I would like to begin by saying how pleased I am that this Bill's parliamentary passage is beginning here in the Seanad and I look forward to a constructive debate on its provisions.
In just a little over five years the environment and its protection has risen from the position of "also ran" on the political agenda to the very top. Throughout the developed world, millions of people have come to accept the overriding importance of environmental issues. The sheer pace of environmental degradation in western industrialised society has taken many by surprise. In just a generation many countries have succeeded in turning clean rivers and green fields into industrial wastelands.
The full horror of unfettered and unregulated development became apparent when the Iron Curtain fell just over a year ago. In one province of Poland the number of cancer cases has nearly doubled in the past 12 years and over half of all children under ten years of age suffer from chronic illness.
Western Europe has been luckier. The EC in paritcular has been legislating to protect the environment since the seventies but much of this legislation is formulated in the context of ensuring that no further damage takes place in an already degraded environment.
The situation in Ireland is different from much of the EC. Luckily for us, heavy industry has passed us by and left us, almost alone in Europe, with a relatively unspoiled environment. Much has been achieved already in our efforts to protect and preserve this unspoiled environment. The Local Government (Water Pollution) Acts, 1977 and 1990 and the Air Pollution Act, 1987, contain very wide-ranging controls for the protection of the environment. My Department are at present working on new legislation on waste to complete this legislative umbrella over land, air and water.
The 33 major local authorities in Ireland are charged with the implementation of this legislation and, by and large, they have performed this task well. Recently, however, difficulties have begun to arise.
Environmental protection in the area of licensing of new and existing development has become increasingly complex and specialised. It has become more and more difficult for each local authority to provide the expertise necessary to carry out their licensing functions. Problems of public confidence and the need for a more uniform decision-making process have made it clear that these functions should now be carried out by one expert body. The idea of an Environmental Protection Agency has been born out of the need for such a body.
When work on this Bill began, I had three priorities or essential characteristics which I knew the agency would have to have in order to be effective. They were: independence from Government, public authorities or any other interested bodies; power to carry out their functions effectively and transparency in all their decisions.
This Bill confers on the new agency all these characteristics and much more. What began as a simple idea for an agency to protect our environment has evolved, by necessity, into the most important and comprehensive legislation in the environmental area since the planning legislation of the early sixties.
Right from the very beginning it was obvious to me that this Bill was being formulated in an atmosphere of public disquiet about the impartiality of public authorities in their decision-making on often controversial developments. It, therefore, made little sense to retire into a vacuum to solve this problem, so I embarked on a process of wide-ranging consultations across both the public and private sectors. In addition to meetings with individual groups and receiving over 50 written submisions, a full day seminar was held this time last year at which I heard many different views on the role of the proposed agency.
The result of this admittedly long incubation period is a milestone in environmental legislation in this country. This Bill will allow the the establishment of a fully resourced, independent body with considerable powers to ensure the protection of the environment. The agency have a budget of approximately £8 million. Half of this annual budget will come from the redeployment of staff and from charges made by the agency. There will, therefore, be a net additional expenditure of about £4 million when the agency are fully operational.
The agency will be managed by a small executive board made up of a wholetime director general and four wholetime directors. The Environmental Protection Agency will have direct responsibility for the licensing, control and enforcement of specific classes of activities with potential for serious pollution. Examples of these would be chemical industries, mining or intensive agricultural activities.
The new licence will be integrated, encompassing controls on emissions to environmental media including air and water. Contrary to some public misconceptions in recent months, the licensing procedure provides for full public participation in the decision-making process, with provision for third party objections and oral hearings where necessary. However, instead of appealing to An Bord Pleanála, objections will be heard by the agency in recognition of the fact that no other organisation will have the same high level of environmental expertise which will be necessary to deal with the complex issues involved in particular cases.
The other main functions which the Bill assigns to the agency are those of: providing guidelines and back-up to local authorities and other public bodies concerned with the environment; co-ordinating environmental monitoring and reporting on the state of the environment, and co-ordinating environmental research.
The agency will also seek to promote the implementation of environmentally sound practices through a wide range of actions. These include involvement in the procedures for environmental impact assessment, promoting the conduct of environmental audits for existing development, the establishment of a labelling scheme for environmentally friendly products and services, issuing or approving codes of practice and specifying environmental quality objectives.
