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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 2 Feb 1977

Vol. 86 No. 1

Oil Pollution of the Sea (Amendment) Bill, 1976: Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

, Cavan): The main purposes of this Bill are (a) to enable Ireland to become a party to the International Convention relating to Intervention on the High Seas in Cases of Oil Pollution Casualties, 1969, (b) to enable Ireland to accept certain amendments to the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil, 1954, (c) to extend and strengthen the powers of the Minister for Transport and Power in relation to oil pollution of the sea, and (d) to resolve a jurisdictional difficulty in relation to the Oil Pollution of the Sea Acts, 1956 and 1965, and to increase the penalties for offences under these Acts.

The problem of oil pollution of the sea is not a new one but it has become particularly serious over the last 20 years or so during which time the volume of oil carried by sea has increased very substantially. In the past, oil pollution of the sea occurred mainly through the practice of dumping oil residues from tankers at sea. Nowadays, however, because of the vastly increased quantities of oil being carried by sea in tankers of ever-increasing size, a major threat is also posed by spillages following marine casualties. The Inter-Governmental Maritime Consultative Organisation (IMCO), of which Ireland is a member, decided to take the initiative in promoting international agreements to strengthen the hands of coastal states. To date IMCO has adopted four conventions dealing with the problem of oil pollution. This Bill is concerned with two of these:

the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil, 1954; and

the International Convention relating to Intervention on the High Seas in Cases of Oil Pollution Casualties, 1969.

Two further conventions—the International Convention on Civil Liability for Oil Pollution Damage, 1969, and the International Convention relating to the Establishment of an International Fund for Oil Pollution Damage, 1971—deal with civil liability in cases of oil pollution damage and provide for the setting up of an international compensation fund to meet the cost of major spillages. Legislation to enable Ireland to ratify these latter conventions is at an advanced stage of preparation and I would hope to present it to the House for consideration later this year.

The purpose of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution of the Sea by Oil, 1954, which was drafted prior to the advent of the mammoth tankers, is to reduce the risk of pollution of the sea by oil discharged from ships. The principal means adopted in 1954 was the designation of certain zones of the sea into which the discharge of oil was prohibited. Amendments to strengthen the convention were adopted by IMCO in April, 1962. Both the convention and the 1962 amendments are in force internationally, that is, they have been adopted by the requisite number of states in respect of their own ships and are implemented in Ireland by the Oil Pollution of the Sea Acts, 1956 and 1965. IMCO adopted further amendments to the 1954 Convention in October, 1969 and October, 1971. The 1969 amendments will come into force internationally on 20th January, 1978. The 1971 amendments have not yet received the required number of ratifications.

The purpose of the amendments adopted in 1969 is to ensure more effective control of the discharge of oil into the sea by ships. This is done by introducing more restrictive controls and by making the whole sea, rather than certain specified sections, a prohibited area as far as unrestricted discharges are concerned; tighter restrictions are, moreover, imposed on all discharges—including, for example, discharges of ballast—in areas within 50 miles of land. The ultimate object of these amendments, as expressed in the Assembly Resolution adopting the amendments, is to enable significant progress to be made towards the achievement of complete avoidance of discharges. The principal amendments adopted in October, 1971, establish requirements relating to tank arrangements and the limitation of tank sizes of tankers in order to minimise pollution of the sea by oil in the event of an accident involving a large oil tanker. A further amendment adopted in 1971 deals with the protection of the Great Barrier Reef, that great natural phenomenon of coral reefs and cays off the Australian coast. Although the amendment is of no practical significance to us, we intend to accept it as, by doing so, we will be contributing towards its entry into force.

Senators may have difficulty in relating the foregoing to the various provisions of the Bill. I should explain that the sections dealing with the amendments to the 1954 Convention are, basically, sections 9, 12, 13 and 18. These are couched in general terms and the actual implementation of the 1969 and 1971 amendments will be done by way of statutory orders and regulations. For example, the 1971 amendments relating to tank sizes will be implemented by a statutory instrument made under section 16 of the Oil Pollution of the Sea Act, 1956, as amended by section 12 of the present Bill. This section enables me to make regulations concerning the construction and fitting of ships with a view to the prevention or reduction of oil pollution.

