From the beginning of history, air has been recognised as a primary component of our world. One of the earliest Greek philosophers, Anaximenes, saw air as the primal substance from which all other things has their origin. His most celebrated statement was that "air is the principle of existing things; for from it all things come to be and into it they are again dissolved. As our soul being air holds us together and controls us, so air encloses the whole world". The present Bill clearly does not lack for illustrious antecedents.
The fact that our environment is a unique resource which requires careful management is widely recognised today. Air, water and soil provide the basis for life and for economic and social development. The simple fact that man exists and carries on economic activity in order to sustain life results in environmental pollution of one kind or another — and has done so since the beginning of time. In our modern world, with increased population and urbanisation and rapid technological development, the problem of environmental pollution has assumed new dimensions. It is now more important than ever that our natural resources are well managed if we are to protect public health, living resources and even property from the adverse effects of pollution and if we are to pass on a high quality living environment to future generations.
The EC Third Action Programme on the Environment states that "the resources of the environment are the basis of — but also constitute the limits to — further economic and social development and the improvement of living conditions". Thus the interaction between environmental protection and economic development must be a guiding principle in our approach both to environmental management and the promotion of economic and social development. The environment cannot be sacrificed to development and neither should development be seen as the enemy of the environment. Both are essential ingredients in our efforts towards economic growth and improving the quality of Irish life. We must resist any temptation to look on environmental protection as a "fair-weather" programme to be cast aside in the more difficult economic conditions in which the Irish economy now operates. On the other hand, there is an obligation on us to ensure that our environmental management systems make optimum use of available resources and do not give rise to unreasonable or excessive costs.
It is against this general background — the protection of the environment linked with the improvement of economic and social conditions — that we have framed the provisions of the Air Pollution Bill, 1986, a Bill which, for the first time in the history of the State, will provide a comprehensive framework for dealing with existing and emerging air pollution problems. The Bill will replace all existing statutory provisions and regulations on air pollution by a single enactment which should provide the State and local authorities with all necessary powers for air pollution control now and for the foreseeable future.
By a timely coincidence, a motion to take note of Report No. 25 on Acid Rain, produced by the Joint Committee on the Secondary Legislation of the European Communities, is now before the Seanad. This motion is to be debated jointly with the present Second Stage. I hope to deal with all of the main themes of Report No. 25 in the course of this speech.
Like other forms of environmental pollution, air pollution is a problem which has been known to man for centuries. For example, smoke control regulation in England dates back over 700 years. Indeed, I am told that there are records of a manufacturer who, because he disobeyed a royal proclamation on coal burning in London, was tried and beheaded centuries ago. It was not, apparently, considered necessary to introduce such draconian measures in this country — I do not intend to do so — and, even today, despite the absence of comprehensive controls, we still enjoy a generally high standard of air quality.
Because of our geographical position and the prevailing westerly winds, we are not affected by transboundary air pollution to the same extent as other European countries. Indeed, it is only when air masses which have originated to the east of the country — over continental Europe and the United Kingdom — pass over Ireland, that air pollution arising from external factors is of any real significance. Because of the nature of our economic growth we have little heavy industry of any kind that in the past caused serious air pollution in other countries. Our relatively low population density and our pattern of urbanisation have also served to delay the emergence of air pollution problems. Besides, we must not overlook the fact that emissions from new industry have, for over 20 years, been controlled by conditions attached to permissions under the Planning Acts.
In recent years, however, air pollution as a topic has been attracting growing attention in the minds of the public and in the media. The Joint Committee report on Acid Rain, together with a previous one on Air Pollution, Conservation and Protection of the Environment, have focussed these concerns in a very useful way. To some extent, this increased environmental concern is probably due to a welcome growth in environmental awareness generally and, in part, to reports from other countries of serious damage which is being ascribed to air pollution. At this stage, for example, there has been extensive publicity about acidification of lakes in Scandinavia, forest dieback in Central Europe and other kinds of damage attributed to acid rain. But the increased public unease about air pollution cannot all be blamed on external factors. Localised problems have emerged in recent years, sometimes connected with a particular industry, in other cases related to activities such as mining or quarrying and sometimes arising from changes in the traditional ways of doing things, as for instance, the increasing practice of straw-burning. In addition, there is growing concern about the trend in air quality in the Dublin area, particularly the level of smoke at some periods during the winter. I shall return to this last topic at a later stage.
