Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Thursday, 21 Oct 1976

Vol. 293 No. 2

Local Government (Water Pollution) Bill, 1976 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

Last night I said I fully supported the purpose, spirit and general principle of the Bill. It could be improved to a greater extent and for this reason we intend submitting a number of amendments for consideration on Committee Stage. It is well known that in any country economic and technological progress while bringing much material wealth and benefit very often are accompanied by a deterioration of the environment. It should be the aim of any policy for the protection of the environment to ensure that progress in industrial, agricultural and residential forms of development is not achieved at the cost of environmental damage. With modern technological advances and proper planning of any development at the initial stage, there should be no inherent conflict between the maintenance of a good environment and the promotion of such development, as is evidenced in many places in the country. The proper time to deal with a potential environmental hazard is at the planning stage when vital conditions can be attached to the granting of planning permission. One can assume from the contents of the Bill that the Government are giving priority to the area of water pollution. They may well have been forced to do so as a result of an EEC directive on water quality standards. However, there are many other forms of pollution. Directly and indirectly, they are tied with water pollution.

I look forward to the day when another Bill is introduced to cover all these areas in a comprehensive fashion. Such a Bill should include areas regarding methods of collection and disposal of trade and domestic refuse, the general prohibition of indiscriminate dumping of trade waste and of litter, the fixing of acceptable levels of noise and heat in industry or any place of work, the cleaning of beaches, the disposal of and recycling of all forms of waste and the setting of quality standards for water in areas used for swimming.

I have just given a few examples of areas that should be covered immediately by legislation. It is well known that the extensive pollution of bathing places if unchecked is likely to increase. I ask the House to bear in mind that a good deal of modern development takes place along our coastline. It is of interest to note—I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary is already aware of this but I would like it on the record of the House— that although we have approximately 3,500 miles of coastline, including estuaries, we have only 342 miles of sandy beach. We should bear in mind the seriousness of the position especially when we take into account the fact that our bathing areas are found in only about 20 per cent of the total beach areas or 80 miles of beach in all. In other words, there are only about 80 miles of beach areas out of our total coastline of 3,498 miles. These areas constitute a real national asset, as do most of our inland waters. It is a worthwhile national aim to see that they are preserved and protected. I am amazed that this Bill does not provide for the systematic and continued monitoring of bathing places to enable the incidence of pollution to be detected at an early stage so that the necessary remedial measures can be taken.

We all know the main causes of water pollution here and we should set out to eliminate them by legislation. There is pollution by industrial waste, domestic waste, agricultural waste, mining operations, turf production, detergents and waste discharges from ports and ships. It is essential in my opinion that legislation to prevent water pollution should cover all these areas.

There is a big difference of opinion as to who should operate the new controls. The interdepartmental working group in their report, published in March, 1973, favoured control at local level, that is, control by county councils and county borough corporations. I would agree with this entirely were it not for the fact that it is generally accepted that these councils in many instances are themselves probably the greatest polluters. This has been borne out in fishery reports and in the report submitted by the interdepartmental working group. Neither would I agree that control should be handed over completely to a national board as is done in other countries. Such an arrangement would present many problems.

For local control there is no alternative to the county councils and county borough corporations being given the necessary control in legislation, but they should be subject to central Government control. I also believe that the Minister for Local Government, as our administrative structure at present exists, should take full control and responsibility for the issue of licences to local authorities and supervising their anti-pollution campaigns. Those licences should be issued to councils in the same way as the councils would issue them to individuals, firms, co-ops and creameries. This would ensure that waters are kept up to the required standards. It would also ensure that the councils carry out their responsibilities under this Bill to the general public and the nation as a whole in the same way as an individual or company would. Should the county councils or county borough corporations fall down on the job of ensuring that their house is put in order, I believe this exercise would be futile.

The suggestion that the Minister for Local Government should take direct responsibility and issue licences to councils is in complete harmony with the Fianna Fáil Party's thinking on physical planning and the protection of the environment. As the law stands at present, the buck can be passed from county councils and county borough corporations to the water pollution advisory council, various quality control authorities, and numerous Departments dealing with the environment. I believe the buck must stop somewhere and the Minister for Local Government should accept full responsibility for the protection of the environment and the issue of licences to county councils and county borough corporations in respect of their sewers and of trade and sewer effluents.

We put down and fought unsuccessfully an amendment in this regard to the Local Government (Planning and Development) Bill, 1976. In my opinion it is to be regretted that the Minister would not and did not accept such a responsibility which Dáil Éireann were prepared to give him, namely, that he alone should be responsible for the protection and improvement of the natural environment of Ireland. The problem at the moment is that there are too many Departments and organisations responsible for the environment.