Sections 2 to 5, inclusive, provide in detail for the implementation of the International Convention relating to Intervention on the High Seas in Cases of Oil Pollution Casualties, 1969. This convention arose from a special international legal conference which was convened by IMCO in Brussels in 1969 in the wake of the Torrey Canyon incident. IMCO accepted that there were serious deficiencies in the powers available to coastal states for dealing with shipping casualties involving large tankers and the consequential risk of major pollution of coastlines.

Bearing in mind that existing maritime law embodies the principle of freedom of the seas, IMCO decided it was essential to adopt an international agreement which would empower coastal states to take whatever action might be necessary to safeguard their coasts. Accordingly the intervention convention authorises a coastal state to intervene and take measures, by sinking or towing away offending vessels, to protect its coastal and other related interests whenever such a casualty occurs.

The convention stipulates the conditions under which, and the procedures through which, such measures are to be taken. A state which took measures that went beyond what was reasonably necessary to achieve the ends stated in the convention would be obliged to pay compensation for any damage resulting from such unjustified action. The convention also provides for the settlement of disputes which might arise from such measures. It is intended that Ireland will ratify the convention, which came into force internationally on 6th May, 1975, as soon as possible after this Bill becomes law.

I trust Senators will appreciate that, while the powers conferred on me by section 2 of the Bill are, on first glance, virtually without limit, there are two effective controls on the exercise of such powers. Firstly, they may only be used in cases where there is grave and imminent danger of major harmful consequences arising from a maritime casualty involving oil pollution. Secondly, section 3 of the Bill provides recourse to the courts for compensation for any person who establishes that any action taken under the Bill was unreasonably severe or unnecessary. I consider these are adequate safeguards and I feel sure I reflect the wishes of the House when I say I sincerely hope that the circumstances which would make it necessary for me to act under section 2 will never arise.

I should, of course, point out that the convention only relates to intervention in cases on the high seas. As it is within the competence of Governments to enact legislation in regard to intervention within their territories without the sanction of an international agreement, the convention did not concern itself with territorial waters. The Bill is structured so that it will be possible to apply its provisions to Irish ships and to Irish territorial waters in advance of applying such provisions to foreign ships outside territorial waters.

Section 7 of the Bill, dealing with the place of commission of an oil pollution offence, is designed to remedy a defect which has been discovered in the Oil Pollution Acts. Briefly, the problem is that, while the 1956 and 1965 Acts clearly created the offence of polluting the sea by oil, they did not, it has recently emerged, confer jurisdiction on any court to try such offences. The areas of jurisdiction of the District Courts are fixed by reference to the district electoral divisions, and do not, therefore, extend to our territorial waters. As summary proceedings are dealt with at District Court level and proceedings on indictment are initiated at that level, it is clear that, as the Act stands, no future proceedings could be initiated for offences under them. Section 7 remedies this defect in a manner which is used in many other instances, for example, fisheries protection and air hijackings.

Finally, the present Bill extends and updates the provisions of the 1956 and 1965 Oil Pollution of the Sea Acts, mainly by increasing substantially the various fines for offences under the Acts. It also grants additional powers to oil pollution inspectors, the most important being that such inspectors will in future be empowered to take samples of oil from any ship. This will assist in the sometimes difficult task of assigning responsibility for a particular spillage. A further important strengthening of the law is effected by section 6 of the Bill which provides powers to detain vessels which are suspected of being in breach of the Acts.

To summarise, therefore, this Bill will enable Ireland to ratify and implement the latest internationally-accepted law on the subject of oil pollution offences. The Bill recognises the fact that, although Ireland is an island, we do not live in isolation. Our interest lies in full support of international measures to prevent pollution. It is only fair to emphasise here that Irish shipowners in general have an excellent record in this field and, indeed, I am satisfied that foreign ships calling at Irish ports also have due regard for the desirability of keeping our seas free from pollution. This Bill and the 1956 and 1965 Acts provide adequate controls and where necessary, deterrents in the form of fines and possible imprisonment. As such I hope the shipowners' and the general public's awareness of the potential seriousness of the problem of oil pollution will be heightened and that we may thus move nearer to the goal of a cleaner marine environment.

