off and picked up three years later. Continuity and investment over a number of years are key. As well as challenges there are many significant opportunities for researchers in the environmental field.

Using the accompanying maps I wish to show another project we undertook in 2007. We are trying to put all the information we can on the Internet so that the public can have as much access as possible to information. We gather an incredible amount of data and what we are doing at present is mining much of this and putting it online in map base, using Google Earth type technology and map and GIS technology which are very user friendly. If people want to know something about a particular area they can click on it just as they can with Google Earth, and can find what IPC licence sites or waste licences are in their area. They can go to a further level and call up the actual licence and look at its details on the site. They can see all the correspondence we have had during the licensing process. We do not have our enforcement work up yet but that is the next part of our project and it will soon be available. It takes a little time to get these things done. This work means that wherever a person is living, he or she does not have to drive to Wexford to have a look at a public file but can look at it at home.

In similar fashion, the following slide shows our air site. A person can go to the map and check if there is an air site local to him or her. This slide shows that air quality in the area depicted is very good. We are trying to give people as much real time information as we can.

We clearly have a lot of responsibility in terms of water, mainly in measuring, monitoring and reporting. We produce water quality indicators of the aquatic environment. We publish our annual report later today and members can see in their copies the indicators of water quality. We produce specific reports of water on a three-yearly and on an annual basis. The EPA has been charged with co-ordinating the water framework directive. Ireland scored highest in Europe on implementing the directive last year and we hope to keep that situation in place when we move to the next milestones to come from the EU. We are not always on top when reporting to the EU and when we are we like to highlight it.

We produced reports on bathing water quality at the beginning of the summer, and on drinking water quality, which we have done for quite a number of years. Recently we have taken on a new role in regard to drinking water. Last March we were given responsibility for supervising local authorities in terms of the drinking water. Local authorities must now inform us if there have been any infringements of drinking water quality and we must work with them and issue directions if necessary to have any infringements cleaned up. That new responsibility in regard to drinking water is very important and we are taking it very seriously. Some of the new staff we have were recruited to set up a drinking water inspectorate within the organisation.

Until the end of 2007 waste water treatment plants were not regulated by licence. The EPA has now been designated to license waste water treatment plants run by local authorities. Until then we had been auditing plants but did not have a regulatory role. We will be issuing the first licenses again this autumn and will see the first draft licence in August. We had 65 applications. The biggest ones came in September 2007 and we will be issuing the licences very shortly to those. We have another 200 applications to come in November this year and that goes on until we get down to the very small ones.

We do quite a lot of research around the water quality area. We have a good reputation in Europe for having good research, good data and good knowledge in that area. Much of that research feeds into our commitments under various legislation. For the past couple of years we have held a national water conference in Galway. It is very well attended by local authorities and anybody involved with water issues.

That is as much as I want to say in terms of what we do. In order to deliver the targets we will have to work with lots of other people and we look forward to doing that.

I thank Dr. Kelly. Was the annual report launched today?

Dr. Mary Kelly

Yes, it was launched today. It had to be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas. That was done yesterday or the day before. We are publishing it for the general public today.

I welcome the Environmental Protection Agency to the committee. I met many of the delegates at a meeting of the Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security.

The director has outlined a huge range of activity and responsibilities, the extent of which would surprise many people. I want to focus on a few matters. The first is ground-water quality. There have been a number of reports on the extent of the problem we have with the quality of our ground-water. If the EPA does not have the information today, perhaps it could forward us information with regard to the extent of the problem. How bad is it? What programme of action should we undertake at local authority and departmental level to improve water quality, particularly in the case of group water schemes? Local authorities are often the worst offenders in the context of waste water treatment plants. Over the last number of years we have had a water services programme to eliminate some of the problems. However, private individuals are also the subject of enforcement proceedings by local authorities. Who supervises the local authorities? I draw attention to a number of places in my constituency where waste from basic septic tanks is flowing untreated into the nearby river. There are problems. Does the EPA have a register of problems in each local authority area and is there an action plan in each case to eliminate the problem?

The Environmental Protection Agency has a licensing responsibility in terms of waste incinerators. From the applications approved for licensing to date and what the EPA knows is coming down the tracks by way of planning applications, what is the position on capacity in terms of incineration? Do we need any more applications at this stage to deal with the waste issue, considering the progress we are making on recycling much of the waste? What are the targets and figures in terms of what will require some incineration and is there sufficient capacity in the system already granted?

In the revelations about the Haulbowline site I was surprised to learn there was not a national register of sites in the Department. Dr. Kelly might indicate if the EPA has a register of sites throughout the country that require remediation. What is the cost of remediation in each case? In some cases a company might be obliged to do certain works. In other cases where there is no longer a company in operation the local authority or the EPA might be required to do it. Is there a programme of remediation works in respect of old waste sites? Are they identifiable and, if so, will Dr. Kelly provide us with a list of them, the responsibility in each case and the cost associated with carrying out that work?

Dr. Mary Kelly

I will respond to a number of the questions and then ask Dara Lynott to discuss ground water, local authorities and the register of sites.

On the question about licensing, incineration and capacity for dealing with waste, there is no national waste management agency in Ireland. It is managed on a regional basis. There are regional waste boards and each local authority is a member of one of those. Each regional waste board must produce a waste management plan for that region setting out in detail what it is anticipating over the number of years for which it is planning, the amount of waste, its current capacity and its plans for dealing with that. It is up to each regional unit to decide how to do that. The EPA has a number of roles in all of that, one of which is to collect the statistics on waste. We collect the statistics from various operators on the amount of waste that arises, where it is going, how it is dealt with and so on.

Our other function, as the Deputy rightly pointed out, is to license waste facilities, whether they are incinerators, composting facilities, transfer stations or landfills. We have issued licences for a number of incinerators, none of which is currently operational, and we have issued a draft licence for one other incinerator. We have two municipal waste incinerators with licences, one hazardous incinerator has been licensed but not used, and a draft licence issued for a municipal waste incinerator.

It is not our responsibility, nor do we have the power, to decide who applies to us or for what they apply. Our obligation in terms of licensing is to take each licence application on its merit, examine the issues around it and decide on the granting of the licence mostly on the basis of whether it will cause environmental pollution and if the facility can operate without causing environmental pollution. We have to take account of the waste management plan in doing that but if an incinerator, landfill or other waste facility is catered for in a waste management plan, our obligation is to examine it with a view to determining whether it will cause environmental pollution. If it does not cause environmental pollution we are likely to give it a licence and if it does, we are not. That is a crude way of looking at it but that is the way it is done. We are not entitled to decide the capacity for Ireland.

