Ratification of the Minamata Convention on Mercury: Motion

I have been asked to Chair the meeting for this business. I remind members and witnesses to turn off their mobile phones. I will not go through the detail as everyone knows what is required.

We are meeting to consider a Dáil motion on the terms of the United Nations Minamata Convention on Mercury. I welcome the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Richard Bruton. The presentation and supporting documents have been circulated to members in advance of the meeting. I invite the Minister to enlighten all of us about this important matter.

I hope this motion is something that will commend itself to the committee. Essentially, we are signing up to the Minamata Convention. The convention addresses all aspects of the use of mercury throughout its life cycle. The convention sets out a range of measures banning mercury mining and so on. We have signed up to the convention as a result of having enacted a series of EU legislative requirements, which are in fact more stringent than the Minamata Convention. We have put in place protections that go beyond what was required by the convention. Now that those have been implemented, we are in a position to sign. The regulations we signed into being in December provide an import ban on metallic mercury, a ban on mercury production, the regulation of industries that use mercury in their processes, the regulation and safe storage and treatment of mercury, and regulations on the use and environmentally sound management of dental amalgam used in the production of silver fillings.

The convention has been ratified by 102 countries, including 22 member states of the European Union. In general terms, mercury is not a major problem in Ireland. We have extremely low levels of identified presence in air and water as well as in fish. We do not have a significant problem in this area.

In terms of the implementation of the convention and the mercury regulations, the Environmental Protection Agency will be the competent authority with responsibility for monitoring. The Revenue Commissioners will have a role in terms of trade. Local authorities will have a role in the safe handling, storage and sound disposal of mercury waste. The Health Products Regulatory Authority will have a role in ensuring the dental amalgam used by Irish dentists complies with EU standards. The Dental Council of Ireland will ensure the dental sector is aware of its obligations.

That is the basic picture.

I thank the Minister for that succinct overview of what we have been asked to consider. I will now open the floor to the members. Deputy Stanley has indicated.

I thank the Minister and the officials for the presentation. I have just a couple of questions about it.

I have a question about mercury waste. The Minister signed this motion on, I think, 14 December, but it must come before the Dáil for approval in the coming weeks, I understand. Is that correct?

Yes. What I have signed is the national regulations, but the convention must then be ratified by the Dáil. We could not move to ratify it until those regulations were in place.

Are there any issues of concern surrounding mercury waste or what may be done with it? I refer to possible historical or legacy issues. The regulations to replace the previous mercury regulations are good. I refer to the ban on metallic mercury imports and certain compounds, the regulation of industry, the use of environmentally sound management of dental amalgams, etc., and the regulation of safe storage. We must support all this and we should certainly give this proposal a fair wind, but could the Minister address the issue of mercury waste that may be in the environment and that is legacy material? Are there any concerns about this, perhaps from the EPA's or the Department's point of view?

The EPA monitors mercury levels, which are extremely low. I do not have the precise details, but the levels are extremely low. Mercury is a hazardous waste, so the procedures for its safe disposal are set out in the same terms as found in the hazardous waste directive, which states that producers of waste shall comply with the guidance provided by the EPA and are subject to inspection by the agency and local authorities, with those who fail to comply with those regulations being guilty of an offence. On the consumer front, some business and household electrical items - for example, compact fluorescent lights, CFLs - contain small amounts of mercury. These items, when finished with, can be brought either to one's local recycling centre free of charge or to a retailer if the consumer purchases an equivalent product. We therefore have robust processes for monitoring any environmental impact and managing the waste as produced. The sale of things like thermometers was banned in 2009 but, as Deputy Stanley said, there may still be residue in consumers' hands.

I am very happy to support the Minister and the Department in implementing this European and international regulation. The world has changed a lot. When I was a kid we used to play with mercury in our science class in school. The Minister will remember the same, I am sure. May I ask a related question? This was agreed in 2013, and I am very much supportive of the measures, but here we are five years later and, if I read rightly, 22 other countries of the European Union 28 have already signed it and introduced the regulations. One of my concerns is the reason for this delay. We are not in disagreement on this area. As the Minister said, our levels of mercury poisoning in the water and the air are accurately described by the EPA as being very low, and there are no huge cost or other implications of this, only a €50,000 implementation fine. However, I have a general concern that the Minister's Department may not have sufficient resources to cope with the whole variety of undertakings for which it has responsibility, and I am taking this as an example. Is there a reason for this five-year delay? Are we one of the last EU countries to sign the regulations and approve the convention?