I commend the Bill to the House.

This Bill is essentially in our own interests, as a small coastal State situated adjacent to major shipping lanes. It is imperative that Ireland in particular, by reason of our vulnerability and the importance of our coastline from a tourist and environmental point of view, should be very active in adopting conventions of this kind designed to protect the environment and coastlines throughout the world from serious oil spillages and pollution.

The really effective part of the Bill, as mentioned by the Minister, is contained in sections 2, 3, 4 and 5, providing for the implementation of the latest international convention to strengthen the powers of coastal states in regard to major spillages. I certainly would not be the slightest bit apologetic for an Irish Minister for Transport and Power taking on the sort of controls and powers envisaged in sections 2 to 5, inclusive. Indeed, I am certain the required powers can be taken and made effective by way of regulation under those sections.

The aspect which, in my view, should be of real concern to the Minister and his Department from now on, once this Bill has been passed—which of course it will be by agreement of all parties both here and in the Dáil—is its implementation and the type of action that can be established by the Minister and his Department in conjunction with local authorities in coastal areas to ensure effective remedial action in the event of oil spillages or pollution threatening our coasts. I should like to hear from the Minister on that aspect. I appreciate that does not have to be spelled out here. The Bill will improve the powers he can take to deal with an emergency situation. I should like the Minister to inform the House what precise measures he and his Department have in mind and what consultations have taken place with the local authorities in our coastal areas. In other words, what sort of machinery is ready to implement the necessary and effective drastic action that will have to be taken in the event of any such spillage or serious pollution arising again as has happened on one or two occasions already?

I should like to have on record the views of the Minister in this respect because time is of the essence in a situation of this kind. It is all very well having the legislation and having the regulation but, when such an emergency takes place, we must have an effective drill where personnel can be mobilised, where action can be taken almost immediately, and where there is a general alert system, as it were, between the Minister's Department and the local authorities around the coast, who would appear to be the most effective agencies for taking immediate action.

In other words I should like the Minister to inform us what type of drill he envisages in this respect, what officers in his Department have responsibility to make immediate contact with local authorities and harbour authorities around the coast, what people are available in these harbour and local authorities to take immediate action, what type of machinery, what type of gear, what type of depolluting facilities, and so on, are available at key places around the coast for utilisation in an emergency situation by personnel attached to harbour and local authorities. This is the important aspect of the whole matter.

While supporting the legislation fully and supporting the Minister in any stringent regulations he may introduce under this legislation, I should like to hear from him more specifically what precise drill he and his Department will seek to have available to protect our coasts against what can only be a very serious growing menace for a particularly vulnerable and dispersed coastal State such as ours, a coastal State which depends to a very high degree for our future prosperity on preserving our environment and enhancing the great tourist assets we have around our coast which could be severely damaged in the event of any serious spillage of this kind.

There is no question but that sovereign states throughout the world are now taking a very progressive attitude in this whole area. It is absolutely fundamental that they be given all the powers required to deal with massive pollution of this kind, which can only be viewed in a most serious light, I give every support to the Minister in his Bill and I should like to hear from him on the sort of remedies and administration he proposes to adopt to deal in a practical, effective and immediate way with this sort of problem whenever it arises, which hopefully it will not, but we must be ready for it if it does and we must be able to take immediate and prompt action.

I welcome the introduction of this Bill as an updating of our current legislation which is somewhat behindhand. We are somewhat at a disadvantage by not having the 1956 and 1965 Acts before us but the intent of this Bill is pretty clear. The Minister referred to a substantial increase in fines and prison sentences but he did not give the actual increases. On the face of it they seem to be fairly substantial but I would question whether they are substantial enough. A fine of £5,000 on paper might seem quite an enormous amount but, compared with the possible damage of major pollution, it could be quite a small figure. I should like to see somewhere in the Bill authority given to the Minister to increase these fines or the prison sentences without having to come back to the Oireachtas.