The common air pollutants are smoke, sulphur dioxide, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and lead. The principal cause of all of these is the combustion of fuel in one form or another. The main sources can be classified as power generation, industrial and commercial development the domestic sector and the transport sector. The proportion of total emissions contributed by each of these sectors varies with the pollutant in question. In 1983, 79 per cent of our emissions of sulphur dioxide of 140,000 tonnes arose from the commercial, industrial and power generation sectors, with emissions from the domestic sector amounting only to 17 per cent. For smoke, the reverse was the case, with domestic sources contributing 80 per cent of the 100,000 tonnes emitted in the State as a whole in 1983. In the case of nitrogen oxides, 68 per cent comes from the commercial, industrial and power generation sectors, with 27 per cent from road transport. Transport accounts for 81 per cent of carbon monoxide emissions and 53 per cent of hydrocarbon emissions. It will be evident, therefore, that the preservation and improvement of air quality requires action on a number of fronts and that air pollution cannot conveniently be ascribed to a few large industries. In carrying on our normal daily activities relating to work or the home, we all contribute in one way or another to the volume of pollutants emitted to the atmosphere. It follows, too, that all sections of the community must play some part in resolving the problems involved.
Apart from meeting our own national requirements, the Bill is intended to enable the State to meet in full the requirements of existing and likely future European Community requirements in the air pollution field. To date, directives which set air quality standards for smoke and sulphur dioxide and for lead have been implemented by administrative means. This Bill will enable us to implement these measures more fully and more effectively and, as well, to implement a more recent directive on air quality standards for nitrogen dioxide and a 1984 directive which requires us to introduce a licensing system for certain categories of industrial plant which may cause air pollution. The Bill also contains provisions which can be used to give full effect to directives on matters such as the sulphur content of fuels and the lead content of petrol. I might mention here that regulations which reduce the maximum lead content of petrol from 0.40 to 0.15 grams per litre came into operation on 1 April last, giving a reduction of some 60 per cent in lead emissions from motor vehicles.
Ireland has, of course, obligations in relation to air pollution which extend beyond the responsibilities imposed by membership of the European Communities. The State is a party to the 1979 Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution, commonly referred to as the Geneva Convention, which binds contracting states to limit and, as far as possible, gradually to reduce emissions of polluting substances into the atmosphere. Increasing concern over the severe problems from atmospheric pollution in continental Europe and in North America led to the signing in 1985 of a Protocol to the Convention in Helsinki when 21 countries undertook to reduce their emissions of sulphur dioxide by 30 per cent as soon as possible, and at the latest by 1993, using 1980 levels as the base.
Ireland was unable to accede to the Protocol for a number of reasons, including the fact that our total emmisions of SO 2 are small, the lack of evidence to suggest that these contribute to significant transboundary air pollution and the fact that the cost of such a reduction would be greatly disproportionate to any possible benefit to our own, or the wider European environment. We have, however, agreed to undertake all feasible measures to control air pollution and the present Bill is evidence of our commitment in that regard.
The intense debate at international level on transboundary air pollution and the issue of acid rain have prompted the Commission of the European Communities to bring forward a proposal for a directive on the limitation of emissions from large combustion plant. In Ireland, this would apply to most ESB generating plant and to at least one plant in the private sector. Under the draft directive, new plant, authorised after an agreed date, would have to observe Community emission limit values for SO 2 and NO x and perhaps dust, and total emissions from combustion plant would have to be reduced substantially or limited, using 1980 as a base year.
Originally, the draft directive envisaged uniform emission reductions in all member states of 60 per cent for SO 2 and 40 per cent each for NO x and dust. However, at the Environment Council in Luxembourg which I attended last week, the Dutch Presidency advanced new proposals based on a differentiated contribution by member states to an overall Community reduction of 45 per cent in SO 2 emisions. For Ireland, this would have involved maintaining SO 2 emissions from power plant in future at a level not exceeding that of 1980.
My response was to welcome the differentiated approach now proposed at EC level to the achievement of emission limitations by member states. Ireland has consistently stressed the negligible transboundary impact of its emissions and the disproportionate burden for our developing economy of accepting uniform Community reductions on our low level of emissions.
While this differentiated approach undoubtedly offers the best prospect for advancing the large combustion plant directive, I was not in a position at the recent council to signify Ireland's acceptance of the standstill of ESB emissions at the 1980 level which would be involved. The economic implications could still be quite onerous and require full evaluation by all our public authorities concerned. Other countries had to maintain similar reservations and the future shape of the draft directive is still uncertain.
Irish emissions of SO 2 were comparatively low in 1980 and have in fact been falling since largely due to the use of natural gas for power generation by the ESB. However, in accordance with EC energy policy, the ESB has undertaken a major fuel diversification policy and an important element in this is the Money-point plant. As a result of the changeover to coal by the ESB, national emissions of SO 2 are projected to rise above the current low level.
