I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Concern for the environment has now become both an international and a domestic priority. Not so long ago those committed to environmental protection and articulating concern about man's destruction of his natural habitat were treated as cranks and ridiculed by international governments. Now they have been vindicated and are seen to have had a prophetic vision.
The urgent need to find solutions to global environmental problems has attracted widespread public attention. Problems such as the depletion of the ozone layer, the rise in the temperature of the earth's atmosphere giving rise to the so-called greenhouse effect, the destruction of the Amazon rain-forests, acid rain, the pollution of the Rhine, the release of dioxin gas at Seveso, the nuclear fall-out from Chernobyl, the appalling tragedy at Bhopal, the oil spillage in Prince William Sound in Alaska, have all heightened public awareness of the importance of the environment.
A significant number of recent events in Ireland have also served to heighten public awareness of environmental issues and illustrated the lack of any coherent environmental policy.
In the agricultural area the increasing use of chemical fertilisers and the largescale production of silage and animal slurry has led in recent years to eutrophication of inland waters and to substantial fish kills. Industry, and to a lesser extent local authorities, have also been responsible for a number of serious water pollution incidents. In the first nine months of this year alone there have been 108 fish kills resulting in the death of 35,000 fish.
With regard to some industries, there have been problems of siting and pollution control which have resulted in a reluctance among local communities to accept new industries within their area with a resultant loss of potential jobs and economic growth. In the aquacultural area problems are now apparent with the siting of cage based fin-fish farms which has resulted in opposition to such development arising in a number of coastal communities.
With regard to waste disposal, uncertainty about the fate and effects of toxic wastes produced by industry and the apparent inability of local authorities to effectively monitor and control such wastes have contributed also to a growing reluctance among local communities to accept industries which may use or produce hazardous or toxic materials.
In the context of particular industrial plants, the court proceedings brought by John Hanrahan against Merck Sharpe and Dohme considerably added to public scepticism as to the ability of both State bodies and local authorities to properly monitor industry and helped to fuel and exacerbate the Merrel Dow controversy which clearly illustrated the folly of government agencies promoting the siting of pharmaceutical or chemical plants at inappropriate locations.
The Fianna Fáil Government who took office in 1987 and the new Coalition Government of July 1989 share a substantial responsibility for undermining the public's confidence in the ability and willingness of government to deal properly with environmental matters. At a time of heightened international and domestic concern about the environment, the Fianna Fáil Government of 1987 abolished both An Foras Forbartha and the Water Pollution Advisory Council. Following the horrific fish kills of 1987 it was not until January of 1989 that that Government published new water pollution legislation which only finally commenced a Second Reading debate in the Dáil last week due to the Bill containing, when published, a number of serious defects.
Both this Government's and the previous Fianna Fáil Government's approach to the smog problem is nothing short of a shambles. Over 12 months ago Dubliners were choking on smog and the present Minister for the Environment was asked by Fine Gael to extend conversion grants to all those areas of Dublin that had suffered smog above EC limits and to introduce essential amendments to the Air Pollution Act. Nothing was done by the present Minister to tackle the problem and upon the formation of the new Government in July of this year, Fine Gael again asked the Government to take a series of specific measures prior to the onset of this winter. Nothing happened and during the last four weeks Dubliners have again choked on smog which in many parts of Dublin was substantially above EC limits with all the dangers that poses for both the young and the elderly who have respiratory difficulties. It is with some incredulity that Dubliners view the Government's response to their problems.
The Government's response has been twofold: first, the wasting of public money in an expensive public relations exercise in which people are urged to be "smog busters". When the smog descends most people cannot read the Government erected posters through the grey haze that envelopes the city as they pass them while many of those who received the smog buster leaflets through their front doors thought them to be an offbeat advertisement for the "Ghost-busters II" movie on in town at present; and second the appointment of yet another committee to consider what should be done. This latter so called initiative guarantees, of course, that nothing of substance will happen this winter and that again next winter breathing in Dublin will damage your health.
The environmental negligence of the current coalition Government, who are largely a continuation with some minor modifications of the Fianna Fáil Government who took office in 1987, extends to a variety of other environmental areas and a number of these were referred to by me in a speech on the Estimate for the Department of the Environment on Thursday, 30 November last. I do not intend to repeat them here. Suffice it to say that whereas in recent weeks the Minister for the Environment and his Minister of State have been heavy on environmental rhetoric, they have been weak on environmental action. Governmental lip service to environmental concerns is not good enough. What is required is legislative and administrative action.