More generally, now that he has been in his current position for seven months or whatever, is the Minister, within his Department or with the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, of the view that his Department has the necessary scale to carry out the whole variety of functions it has at the speed and with the urgency we need?

The European regulations were passed in 2017-----

Okay. That is not too bad.

-----so it was at least a year later. Yes, stakeholder consultation seemed to be involved. I know from experience that the drafting of statutory instruments can get into many delays. This does not necessarily reflect a lack of ability in Departments, but there tends to be a bit of a logjam in draftsmen's offices, which has dogged every Government of which I have ever been a party, and I am sure the same is the case with Deputy Ryan.

To respond to the Deputy's wider question, I am really bottoming out the issues regarding our responsibilities. We have very significant co-ordinating responsibilities, and the Deputy is aware of my belief that it is really important for Departments that have a co-ordinating role to bite to a degree with the President's teeth. It is really important I get a cross-Government commitment, overseen from the Taoiseach's office, to have the momentum to deliver. I am not saying we need a whole army of people but we need a willingness on the part of decision-makers elsewhere to get on board with what we are trying to achieve and our obligations and ambitions. I think the Deputy himself has often articulated that sectors will not have a future unless it is designed to be robust in a decarbonised world.

Any Department will always welcome more resources in various policy areas, but we are working very hard to try to produce a coherent plan in the first quarter of this year that will embrace all areas. Then we will work hard to drive other Departments to implement their share and to see that we implement ours. I do not think I can say I have a case for more resources and go knocking on Deputy Donohoe's or anyone else's door at this stage. We must try to make the thing work. If at the end of 12 months the committee calls me back here and some of the obstacles that have delayed us are resources, I will certainly look at those.

I accept that. I had not realised that the European regulations were only drafted in 2017. That is the timeframe one would expect.

May I ask one last question? Moving away from the quantum of resources, the Minister's Department is also unusual in that many of the environmental responsibilities are divided up between the former Ministry in the Custom House - that is, the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government - and his current Department. It is sometimes hard to understand the dividing line as to why certain environmental issues are contained within the Minister's Department and others are still contained in the Custom House. Has this transition worked, to his mind, or is the Minister finding it hard to know himself where the line of responsibility is when it comes to environmental management?

There is a coherence to the brief I hold. On one side, the climate action, waste and energy elements are natural bedfellows because they are about better use of resources, so I think that is correct. On the other side, I have much of the digital technology, broadcasting and post communications element. Again, there is a certain coherence here. They are very disparate elements but there are huge challenges in those areas. Digital safety is a good example. There is responsibility in six Departments for it. Rather than trying to consolidate a great number of Departments, we must learn to work across Departments. In the case of digital safety, there is a cross-Government plan. It was endorsed and launched by the Taoiseach.

The Taoiseach is accountable for the delivery of the project to a certain degree, although the Department of Education and Skills is the lead entity. That is the way we work. One cannot continually restructure Departments because one sees that an element of coherence may not be fully there. Although my Department is disparate in its range, there is a coherence and my job is to ensure that we make things work.

The Minister stated that mercury fillings are an issue. Perhaps my question is for public health authorities. Are there any issues or what information is available regarding fillings that were provided by the State, albeit at a different time when the thinking in respect of the health implications of mercury was different?

I do not think there is any danger from the fillings. Mercury is a very stable and hard-wearing compound when mixed with other metals, which is why it was used. There is no risk of leakage or seepage from fillings. The issue is the manufacture and managed storage waste of the materials where they are generated. My understanding is that the dental sector is migrating away from the use of mercury fillings. At EU level, there is talk, which is at an early stage, of regulatory changes to get rid of such fillings altogether.

That concludes our business. I thank the Minister for his comments. A report will be send to the Clerk of the Dáil to indicate that we have given consideration to this particular matter. The Minister will be before us again at our next meeting in order to discuss the Revised Estimate for Vote 29 - Communications, Climate Action and Environment.

I thank the Acting Chairman.