My earlier remarks were intended to sketch in briefly the general background against which Report No. 25 and the specific provisions of the Bill must be considered. I turn now to the individual sections but I do not intend to comment on each of them; to do so would involve inordinate time and detail and, in any event, Senators will have received a copy of the Explanatory Memorandum which was circulated with the Bill.
Part I of the Bill contains 22 sections but many of these are of a standard nature and require little comment or explanation. Section 4 defines the term "air pollution" for the purposes of the Bill. Its meaning is not easily captured because the concept of air pollution must be linked with a concentration of a substance in the atmosphere at a level harmful to public health, animal or plant life or the environment generally, rather than the mere existence of a substance in the atmosphere. In some cases, too, it may be the interaction of substances in the atmosphere which may cause difficulties. The definition in the Bill refers therefore, to a condition of the atmosphere in which a pollutant is present in such quantity as to be liable to give rise to damage to public health, animal or plant life, property, amenities or the environment. There is an associated definition of the term "pollutant" in section 7 (1) and, of course, the main pollutants with which the Bill is concerned are listed in the First Schedule.
Section 5 defines the term "best practicable means" which is used throughout the Bill. For example, the occupier of premises, other than a private dwelling, is required by section 24 (1) to use the best practicable means to limit and, if possible, to prevent an emission from the premises and, under section 32, a licence may not be granted in relation to industrial plant unless the local authority is satisfied that the best practicable means will be used there to prevent or limit emissions.
The best practicable means concept is well established in environmental legislation. It is used in EC legislation in both the air and water pollution areas, although different forms of words are sometimes employed, such as the best available technology which does not entail excessive costs, or the best technical means available taking account of economic availability. In the Bill, the phrase is defined in such a way as to require, in the circumstances of each case, an appropriate balance between available technology, environmental demands and cost considerations. I hope that the practical advantages of this approach will be apparent since in seeking to improve the quality of Irish life we must consider both the needs of development and the needs of the environment.
Section 6, together with the Third Schedule, defines the industrial plant to which the licensing provisions of Part III of the Bill will apply. "Existing plant" is also defined because, in accordance with the 1984 EC Directive on the combating of air pollution from industrial plant, it is intended that the licensing requirement will apply initially to new plant only. "Existing plant" is stated to be plant which has been granted a planning permission prior to 1 July 1987 — the date on which the EC Directive must be implemented — or plant which is in operation on 30 June 1987, or at any time within the previous 12 months. The licensing requirement will, however, gradually be extended to cover existing plant. In addition, the Minister will have power, by regulations made with the prior approval of each House, to add to the categories of plant specified in the Third Schedule, thus extending the scope of the licensing system, if this should prove to be necessary in order to control air pollution.
The remainder of this first Part of the Bill contains general provisions needed for the proper administration of the new code. These include provisions in relation to offences and penalties, the prosecution of offences, the powers of authorised persons to enter premises for purposes connected with the Bill and provisions designed to enable local authorities to acquire information necessary for the performance of the functions assigned to them. There are provisions also in relation to research into air pollution and consultation by local authorities with other persons and bodies in the administration of the Act.
The local authorities to whom responsibilities are being entrusted under the Bill are the 27 county councils, the five county borough corporations and Dún Laoghaire Corporation. Major organisational changes for local government in Dublin have, of course, to be legislated for later this year and these will naturally change the allocation of functional responsibilities for all services, including air pollution, in the Dublin area.
Under section 21, provision is made whereby any function conferred on a local authority in relation to air pollution may, by regulations, be transferred to another person or body, including a corporate body specially established for the purpose. This provision is included in recognition of the fact that some of the monitoring and other work which will arise under the Bill could require a high degree of expertise and access to specialised facilities which it might not be economic for the individual local authority to provide. In such situations it might be convenient for the functions in question to be carried out on behalf of local authorities by a body operating at national level such as, for example, An Foras Forbartha.
It may be opportune here to explain briefly why local authorities should carry the main responsibility for administering the present Bill. This is relevant also in view of criticisms already made by certain commentators that the dependence of many of the Bill's provisions on decision or adoption by local authorities is a weakness.
Environmental services and controls are the preserve of local authorities in most countries. There are two main reasons for this. First, because of their physical rather than personal nature there is considerable local variation in the need for and level of such services. Secondly, environmental services in the broad sense are widely seen as suited to some degree of local democratic decision.