Fine Gael in their policy document A Clean Environment published last May recognised the need for a national environmental plan to provide a coherent framework for all the components of our environment and stated the need to establish an independent environment protection agency. The Fine Gael proposal for such an agency became part of the joint Fine Gael — Progressive Democrat election programme and subsequently became part of the Fianna Fáil — Progressive Democrat Programme for Government.
In the months of September and October of this year various Government Ministers spoke publicly of the need without delay to provide by legislation for the establishment of an environment protection agency to restore confidence to our environmental processes and to tackle the problem of the apparent conflict that had arisen between the need for environmental protection and the need to create new industry and provide new jobs. It became apparent that despite all the rhetoric there was no prospect of the Government publishing the legislation required to establish the agency during 1989 and the possibility of them enacting the necessary legislation to bring it into force during 1990 seems remote. It also became clear that different Ministers had different views as to the functions such an agency should perform and how they should be structured. In the circumstances Fine Gael determined to resolve the Government's difficulties by bringing before the Dáil the necessary legislation which is now contained in the Environment Protection Agency Bill, 1989.
I intend now to give a summary of the main provisions in the Bill. The environment protection agency provided for under the Bill will be independent of Government and local authorities. The head of the agency will be the environment commissioner who is to be appointed by the President upon the recommendation of the Dáil and the Seanad. The appointment mechanism provided for is the same as that applicable by Statute to the appointment of the Ombudsman. The Bill also makes provision for the appointment of a deputy environment commissioner. It is envisaged that the environment commissioner will hold office for a period of five years and will receive the same remuneration and allowances as are paid to a judge of the High Court. Upon the completion of a five year period the commissioner may be reappointed for a further term.
The Bill provides for the setting up of the environment council who are to act as an advisory body to the environment commissioner and will have a general role in advising the environment commissioner on the carrying out by the commissioner and the agency of their functions. It is to be composed of ten persons "competent and knowledgeable in matters relating to the environment and the general functions that fall within the competence of the agency."
The Bill also envisages the establishment of an Oireachtas Joint environment committee to which the commissioner is obliged to make an annual report. The Oireachtas joint committee will play a role in formulating political policy and examining matters relating to the environment across a broad range of Ministeries. They will not only provide a political focal point for the work undertaken by the agency so as to ensure the report they produce does not gather dust on ministerial shelves, but they will take an overview of all matters relating to the environment which fall within the ambit of Government. It is intended that this committee will give a political impetus to ensuring that environmental policy proposed by the agency and any legislative or administrative changes seen to be necessary are taken on board by Government. They will also provide an essential link between the independent workings of the agency and the Oireachtas and will for the first time establish a body within the Oireachtas who can take a comprehensive overview of the impact on the environment of a broad range of policies implemented by Government Departments and State bodies as well as the private sector. They will also have a role in ensuring that adequate resources are made available to the agency to enable them to carry out their statutory functions as annually the environment commissioner under the Bill has to report to the Oireachtas joint committee on "the adequacy or otherwise of the moneys made available to the agency by the Minister for Finance for the performance of their functions".
As is required by the procedures of this House, if this Bill successfully passes through the Dáil, Fine Gael intend to engage in detailed discussions with the other parties so that agreement can be reached on the exact terms of reference to be given to the environment committee so that the necessary motion to provide for their establishment can be placed on the Dáil and Seanad Order Papers.
Extensive provisions are contained in the Bill to provide for the agency to have their own full time professional staff to carry out their functions and the Bill envisages that staff currently in the environment research unit and in the Nuclear Energy Board will, upon its enactment, transfer to the agency.
Sections 5 and 6 of the Bill set out a series of general and specific functions the agency are to perform. Broadly, the agency will be required to take a comprehensive overview of environmental matters and to work towards ensuring that we properly manage our natural and physical resources for the benefit of this and future generations. They are obliged to promote the conservation of natural, physical and historical resources generally and to ensure that proper environmental monitoring is carried out and that objective information for the formulation and implementation of sound and effective environmental policy is published. They are obliged to provide guidelines and codes of practice for the carrying out of environmental impact assessments and monitoring and required to ensure such assessments and monitoring are carried out to the highest professional standard. They are also required to ensure that a fully integrated approach is taken to environmental matters and that action, where necessary, is taken to protect and improve the environment, having particular regard to the quality of the environment, the sensitivity of the environment and the pressures imposed on it. In this context the functions of the environment protection agency reflect specific functions to be conferred on the European Environment Protection Agency under the draft EC Directive relating to the establishment of the agency which it is anticipated, will be set up early next year.
