First, I would like to welcome the Minister to the House and compliment her on her initiative in bringing this Bill to the Seanad. This is a bold move by the Minister and, indeed, a very appropriate one. If we consider for a moment the Seanad, its composition and the role it should play in the democratic system in Ireland, basically it is a nonpolitical body, a combination of members who are elected through the decisions of local government representatives and through vocational decisions. Who is better versed than those who have taken on board a consensus of opinion from those relevant electors?
I am very impressed by the broad and responsible debate on all sides of the House on this Bill so far. It proves that the Minister's decision to give priority to this House was, first, a welcome decision as far as the House is concerned but more importantly, it will give the Minister and the Government a very valued opinion — and hopefully suggestions and, perhaps, amendments — that will provide the people with a system of structures and advice that will enhance our country and perhaps provide a model for the protection and enjoyment of the environment for the developed and even the developing countries.
In the Minister's address to this House last week, she indicated that we may have missed the problems associated with. industrial developments that have bedevilled some other European countries in particular. That may be so, but this time we have a background of great public concern over issues such as damage to the ozone layer, the effects of fish farming, oil spills, chemical factories, acid rain, the disposal of waste and the pollution of rivers and water courses. Different groups and enterprises are often identified with contributing to these situations, and rightly so. State and semi-State organisations can be included in this category.
Without being local or, as it were, having a back garden outlook, it would be remiss of me, as somebody from the west or midlands of Ireland not to mention the destruction of one of our largest rivers. I consider it destruction at this stage, namely, of that fine water course — possibly one of the finest in Europe — the River Shannon and its tributaries. It is pretty well accepted now that the involvement of a semi-State body has contributed to a large extent to that destruction and to the state of pollution of the river and its tributaries, particularly the River Suck. The Minister would know where it is and may have travelled around there when she was a schoolgirl. That is a matter of importance. It must be looked at on the basis of private and public contribution to pollution and the destruction of our environment. By "public" I mean the State contribution to pollution.
The Bill is presented in a climate where the importance of increased attention to the environment in which we live is generally accepted by members of the public, local authorities and national and international governing bodies. We start off on a good base where there is a public awareness. The Bill introduces for the first time a structure for the co-ordination of efforts towards achieving a better environment for us and, more importantly, for our children and a place for them to live. This Bill provides a legislative basis for tackling our many environmental problems. I believe it will meet the needs identified in the European Commission's Green Paper on Urban Environment. There is one major omission in that paper. I will get back to it later.
When studying the Bill a number of possible improvements or suggestions came to mind which if agreed would enhance the effect of the Bill. I am not at this stage coming up with amendments or pre-empting Committee Stage, nor have I a very definite view. The Minister in her reply may clear the air on particular areas or sections, or on opinions of people regarding the Bill. The first area of concern raises the need for active and prescribed co-operation between our 33 local authorities and the new agency. The Bill deals with that in sections 41 to 44 — the relationship which it envisaged between those two parties charged with the protection of the environment. While the need for a national co-ordinating body which protects the environment is accepted, there is also a need to involve, not in a discretionary way, the local authorities which have traditionally performed this function. This would achieve the need for local input into the performance of this function and provide the necessary local knowledge to properly plan environmental protection.
The need for a regional structure is, indeed, accepted in section 42 of the Bill. What has bedevilled local authorities to date is the lack of finance. Something written into the Bill aimed at ensuring active participation of local authorities would be of benefit in so far as it would show a combined approach by the local authorities and the Environmental Protection Agency. I would also be concerned with the provisions of sections 53, 92 and 97 of the Bill which allow a transfer of functions from local authorities to the agency. You will have to appreciate from the background from which I come, through the local authority system, that obviously I would have to be somewhat protective of the local authority system. The organisation from which I got my nomination to this House — the General Council of County Councils — have discussed this Bill. They see it as a fine Bill. I am worried about some minor parts of it, but the Minister in her research in preparing this Bill met the General Council of County Councils and got their views. I have no doubt the Minister included measures to alleviate their worries regarding the Bill.
It is essential that section 27 of the Bill should have some provision for two members to the advisory committee from the nomination of the General Council of County Councils which is a representative body of the County and County Borough Councils of Ireland. This is necessary to ensure the participation of representatives of local authorities who, jointly with the proposed agency, are charged with the responsibility for environmental protection. In order to ensure that local authorities can properly perform their existing statutory functions, which are to be supervised by the agency in accordance with sections 56 to 63 of the Bill, the necessary financial assistance must be provided for local authorities. I hope these financial problems of local authorities will be addressed in the reform of local government, which we hope will take place in the very near future.