Is the EPA, through its licensing mechanism, in a position to decide the capacity for individual plants.

Dr. Mary Kelly

Yes, but plants are obliged to indicate the tonnage of waste involved. We decide on that basis. We are empowered to inform them that they must use less. In general, we consider whether projects, as presented to us, will give rise to problems and whether they can be licensed on the basis that they will not cause environmental pollution. If we were of the view that a particular project might cause pollution, we could refuse to allow it to proceed or we could impose conditions to halve the amount of waste being treated. In general, we do not do this. We prefer it that plants should not cause environmental pollution and that they are not on the edge of doing so. We like facilities to be well below the threshold in the context of causing pollution.

Mr. Lynott will answer the questions relating to the national register of sites and Haulbowline.

Mr. Dara Lynott

Before doing so, I will deal with the issue of ground water quality. Our annual report contains statistics in this regard. These indicate that 57% of groundwater sampling locations examined were contaminated by faecal coliforms, that approximately 25% of groundwater locations examined exceeded the national guideline value for nitrate concentration for drinking water and that 2% of locations breached the mandatory limit. Those are the facts. However, it must be noted that Ireland does not have a grid pattern for sampling groundwater. We only take samples where there are groundwater wells. Part of the work relating to the water framework directive will be to fill in the blanks. The statistics also show that approximately 11% of our drinking water is sourced from groundwater supplies. We have an issue with group water schemes in that 37% of them were contaminated with e-coli on at least one occasion in 2006.

The way to proceed from where we stand to where we want to be will involve a two-pronged approach. Under the water framework directive there will be a requirement to prepare, towards the end of the year, programmes of measures regarding how to attain good water quality status in respect not only of lakes and rivers but also groundwaters. Part of the way to achieve this will be to assess the numbers of septic tanks in a locality, and land-spreading practices employed there, and to ensure that these are appropriately controlled and correctly located and operated.

There has been significant progress regarding group water schemes. In the next two to three years there will be significant improvements regarding the 37% figure relating to contamination. These improvements will principally come about because a number of the design-build-operate, DBO, systems will be or are due to come on stream during that time.

As Dr. Kelly stated, prior to last year, the role of the agency was limited to merely providing a report on urban waste water treatment plants and on how such plants comply with the urban waste water treatment plant directive. That role has been expanded in respect of the licensing of waste water treatment plants. Applications were made in respect of the largest of these plants last November and we are in the process of licensing them.

Local authorities also have a role in this area. Operators must apply to local authorities for licences in respect of any waste water discharges into sewers or rivers. As we begin to tighten our regulation of urban waste water treatment plants, local authorities will be required to examine what is going into sewers to ensure that such material is appropriate and that, where possible, a level of treatment will be provided in respect of it prior to discharge. On septic tanks, the way forward is under the water framework directive. We assist in preparing guidance in this regard and will publish new standards for septic tank operation, construction and maintenance towards the end of this year. The proper implementation of those guidelines will ensure that septic tanks are installed correctly. Part of the implementation, as discussed in this forum last week, will include the necessary certification system to effect the changes.

There is significant work being done on the register of national sites. The role of the EPA includes licensing all the complex and significant industry in the country, the majority of which were existing industries. Ireland has been lucky, compared to Germany or the United Kingdom, and does not have a huge industrial history. Most of the industry that came to Ireland came in the late 1960s and tended to be quite clean, to be in the pharmaceutical area and to be highly regulated through the FDA and the American pharmaceutical registration system.

However, everywhere there is industrial activity, there is potential for spillages, leaks and accidents. We have regulated approximately 700 facilities where various levels of contamination can be found, from minor spills to more significant contamination issues, mostly relating to issues such as small time wood preservation units and so on. We have a register of all these sites. Approximately 100 of the sites would be classed from minor to significant in terms of contamination, mostly minor. The main control in this area is that people cannot relinquish their IPPC licence unless they go through a surrender process. That process means they must be assessed by our inspectors and pass a test of remediation. Only when they officially surrender the licence is there State recognition that the site has been fully remediated.

The other main area is our legacy of mine sites. Mining has been going on in Ireland for thousands of years. In advance of the mining directive, the agency decided to commission a report on the legacy of old mine sites in Ireland and has identified more than 100 mine sites. The outcome of that research will be available towards the end of this year. The study has been able to assess the risk of all of the mine sites identified, from highest risk to lowest risk, and on that basis determine the level of remediation required on the site. Some of the sites might need additional cover or need grass to be sown outside the mine, but others will need more intervention. One site that has been in the news is the Silvermines, where the Government sanctioned upwards of €10 million for the final capping required for exposed areas.

Historic landfills are another issue. The old town dump that most towns had just outside their towns have existed for some time. The European regulation for the management and registration of these sites came into effect in 1977, but we only had our first legislation on the issue in 1996. The Minister at the time issued a section 60 request to the EPA to provide guidance to local authorities on how to identify these sites, to risk rank them and determine the remediation required. The legislation to fully register these sites is due towards the end of this year or next year. In advance of the legislation, we have published guidance and set up a website for local authorities to use so that they can input the historical landfills of which they are aware and their risk ranking, so that they are ready to go as soon as the legislation is in place. Approximately half of our local authorities have used the website, but we do not anticipate all of the local authorities will use it unless the legislation comes into effect.

The last issue concerns sites that fall outside of these other sites in that they are not mine sites, town dumps or historical landfills. They are sites resulting from an activity, such as the old gas works that were in most towns around the country or old petrol stations and so on. This contamination tends to become apparent when we see groundwater results that are outside our speculations or when there is surface water contamination or there is vegetation dieback in the locality. These instances generally come to the attention of the agency when someone raises a concern to the EPA. Our approach in such cases is to encourage the local authority to use the guidelines we have provided. We also use the powers we have recently acquired to direct local authorities to take whatever actions are required.

The EPA has identified 100 sites that require remediation.

Mr. Dara Lynott

Of the 600 or 700 sites licensed by the agency, we are monitoring 100 and we have varying degrees of information to suggest anything from minor to significant contamination.

They are licensed sites.