The legislation recognises that environmental policy cannot be developed and applied in an economic vacuum. It recognises that if we are to tackle the twin evils of unemployment and emigration we must have industrial growth while at the same time ensuring effective environmental protection and development. In line with the thinking in the Brundtaland report, for the first time in Irish law the concept of sustainable development is given statutory recognition.
The agency must in the performance of their functions have regard to the need for sustainable economic development capable of meeting the needs of the present generation without endangering the living conditions of future generations. The Bill recognises the desirability of integrating environmental considerations in all sectors of the economy and the community so that they automatically form part of sectoral planning and decision making at all levels. If such an approach had been adopted in the past some of the more recent environmental controversies we have experienced would not have arisen. Also for the first time in Irish law the Bill gives statutory force to the precautionary approach which requires that action be taken to safeguard the environment where there is reason to believe that damage or harmful effects are likely to be caused in specific circumstances although no definitive scientific proof of such effects is established. If a precautionary approach had been adopted in the early seventies action would have been taken much earlier at an international level to confront the problems posed by the breakup of the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect. If a precautionary approach had been part of the Air Pollution Act, 1987, swifter and more immediate action could have been taken by Government to resolve the smog problem in Dublin.
The agency have a variety of specific functions conferred on them by the Bill which include: monitoring the performance of local authorities and government bodies on environmental matters; reviewing the system of agencies and processes established by the State to manage the allocation, use, conservation, preservation and protection of natural, physical and historical resources; advising on the application, operation, adequacy and effectiveness of existing legislation to protect the environment; providing assistance to local authorities and other State bodies in the fulfilment of their statutory functions with regard to the protection and improvement of the environment; the compilation and dissemination of reliable and objective environmental data and information; the establishment of national criteria for water and air quality and for discharge standards; undertaking and sponsoring research in environmental matters; carrying out investigations and inquiries into matters that have had or may have a substantial or damaging effect on the environment and advising on necessary preventive or remedial action required to be taken; publicising provisions of both domestic and European environmental legislation; monitoring the extent of this State's compliance with European Communities environmental legislation and the effectiveness of the State in obtaining funding from the European Communities for environmental matters where such funding is available to tackle particular problems.
Too frequently the general public are unaware of the environmental protections available and too often the Government have failed to comply with European Community directives with regard to environmental matters. For example, persistently for the last 12 months Deputies in the Dáil have highlighted the failure of the Government to implement the EC Directive on Environmental Impact Assessment, 18 months after the coming into force of that directive.
Further functions given to the agency by the Bill include the provision of advice with regard to the control and disposal of hazardous substances and with regard to the management, recycling and disposal of waste products. The agency is also required to liase with other bodies both within and outside the State and will clearly provide a linkage to the new European Environment Agency that is to be established in 1990. The agency will also have specific powers to take legal action in a number of circumstances which I will refer to later.
The Bill recognises it is important that the agency be not simply a centralised body and that for it to carry out its functions properly it is important that it has a regional presence. In this context it is envisaged that the agency could harness resources currently available, for example, in the regional laboratories at Castlebar, Monaghan and Kilkenny as well as in other public sector bodies.
Section 8 of the Bill provides for the establishment of regional environmental units which would be involved in the general work of the agency and which would carry out a number of specific functions. The regional units would: carry out spot checks on environmental monitoring equipment and procedures in use by local authorities and industry; assess the results of monitoring carried out by local authorities to fulfil their statutory functions; assess the results of monitoring carried out in compliance with licence and planning requirements by industrial, agricultural, aquacultural, mining and such other appropriate activities as are determined by the Commissioner; carry out such monitoring as is deemed necessary to ensure that licensing and planning requirements are being complied with; advise local authorities and other State bodies, including the Industrial Development Authority, on the suitability of industrial locations for environmentally sensitive projects; advise local authorities and An Bord Pleanála on the contents of environmental impact assessments and on the environmental implications of any projects in respect of which an environmental impact assessment is prepared; prepare an environmental impact assessment where requested to do so by a local authority or other State body in respect of any proposed project which gives rise to justifiable public concern as to its environmental implications; prepare an environmental impact assessment, where the Environment Commissioner deems it appropriate to do so with regard to significant environmental impacts of proposed or anticipated public or private sector developments or projects.