There is provision for a system whereby the Minister for the Marine will have to get the prior approval of the agency before issuing licences and other authorisations under marine legislation. The agency will also have an overseeing role in ensuring that drinking water quality, sewage treatment plant and landfill sites operated by local authorities meet the required standards.
If the new agency is to have the full confidence of the general public it must be tough, independent and fair in all its dealings and it must be seen to be so.
The independence of the agency is guaranteed by a number of important elements. First, the executive board is selected by an independent committee. The agency will also have an effective and expert staff and the freedom to act of its own volition. It will have sole and direct responsibility for licensing a wide range of activities and, lastly, it will be an offence under this Act to lobby any member of the board or employee of the agency with the intention of influencing improperly a matter to be decided by the agency.
The agency will have wide-ranging powers including the power to prosecute summary offences, the power to hold inquiries and publish reports on pollution incidents. It will have all the necessary powers and functions under the Air and Water Pollution Acts, for example, the power to seek a High Court injunction to prevent serious pollution. Finally, it will have supervisory power over the performance by local authorities of their functions relating to the environment. This includes power to direct local authorities to take specific remedial measures, or failing compliance to have these measures implemented and the costs recovered as a simple contract debt.
The public will be entitled under the Bill to access to all of the agency's monitoring data as well as monitoring data collected by local authorities on its behalf.
This provision on freedom of information is one of the most important. This agency belongs to the people. One of the main reasons for its existence is that the man or woman in the street can be happy that there is an independent watchdog, or guardian if you like, protecting the environment for all of us. The agency will only gain that level of confidence if it is independent and accessible to the public.
A detailed explanatory memorandum on the Bill has already been circulated to Senators. I intend for the remainder of this speech to highlight only the most important elements of the Bill. In my response to the debate I will be glad to clarify any other aspects of the Bill which Senators may wish to raise. Much of the detail of the Bill will of course be more appropriate to Committee Stage.
The text of the Bill, which has 109 sections and is in six Parts, can be summarised as follows:
Part I contains standard provisions of a general nature dealing with such matters as interpretation, regulations, offences, penalties and other housekeeping provisions.
Part II deals with the establishment, membership, staffing, financing and operational matters of the agency. It also provides for the formal dissolution of An Foras Forbartha and the transfer of its staff to the agency.
Part III deals with the functions of the agency.
Part IV provides for the establishment of an integrated licensing system to be operated by the agency for activities listed in the First Schedule to the Bill i.e. those activities with potential for major pollution.
Part V includes a number of general matters in relation to environmental protection including provision for powers under water and air pollution control legislation to be operated by the agency in addition to or in lieu of local authorities. It also provides for special reports and inquiries.
Part VI is a miscellaneous Part dealing with noise, improved access to information, control of genetically modified organisms and the increase of certain penalties under other legislation. These matters are not directly connected with the Environmental Protection Agency.
The First Schedule specifies the activities which are to be subject to licensing by the agency. The Second Schedule specifies existing enactments in respect of which functions can be transferred to the agency.
Both Schedules can be amended by ministerial order, subject to affirmative resolution of each House of the Oireachtas.
Section 19 provides that the agency will consist of a wholetime director general and for other wholetime directors. These will be appointed by the Government following selection by an independent committee for which provision is made in sections 21 and 24. This procedure is broadly similar to the appointment of the chairman of An Bord Pleanála and the Director of Public Prosecutions.
The agency will be required to perform its functions as far as is practicable through a regional organisation and there is provision in section 27 for an advisory committee of 12 members. This committee will be empowered to advise both the Minister and the agency in relation to any matter, other than individual licensing decisions affecting the agency's function.
The agency will be funded by means of grants, by the imposition of fees for licences and by charges for services. A provision of £1 million has been included in the Department's Estimates for 1991 for the agency. This does not take into account whatever funds would be transferred to the agency in conjunction with the transfer of staff from other bodies for which budgetary provision has already been made.