Section 11 of the Bill could be strengthened as it is too weak in allowing offenders off the hook if not caught within a period of five years from the commencement of the offence. Because of the silent and unseen nature of many environmental offences, it can take a long time before such offences manifest themselves. Accordingly, I feel it wise not to limit the time permitted for the prosecution of an offence. This may create legal complications arising out of the statute of limitations, but I believe those could be addressed. It is necessary that the Minister make an order under section 79 of the Bill, if passed, requiring all established bodies to make application for licences within a limited period.
The introduction of the environmental impact assessment system last year, with the implementation of EC regulations, has given rise to problems particularly in relation to the content of the environmental impact statements. The proposals in section 69 enabling the agency to prepare guidelines which must be observed is to be welcomed. The role of the agency in relation to the grey area of exemption from preparing impact statements is welcomed. Although there are many references in the Bill to the advisory role to be played by the agency and the publication of reports on the results of monitoring procedures, section 51 could be amended to require the agency to promote public awareness of the need for care of our environment. There is a significant and increasing appreciation by the public of our environment, of the need to improve it and a realisation that the way in which we live and work has an effect on it. There is a need for the agency to harness this reservoir of goodwill by actively promoting an interest in environmental issues in conjunction with the recently established environmental information service.
Sections 51 and 52 of the Bill provide that the agency will have an international dimension by way of research and liaison with the European Environmental Agency and the performance of any additional functions assigned to it by the Minister arising from emerging international obligations to the State. I suggest that the agency be required under section 51, or section 52, to make active representation at EC and other international levels to tackle the serious problems arising from the use of nuclear plants in other countries. Such nuclear activity is not rated highly by countries such as Ireland, the population of which is subject to the dangers to life arising from this activity. The environmental dangers of nuclear developments are a source of great concern to this country because of the long-range transfer of environmental problems associated with them.
It is essential that a national agency of this nature be specifically required to carry out the necessary research and make the necessary representations internationally on this question. It is the cause of much regret that the recently published EC Green Paper on urban environment made no reference whatsoever to nuclear environmental damage when listing the problems and suggesting solutions in the environmental area. This is the point I mentioned earlier. The Commission Green Paper regretted the absence of sufficient information on key environmental health indicators such as air, water, soil qualities and noise levels.
Section 2 to section 68 of the Bill, establishing a national structure for the collection, co-ordination and publication of such information, is a very welcome development. I believe the views and analysis included in the Green Paper to be accurate and well-founded. I regret, however, that no reference is made to the major environment damage and risk caused by nuclear development in relation to power generated from it. This is identified as a significant risk to the lives and health of humanity, yet there is no mention of it. The silent and unseen long-range transfer of environmental dangers associated with nuclear plants is identified by me as one in need of urgent regulatory control, research and monitoring in any analysis or policy formulation in relation to the environment. It is a view held by practically every person in the country that protection of the environment must be addressed in the context of the nuclear situation also. I agree with the solutions suggested in the Green Paper but I also feel that any solutions must consider the sources and effects of environmental problems in smaller urban and rural areas as well as in cities. This is something that is missing in this document as well. This document is very relevant in so far as the Bill before the House is concerned. I also believe that there must be a careful balance between the conflicting needs in relation to environmental protection and economic and social development. The results of strong, regulatory controls in the environment area will naturally be more pronounced in poorer regions. Any solutions must consequently be combined with financial assistance and inducements to commercial and industrial enterprises, particularly in regions where the scale of commercial and industrial enterprise is underdeveloped. The success of any solution will ultimately depend on the ability of local, national and European authorities to provide the financial resources to ensure that the solution of environmental problems is not accompanied by deterioration in economic and social development.
The need for integrated decision making policies identified in the Green Paper is strongly supported in this context. It suggests a particular change in policy in the planning area in relation, say to land use and transportation infrastructure and I am in agreement with this. There are significant financial implications in this change for local and national authorities. The development of large, isolated housing settlements, public and private, in urban areas must never again take place in view of the many social problems created by this type of development. We cannot separate social and environmental matters in this situation. I strongly recommend the continuation and expansion of the excellent urban renewal programme in Ireland. It has served to revitalise and improve derelict urban sites in designated urban areas. I also propose the commencement of possible pilot projects in some of the major urban areas to relieve environmental problems experienced therein.