Mr. Dara Lynott

They are all licensed sites that are actively being dealt with by our inspectors. That means hydrogeological studies are being done, remediation plans are being assessed and the work to remediate sites is ongoing.

Mr. Lynott will accept that the level of contamination found at Haulbowline shocked people in the locality and elsewhere. The toxic material found there has caused the Minister to order a baseline study of its effects on public health. In that context I ask whether there are other sites, apart from Haulbowline, being brought to the EPA's attention that will require the same amount of work and the same degree of careful site management to allay fears regarding public health. If so, will Mr. Lynott identify them for us, or indicate where we can get that information?

Mr. Dara Lynott

The short answer is that there are no other sites in the country equivalent to Haulbowline. One has to remember that this was the only steel plant in the country. It operated for 40 or 50 years under State control and only lately came in for regularisation through the IPPC licence regime. The company went into liquidation a week after the issuance of a licence by the agency. The agency at that point went to the High Court to try to get the licence implemented by the liquidator. The High Court did not take our suggestion on board and basically the licence has fallen.

One must remember that everything from a bucket spill to an oil leak from a tank is dealt with actively and progressively by the agency. However, there are no sites equivalent to Irish Ispat.

Is there a list of those sites?

Mr. Dara Lynott

We have lists of those sites, but there are difficulties in that some of the information that would justify putting a site on the list is very arbitrary from the viewpoint of inspections done or suspicions by inspectors based on inspections. Until a hydrogeological study of such results is completed, the EPA is precluded from saying definitively whether there is a level of contamination. Obviously, one is making an opinion about the value of the property on which that IPPC facility is situated.

The EPA is obliged under the Act to publish this information. We shall not get anywhere unless we have some degree of transparency in relation to these sites. I would have expected the Environmental Protection Agency, since its establishment in 1992, to know at this stage where there is a problem, if such there is. It should be able to tell the committee the cost of remediation of each site and whether there is an action plan involving not just the State but also companies that might have been involved in activity on a site. What is the agency's view of the IFI site in Arklow? Is it the subject of remediation? I am sure it is on Mr. Lynott's list. It was an enterprise the State put into liquidation.

What is the action plan in regard to that site? Will Mr. Lynott supply the committee with a list of the other sites throughout the State in order that we can make a mature assessment as to the existence or otherwise of a risk to public health? I ask that he indicate in each case whether there is a high or low risk and the action plan to deal with it.

Mr. Dara Lynott

The IFI site is a licensed facility and cannot be removed from the licensing system until the licence is officially surrendered. The site is in transferred ownership and with the transfer of ownership comes the transfer of liability for dealing with any contamination issues on it

There are two specific issues in regard to the site. First, in common with several of the facilities we regulate, it had an on-site landfill. Second, because fertiliser was processed and produced there, ammonia was in widespread use around the facility. The eastern portion of the landfill has been capped and the remaining portions will be capped as part of the remediation plan. With regard to the ammonia concentrations underneath the site, it has been naturally attenuated to the degree that within several years we expect to see ammonia concentrations in the groundwater of less than 1 milligramme per litre.

I will seek to supply the committee with all the information we have on the other sites.

I welcome Dr. Kelly and her staff. It will be interesting to see how the EPA's vision for 2020 measures up against the Government's programme under the national development plan and whether the two will correlate. I assume the EPA's plan is more ambitious.

The water quality services report published earlier this year represents a major breakthrough and is the first of its kind. If I recall correctly, 38 local authority water systems in County Cork were designated as failures in that report, with e.coli being one of the more benign substances detected. Does the EPA intend to publish an update to this report outlining the actions taken by the local authorities, the current state of those water systems and what, if any, penalties have been imposed? I note that penalties represent a source of income for the EPA. That is to be encouraged both as a motivator for the agency to chase local authorities and as a deterrent to the latter. The Department might also have a role to play in chasing errant local authorities. In the case of Haulbowline, there are certainly issues relating to the EPA's role, or the absence thereof.

In regard to the Kyoto Protocol targets, several flat lines are evident, the most obvious of which is the waste flat line in the 16-year period from 1990 to 2006, during which emissions seem neither to have risen nor reduced. This is difficult to comprehend, given the changes in our culture of waste management in this 16-year period. Is it the case that we are producing more waste but also recycling more of it? In addition, the figure for residential waste has stayed the same, despite the exponential increase in housing development. Do these flat lines represent success or failure?

The EPA encourages the public where they "see something" to "say something". It might be more effective to ask people to take action where they see or smell something. One might not be able to see a landfill site but one may very well be able to smell it, even from a distance. The EPA should do more to encourage the public to convey information to it. When I receive complaints from constituents about landfill sites, I always suggest they telephone the EPA. At times, ringing the local authority is a complete waste of time because it will simply fob one off on the issue. However, when the EPA is contacted, things will happen.

I have another tip. Perhaps some naming and shaming could take place in respect of the package and waste programme operated by the EPA. The most highly packaged product in the country could be identified and information to that effect placed on supermarket shelves in order that people might be reluctant to buy it. Perhaps a national public campaign to identify over-packaged products could be mounted as an incentive, either to consumers to forgo its purchase or to its producer to package it in a different fashion.

I welcome the Google Earth-type concept that has been developed. Recently, the Minister exempted many developments such as bio-sites and similar projects from having to lodge planning applications. Were such a project to be constructed in my locality, would I be able to google it to ascertain what licences were in place and report the matter directly to the EPA? Is a direction line available to those who enter the website in respect of where such complaints or queries should be directed? Simply retrieving information can leave one directionless afterwards. To return to my core point, were I to google Haulbowline Island, what would the EPA tell me? What would be contained on that Google page?

Since the Irish Examiner broke the story, the predominant element of the ensuing debate appears to have been between the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Cork County Council. What is the EPA’s role in this regard? I have not seen an official statement from it and I am unsure of its role in this respect. I must attend a meeting at 4 p.m. in the Mansion House at which an update will be provided on this issue by White Young Green which is carrying out the current assessment. One report suggests only 50% of the site has been assessed. Does the EPA have a position on this suggestion? Perhaps we are blind in respect of other areas. Deputy Hogan has stated we may be blind in respect of many sites nationwide. The EPA should make a formal statement and take a position as to its role in this regard. It should clarify this point to the joint committee.

