Hazardous Waste.

In the seven years I have been in this House, I have raised this matter more often than any other. That is an indication of the long running nature of the problem, how difficult it has been to make progress and how frustrating attempts to sort out the remediation of the tailings pond and other abandoned mine sites in the Silvermines area have become.

The tailings pond is 147 acres of tailings left over by Mogul Ireland when it finished work in 1982. It is not the only mine site in the State but it is the largest and has caused the most difficulties. Reports by consultants, experts and an interagency group chaired by the Department of Agriculture and Food concluded that other sites were more toxic but that the tailings pond poses a very direct threat to people living in the area because dust blows off it into the air and on to surrounding land.

While there has been progress involving the EPA, Teagasc, the local authority and the Departments of Agriculture and Food and Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, it has been slow and has now reached a point where it will be difficult to advance.

On 28 June, a technical plan was due to have been lodged with the Department by Mogul Ireland to fulfil its responsibilities to the community and the State under clause (k) of the mining lease for the area. There is still no sign of that report. That is only one indication of the level of difficulty the community and State agencies are having with Mogul Ireland in getting it to face up to its responsibilities, short and long-term.

The long-term plan would be for the rehabilitation of the site but the short-term situation is of great concern and I am seeking answers about it from the Minister this evening. There is evidence of further serious erosion of the protective grasses covering the tailings pond and dangerously high levels of lead in the dust blowing from the surface of the tailings. The company has failed to maintain the protective cover or to develop a long-term sustainable plan for the area. Due to the dry spell and the failure of the company to maintain the existing cover on the tailings, a further 30 acre area is eroding and readings taken by the EPA show that the dust contains dangerously high levels of lead. Every monitor has recorded exceeding levels but the more recent figures show even higher levels of excesses of lead in the area around the Gortmore tailings pond than normal. That indicates that there is further erosion and that the problem is more serious than we had thought.

There is no short-term plan for dealing with this. Deputy Eamon Ryan of the Green Party, who is a member of the Committee on Communications, the Marine and Natural Resources, told me last week that his party had asked questions of the Minister on this issue. I looked at the answers today and was astonished to read that the Minister said "there is an emergency action plan operated by Mogul and the local authority to deal with dust blows and other problems which may occur at the tailings pond". I have news for the Minister — this action plan is not working and in my correspondence with the local authority and the EPA, I discovered that one group is passing the buck to the other. The council says it is Mogul Ireland's problem, Mogul Ireland is doing nothing, the council is doing nothing and, as a result, an existing environmental problem is deteriorating further and the local community is totally frustrated.

I was also surprised to see in the answer to the parliamentary question that the Department "has not received any notification of occurrences of serious dust blows or escapes of polluted leachate at the site in recent years. The last recorded serious dust blow occurred in the mid 1980s". Continuous monitoring of the dust blowing in the area shows there is a constant excess of lead and other heavy metal levels.

In view of this I am amazed to find that the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources states in answer to a parliamentary question that there is effectively no dust blow in the Silvermines area, when anyone living in and visiting the area who stands around for five minutes can see there is a serious dust blow occurring continuously from the site. In light of recent events, that is, the failure of the company and the county council operating in tandem to ensure that the existing surface is maintained and watered in dry weather, there is even further erosion and the problem is getting worse rather than better.

There is much frustration in the area. It is coming to a point where people will need to ask questions as to why this problem is not being dealt with. It is not good enough that after years of talking and several expert reports and the expenditure of a good deal of money on consultants, we seem to be further away from any action being taken. While we wait for that action the situation is getting worse, the environment is being damaged and the community is forced to live in a deteriorated environment. That is why I have raised this matter and will continue to raise it until action is taken and we get satisfaction. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

I am replying on behalf of the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. On his behalf I thank Senator O'Meara for raising the issue. I will ensure her comments are brought to the attention of the Minister.

I note that this subject has been extensively covered in previous motions, the latest being on 22 October 2003, so a great deal of background detail is hopefully not required. However, it might be useful to summarise the basic facts which give rise to this motion.

Silvermines has a long history of mining, spanning over 1,000 years. There was a time when the mining industry was the principal source of employment in this region, but that day is well gone. What is now left consists of fairly ugly relicts of mining such as old spoil dumps, mineshafts, derelict buildings and tailings ponds, which are the main objects of concern to the local community. The residue also includes an interesting mining heritage, and I understand the local community would wish to see this preserved as part of an integrated rehabilitation plan for the region.