We are in a particularly vulnerable position, a small island with a substantial coastline facing west and south west where any major accident outside our territorial waters could have a disastrous effect on our scenery and on our fishing, fauna, flora, and so on, which might run into hundreds of thousands of pounds, into millions of pounds. Taken in that light, the fines suggested here seem to me to be if anything on the small side. The Minister has pointed out in his speech that this Bill gives him very strong powers indeed but I should like to ask him how would he implement these powers in a state of emergency or if a serious incident were to happen deliberately or otherwise. Have we got the necessary vessels to do it? Have we got the necessary equipment and the personnel to do it? If a big tanker starts shipping out oil in the high seas, are we in a position to prevent this?

It is one thing to have these powers, I agree with the Minister that the more far ranging the powers are the better, but we would want seriously to consider how we are going to implement these powers. As the Minister said, over the past 20 years there has been an enormous increase in this type of pollution. It really came to a head some ten or 12 years ago with the Torrey Canyon disaster which caused such extensive damage off the south west coast of England. It really galvanised the British authorities into doing something about it and doing it quickly. We must ensure that This legislation will be effective.

I too, should like to support Senator Lenihan in suggesting that the Minister's agents should be people who are normally competent to deal with harbour affairs, that is, the harbour authorities and local authorities. As the Minister is aware there are group schemes, regional schemes on oil pollution which are organised on a regional basis. Limerick Harbour is the centre for one of them in the south west. These are the people who should be the effective agents for putting this legislation into effect. I do not know whether any of the harbour authorities or other authorities were consulted on the drafting of this Bill. I have a feeling they were not.

I know a lot of wisdom reposes in the Department of Transport and Power, and other Ministers' Departments but the people directly concerned with the seas and with our waterways and estuaries should be consulted on legislation of this kind. The average Irish harbour master knows quite a lot about oil pollution and the possible dangers to the rivers or estuaries under his jurisdiction. Before the Bill becomes law there should be consultation with the harbour authorities, perhaps through the Irish Port and Harbour Authorities Organisation or directly through the harbour masters around the coast.

Mention is made in the Bill of a requirement for ships registered in the State to provide certain types of anti-oil pollution devices. What about ships registered outside the State, which are the greatest number of ships trading into our waters? Have we any say about those? Is there any international co-ordination whereby all types of ships are required to be fitted out to a certain degree of safety? I see the advantage of requiring our own registered ships to do this, but what about the others?

Apart from these and one or two other points which can be dealt with on Committee Stage I welcome the Bill. Even though they look very substantial in this Bill I do not think the fines are sufficient to deter what has now become a very major threat to all maritime countries, and we are an important maritime country. Every device, including very heavy fines and threatened prison sentences, should be included in the Bill to prohibit what would be a disaster to our coastline if it were to happen. Up to now we have been extremely fortunate, except for the Bantry Bay spillage a few years ago, and one or two minor cases. We have been extremely lucky but, on the law of averages, we may not continue to be so lucky and now is the time to take all possible precautions by way of deterrents. We must ensure that our legislation can be effectively implemented.

, Cavan): I want to thank Senator Lenihan and Senator Russell for the reception they have given the Bill and for the assurance that it will pass through both Houses of the Oireachtas by agreement. As Senator Lenihan has said, Ireland being an island country, the protection of our environment is of the greatest importance. An unpolluted environment and atmosphere is one of our greatest assets, especially at a time when other countries are becoming built up and being polluted in one way or another. It was because we realised the importance of this that we subscribed to the convention which the introduction of this Bill and its passing through the Oireachtas will enable us to ratify. It was because of our consciousness of the importance of the environment, the importance of ensuring there would be no pollution and that our atmosphere and environment would be preserved that we subscribed to that convention.

While welcoming the Bill Senator Lenihan asked what steps we would take to implement it or what measures would be available to us to ensure that the desirable sections of this Bill could be enforced. The position is that overall responsibility for the environment is vested in the Minister for Local Government. The Department of Local Government have already established, in conjunction with the local authorities, the harbour authorities and the Naval Service, clear lines of responsibility for dealing with pollution.