The noise maps are a welcome development, albeit one that is somewhat behind time. The difficulty in this regard is that in recent years road development programmes put in place environmental guidelines regarding noise pollution. However, other road programmes were undertaken before such guidelines were put in place. The local authorities await the return of the aforementioned noise maps in order to begin a programme to fix such issues, assuming that Government support will be forthcoming. Will the EPA prioritise the areas that must be tackled first? Will it be on the basis of tackling roads built before the prerequisite environmental noise protections were in place?

Dr. Mary Kelly

I hope I have noted all the questions. The drinking water quality report to which the Deputy referred was the first of its kind. This was because we were given new powers to supervise them. This has changed what is happening in respect of drinking water. For example, our success in this regard was to produce a list of 339 drinking water supplies that required investment. They have been included in a priority list that is with the water services department within the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. These are being prioritised according to the priorities set for them. This is a great advantage when compared to the previous position. I am unsure what were the criteria beforehand. While it will not all be done overnight, we have a clear priority list, on which we are working with the Department which has made it clear it will use our list in conjunction with the local authorities. We will issue the drinking water quality report on an annual basis and seek major improvements over a number of years. We should see these improvements.

Will this issue be tracked from one year to another?

Dr. Mary Kelly

That is likely. We have not looked at the format of next year's report but I am sure we will. We engage in much trend analysis. We will not see major improvements in the first year but should see them in a short number of years in the bigger schemes.

What we can do in seeking penalties is set out in statute. We can only do what we have the powers to do. We have power under the Environmental Protection Agency Act and the Waste Management Act to prosecute in the District Court for various summary offences which are set out in the regulations and Acts.

On the licensing side, failure to comply with the conditions of a licence is an offence for which we can prosecute a company or a local authority, which we regularly do. If we found that a company or local authority was giving us false information, we would take a serious view of the matter and prosecute it on indictment, which is a different ball game with different levels of evidence and proof. We must go through the Director of Public Prosecutions. A number of years ago we took a decision to take it a step further, taking cases on indictment where this was warranted. Clearly, we cannot do so where it is not. We have had a few successes in that respect and have three cases on indictment about to go to court.

Penalties are determined by the court, not by the EPA. If we were to run our organisation on the basis of the penalties received, we would not have a staff of 340.

We are only entitled to prosecute for specific offences. For example, we cannot prosecute a local authority for the provision of poor quality drinking water. We can prosecute it for not complying with a directive we give it to provide good quality drinking water. Sometimes one is at a remove from the fault.

We have prosecuted both private companies and local authorities. Each of them will state we only prosecute one type but we prosecute both and are even-handed in our prosecutions. We have an active legal unit examining prosecutions.

The comments about the Kyoto Protocol targets and the flat line are correct, as is the analysis. Waste accounts for a small portion of the whole. These measures are undertaken according to a UN protocol. The United Nations gives us a formula to assess how much waste is generated, how it is dealt with and how many landfill sites there are. We have been putting the same amount of waste into landfill sites for the past few years. That is why the graph shows a flat line.

The residential figures are a success story because they have not increased, despite the fact that our population and housing stock have increased. Many new households do not burn coal. We have statistics that can explain this, if members are interested. We can see that households are burning less coal and have moved to using oil and gas. That is apparent in the finer detail.

With the introduction of the energy rating for households, we should see a drop.

Dr. Mary Kelly

We should. When the national climate change strategy is attempting to reach the Kyoto Protocol targets, it is building in a reduction in residential figures to 2012 and then 2020, based on what Deputy Lynch is referring to - the new standards. In the autumn, when we produce our projections to 2020, we will have built in Government policy, with suitable reductions for what is stated will be achieved from it.

I am taken with the banner "see something, smell something". It is true that most of the complaints we receive are about odours. There is no doubt that it is a problem. The conundrum is that the landfills in operation are much better run and offer far better protection for the environment than ever before. We have two, if not three, projects examining why problems with odours occur. One reason is that the characterisation of waste going to landfill is different from what it was when everything was dumped in a hole in the ground and there was no lining or attenuation. Now, we segregate all dry and recyclable waste which might have provided soakage and put the remaining waste in a hole in the ground carefully lined with an impermeable liner. We keep it in a cauldron. This is part of the odour problem.

There are gas collection and odour management requirements at all landfill sites. The quality of waste is part of the problem. Sometimes, it is bad management, which we are examining. A number of prosecutions have started or are ongoing. We are talking to all waste management companies about the problem and actively trying to solve it. What may solve it is that the landfill directive will require us to reduce the amount of biodegradable waste going to landfill in significant quantities for a number of years in a step-wise fashion. Once this begins to happen and we start to remove the biodegradable waste from landfills and do something else with it, it should reduce the odour. There is no doubt there is a significant problem with odours but we are working hard to get on top of it.

I welcome the representatives of the EPA and thank Dr. Kelly for her presentation which was extremely informative. The EPA has an extremely wide remit which we could discuss all day. However, I want to come to the point as best I can.

I welcome web access to information on licensing and, in the future, enforcement. There was a great deal of suspicion because of a lack of information available to citizens. In fairness to the EPA, it has acknowledged this and tried to improve these aspects. Is it possible that when operators apply for licences, the EPA will request that real-time monitors be installed and linked to the web system? This would remove a great deal of suspicion and many of the unscientific methods used, whereby local authorities ask residents to ring to report or to map and record. This could be examined by the EPA with regard to odour management at landfills or composting facilities as most complaints concern these areas.

I welcome the efforts made by the EPA to engage with Repak and other such associations to reduce the amount of packaging produced. I am aware of an initiative in the United Kingdom entitled the Courtauld Commitment, whereby targets were set by the Government in conjunction with large retailers to reduce packaging. This commitment on both sides to reduce packaging has led to a significant reduction in a short space of time and should be examined.

There are two other issues I wish to refer to, which I have raised at this committee on previous occasions. One is the extent of the cross-Border movement of waste. I have read in some national newspapers in recent months that large amounts of waste generated in this State have been dumped in Northern Ireland. An assessment is being carried out and I wish to know if there will be a large cost accruing to the taxpayer when the waste is returned to this State and dealt with here. Does the EPA know the extent of the problem and what the final cost will be?

The second issue, which is a particular bugbear of mine, concerns legacy landfills and the impact they are having on local authorities, from a financial and resource perspective. I come from Waterford and I am sure the EPA is well aware that in Tramore, Waterford City and Dungarvan landfills have been closed quite recently. Enormous remediation projects are under way, which are costing the State and the local authority millions of euro. Has the EPA made an assessment of the costs arising from all legacy landfill sites owned by local authorities, which would make the Department aware of the significance of the drain on local authority resources they represent?