The agency will be able to recruit its own staff under section 29 subject to whatever limits may apply as to overall numbers and grading. It is the intention to transfer to the agency the remaining hydrometric and regional staff of An Foras Forbartha, which will be formally dissolved under the provisions of section 32. Section 30 facilitates the transfer of staff of other bodies whose functions are transferred to the agency, subject to consultations between the bodies and the Ministers concerned. To enable the agency to become established and operational at an early stage the Minister may provide staff and services and there can be agreement for secondment of staff from other bodies to the agency under section 43. Finally, the agency may make arrangements under section 44 with other public authorities for the discharge of certain of its functions.
Overall, the agency will have a wide range of direct staffing and other options, for the discharge of its functions.
The agency will be independent from the Government, local authorities and vested interests in the performance of its functions. This independence is underwritten by the selection procedures for the appointment of members of the agency to which I have already referred, by the fact that it will be a corporate body separate from the Department and by its autonomous licensing role.
In the overall operation of the agency, it will also be essential that it should work within a broad public context and take a balanced view on the issues coming before it. Provision is made, therefore, for a system of general policy directives by the Minister; these will not compromise the independence of the agency in dealing with specific issues or cases. An example of the directive which could be given would be a directive, in accordance with Government policy, not to grant a licence for a nuclear power station. Directives must be published and laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas.
I will now deal with the functions of the agency in some more detail. With regard to its regulatory functions the agency will have direct responsibility under Part IV of the Bill for operating an integrated licensing system and for monitoring, control and enforcement of environmental criteria in relation to classes of activities with potential for serious pollution. The activities involved are set out in the First Schedule to the Bill which will be capable of amendment by ministerial order to cater for changed circumstances. The activities to be licensed by the agency are mainly those associated with heavy or largescale industrial processes but also include activities such as mining, peat extraction, the food industry and intensive pig and poultry rearing. The agency will have regard to the best available technologies not entailing excessive costs for preventing or reducing emissions and to the polluter pays principle when deciding on licence applications. The integrated licensing system will operate for the activities concerned instead of the system of separate licences and permits for air, water and waste as exists at present.
The concept of integrated pollution control is a relatively recent one and is, incidentally, also a central feature of the British Environmental Protection Act, 1990. It offers advantages both environmentally and administratively. Environmentally, it will improve on the previous system of separate air, water and waste licences by allowing all environmental impacts of a proposed activity to be considered in a balanced and integrated way when dealing with the licence application.
Administratively, integrated environmental licensing will offer developers the advantage of a one stop shop where all the environmental requirements of their proposal can be considered within a single statutory procedure. This simpler and more streamlined administrative arrangement also of course benefits.
Section 82 provides for a two stage public consultation process by the agency in relation to draft integrated licences, with provision for objections and, where necessary, oral hearings. This arrangement reflects the need for meaningful public participation while also facilitating the more speedy processing of licence applications. Any further appeal or application for review of a licence will be a matter for the courts.
Section 70 will enable the Minister to make regulations, subject to the consent of the Minister for the Marine, requiring the prior approval of the agency in relation to the environmental implications of activities coming before the Minister for the Marine for licences, permits or other authorisations. These could include aquaculture, dumping at sea and certain foreshore developments.
The agency will be empowered to investigate and publish reports on pollution incidents or other matters related to environmental protection if requested to do so by the Minister or on its own initiative. Formal inquiries by the agency, following consultation with the Minister or by direction of the Minister, into a pollution incident or any other matter related to environmental protection are also catered for.
Local authorities will continue to be extensively involved in environmental monitoring and control activities, and it is desirable that a mechanism should exist to guide standards of local authority performance and to encourage the consistent application of control procedures throughout the country.
Sections 55 and 56 give the agency general powers of advice and assistance in relation to local authorities. Section 60 provides for the taking of appropriate action by the agency if the environmental functions of a local authority are not being properly performed. Under sections 57 to 59, the agency will set criteria for the management of local authority sewage treatment plants and landfill sites and will have a general supervisory role in relation to local authority obligations for the quality of drinking water.
Under section 54, the agency will also have the right to provide advice or make recommendations to any Government Minister or public authority on environmental matters relative to their functions.
Under sections 69 to 75 the agency are empowered to influence and promote the use of environmentally sound practices in a wide variety of ways. The agency are given an extensive involvement in the operation of the environmental impact assessment procedure. In particular, this involves power for the agency to prepare guidelines on the information to be contained in environmental impact statements. Those preparing and assessing environmental impact statements must have regard to these guidelines.
