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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 29 Nov 1984

Vol. 106 No. 4

Adjournment Matter. - Air Pollution Levels.

First, I should like to thank you for facilitating me this evening in raising this issue on the Adjournment and in particular I thank Senator de Brún who gave way to this motion on the Adjournment because of its urgency. His motion, I understand, will be tabled and taken next week.

I am spokesman for this side of the House on planning. I wish to speak in particular about a certain industry in Ranelagh which is causing some distress. I would like by way of introduction to say that Ranelagh to most people in this city of Dublin would have been, over the years, a pleasant inner city residential area. The chief health inspector's report of 1982-83 reveals for the first time that the Ranelagh-Rathmines area of the city along with Ballyfermot and Cabra have exceeded for the first time the sulphur dioxide smoke levels laid down by the EC, an increase by 50 per cent on the 1981-82 winter. I hope the Minister faces up to the urgent need to introduce gradually smoke free zones in this and other parts of Dublin city, by way of a Clean Air Bill, in order to protect the hundreds of thousands of inner city dwellers, especially those in sub-standard housing who will run the possibility of lower IQ levels and the probability of increased respiratory or bronchial conditions if this is not done urgently.

What concerns me particularly today is the plight of residents in the Mount Pleasant area of Ranelagh who are affected by a lead polluting industry McGovern's of Prices Lane. This scrap yard had, over the years, created a nuisance, noise on unloading and loading of vehicles in this narrow laneway. However, in the last five to six years the activities have mushroomed to an admitted turnover by Mr. Kenneth McGovern recently of £2.9 million. This punitive operation today burns polythene casing largely supplied by Telecom Éireann, the ESB and Dublin Corporation, in a metal hopper and throws up a very damaging pollutant in the immediate neighbourhood. To demonstrate my point, I will pass a photograph taken by the chief health inspector's office to the Minister which shows in colour the terrible damage this pollutant is causing in the area.

The chief health inspector has already admitted that dust in the vicinity is contaminated to an alarming degree. The situation in Ranelagh is still bad despite prosecution under the Atmospheric Pollution Regulations, 1970 — £25 fine and £25 costs were achieved in court in 1982 — and there is currently another prosecution in hand by the chief health inspector, and the burning continues. In a report by the atmospheric pollution unit of February 1984 samples which I will quote are included. We are told by the chief health inspector that the figures I am about to mention are very high even classifying McGovern's as an industrial source. To put them in perpective the lead content of surface dust in Dublin is between 20 to 4,380 ppms. Yet in the four samples that have been taken in the analysis that I am just about to mention, sample one shows 22,777 ppms, sample two, 162,825 ppms, sample three 33,825 ppms, and sample four, 17,595 ppms. These are of the order of 12 to 15 times the average surface dust problem in the city of Dublin.

This must be the worst industrial pollution in Ireland although other serious problems exist, for example, the Mining Company of Ireland operation at Ringsend. There does not seem to be any real indication from the Department of the Environment that this industry must be forced to regulate its operation or relocate.

When is the Minister for the Environment either going to introduce a Bill to deal with this terrifying level of pollution situated directly opposite the home of the Minister of State in his Department and in a heavily built up residential area or amend the Atmospheric Pollution Regulations, 1970 and introduce the necessary registration of industrial processes like this by the chief health inspector?

There is a need in the mid-eighties to look at other improvements in these regulations such as fan ducts from dry cleaner establishments, factory chimney heights, flues from central heating boilers. All of these have been brought to my attention by the chief health inspector who, to say the least, with Dublin Corporation has been trying to deal within the limits of regulation and legislation with this kind of problem.

I cannot stress enough the public concern that exists on this issue. The Taoiseach, the Minister for Labour and every public representative in this constituency, not least myself because I am living perhaps closer than anybody else, a short distance on one side away from the Minister of State — we look at it from two different perpectives — are concerned to see the well-meaning residents locally given some identifiable support. Nobody would argue that the chief inspector and, Dublin Corporation are not attempting everything to resolve this situation. They are powerless without the necessary legislative changes that the Minister and the Department of the Environment should now produce. It cannot be said that the Department have not been given more than adequate time to respond. The present Minister for the Environment has not been in his post all that long but the Department of the Environment are well aware of the growing concern in relation to these premises over the last five to six years, say, from the time in which it turned from a very typical and traditional scrap yard into something that was taking in batteries and polythene casings and putting them through a burning process, producing lead and lead dust and causing people who are living within 20 feet of this operation fear and dismay. Their greatest fear and dismay is about whether or not we will get the response we are looking for. This is an opportunity that should be given to them, an opportunity that should be faced up to. I hope the Minister in his response can give a detailed timetable and a detailed response as to how he feels this plant can be regulated, whether it requires legislation or not, and that we will get down to doing something positive to clearing this nuisance.

As one who resided in Ranelagh for three years during that period that I spent in Dublin I am sorry to hear that that area has deteriorated since those days in the early sixties. Certainly, if in my capacity as Minister for the Environment I can be of some assistance, I can assure the Senator that I will be.