I come from Portlaw in County Waterford, where there was an intensive tanning industry for over 50 years. Mr. Lynott referred to the fact that industrial operations that developed from the 1960s onwards tended to be contained, due to directives and so forth. Unfortunately, however, Irish Tanners Limited, which was set up by the Irish State, operated in an old cotton mill for over 50 years. There was an old mill pond on the site, of over 3.5 acres. The EPA is well aware of the site, as it conducted an analysis in 1995 to determine what chemicals and substances were dumped in the pond.

Very little progress has been made since the closure of Irish Tanners Limited in 1985 on the remediation of the site. The site is in the middle of a town and is adjacent to a canal and the River Clodagh. The water intake point for Waterford city is less than 150 m away. I know the spot intimately as I walk there regularly. The people of that area are very frustrated by the inaction of the authorities. The site has been abandoned and the company has long since closed. There is an enormous legacy problem and locals are depending on authorities such as the EPA and the local authority to deal with the issue. It appears the temptation is to turn a blind eye due to the cost implications of dealing with the problem, which has existed for over 24 years. It is very frustrating to hear about what is being done about licensed landfill sites when the legacy sites have been simply forgotten about, or so it would seem. What measures could the EPA take, in conjunction with the local authority, to address this issue?

Dr. Mary Kelly

I thank members for their comments on web access. We are making a big effort to be more open and transparent with the data we collect, of which there is a large amount.

On the three incinerators we have licensed to date - one for hazardous waste and two for municipal waste - we have required them, before starting, to put real-time monitors in place, particularly for the temperature of the burners, which is what determines what comes out. That will be the first time for us to try to do that. We will do it with the incinerators because we know that people are extremely concerned about them. At least real-time monitors will provide meaningful information that people will be able to understand. The temperature will be set at 1,000° C or within whatever band we require.

We monitor a wide variety of activities around factories at timescales ranging from hourly to annually. An incredible amount of chemical and biological information is collected but it is not possible to interpret it all and it would not be intelligible to most people. However, we require every company to provide us with an annual environmental report which summarises the emissions produced over the year. We are considering making these reports available so that one can find out exactly the emissions of the nearest waste facility. We will explore the use of relevant real time monitors but this is difficult because even a continuous monitor must allow for small variations. One would need to be very clued in to understand whether emissions are in compliance. Even if it was technologically feasible, this might end up terrifying people.

We are working with a number of universities on a research project for smart monitors, smart coasts, smart bays and smart landfill. The intention is to provide real time information on water quality and other data. If the information is suitable, I guarantee members that we will make it available. Odour is not suitable because it cannot be electronically captured and measured for transmission. We could not provide a graph to show how smelly an area may be but hopefully we will not have odours in the future.

We are happy to work with Repak on the prevention project. We are aware of that commitment and perhaps something will come out of it. At present, we are sponsoring Repak to the tune of €200,000 per annum and the latter is investing the same amount. It is, therefore, a 50-50 partnership effort to get Repak's members to reduce the substantial quantities of packaging they currently produce. We will see what develops from that project before deciding whether to produce a protocol.

I will ask Mr. Lynott to deal with the issue of dumping in Northern Ireland. Members also raised issues pertaining to legacy landfills and, in particular, the Portlaw site.

Mr. Dara Lynott

In regard to the Northern Ireland waste issue, the EPA produced a report on the nature and extent of unauthorised waste activities in 2005 which set out the location of illegal landfill sites in Ireland and tried to determine the amount of waste which had been transported to Northern Ireland. Since that report was issued, we set ourselves a number of tasks in order to deal with the legacy waste which had evaded landfill taxes and costs in the South by going North. We have received good co-operation from the Environment and Heritage Service of Northern Ireland and we share evidence on illegal dumping and traffickers in waste. We have presented evidence to the DPP with a view to taking prosecutions on indictment.

The other aspect of this issue is the number of sites and the quantity of waste. The nature and origin of waste was disguised by shredding and other means but, in collaboration with the Environment and Heritage Service and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, we have developed a method of assessing the origin of waste found in illegal sites in the North. Many of these sites contain mixed waste from a variety of Southern and Northern origins. We have come to a conclusion on how to determine the quantity of waste. While I believe discussions are ongoing regarding costs and who should pay, it has been agreed that our efforts will be part-funded by both jurisdictions.

In regard to the Irish Tanners site, the Senator is correct that sites of this nature can face delays in remediation if they are of low commercial value, particularly where high costs arise.

The guidelines we have prepared for local authorities on how to assess the risk associated with such historic sites should be the guidance the local authority is using in this instance. Were the Senator to provide me with details he may have in this regard, I would be happy to try to follow it up with the local authority on his behalf.

I welcome Dr. Kelly and her colleagues and thank them for their contribution. While I will not delay them too long, I intend to move quickly through a few questions. A general perception exists that the EPA and local government are two arms of the same body and there are some doubts as to how active the EPA would be in bringing local government to task over incidences of waste water pollution. For example, at Kinvara, which is a beautiful town on the western seaboard, a waste water plant - one could not call it a treatment plant - disgorges 50,000 gallons of raw sewage per day into Galway Bay. Typically, how often would the EPA monitor such a location? How often would the agency assess the damage, if any, being done to flora, fauna or fish life? To whom would it report on that basis? A perception exists that the position taken against local government pollution is not as active as that taken against private individuals. The witnesses should respond to this point.

What is the EPA's long-term opinion in respect of waste water treatment for individual one-off houses in rural Ireland? Does it hope for a move towards the imposition of a requirement on all new houses to have proprietary waste water treatment facilities installed as a matter of course and away from what one might call traditional septic tanks? In that context, what is the EPA's opinion of the proposal that has been made in some quarters, whereby several members of the same family, who are building on a family farm holding, should provide a single proprietary waste treatment system to service three or four houses? While I consider this to be a wise option, I am interested in the EPA's opinion in this regard.

As for packaging waste, there is a strong school of thought to the effect that the Repak initiative has not been as successful as it should have been in the reduction of packaging waste and that companies that become members of Repak are exonerated to an extent from their requirement to recycle repackaging and to accept waste packaging back from the consumer. I seek the EPA's opinion on how effective it considers the Repak initiative to have been.