In Ireland these considerations have brought local authorities into the administration of physical planning, water pollution control and waste management in addition to their longer-standing involvement in sanitary services, housing and roads. There is no reason why air pollution control should stand as an exception to these general principles and the Bill provides for a local authority involvement fully in line with that under other relevant codes.
The need for national standards and guidelines and for central policy direction and co-ordination in air pollution matters has not, however, been overlooked, as the exposition of later parts of the Bill will show. In particular, let me say that even where a local discretion applies, the Minister for the Environment will still have power to ensure adequate action under the Bill by any reluctant local authority.
Section 22 takes account of the concept of controlling air pollution by economic instruments in addition to, or instead of, regulation. It enables local authorities to make charges, in accordance with regulations made by the Minister, in relation to emissions. Economists have argued that pollution arises from market failure, in that producers tend to ignore the external costs caused by their activities, and that this can be corrected by the use of emission charges. There is, however, little evidence available regarding the use of emission charges in the control of air pollution. There are some obvious disadvantages attached to this approach such as the difficulty of determining the level of charges which will ensure that emissions do not involve contravention of basic air quality standards. It is possible, however, that emission charges may be found to have a role to play in the control of air pollution and, for this reason, the flexible provisions of section 22 have been included in the Bill.
Emission charges are, of course, only one way of applying the polluter pays principle on which environmental protection law tends to be based nowadays. Other provisions of the present Bill are grounded on this principle. For example, section 24 (1) requires the occupier of any premises, other than a private dwelling, to use the best practicable means to limit, and, if possible, to prevent an emission from the premises. Similarly, the licensing provisions in Part III are based on the principle that the industrial plant concerned must use the best practicable means to limit or prevent emissions from the plant. In these cases, the costs involved in complying with the provisions of the Bill will have to be borne by those responsible for the relevant emissions.
Part II of the Bill sets out general provisions in relation to air pollution control. It provides a range of powers which can be used by the Minister for the Environment and the local authorities to deal with a variety of situations — emissions of dark smoke, wind-blown dust arising from land used for mining or industrial purposes, smoke arising from straw-burning, or any other emissions of pollutants which may give rise to air pollution or to nuisance. As I have mentioned already, there is to be an obligation on the occupiers of all premises, other than private dwellings, to use the best practicable means to prevent or limit emissions. There will also be a prohibition on emissions from any premises which may be a nuisance to any person. There is power in section 25 to make regulations controlling emissions of smoke and prohibiting or restricting the burning of straw, waste or any other substance which may cause air pollution. There is provision in section 23 under which the Minister may prohibit any specified emissions or prohibit the production, treatment, use, import, marketing or sale of any substance, other than a fuel, which may cause air pollution.
To ensure compliance with these provisions, local authorities will be empowered under section 26 to serve notices requiring occupiers of premises to take specified measures to limit or to prevent air pollution and, where urgent measures are required, the local authorities themselves may take direct action under section 27. In addition, to deal with serious situations, the High Court will be authorised, on the application of a local authority or any other person, to prohibit or restrict an emission. I believe that these wide powers will enable local authorities to ensure the preservation of the air quality in their areas.
EC Directive 84/360 on the combating of air pollution from industrial plant must be brought into effect by 1 July, 1987. It requires that all new industrial plant, of a type specified in the directive, should be authorised before coming into operation. Prior authorisation is also required for substantial alterations to existing plant and the authorisation requirement is to be gradually extended to existing plant. In granting a licence or an authorisation, the competent authority — in our case the local authority — must be satisfied that all appropriate measures against air pollution have been taken, provided that the application of such measures does not entail excessive costs. The authority must also be satisfied that the plant will not cause significant air pollution or contravene any applicable emission limit values or air quality limit values.
Part III of the Bill will translate this directive into Irish law by providing a framework for the granting of licences broadly similar to that provided in the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act, 1977 and the Local Government (Planning and Development) Acts. The Bill provides for the making of regulations to govern the detailed procedure involved in the granting of licences. There is specific provision in section 34 for appeals to An Bord Pleanála against the granting or refusing of a licence or against any conditions attached to a licence. In practice, the board and the planning authorities are obliged, under planning law to have regard to the potential air pollution from a development and they attach conditions for the control of air pollution where appropriate. It is desirable, and should be of assistance to applicants, that the one appeals tribunal should deal with appeals under the planning, water pollution and air pollution Acts. The new licensing arrangements where they apply, will, of course, take the place of planning conditions relating to air pollution.
Provision is made in section 33 for the review of licences at intervals of not less than three years, or at any time where the local authority have grounds for believing that an emission may constitute a serious risk of air pollution, or where there has been a material change in air quality which could not have been foreseen when the licence was granted.