Irish cities, although as old as other European cities and possibly as rich in culture and heritage, are not as advanced in the city life cycle as their European counterparts. Two examples prompt me to this conclusion. The first relates to the tackling of pollution arising from the use of coal for home heating. This is mentioned in the Green Paper. It has been mentioned that European states or cities started the process of elimination in the fifties. This matter is dear to the Minister's heart and I must compliment her on her swift action in that area when the problem became intense here. Now the matter has been firmly dealt with. The point I want to make is that we only finalised that process in recent years while the Green Paper on urban environment states that in other European countries it started in the fifties.
The second example relates to the stage of growth of cities in the city life cycle. The Green Paper suggests that European cities have passed the stage of creating new districts within cities to absorb population growth from rural migration. While that may be the situation in the European context, I do not think we have yet reached that situation in an Irish context. I do not think they have passed the development stage. I feel it is necessary to regulate in relation to air quality, water quality, noise levels, soil contamination levels and waste disposal practices. This is being done in some of the areas, though it must be extended to all identified areas. Any such regulations must take account of matters that are raised.
We have to have a very broad approach to this whole area of the environment. I do not think we can leave anything aside just because it is a thorny or a particularly obnoxious situation, whether it involves a State boundary or whatever. In order to remedy the problems associated with the disposal of effluent from city sanitation facilities, there is a need for joint ventures between city and rural authorities because of the major costs involved. This is also an area where financial resources are required.
I do not mean to digress but I believe all of this is inter-linked with protection of our environment. The measures required of European institutions are referred to above when considering solutions proposed in their Green Paper. They relate mainly to the provision of a structure to provide the necessary and significant finance required to implement solutions. Any policy on solutions should not inhibit the necessary social and economic development. The development of universal standards is also desirable at international level. Obviously the European Commission has to play a role in our situation.
Senator O'Keeffe mentioned yesterday that a sum in the region of £500,000 was originally considered to be sufficient for the establisment of an Environmental Protection Agency. The figure is now £8 million. Are we involved in other areas where costs may escalate? I believe European support for such a body is vital because any research that is done — and obviously there is a research element in this body — will be available on a global basis. Therefore European back-up is very important.
The subject of nuclear environmental problems should be addressed as a matter of urgency at EC levels because the nuclear industry is an international enterprise and is not shared by countries with a non-nuclear policy although they experience the damage and effects. We all remember the contamination from the nuclear plant in Russia when lambs in Scotland and possibly in Ireland were affected. Nuclear fall-out does not respect boundaries, it can wind up anywhere.
While it is most important that we care for the environment, it is also important that we do not unnecessarily inhibit further social and economic development. Accordingly, the Bill is ensuring that control of the environmental problems takes account of other factors and this is welcome. It is felt that the introduction of the integrated pollution control licensing system envisaged in Part IV of the Bill will assist in this regard. There must be a broadening of the criteria used in determining the allocation of EC Structural Funds to allow for further social and economic growth while, at the same time, achieving our environmental objectives.
It is also opportune at this time to raise the question of the environmental problems caused by silt run-off from intensive peat developments. I mentioned this earlier in relation to damage to our River Shannon and its tributaries. The Local Government (Water Pollution) (Amendment) Act, 1990 empowered the Minister to make regulations repealing or subjecting to conditions the provision on the exemption from water pollution offences under section 3 of the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act, 1977 currently enjoyed by Bord na Móna operations. That was an exemption they had in that situation. I am aware that the Department of the Environment, in conjunction with local authorities, initiated a survey to assess the extent to which peat silting is affecting waterways, rivers, lakes and coastal waters. I would like to ask the Minister if the results of this survey are available, what recommendations are suggested or what action is required.
I believe the Minister has done justice to this House in bringing this Bill here. It is a very progressive Bill. The content of the Bill is something that is very close to the Minister's heart. She has shown a personal interest in the environment. It is hard to cover all aspects and to foresee all the problems that may arise along the way and I would not be downhearted if at a later stage we ran into problems in a particular area because the environmental scene is ongoing and developing. There is no reason why at any time in the future the Minister, or somebody else in her position, could not come back to this House or the other House for further amendment and further measures to protect our environment. This is a most worthwhile Bill. It is extensive. It covers practically every area except the nuclear one. However, there may be other situations in the future when further measures will be necessary.
I want to compliment the Minister on the Bill and wish it well on its passage through this House. I am very impressed by the Minister's promise that if, on Committee Stage, there are Members or parties of this House who wish to put down amendments she will consider them if they do not interfere with the broad outline of the Bill. I look forward to further debate on the Bill.