I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I am pleased to bring this legislation before the House. Since I first began work on this Bill almost two years ago, the environment debate has moved on. We can no longer view environmental protection in the simplistic terms of previous decades. Today it is not just a matter of saving the whale or even the corncrake. The nuts and bolts of pollution prevention and control are less emotive but have assumed a central position.
The debate in the Seanad reflected this in the level of interest in even the most technical and complex areas of the Bill. I endeavoured to approach the debate in the Seanad in an open and constructive way. A reflection of this is in the number of amendments which was made to the Bill as a result of that process. A total of 461 amendments were tabled at Committee and Report Stages in the Seanad and 111 was actually applied to the Bill.
I am committed to pursuing this same open and constructive approach here in the Dáil. I will, however, admit a sense of frustration at the length of time which it has taken to get this important Bill this far and I would appeal to all parties to take account of the urgency in putting this agency in place as soon as possible.
This Bill to establish an Environmental Protection Agency has come at a time when there is unprecedented pressure on our natural environment.
Forces such as the Common Agricultural Policy have led to widespread intensification of agriculture with its attendant pollution problems. Many years of complacency regarding the effects of industry on the environment have left us all ill-prepared to deal with the increasing number of large and complex developments which are coming to our shores.
The current difficult economic situation coupled with continuing high and unacceptable levels of unemployment have tempted many to say that the environment should be placed on the back burner until these greater priorities are tackled. Our planning system, the greatest strength of which is the right of access by third parties, is now under attack by those who would have development at any cost.
Our economic ills require strong medicine which many will find unpalatable. While this medicine will be formulated from many different ingredients, one essential component of the formula has to be high environmental standards and strict but fair controls on all activities with pollution potential.
I have spoken on many occasions of the importance of the continuing health of our environment to our long term economic prosperity, a subject close to my heart.
Suffice to say that the strongest economy in Europe is Germany, and it is no coincidence that the Germans consider strict environmental controls to be an essential ingredient in their continued prosperity.
The Environmental Protection Agency which I propose to establish under this Bill is strong medicine for our environment and a key component in this Government's strategy to improve our economic performance.
Much has been achieved already in our efforts to protect and preserve this unspoiled environment. The Local Government (Water Pollution) Acts, 1977 and 1990, and the Air Pollution Act, 1987, contain very wide ranging controls for the protection of the environment. My Department are presently working on new legislation dealing with waste to complete this legislative umbrella over land, air and water. However, environmental protection in the area of licensing of new and existing development has become increasingly complex and specialised. It has become increasingly difficult for each local authority to provide the expertise necessary to carry out their licensing functions. Problems of public confidence and the need for a more uniform decision making process have made it clear that these functions should now be carried out by one expert body. The idea of an Environmental Protection Agency was born out of the need for such a body.
In common with an increasing number of countries, we have concluded that the satisfactory control of activities with a major polluting potential will best be implemented through a national body with the necessary expertise and resources to deal with the increasingly complex issues involved. The agency's licensing activity will operate on an integrated basis. In other words, the existing separate control systems for air, water and waste will be replaced by one integrated system of licensing and control to cover all affected environmental media. Accordingly, about half of the EC member states have adapted their environmental control systems to this integrated system, and the EC Commission has just recently brought forward proposals for a directive on integrated pollution control.
While the proposed agency will have direct responsibility for controlling activities across a wide spectrum — in all, over 1,000 developments are licensable — they will also seek to promote the implementation of environmentally sound practices generally through a wide range of advisory, support and supervisory functions. These include: the provision of guidelines and back-up to local authorities and other public bodies concerned with the environment; co-ordination of environmental monitoring and reporting on the state of the environment; co-ordination of environmental research; supervision of the environmental performance of local authorities particularly in the area of drinking water quality, management of sewage treatment plants and landfill sites; participation in the environmental impact assessment procedures; promoting the conduct of environmental audits for existing development; the establishment of a labelling scheme for environmentally friendly products and services; and, finally, issuing and approving codes of practice and specifying environmental quality objectives.
If the new agency are to have the full confidence of the general public they must be tough, independent and fair in all their dealings and they must be seen to be so. The independence of the agency is guaranteed by a number of important elements. The executive board will be appointed by the Government from candidates selected by an independent committee following public advertisement of the vacancies. The agency will be given the necessary resources, including an effective and expert staff, to carry out their functions, and will have the freedom to act of their own volition. It is also proposed that it will be an offence to lobby any member of the board or employee of the agency with the intention of influencing improperly a matter to be decided by the agency. The impartiality of the agency is further underpinned by the comprehensive provisions of sections 37 and 38 in relation to the declaration and disclosure of interests by directors, employees of the agency and other relevant persons.