Regarding abandoned and unused mines, I am pleased to learn that a comprehensive report is due later this year. Will that report include epidemiological studies to establish whether there are unusually high incidences of cancer or other conditions in close proximity to such abandoned mines? I am most familiar with Tynagh in south County Galway and the Silvermines in south County Tipperary. Initial studies of the soil around the Tynagh area have shown arsenic and cadmium levels that are multiples of those recommended by the WHO as being safe and normal. Upon production of the aforementioned report, what will be the next stage in the process? What does the EPA intend to do after the report's production?

Odour management has been referred to by Senator Coffey and others. I was surprised to learn there is no scientific method to assess whether odours are emanating from a landfill site. In licensing a site, I assume certain parameters are set for the operator of the site to ensure that he or she is in compliance. Perhaps there is a parameter in respect of odour. How is such a parameter established and how does the EPA establish whether an operator is in compliance within such parameters?

I will be brief. On the aforementioned subject of odours, I am somewhat concerned that they may be eliminated with chemicals. I am considering the horticultural business, the mushroom business and even the small farmers in this regard. While the EPA has a role to play in respect of intensive farming, in the case of small operators, chemicals will be used in an attempt to eliminate such odours. Does such use not constitute a blight on the environment? I have in mind mushroom growing in particular, as substantial smells occur in that process. However, it is a healthy smell and I do not consider there to be much wrong with it. I do not see very much wrong with farm smells either.

The delegation has indicated it will put its enforcement files on its website. When we deal with local authorities, they say that we cannot know anything about this because they must protect the informant. How far will the EPA go in putting enforcement information on the website?

We referred to Bord na Móna and its sites. Has the EPA investigated old Bord na Móna sites and disused power stations to see what pollution remains? I have a fear of asbestosis, from which people suffer and which may have come from old Bord na Móna and ESB sites.

The EPA has a major role to play in planning. Regarding one-off houses in the countryside, industry and health service provision, is the EPA monitoring these, objecting to planning permission and being notified when a person applies for small industry in the countryside? Does the EPA investigate this from the perspective of pollution and the environment?

The role of the county councils has been diminished and the EPA is taking over their role with regard to small landfill sites. The EPA is now the licensing agent. The same applies to waste treatment plants. The role of the health service in the supervision of the quality of rural water is being diminished. The health service and the councils were those on the ground, in close contact with the people. The EPA is somewhat removed in Wexford and, while we know about the EPA, we do not see much of it. Does the EPA need to play a greater role in educating people about its role?

Dr. Mary Kelly

Senator Cannon thought the EPA and local government are arms of the same body but I doubt local government thinks that. We have prosecuted local authorities for drinking water and waste. Now that we will be regulating them on urban waste water I would not like to predict too far into the future but I imagine we will have occasion to prosecute on that matter. Our licensing arm sees a local authority in the same way as the private sector. We prosecute in the same way and are even-handed in that respect. However, the legislation governing us includes a role to advise and guide local authorities. We have a dual role and we are both arms of the State.

Regarding Deputy Fitzpatrick's question, we are not taking over too many roles from local authorities but the EPA is seen as a national body that will set guidelines, license large matters and has the expertise to handle more complex areas. Local authorities are the organisations on the ground and are responsible for most of the regulations on the environment. The job of the EPA is to make sure the local authorities do their job. We are not taking over.

Some of the things we do now were never done before. There was no regulation of waste water treatment plants. The local authorities will continue to run them and to be responsible for ensuring that no pollution happens. It will have a licence from us, which we will check, but we are not taking over that role. We have a dual role and are regulators of local authorities. We also have an educational, advisory and supervisory role, which we must feel our way around. It works and I can guarantee that we prosecute if it is needed.

Mr. Dara Lynott will deal with waste water treatment plants. Regarding packaging waste, I am sorry to hear the perception that Repak has not been successful. Repak was not established to reduce packaging waste. It was an initiative established to increase the recycling of packaging waste which has gone from 9% when it started to approximately 60% now. The results speak for themselves in terms of its achievement of targets. It will find it harder to get to the next stage but this was always known. We have been putting pressure on it to expand its role into prevention but it was established to increase recycling.

It is difficult enough to explain the role of Repak. The industries which pay fees to Repak do so in order that Repak has packaging material recycled on their behalf. This is where it gets the 60% of material. Doing this means a company does not have to take back its own packaging at point of sale. It can be difficult for people to understand this is how it is set up but it is the nature of the situation which exists.

The WEEE directive works slightly differently as companies pay in but a consumer can bring back the product. It is easier to understand and it is more satisfying if one is able to return a product.

Recently, I was in a large department store in another European country. People were returning shopping trolleys full of packaging from televisions and computers. People find this physical interaction far more appealing than a sign stating a company is a member of Repak and it does not have to accept waste.

Dr. Mary Kelly

Absolutely, but it may not achieve the recycling as easily. Under the WEEE directive one can return a fridge, hoover or iron and it is satisfying to be able to get rid of it in this way. However, behind this are companies which take the goods away and deal with them. The goods amount to less than the packaging. If every supermarket and corner store had to take back the packaging and store it, they would state it is a fire hazard.

We heard all of these arguments and they were rehearsed when Repak was being established and the model to be used was being discussed. The model chosen was the one which centralised the collection as it was felt that it was easier to ask householders or companies to separate waste and have it collected from there. There is also an economic reason as it would be much more expensive to do it the other way, apart from all of the stores having to have dedicated areas for waste.

The mines study is important for us and it is part of examining the legacy of contaminated land. Epidemiological studies are not associated with this. If they are deemed to be necessary it will be a matter for the HSE. The EPA would not be involved. We are interested in seeing what happens in Tynagh and we were very involved in proposing solutions to Silvermines. The next stage will be to examine our report and see what comes out of it. It may need further work to determine what needs to be done in each case. As we always do, we will prioritise the cases where real work needs to be done immediately. At this stage, we do not know from where the finance will come nor how much it will be. We will work on it as part of a priority list.