To prove my point that this is so there are at least 13 agencies responsible for this one area, an area of immensely valuable amenity affecting the quality of life not alone of our own nationals but of those who visit the country as tourists. There is, first of all, the Department of Local Government responsible for general policy and legislation, for the clearance of oil spillages, the general supervision of local authorities, for the planning, financing and general control of water and sewerage programmes, for the allocation of grants for the installation of piped water, for planning appeals, for traffic, for air quality and emission standards. You have the local authorities then who are the planning authorities, who supply and maintain public water and sewerage schemes, enforce conditions under the planning laws and prevent developments which pose a threat to the environment. They are also responsible for community development and the disposal of both industrial and domestic refuse.

The third agent is the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries responsible for the protection of fish, fishery waters and food. The Department are also responsible for licensing discharges which might damage fish life. The Department have responsibility for guiding and supporting boards of fishery conservators. They have power to help in salmon research through the Salmon Research Trust and they also help the Inland Fishery Trust. They have a certain responsibility where silage effluent, farmyard waste disposal and the use of artificial manures are concerned. They have responsibility in the operation of creameries and milk processing factories. They have responsibility for farm building grants and advisory services.

The fourth agent is the Department of Industry and Commerce, including the IDA, with responsibility for industrial development and the development of our mineral resources. As far as industrial development is concerned the Department play a vital role in environmental matters.

Fifth, there is the Department of Transport and Power also involved in environmental matters. They have a responsibility in relation to oil pollution of the sea, for implementing the Foreshore Act, 1933, for fuel and power policy and for the effect deterioration of the environment would have on tourism. The Department have responsibility for the ESB and the ESB are the owners of fisheries and waters vested in power stations. The Department have responsibility for harbour authorities and Aer Lingus and are therefore deeply concerned with noise as a pollutant.

Sixth, there is the Department of Health who have responsibility in regard to health hazards and the control of toxic substances. No.7 is the Department of Finance with overall financial control in practically all aspects of environmental problems because major grants and loans have to be sanctioned by that Department.

No. 8 is the Department of Lands who play a very important role in the conservation and protection of wild life, in water pollution, in forestry development and nature trails.

There is the Office of Public Works involved in arterial drainage and the prevention of the dumping of solid matter in rivers and streams. The Office of Public Works are responsible for our national parks and for the operation of the Shannon Navigation Act, 1939. An Foras Forbartha are responsible for environmental research. An Foras Talúntais, No. 11, are responsible for many farming activities, for advice, for setting standards, for farm equipment and farmyard layout. No. 12 is the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards who act in an advisory capacity in the setting of standards for the IDA. Finally there is the IDA. That body has power to give grants for industrial treatment plants.

All these bodies should be amalgamated and all environmental matters should be under the control of one Department. Protection of the environment is the very foundation of our tourist industry and it is vitally important that everything should be done to ensure the very highest standards. The preservation of the environment is essential to the future of the industry. In fact, the environment faces serve threats, such as water pollution from agricultural, urban and industrial effluent. There is the destruction of cities, towns, and villages through ill-conceived planning.

No matter from what angle one looks at it the preservation of the environment from the point of view of the tourist industry is a vitally important factor that must be taken into consideration. We should ensure that our beaches are kept clean and tidy and that our anti-litter campaign will be developed.

No generation has the right to use the environment for its own benefit and no one person has the right for his own material gain to despoil the natural environment by cornering for himself scenic amenity areas at the expense of future generations. It behoves all of us, particularly Members of the Oireachtas, to ensure that our natural environment, no matter in which areas, should be preserved and improved for the benefit of future generations.

In this country we have too many small overworked sewage plants from which effluent seeps through the land into streams, rivers and eventually lakes. On the question of refuse disposal, both domestic and trade, the Parliamentary Secretary and the Government must consider the establishment of large incinerators in Dublin and Cork. There should be a continuous, not a seasonal, market for waste paper which has a detrimental effect on the environment when it is not purchased and disposed of. All these matters are tied in with water pollution because waste materials of all descriptions find their way into waterways and lakes unless properly handled.

We must ask ourselves how serious is the water pollution problem in Ireland. I believe it is getting progressively worse. I read some time ago a report of a conference on water pollution control which stated that in 1973, 61 lakes and rivers were polluted and that public apathy is the cause of much of the pollution. The report stated that in 1973 it would have cost about £35 million for county councils and county borough councils to clear up the problem within their functional areas. With the rapid rate of inflation in the meantime and the deterioration caused by over-loading existing sewage plants, it would now cost approximately £100 million to enable local authorities to deal with the problem.

