That Seanad Éireann condemns the Minister for the Environment and Local Government for his proposals to further erode local democracy through his proposals on waste disposal; and demands that before any final decisions are taken the Minister enters into a full debate on all the issues involved, including especially the possible health hazards of incineration.
I welcome the Minister for the Environment and Local Government. This is a critically important debate which has ramifications for every part of the country. It has been brought about by a lack of effective policy on waste management, nationally and locally. We all ignored the problem until waste was literally piling up in our dumps. Powers were given to local authorities to draw up and develop waste management plans. The waste management plan for County Louth, in which I was involved, was rejected by the elected members. We were left with no choice, but to reject it. The only concerns of those who voted against it were the health and environmental effects of the policy on incineration contained in the plan. On the basis of legal advice, we were told that we had to either accept the plan or reject it in total. We rejected it totally because we were, and still remain, deeply concerned about the health effects of incineration.
I will not be drawn down a side route with regard to the amended proposals. I will concentrate instead on the key tenor of the proposal, that we have a full debate on the issues of waste management, including especially the possible health hazards of incineration. The Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs of the British Parliament published its fifth report on 21 March, following a number of public hearings on waste management. This all-party committee discussed at length the health effects of incineration. The report states:
There is real public concern about the impacts of emissions from incinerators upon human health. These emissions include pollutants with known toxic properties, such as dioxins and nitrous oxides, but the health concerns do not centre solely on gaseous emissions. There are also worries about the content and treatment of the fly ash and so on. There is a significant body of epidemiological evidence which shows health effects resulting from older incinerators. Even today's exponents of incineration accept that the older incinerators were relatively dirty, and probably did have direct health effects.
Those who draw a distinction between new and old incinerators, must take cognisance of the fact that many older incinerators were closed down in the mid 1990s as new standards were introduced. Certainly, there is good evi dence that the emission standards have driven down the actual emissions from incinerators and this will continue with the implementation of the waste incineration directive. However, it is also generally accepted that emission standards are still based on what can be measured and what is technologically achievable, rather than what is safe.
That goes to the core of our argument – what is safe? How do we know that it is safe? Our waste management plans have been drawn up by experts in technology, engineering and other fields, but nowhere has the health aspect of incineration been brought into consideration. This is a critical and core aspect of the whole debate. The Minister is well aware that the people of south County Louth and east County Meath are up in arms about incineration, not because they do not believe in waste management, recycling or composting, but because they do not believe that the case has been proven that incinerators are safe and should be allowed in our community.
The planning process will not take these health fears into account. If the Minister wishes – we urge him to do so – he can order an immediate moratorium on all planning applications for incineration. He should institute a public debate in the House, at the environmental committee or in whatever medium he chooses. We, on this side of the House, will co-operate fully. The debate should involve the expertise of the EPA, the Health Research Board and health experts from the United Kingdom and the United States of America. We will not accept that incineration is a safe process unless and until all the facts are presented.
The Minister's policy is misdirected. Nowhere in the amendment he has tabled are the health aspects of the issue acknowledged. The EPA, to whose views the Minister refers, is not concerned with health matters, but with environmental issues, rightly so. The main health issue is completely and utterly ignored. The impact of the British report from which I quoted is that the public will not trust the incineration process until it believes it to be safe. People in the United Kingdom believe that the history of incineration is unacceptable. The arguments on the health effects are complex and based on incomplete knowledge.
There are, however, some truths which can be drawn from the debate on health impacts. The health effects resulting from incinerator emissions are not yet fully known. The regulation of incinerators has been rather poor to date, resulting in inappropriate practices at some incinerators. This, in turn, has raised the level of anxiety among the general public. Regulation must encompass emissions, the proper handling of the ash and all other aspects of the operation. The lack of pre-separation of potentially hazardous materials, such as PVC, treated wood and batter ies, increases the risk of emission limits being exceeded.
The British report takes the UK Environmental Protection Agency to task by stating that it must provide for a better standard of inspection of incinerators if public confidence is to be regained. It also urges the agency to examine a strategy for publicly communicating the risks from incineration. Critically, it recommends continuous monitoring of emissions from all incinerator stacks, that the resulting data should be made freely available to the public and that where there are recurring breaches of limit values, the operator should be fined and, if the offence continues, closed down.
The reality is that dioxin and heavy metal emissions from incineration cannot be measured in real time. One can only judge them at a specific time, not continuously. This really concerns people.
The key point is that three councils have rejected the waste management plan. The amendment to this motion states that the Seanad notes with regret the ongoing failure of a small number of local authorities to comply with their legal obligation under the Waste Management Act, 1996, to make waste management plans and that the minority is, therefore, obstructing necessary progress on the part of the majority. That is false, unacceptable and misleading. The true patriots are the people who stood up to the Minister, the waste management plan and the continuous browbeating from the Minister's office in relation to waste management.
There is little at issue between the Minister and his Department and the public. The problem, however, is the safety of incineration and the health impact of the emissions. If the Minister will acknowledge that and carry out an inquiry based in this House with all the experts coming to give their views, we can look at it again. I accept that some people support incineration. I do not and will not.
The other aspect of concern with incineration is what will happen to the toxic ash. If there is an incinerator in the Meath constituency beside Drogheda, a total of 400 twenty tonne lorries full of toxic ash will pass through the town annually. Where will the toxic ash go? Beside whose home will it be brought? How will it be treated?
The House of Commons report pointed out that the incinerator ash in Newcastle was put on the paving stones of that city. It was discovered after a number of years that it was highly dangerous when mixed with the concrete and that people were being exposed to dioxins and other health hazards, which was unacceptable. According to the report, it shattered the credibility of the incinerator argument in the United Kingdom. It also shatters it in Ireland.
This is an important debate. I urge the Minister to think again, to agree to a moratorium on incineration and to carry out an assessment which would involve the Health Research Board, the EPA and other relevant bodies and report on all aspects of this issue. If he does that, we can make much progress. If he does not, there will be great difficulty and trouble in the councils throughout the country. Most importantly, public health will have been utterly and cynically disregarded.