I did not state there was no scientific method for determining odour. There is but it is not electronic. It is like wine, people are called "noses" and do this work. It is notoriously difficult to measure smell because it is extremely personal. As the Deputy stated, people who live in rural areas are less sensitised to the smells of the spreading of slurry, mushrooms and things which happen around them all the time because they are used to them. I grew up in Carlow and I associated the smell of the sugar factory with the time of the year. When I joined the EPA we received many complaints at that time of the year from people stating there was a terrible smell from the place. It is difficult to do scientifically and it cannot be captured and done electronically. It is quite scientific and there are specified levels. We use a Dutch company that specialises in odour monitoring to carry out the work. We set limits in the licences. If residents make complaints to us, we take statements on the time and intensity of the smells, which is the best way of measuring it and the only way of getting evidence.

What kind of response time does the EPA achieve? If the authority received a call about a horrible smell emanating from the Greenstar site in Kilconnell, for example, how quickly could the Dutch company be on site to establish whether that is the case?

Dr. Mary Kelly

We would not have the Dutch company there five minutes' later. We would have to establish whether there is an ongoing problem first. We would send one of our own inspectors to establish the nature of the problem, having spoken the company first. It then escalates from there to a point when we need to call the experts in.

We have also used site agents in the past. When we do not have someone available to send to a site, we hire site agents who would be given a contract, for example, to inspect a site over a two or three month period to determine the nature and extent of a problem. Sometimes problems can be very intermittent. Issues such as wind direction and the time of the day can have an impact. It is important to analyse a site closely and figure out what exactly is happening before--

I assume when licences are issued for such sites, it is not presumed that the sites will be odour free. There has to be some element of smell emanating from them.

Dr. Mary Kelly

Absolutely. We require applicants to carry out odour modelling before we issue licences, to give us some indication of what to expect in terms of smell. Much of the time we require waste management companies to carry out their activities indoors, under negative pressure, with various filters in place and so forth. However, if one is dealing with landfill sites, one cannot cover them. Odour is one of the major considerations in granting any licence, whether for industrial or waste management operations. There is an entire section in every licence that deals with odour issues. Ideally, the work should be done indoors, where possible. Where that is not possible, the aim is to minimize the problem. The condition for the licensee is that odour from the facility will not create a nuisance in the environment.

I live near a major landfill site, a meat processing plant, a horticultural facility and a mushroom farm. I have found that when locals worked in those places, we could not smell anything. Now that foreign people work in them, the locals that were there before are objecting to the smells. It is a subjective matter. I know of one business in which the EPA is taking a great interest because complaints have been made. However, when the same people were actually working in the plant, they did not complain.

Dr. Kelly referred to various prosecutions during the course of this meeting. I ask her to give us a ball park figure for the number of successful prosecutions last year. To date, what was the biggest fine imposed by the courts, against whom was it imposed and for what?

I thank Dr. Kelly for circulating the annual report and accounts at the beginning of the meeting. One table catches my eye, which is on page 43. Table 6 indicates that the EPA employed 97 different firms and consultants last year, which is very impressive. I note that in the income and expenditure accounts, spending on consultants went up from €4.5 million to €7.2 million, which is a 60% increase. In that context, I ask Dr. Kelly to detail the biggest consultancy fee and explain why there was a need to engage 97 different firms and consultants.

When a company applies for planning permission for a facility which requires an IPPC licence, it is up to the applicant to decide whether to approach the EPA for the licence first or the local authority for the planning permission. There is no streamlined approach in that process, which gives each organisation the opportunity to pass the buck to the other. If a company wishing to open a landfill facility approaches the EPA for the IPPC licence and obtains it, when it applies for planning permission, the county council almost washes its hands of any responsibility and claims that it must provide the permission because the licence has been already issued. Would it not make more sense if a single body dealt with the facility? The local authority deals with planning and the EPA deals with licensing.

A matter which confused me a few years ago was that when applications were advertised for licences from the EPA, they had to include a national grid reference. Is that still required? Other than the EPA and perhaps some engineers, the public has no concept of national grid references. The notice for the application is put through the headquarters of the applicant organisation, which could be located in a different county from the facility. Planning applications must be advertised on a sign on the site in question and in the newspaper. Integrated pollution control, however, requires a grid reference which nobody understands and it does not even require a notice to be placed on the site. Is that still the case?

I corresponded with the EPA in regard to the waste management packaging regulations. It was interesting to learn that we do not have a national waste authority. This may be an issue which the committee should consider, although we do not want another quango. We regularly find that local authorities are given permission to do something and nobody supervises them. They drew up regional plans earlier this century and every region was to have an incinerator but that did not happen. That aspect was nonsense from the beginning and is now redundant. However, they are still updating their waste management plans to include incineration targets.

In regard to waste management packaging regulations, Repak does good work but large companies are able to opt out of the scheme and register with the relevant local authority to meet their producer obligations under a self-compliance method. I put down parliamentary questions to find out how many companies have opted out, the local authorities in which they are located and the amount they pay in fees. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has stated it is a matter for the local authorities and his Department does not keep information on it. Perhaps the EPA can clarify the matter. Information is lacking on the companies which are not regulated by Repak. How many are avoiding their responsibilities and what methods are available for tracking them? It is all the more depressing that the Department does not have the relevant information.

Dr. Mary Kelly

I will start with the Chairman's last question in view of the fact that he wrote to me recently about it. He is correct that the regulations allow companies to join the Repak scheme, which is the sole joint process, or to self-comply, in which case they have to register with their local authorities. The EPA does not have a role in compiling that information. Our function is to compile statistics for the national waste database, which we do by consulting recyclers and the waste industry. We build our information from the bottom up in terms of gathering data on disposal and recycling. Doubts have always existed in regard to whether companies were trying to avoid the scheme. The regulations were changed last year and a threshold was set whereby companies which produced more than 20 tonnes and had turnover above a certain level had to self-comply or join Repak. Last year that threshold was brought down to 10 tonnes so the de minimis level has been reduced, making the universe of people involved a bigger one. We have commissioned the Clean Technology Centre, CIT, in Cork to carry out a study to find out who the new people in that group might be. The centre came up with a list of 5,000 new companies which would be obligated under the regulations.

But they are not in Repak.

Dr. Mary Kelly

They are not in Repak yet. We have written to those companies and told them they have an obligation which they can discharge in one of two ways, through Repak or self-compliance. We have also given the list to all local authorities, whose job it is to chase them.

We also have a waste network with local authorities. Before the regulation, we had identified people who were both outside Repak and not self-complying. Some 200 joined Repak on foot of our work. We have been working with Repak and the local authorities to chase people into the scheme but there are probably still people outside both systems. There is nobody collecting data from local authorities of self-compliers in this regard.