There are some facts I should bring to the notice of the House. The Dublin conurbation has been expanding rapidly over recent years. There are about a million people already located within a relatively small area. Dublin is one of the fastest growing cities in Europe. An industrial infrastructure has also grown relatively quickly to cater for employment outlets for the population.

A further phenomenon has been the switch, particularly in the domestic sector, from oil to coal for space heating. This switch made sound economic sense, to the householders involved because of the increased price of oil which resulted from various oil crises in the last decade. However, an inevitable consequence has been a disimprovement in air quality due to emissions of smoke and other polluting substances. The motorcar, and greater reliance on it than in the past, has also contributed. Industry, too, is responsible for a share of air pollution. In Dublin, therefore, air quality is now a greater cause for concern than in the past. The impact on air quality of the dramatic increase in the use of coal within the domestic sector has been demonstrated in Dublin during the past few winters. Pollutant levels have increased appreciably over those which were observed in the years immediately prior to the switch in fuel use.

While overall air quality has disimproved some localised small industries have contributed disproportionately to the problem and are a cause for concern to residents in the immediate areas. Senator FitzGerald has referred to this. It is a problem which I am very conscious of and to which I will refer later.

There are many aspects of air pollution and in the time available to me I cannot dwell on them all in detail. However, I can assure the House that concern about air pollution is not confined to this country. International concern about air pollution is high at present and in my capacity as President of the Environment Council in the EC I will preside next week at a meeting which will consider proposals for the improvement of air quality generally. One of these is a proposal to eliminate lead from petrol.

In this connection Senator FitzGerald may be interested to note that the refinery at Whitegate is to make the necessary technical adjustments to enable it to produce petrol with maximum lead content of 1.5 grammes per litre by 1986. The elimination of lead from petrol will undoubtedly be a significant contributory factor in the reduction of lead levels generally in Dublin. Lead levels in the capital are being monitored by Dublin Corporation at a number of sites. The monitoring results obtained were generally in compliance with the 1982 EC directive on air quality standards for lead which stipulates an annual limit of two microgrammes per cubic metre. This monitoring regime will continue.

In so far as lead in the air is concerned, Dublin Corporation have also investigated ambient lead levels in dust contained in or near schools and industrial premises. High concentrations were found nearer to off-street lead processing operations one of which is located in Naas in a residential area. The level found in some of the schools could be due to the presence of old paint containing lead on nearby woodwork or iron railings rather than from traffic.

While to date we have been able to comply with EC requirements for lead levels in the air, we must not become complacent and action must be taken and continue to be taken against firms, located in residential areas, which are contributing significantly to air pollution activities related to the processing of lead. I do not intend to name individual firms but I can assure the House that every effort is being made to ensure that this type of air pollution is curtailed.

Dublin Corporation have powers in the control of atmospheric pollution regulations since 1970 to prosecute offenders. They have used these powers successfully against a particular firm for breaches of the regulations and intend to initiate proceedings against the same firm for further contravention. The 1970 regulations also provide where contravention of the regulation is likely to continue or to occur again the sanitary authority may notify the occupier of the premises of the works which they consider necessary to be done to end the contravention or prevent its recurrence. The corporation are considering the applicability of this provision to the firm in question.

Ideally, however, the answer to air pollution problems caused by these type of firms is to have them re-located in more environmentally suitable surroundings. My Department are also examining the possibility as a short term measure of regulations to provide for a system of local authority specification to ensure that material handled by such firms is stored, processed and disposed of in an environmentally acceptable manner. This is a difficult area and I am not sure yet whether action can be taken but if it can be taken then it will be taken.

In the long term, however, so far as legislation is concerned I am fully aware that the existing controls in regard to air pollution generally are in need of amendment to take account of the present conditions and EC requirements. The work of preparing the necessary legislation is at present being undertaken in my Department and it is hoped that the relevant legislation will be brought before this House next year. As I said earlier, I am concerned with the recurrence of high air pollution levels, particularly smoke. In consultation with the Minister for Energy, efforts are being made to devise energy policies which will make greater use of natural gas at the expense not only of oil but of solid fuels as well, for commercial, industrial and domestic purposes. The Government have assisted the Dublin Gas Company to the tune of £150 million to develop the use of natural gas throughout the Dublin area. My Department have approved the provision of a mains supply of natural gas to several new local authority housing schemes in the Dublin area at a cost of approximately £210 per house. We will continue to consider favourably any proposals by local authorities to provide a mains supply of natural gas to new houses provided the cost of connection is reasonable.

The environmental impact of converting from oil to natural gas can be quite significant. For example, if all industries in Dublin use natural gas, emissions of sulphur dioxide in the region could be reduced by as much as 15 per cent. It is encouraging to note that major commercial users like Guinness, Jacobs, Irish Distillers have opted for natural gas. Extension of the gas grid in Dublin is expected to encompass 15,000 to 60,000 homes by 1988. This is also very significant.

There is no easy solution to the alleviation of air pollution. I can assure the House, however, that all available options are being considered and whatever action is possible will be taken.

The Seanad adjourned at 5.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 5 December, 1984.