The Parliamentary Secretary blamed the lack of funds in recent years for the present position. We have to remember that in some counties— I have a particular county in mind —no new sewerage scheme has been approved during the past three years although the Department and the Minister have been under much pressure from the local authorities concerned. The Parliamentary Secretary gave figures for expenditure on sanitary services each year since 1972 and I should like to get a breakdown of the amounts as between sewerage and water schemes. Taking inflation into account, it will be found there has been no substantial increase in expenditure for sewerage schemes.

The manner in which refuse dumps are maintained, controlled and developed by many local authorities is a disgrace. In some cases dumps are adjacent to streams and rivers and the effluent seeps into them and into lakes. Many of the dumps are rat-infested, particularly by water rats, and this creates a serious health hazard. There should be a complete new policy and direction on the development, control and maintenance of refuse dumps. I suggest that we should take a lesson from a system which has been worked fairly well in some European countries and in parts of the US, particularly where there are forests. Most counties here have forests now and there should be established in these forests a central dump with machinery continuously employed filling them in. I understand in some countries as they clear a piece of forest the authorities fill in the refuse dump at the other end and replant that area so that there is no real wastage of ground at all. The Department of Local Government should examine this system very closely.

I suggest that the Minister appoint and train about eight environmental officers and assign them on a regional basis. Those people should be trained in all aspects relating to the protection and preservation of the environment, particularly in anti-pollution measures of all descriptions. If one of those specially trained environmental officers is assigned to each regional development board district he can supervise the activities of the authorities within that area. The IDA's regional managers are assigned to each regional development board district and each regional development organisation have their own managers. Those fully trained environmental officers could be the watch dogs for the Minister in relation to any licensing arrangements between his Department and the local councils.

The disposal of waste oil and the dumping of oil at sea is causing great concern as far as water pollution is concerned. We have had many instances where our waters and beaches have been heavily polluted by indiscriminate dumping of oil by large vessels far out at sea. The fifth report on the Developments in the European Communities refers to an EEC directive on the disposal of waste oil. I understand this directive was approved by the Council in November, 1974 and that member states have two years to implement the provisions of the directive. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary would tell us what steps are being taken to implement this directive with regard to the disposal of waste oil and what steps are being taken to bring in legislation to control the dumping of oil at sea, although this may be a matter for the Minister for Transport and Power. Waste oil seeps into rivers, streams and lakes from bogs where heavy turf cutting and other types of machinery consume large quantities of oil during their operations. This matter should be looked at.

Young people should be educated in relation to the protection of the environment and reporting any matters which they consider appear to pollute water. Public apathy has been blamed by some people for the lack of action at governmental level in relation to the environment.

I believe the Bill should be improved considerably. The provision setting up the water pollution advisory body should be strengthened. More teeth should be given to this body and the regulations setting it up should be strengthened. I am very concerned about section 3 (3) where I believe there is a let-out clause whereby if a person pleads that he took reasonable steps to prevent the pollution of water he is acquitted, that it shall be a good defence for him to prove this. I am slightly worried about this provision, and we will debate it on Committee Stage. I am concerned too about the fact that it appears that local authorities who pollute cannot be prosecuted under the Bill. This is more serious than the fact that a polluter who successfully pleads that he took all reasonable steps cannot be convicted. We should make sure that there is no doubt that any local authority who pollutes our lakes can be prosecuted. It is essential in relation to the system for monitoring the standard of water that there should be a central laboratory, otherwise councils will incur colossal debts for equipment for the setting up of laboratories and for the employment of technical staff. A central laboratory could carry out the tests and send reports back to the councils. There are many detailed matters which I intend to raise on the Committee Stage. Certainly the Water Pollution Advisory Council must be strict. I am not happy about the exemptions in section 3, subsection (5) of the Bill.

Section 4, subsection (12), is very hard to comprehend. It states that

A person shall not be entitled solely by reason of a licence under this section to discharge, or cause or permit the discharge of, trade effluent or sewage effluent to waters.

There are numerous provisions in this Bill about which I am not too happy and we on this side of the House intend to discuss these matters in detail on the Committee Stage. When this Bill is finally passed there should be no doubt that all appeals should go on to An Bord Pleanála instead of to the Minister. The quality standards as laid down in the EEC directives are reasonable standards to be followed. I hope there will be no conflict between the water quality control authorities and the local authorities or the councils and that the councils within the area of these new authorities will have proper representation on the water quality control boards both at management and at membership level. It is very important that the councils should have fair representation on these boards. The fishery interests should also have fair representation. Water pollution is the cause of great damage to fish life and causes fish disease. If good spawning grounds become polluted our fish stocks could be depleted and as a result inland fisheries will suffer and tourism will suffer. Therefore it is important that fishery interests be represented and that they use this Bill to the maximum when it becomes law.