Under section 71 the agency will be responsible for promoting environmental audits through the specification of guidelines and criteria for this purpose. Section 72 enables the agency to specify environmental quality objectives which must be taken into account by Ministers and other public authorities in formulating policy, setting standards or exercising their environmental protection functions.
The agency will be obliged under section 75 to establish an eco-labelling scheme involving the use of a special symbol on the labels of products or in connection with services which meet specified environmental criteria. Senators may be interested to know that the EC Commission has recently prepared draft proposals for a Community-wide eco-labelling scheme.
There is an increasing demand for reliable and authoritative environmental information and the Bill provides for a leading role for the agency in ensuring this demand is met. Sections 61 to 67 set out a range of relevant activities to be undertaken or co-ordinated by the agency.
The agency will prepare, publish and implement programmes for the monitoring of environmental quality including hydrometric data. Much of this monitoring will continue to be done on an agency basis by local authorities and other public bodies but will be subject to co-ordination by the agency to ensure that comparable and comprehensive data are produced. In order to provide a reliable supply of environmental information the agency will establish an analytical quality control programme and require laboratories which supply them with data to be properly accredited.
Open and accessible environmental information is the cornerstone of this Bill. The agency will be obliged under section 64 to facilitate public access to environmental monitoring results held by them. There is also provision for the agency to establish and maintain a data base on environmental quality. Finally, the agency will prepare state of the environment reports at least every five years and will be obliged to report regularly on their operations and activities.
The agency will have the role under section 68 of fostering and co-ordinating environmental research in Ireland. A well developed cohesive network of environmental research linked to environmental monitoring, both of which are to a large extent interdependent, will be critical to our ability to respond positively and efficiently to environmental problems in the future.
The agency will, therefore, co-ordinate environmental research and related programmes by public and other bodies and will prepare and publish registers of environmental research projects or operations. The agency will have power to carry out research directly, or through consultancy or commissioned work. The agency will, as a matter of priority, liaise with the EC Commission and other international organisations so as to secure maximum funding for, and participation in, environmental research work in Ireland.
Over and above provisions related to the new agency, the Bill deals with a number of environmental matters that are not adequately provided for by existing legislation such as noise, improved access to environmental information, the use of genetically modified organisms and the level of certain penalties in other legislation.
To effectively exercise such a wide range of functions the agency require strong powers. Offences under the Bill will carry the maximum penalties on summary conviction of £1,000 and/or imprisonment for six months, and on conviction on indictment of £10 million and/or imprisonment for ten years; fines on foot of summary convictions will be payable to the agency. These fines are of a magnitude sufficient to reflect the gravity of pollution as an offence and will act, I believe, as a deterrent to the enterprises or individuals who may be tempted to take the pollution option if it would result in a short term financial saving.
I am determined that the agency should not be seen as anti-industry. However, it will be pro-environment, and if that means anything it means that it will be anti-dirty industry, anti-dirty agriculture and anti-pollution of any kind.
This Government are committed to sustainable economic development. Essentially, that means that in the pursuit of economic development to meet the needs of the present generation we must not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs. I have no doubt that the greatest legacy we can leave to future generations is a clean, unspoiled environment because that is our single most important natural resource.
We do not have huge resources of oil or mineral wealth but we do have what is probably the cleanest environment in Europe, a natural resource which will never be exhausted if we take care of it. The decisions we make in future about what type of development we want in Ireland will have to take this into account. Much of our recent economic recovery can be attributed to industries which are dependent on a clean environment. Food and agriculture, electronics and tourism all depend for their survival and growth on a clean, green environment. Continued economic growth, I believe, will depend more and more on the perception abroad that Ireland is "environmentally friendly". It is no longer an issue of jobs or the environment. In the nineties it is going to be an issue of jobs because of the environment.
The Environmental Protection Agency Bill is a radical and progressive step forward. It is truly legislation for the nineties. In safeguarding our environment, it will be in effect helping to safeguard our economic future. It is solid evidence to the wider world that Ireland and the Government are serious about preserving our unspoiled environment.
I look forward to a constructive debate in the Seanad and at a later stage to responding to many of the suggestions and queries which I am sure will come from all sides of this House. I look forward to a good debate and to the support of all the groups and Independents in this House on the general principles of the Bill now before us.