Briefly, responsibility for offshore pollution rests, as one would imagine, with the Naval Service. Recent weeks and months have shown that the Naval Service will have other duties, functions and responsibilities in regard to our fisheries. In the not very distant past, that service gave a very good account of itself when having to intercept a large foreign trawler, a large factory ship. On that occasion the fishery protection service gave a very good account of itself and saw to it that our fisheries were protected and our rights upheld.

Local and harbour authorities are responsible for onshore pollution protection. I do not think I would be expected at this stage to go into the position in detail. I can assure the Seanad that local authorities have appointed oil pollution officers who are preparing, and have prepared in some cases, contingency plans for dealing with pollution incidents. Generous financial assistance is available from the Department of Local Government for expenditure by local and harbour authorities on anti-pollution equipment such as detergents and so on. The Naval Service have already equipped four vessels for oil pollution clearance. All these arrangements are constantly under review and will be looked at again and updated and improved in the light of our added responsibilities.

It is sometimes easy to talk in the abstract and say what will be done and what arrangements will be made, but I can best allay the fears expressed by Senator Lenihan by referring him to the incident when our fishery protection service found it necessary to halt, intercept, board, arrest and bring into harbour a large foreign ship, which, for one reason or another, whether because of lack of communication or language difficulties, did not appear to be fully co-operative. Senators may rest assured that the necessary machinery, equipment and vessels to enforce this and our other responsibilities will be or are available.

Senator Russell raised the point of the fines and the penalties provided for in the Bill. Of course, the heaviest penalty is a penalty of £100,000 with a further penalty of £10,000 for every day the offence continues. I put it to the Seanad that, by any standards, that is a heavy penalty. As the House knows, the biggest penalty in the case of trespassing or offending ships is the right to arrest and detain, which is also provided for in the Bill. In section 2 what might be regarded as very extreme powers are given to the Minister —the right to arrest, to tow away and to sink.

Proper order.

(Cavan): As Senator Lenihan says that is only proper order. Subsection (6) of section 2 sets out the cases in which these extreme powers may be carried out or used. It provides:

The powers conferred on the Minister by this section may be exercised—

(a) if, but only if, the Minister has reasonable cause to believe, following a maritime casualty, that there is grave and imminent danger of major harmful consequences through pollution by oil to the coastline of the State or related interests including—

(i) maritime, coastal, port or estuarine activities, constituting an essential means of livelihood for persons concerned,

(ii) the tourist amenities of the area concerned,

(iii) the conservation of marine fauna and marine flora and the habitats of such fauna and flora,

(iv) the health of the coastal population and the well-being of the area concerned including conservation of living marine resources...

If any of the matters I have outlined are affected, power is given in the Bill to remove the ship, beyond the limit of the harbour, or to restrain or control its movements. The unloading or discharge of the cargo may be controlled. The Minister is empowered to take or to restrict the specified salvage measures and, as a last resort, is entitled to sink the ship. Those are extreme measures, coupled with the penalties of £100,000 with £10,000 a day for continuing offence. These are substantial penalties according to any standard.

Senator Russell has suggested that power should be taken in the Bill to increase the penalties by ministerial order. I think the Senator, on reflection, will be satisfied that that would not be a suitable power to give to any Minister. I doubt if there is a precedent for it; it is not a power I should like to take. If it turns out that the penalties are inadequate then the proper procedure would be to come back to the Oireachtas and seek more severe penalties.

Senator Russell also mentioned the power taken in the Bill to provide by regulation that ships registered in Ireland shall be constructed and equipped in such a manner as to avoid pollution. Senator Russell raised a point about ships not registered in Ireland, ships which could be the greatest offenders. The answer to that question is that, if those ships are registered in countries which have ratified the convention, they will be responsible for enforcing the same standards and equipment as we have prescribed here. That is the object behind the convention.

Those are the only points raised by the two Senators who have contributed to the Second Stage debate. I wish to thank them for their contributions and I trust I have answered the points raised by them.

Question put and agreed to.
Agreed to take remaining Stages today.