An Environmental Protection Agency report in 1999 referred to the tailings area as a perpetual risk to human health and the environment. This was followed by an inter-agency report, which made 39 recommendations. Thirty-six of these have been implemented, or are ongoing. The other three are the major issues and relate to remediation and management needs of the area. These are the issues being discussed. SRK Consultants, appointed by the Department, produced a detailed report on what needs to be done to rehabilitate the area and the costs involved. The capital cost is estimated at €5.2 million, with €70,000 yearly for ongoing management and monitoring.

Under clause K of a mining lease which expired in 1998, Mogul of Ireland Limited is obliged to remediate certain areas, including Gortmore tailings pond. Legal advice is that there is only a once-off call on Mogul, and the Chief State Solicitor issued a letter to Mogul in April 2003 setting out the type of works required under clause K. Mogul has produced some proposals during 2003 which were incomplete and did not satisfy this Department. North Tipperary County Council and the Environmental Protection Agency were, and continue to be, involved in the consultations, the objective of which is to produce a cost effective and environmentally acceptable solution for the clause K sites. Any solution must also be acceptable to the local community.

Mogul submitted a reasonably comprehensive proposal on 5 March 2004 and this was the subject of a meeting held in Nenagh on 22 March 2004 attended by representatives of the Department, North Tipperary County Council, the Environmental Protection Agency and Mogul. There was a cautious welcome for Mogul's proposals, which were acceptable from a conceptual point of view, but it was agreed that additional details were required. The Department sought the additional details on 1 April 2004 and Mogul responded on 7 May 2004. The response was less than complete and at another meeting with Mogul on 24 May 2004, the Department's specific requirements were spelled out to Mogul. Mogul is working on its response, which is expected later this month.

The frustration of the local community especially those living in the vicinity of Gortmore, is understandable. Clearly, progress is not up to expectation. It is hoped that the emergency action plan between North Tipperary County Council and Mogul will alleviate short-term problems, while agreement on long-term remediation is sought. I note, as it should be, that the Gortmore local community is kept informed of developments and several information meetings between it and the Department have been held. Mogul has also met it to explain the company's proposals.

One must also acknowledge Mogul's difficulties. The mine closed in 1982 and was sold to the current owners in 1984. Development of a new mine was not viable and Mogul has expended substantial moneys in rehabilitation works up to 1999. In its current proposals, the company cites problems relating to finance, access and permitting. It says it is working to resolve these issues. Considerable work was undertaken by Mogul in endeavouring to secure a permit from the local authority to spread organic material as a sustainable cover for Gortmore. This application for a permit, published in a national newspaper in December 2003, drew substantial local objection and was withdrawn in April 2004. As already mentioned, Mogul has discussed its proposals with the Gortmore local community.

While not wishing to minimise local concerns about dust blows and other problems, I note that this final report of the expert group on lead and other relevant metals in Silvermines, published in March 2004, reiterated the inter-agency's findings that, "the Silvermines area is a safe place in which to grow up, live and work provided that certain precautions are taken by public agencies and local people". I hope this allays local concerns to some extent.

The Department is awaiting final detailed proposals from Mogul, which will be evaluated in consultation with the local authority, the Environmental Protection Agency and the local community. I hope these proposals will be viable and can be agreed so that the necessary works can commence. It is essential to ensure that Mogul and not the taxpayers pay for the remediation. It would be totally unacceptable that a limited company, which has a legal responsibility to remediate the areas in question, was in some way let off the hook at the expense of other projects, which the Exchequer might otherwise undertake with the money. The Department therefore intends to pursue all options to ensure that the cost of remediation does not fall on the taxpayer and it may be necessary to seek legal advice on the available options. The Department has no responsibility for remediation of the non-clause K sites, but will continue to assist the local authority, which may be able to advance remediation by virtue of powers vested in it under waste management and derelict sites legislation.

I thank the Minister for his reply which is comprehensive but not satisfactory. I wish to put the Department on notice. I ask the Minister to communicate this on my behalf and on behalf of the local community. There is a serious short-term problem. The Department will probably have to spend more money pursuing Mogul than it would cost to rehabilitate the site. The length of time it will take to do that will mean the site will deteriorate further, will cost more to rectify and the environment will be further damaged. It is not a satisfactory situation.