In addition, the regional units would have to be consulted by each local authority within the area of the unit with regard to matters that fall within the competence of the agency in regard to the preparation of a development plan by such local authority as required by the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act, 1963.
It is generally recognised that many local authorities do not have the technical expertise to check the validity of environmental impact surveys submitted to them. In this context the regional units would provide the necessary back-up services, not just to the local authorities but also to An Bord Pleanála. The conferring of a power on the agency to carry out environmental impact assessments on proposed projects prior to their reaching the planning application stage would also be of particular benefit. For example, advance work could be carried out by the agency on the likely environmental impact of gold mining in the west of Ireland so that an informed public debate and discusion could take place well in advance of any possible planning application being made.
The agency's role in providing advice on the suitability of industrial locations for environmentally sensitive projects to both the IDA and to local authorities and in making an input into the preparation of development plans by local authorities could ensure that we avoid in the future controversies such as that which arose over Merrell Dow in Cork.
In the context of legal proceedings the agency can avail of a variety of statutory functions not available at present. Power is conferred by the Bill on the Environment Commissioner to serve a stop order upon, for example, an industrial plant where the Commissioner believes, "upon reasonable and probable grounds" that a contaminant is being discharged into the natural environment which constitutes an immediate danger to human life, the natural environment, the health of any person or to property. This provision will enable swift and immediate action to be taken to prevent substantial damage resulting from a pollution incident.
The power to serve a control order to limit or control emissions or discharges of contaminants and to stop such discharges permanently or for a specified period will also provide a new and essential protection. Moreover, under the Bill the Commissioner is empowered to bring court proceedings to ensure that the polluter truly pays for any damage caused and provides whatever moneys are necessary to mitigate or remedy the effects of pollution. This civil remedy is also backed up by a power conferred on the commissioner to initiate criminal proceedings where necessary against those who obstruct or interfere with the agency in the carrying out of its functions or who fail to comply with control or stop orders.
In the event of a serious incident being caused, for example, by a major multinational pharmaceutical or chemical company, the Commissioner can institute proceedings which could result in a fine of up to £1 million being levied and terms of imprisonment of up to five years being imposed. Hence this agency will not only provide for the development of a comprehensive environmental policy, engage in monitoring, research and the publication of essential information and provide support, back-up and advisory services where required but will, in addition, be an agency with real teeth, able to take specific action where necessary in the interests of the environment and of the community.
Moreover, in specific circumstances provided for in the legislation the agency will also be able to institute proceedings under the Air Pollution Act, 1987, the Fishery Acts, 1959 to 1987, the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act, the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act, 1963, the Local Government (Sanitary Services) Act, 1962 and the Dangerous Substances Acts, 1972 to 1979.
Last week the Government published particulars of the proposed Environmental Protection Agency they envisage establishing. Deputy Harney, Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, stated that the Government envisaged the agency broadly having the following four groups of functions: Control and regulation of developments likely to pose a major risk to environmental quality; general monitoring of environmental quality; support, back-up and advisory services, and environmental research.
The Environment Protection Agency Bill effectively provides for all of these functions to be undertaken, together with a wide variety of essential additional functions. The only difference between this Bill and the Government's proposal is that the Bill envisages the agency establishing and publishing national criteria for water and air quality and for discharge standards with regard to environmental licensing, whereas the Government now apparently propose that some licensing functions be carried on directly by the agency. This minor difference in approach is something obviously that could be teased out on Committee Stage.
Fine Gael have no fundamental argument with the idea that the agency should, in specific instances, have a licensing function. We believe, however, that a coherent and consistent approach is necessary and that either the agency should be the general licensing body or the local authorities should be the general licensing body, applying uniform standards and approach with the agency playing a role in monitoring the performance of the local authorities. It seems a somewhat misplaced approach to give the agency some licensing functions and leave others with the local authorities. In the context of preserving local democracy and the functions of local authorities we would question the need to deprive them of their licensing functions. What is needed is a uniformity of approach, and what the local authorities need are the necessary back-up services. What is required to ensure public confidence in the performance of local authorities is that an overview be taken of their performance by the agency. However, this matter could be quite easily teased out on Committee Stage.