This Bill is a start to environmental legislation. It is known that there are numerous EEC directives on the way which must be acted upon by the Government. They are probably in draft form at the moment. But apart from that it is of vital importance that all the legislation relating to the protection of the environment should be codified. I look forward to the day when a comprehensive Bill codifying all this legislation is brought before this House.

In introducing this Bill the Parliamentary Secretary said that he expected little objection to the main principles. I have no doubt that the Parliamentary Secretary's expectations will be fulfilled. We on this side of the House are anxious to conserve our water supplies and to preserve them from pollution and we have shown our concern in this respect over the years. We are particularly anxious that the desirable actions which might be taken under the terms of this Bill will be taken.

We should like clarification of some aspects of this Bill which are not clear to us. The effects of technological development in recent years remind me of the moral in the famous story, "The Monkey's Paw", by W. W. Jacobs. In that story the person who held the monkey's paw in his hand was granted three wishes. These three wishes were always fulfilled but the fulfilment of each would bring with it certain undesirable and even tragic consequences. In like manner the technological advances we have experienced in our own lifetime have bestowed very considerable blessings. They have improved out of all knowing the standard of living of our people and of people in the developed areas of the world. They are also helping to raise the standards of those who live in undeveloped areas. On the other hand, they have brought in their wake very considerable problems, putting the environment at serious risk and if not checked, they could negative the benefits to which I have referred.

We in this country have an opportunity to protect and conserve the environment, an opportunity which has not been granted to the same extent, at any rate, to the more industrialised countries of the world. In Ireland for historical reasons, industrial development came much later than in many of our neighbouring countries. Therefore we can learn much from the mistakes they made and the successes achieved by them in combating pollution problems. Because of our late entry into the industrial field, fortunately we have much which is worthy of attention left to us. Industrial countries that woke up to the problem late in their industrial development found that much that had been beautiful in the environment had already been destroyed. At least we are fortunate in this respect, in that many such beautiful things remain intact.

It is particularly fortunate in one sense that only in very recent times have we begun to develop our mineral resources because we are in good time to take the necessary measures to ensure that as little environmental damage as possible will be done. When one notes the ravages which resulted from similar-type development in Britain and other mining countries one appreciates how necessary it is that we pay particular care to this aspect of our industrial development. It is a development we are all anxious to see go ahead. We are in the satisfactory position that while on the one hand we can develop, on the other we can retain the beauty and value of our environment.

Also because of our late entry into the area of industrialisation we are afforded a worth-while opportunity of controlling pollution. However, it is equally true that there is a considerable amount of industrial development and development of our natural resources ahead of us if we are to absorb into employment the very large numbers of unemployed people, including the thousands of young people who recently left school and who have had no jobs over the past couple of years. The provision of new jobs in the industrial area and the development of our natural resources are of vital necessity. But this very action will bring pollution problems in its wake. Quite obviously there is no time to be lost in preparing to combat these problems. Here we can profit from the experience of other countries as well as from the considerable research carried out by ourselves in this field. The siting of certain types of industry invariably gives rise to conflicting and sometimes diametrically-opposed groups—on the one hand, the conservationists and, on the other, those who see the creation of jobs as the first priority. I feel there is no need for this type of confrontation in many instances. Educating people on the facts, and not the myths on which much of the opposition is based, should be a priority. Industrial development has to continue in this country, but at the same time we must ensure that the quality of life is maintained and improved.

We in the Fianna Fáil Party are particularly concerned about the whole question of the protection of the environment. We are considering the setting up of a Department for the protection of the environment to spearhead the attack on pollution, to co-ordinate the workings of other Departments, where such Departments are concerned with environmental protection, I am only too well aware of the constant struggles taking place between Departments having a responsibility in this field as to who controls what. It is not sufficient simply to set up an inter-departmental committee to overcome that type of problem. During our time in office there were committees whose responsibility it was to endeavour to overcome the conflicting views of the various Departments. They succeeded to some extent. Nevertheless, we are convinced it is essential that there be a Department of the Environment set up for the purposes I have mentioned.

The setting up of such a Department would be nothing new. Such Departments have already been set up in many countries, in Canada, New Zealand, Britain and others. I understand that the position in New Zealand is much as it is here, in the sense that there are several Departments bearing responsibility in relation to the protection of the environment. What we had in mind was the setting up of a Department which would not unnecessarily disturb existing administrative structures but rather would have authority in its own right and would act to co-ordinate the efforts of other Departments having a responsibilty in this regard.

I have referred briefly to environmental problems generally. In this Bill we are dealing with a particular aspect, that is, water pollution. It is some time now since western European countries began to show concern for the protection of the environment. It is true to say that the obvious need to protect fresh water from pollution highlighted the need to protect the environment as a whole.

Debate adjourned.