A simple letter to each local authority, or a telephone call, might elicit that information. Otherwise I might have to do it myself because the Minister cannot give the information to me.

Dr. Mary Kelly

We might do it for you, Chairman, but no one has asked us for the information before. We have never had need for it because we compile the overall statistics about packaging.

How does the EPA do that without knowing who self-complies?

Dr. Mary Kelly

We do not use information from the individual shop or company. We collect data from recyclers, exporters and the waste disposal facilities. We can see how much was disposed of and how much recycled, while Repak produces statistics of its own from the other end.

Can Dr. Kelly tell me how many in each local authority have registered under self-compliance?

Dr. Mary Kelly

No. The local authorities would be able to tell the Chairman that. We have never needed that information.

Can Dr. Kelly understand that members of this committee find it absurd that companies do not have to go through Repak for waste packaging but can register with local authorities and she cannot tell me the numbers?

Dr. Mary Kelly

I can understand that.

The Minister says he has no authority to do it and no one seems to know. My main criticism is of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, which should have made the necessary telephone calls, if only on foot of my parliamentary question.

Dr. Mary Kelly

We have no requirement to do it and have never needed that information for the statistics we collect.

How much do they have to pay? Is it €15,000?

Dr. Mary Kelly

I do not know.

It is something like that

Dr. Mary Kelly

I can find the details but do not have them to hand.

The committee might seek out answer. It should not be difficult. I am sorry about the line of questioning but I wanted to exhaust that subject.

On the subject of waste collection by county councils from private houses, what happens to the waste of people who do not want to leave a bin out or do not have a bin?

Given that we are talking about waste, it would be remiss of me not to mention the cost of waste collection. The price for my wheelie bin in County Laois is €396 and I can understand how many of my neighbours would not pay that amount. Because of the cost of waste collection many people, whatever they do with their waste, do not do what they are supposed to. People in Dublin city complain about paying €90 but it is four times that in several counties throughout the country and it does put them off. I know it is not the remit of the EPA but Dr. Kelly will understand the point Deputy Fitzpatrick makes. Many houses do not put out wheelie bins.

I never thought of that until now.

I am sorry for cutting across Dr. Kelly again.

Dr. Mary Kelly

The Chairman asked about consultants. I cannot provide a complete breakdown but there are two points. We have responsibilities under the water framework directive that require us to outsource many of our activities. We are getting much testing done from the outside and we have a fairly large contract out on--

There is a list of 97 consultants in the annual report and I have not seen any other State organisation doing that.

Dr. Mary Kelly

We will probably get many questions about it. We are a small organisation, and as I have outlined we have much to do. We do not use consultants very much for advice but rather mainly for technical work that we are not set up to do or have not got the facilities or people to do. It is always to fulfil our responsibilities. The consultants are mainly technical.

What was the EPA's biggest success in court?

Dr. Mary Kelly

That was €158,000 against a company in County Clare.

It does not seem like much.

Dr. Mary Kelly

We have no control over that but it was the biggest one ever. The company caused pollution and did not respond to our initial attempts to stop it. We took it on indictment and it was a very big fine in the environmental field. However, it cost the company €7 million to remediate the site, so it is not just about the fine and the amount we get.

That is a good point.

Dr. Mary Kelly

That also goes for the District Court. Much of the time the fines in the District Court can be below €3,000, as that may be the maximum allowed in the court. We have no control over that but from our point of view, the requirement by the court that the company or the local authority remediate or fix the problem generally costs an incredible amount more than the fine. The fine is almost a symbol.

On the prosecution issue, where a successful prosecution has been taken, does that affect future licence applications or is that taken into account by the EPA in the conditioning of licences from that date?

Dr. Mary Kelly

We are required under legislation to determine whether an operator is a fit and proper person in giving a licence, and part of that determination is whether they have been previously prosecuted. Just being prosecuted would not be enough to disqualify as they could have corrected. We take the matter into account every time.

With regard to grid licences, the planning and licensing processes are independent of each other.

Dr. Mary Kelly

Yes, they are independent. They are set up in parallel as opposed to anything else. Nobody is under any obligation to do one before the other. It sounds as if it would work together but, for example, if planning is not granted a person can change the application and come back. We always note whether a body has applied for planning permission when we do a licence but we do not make a determination on it. If planning is refused, a different application could be made tomorrow. We consider whether a project will cause pollution and if it does, we cannot give a licence.

On the national grid references, we need those for the GIS if we are to map them. I know they must be on the sign because that is what is in the regulation. The regulation determines exactly what has to be there. We use those grid references for the GIS and for identifying emission points. Every emission point from a factory will have a grid reference and the inspector will know exactly where that grid reference is from, which is useful.

Where can that notice be placed?

Dr. Mary Kelly

My understanding is it can be at corporate headquarters but there must be a site notice as well. As part of determining the licence, our inspectors must go out--

Is the witness sure it is both?

Mr. Dara Lynott

There must be a newspaper reference as well.

The grid reference negates the value of that from the public point of view. I do not know the grid reference for County Laois and I doubt if Deputy Fitzpatrick knows the grid reference for County Kildare.

Mr. Dara Lynott

The specification would be the location of activity and the person applying. Both pieces of information, in addition to the grid reference, would be provided. The information that needs to go into an advertisement is specified under law.

Therefore, there is a site notice.

Mr. Dara Lynott

The site notice must be verified by the licensing inspector before he or she can issue a licence.

At the location, not at the corporate headquarters?

Mr. Dara Lynott

That is correct.

That used to be the case. I ran into that problem before.

We have exhausted the discussion, although I do not mean that in a negative way. We have covered a lot of ground. We appreciate the appearance of the representatives before the committee. This committee was set up since the last election and this has been our first opportunity to meet with the EPA. The organisation issued its annual report today and the information presented to us was very up-to-date and accurate. I am sure the committee will be in contact with the EPA again in the future. To give my tuppence worth, I am delighted the EPA is there. I have far more faith in it than in local authorities when it comes to dealing with certain issues. Deputy Fitzpatrick commented that the local authority people are there on the ground, but that may be a problem - they are too near the people on the ground who are causing problems. It is much easier for the EPA to come in and act in the interest of the public. Sometimes local authorities can be a little slow, and sometimes they themselves are the culprits. We all understand that. We appreciate the time and effort put in by the EPA.

The joint committee adjourned at 4.40 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 9 September 2008.