The Government's proposed agency is basically a substantially watered down version of what is required. For example, the Government's agency would play no role in monitoring our compliance with EC environmental Directives. Is that surprising having regard to the record of this Government in this area? I have already referred to the Government's failure to implement the EC Directive on Environmental Impact Assessment.
The Government's agency has no right of access to departmental documentation relating to the environment and will not be free to investigate the manner in which bodies, including both Government Departments and local authorities, deal with environmental matters.
The Government's agency will have no function in the carrying out of advance environmental impact assessment on proposed projects such as gold mining, as I mentioned earlier in the west. The Government's agency will have no role in highlighting defects in our existing legislation and in administrative practices and proposing changes.
The Government's agency will play no role in the area of radiological safety, whereas the Bill provides for the establishment of a radiological protection division to take over the current functions of the Nuclear Energy Board. Detailed reference to this function of the agency will be made by my colleague, Deputy Richard Bruton, Fine Gael spokesperson on Energy tomorrow.
The Government's agency will have no power to serve stop orders or control orders or to initiate proceedings of the nature described by me earlier.
Moreover, the Government's press release makes it clear that the agency, which to date is only the subject of a press release and is not referred to in any published Government legislation, will not truly be independent in the carrying out of its work in that it will be subject to "general policy directives issued by the Minister for the Environment", which means presumably that the Government's so-called "independent agency" can under the Government's proposals be ordered to refrain from examining particular environmental problems that might embarrass the Government. For example, it was reported from the Government's press conference that it was envisaged that the agency it talked of would have no remit to deal with the smog problem in Dublin. It is also clear that the Government do not envisage the establishment of an Oireachtas environmental committee, the setting up of which is now long overdue. Clearly, if the Government's agency is put in place, in the manner in which the Government envisage, it will simply be a watered down version of what is required. It will produce reports which will quietly go to Minister to gather dust on ministerial shelves with no real political impetus or no mechanism, such as an Oireachtas environmental committee would have, to ensure that what it proposes is actually implemented.
The Government's press release makes it clear that they have not yet fully worked out the structure of the agency they propose to establish. Confronted by the Fine Gael Private Members' Bill published a month ago, the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Flynn, is quoted as saying, however, that "pending the enactment of the legislation we are proposing to put interim arrangements into place so that some aspects of the work of the agency can be got under way on a non-statutory basis as soon as possible". No truly independent agency can properly undertake any of the necessary work in this area without being established by statute. The Government should be warned that no credibility will be attached to any announcement they may intend to make appointing a few people to a so-called interim board pending the enactment of legislation. It is almost two and a half years since the Government appointed interim members to a roads authority, promising the enactment of the necessary legislation to establish such an authority. The necessary legislation has still not been published and is awaited by this House.
The general public are sceptical of the Government's true commitment to tackling environmental problems. The derisory allocation of £500,000 in the 1990 Estimates for the setting up of an Environment Protection Agency has done nothing to create any real public confidence in the Government's intentions. The Taoiseach's talk over the weekend of espousing a "green agenda" in the environmental context during his EC Presidency is seen by most people at present as nothing but a public relations facade to cover up the lamentable failure of his Government, not only to comply with essential EC Directives but to tackle our own domestic environmental problems.
If the Taoiseach wants to lend some credibility to his Government's rhetoric and to give some substance to this State's interest in the siting of the new European Environment Agency here, he should provide Government support for this Bill on Second Stage. If he does not do so, his expressions of environmental concern will be seen as nothing but political cosmetics. It is our hope that Government support will be forthcoming for this Bill and that it will be welcomed and supported by all on both the Government and Opposition sides of the House. For our part, Fine Gael are happy to incorporate into the Bill any constructive amendments that may be proposed on Committee Stage to ensure the proper workings of this agency. It is quite clear in the context of what the Government have been saying in recent days that no Government Bill will become operative during 1990. Having regard to the Government's record in the context of the roads authority it is highly unlikely we will see the required Government legislation this side of 1992. Support by the Dáil for the measure which Fine Gael have brought before the House would guarantee that we have this badly needed legislation put in place and enacted, and an Environmental Protection Agency established early in the new year.
I commend the Bill to the House. I hope it will have support from all sides and that it will pass through Second, Committee and Final Stages speedily and then find its way into the Seanad so that by Easter the agency will be in place, the legislation will be in force and the environmental protection measures that are required will be seen to be there and an agency will have been established in which the public have confidence.