The agency will have wideranging powers including sole and direct responsibility for licensing and controlling a wide range of activities, the power to prosecute summary offences and the power to refer more serious cases to the Director of Public Prosecutions. They will be empowered to investigate and publish reports on pollution incidents or other matters related to environmental protection either on their own initiative or if requested to do so by the Minister. There is provision also for formal inquiries by the agency into a pollution incident or any other matter related to environmental protection. They will be able to avail of all the appropriate enforcement powers and functions provided for in the Air and Water Pollution Acts, including, for example, the power to seek a High Court injunction to prevent serious pollution.
The Bill breaks new ground in establishing open and transparent procedures. The public will be entitled under the Bill to have access to all of the agency's monitoring data as well as monitoring data collected by local authorities on behalf of the agency save in clearly defined circumstances. There is also provision for the agency to establish and maintain a data base on environmental quality. They will prepare state of the environment reports at least every five years and will be obliged to report regularly on their operations and activities.
Section 108 provides for the application of freedom of access requirements to the wider public service and will allow for full implementation of the EC Directive on this matter. These provisions on freedom of access to information will be an important link between the agency and the general public.
A detailed explanatory memorandum on the Bill has already been circulated to Deputies. I wish, however, to deal briefly with the Bill's main provisions in sequence. The text of the Bill, which has 110 sections and is in six parts, can be summarised as follows.
Part I contains standard provisions of a general nature dealing with such matters as interpretation, regulations, offences, penalties and other housekeeping provisions.
Part II deals with the establishment, membership, staffing, financing and operational matters of the agency. It also provides for the formal dissolution of An Foras Forbartha and the transfer of their staff to the agency.
Part III deals with the functions of the agency.
Part IV provides for the establishment of an integrated licensing system to be operated by the agency for activities listed in the First Schedule to the Bill, i.e., those activities with potential for major pollution.
Part V includes a number of general matters in relation to environmental protection and, in particular, provision is made for powers under water and air pollution control legislation to be operated by the agency in addition to or in lieu of local authorities. It also provides for special reports and inquiries.
Part VI is a miscellaneous part dealing with noise, improved access to information, control of genetically modified organisms and the increase of certain penalties under other legislation. These matters are not directly connected with the Environmental Protection Agency.
The First Schedule specifies the activities which are to be subject to licensing by the agency. The Second Schedule specifies existing enactments in respect of which functions can be transferred to the agency. The Third Schedule contains certain amendments to the Air Pollution Act, 1987.
Both the First and Second Schedules can be amended by ministerial order, subject to an affirmative resolution to be passed by both Houses of the Oireachtas.
I would like to deal with some of the functions of the agency in some more detail.
With regard to their regulatory functions, the agency will have direct responsibility under Part IV of the Bill for operating an integrated licensing system and for monitoring, control and enforcement of environmental criteria in relation to classes of activities with potential for serious pollution. The activities involved are set out in the First Schedule to the Bill, which will be capable of amendment by ministerial order, with the approval of both Houses of the Oireachtas, to cater for changed circumstances. The activities to be licensed by the agency are mainly those associated with heavy or large-scale industrial processes but also include activities such as mining, peat extraction, the food industry and intensive pig and poultry rearing. The agency will have regard to the best available technologies not entailing excessive costs for preventing or reducing emissions and to the polluter pays principle when deciding on licence applications. The integrated licensing system will operate for the activities concerned, instead of the system of separate licences and permits for air, water and waste as exists at present.
The relationship between the physical planning and environmental control systems, including environmental impact assessment procedures, has been raised as a matter of some concern. Representations were made to me by all the major interested parties, including representatives of planning authorities, developers and promoters and environmental and local community groups, about the possible difficulties in operating two separate systems and the issues were discussed at some length in the Seanad.
I have had further discussions with a number of those bodies from whom representations were received. I have had a review carried out within the Department of the relationship between the proposed licensing process and the planning process.
I will be bringing forward certain amendments on Committee Stage to give effect to the results of this review.
The agency will have a general supervisory role in relation to public authorities to see that environmental standards are being met. For example, mariculture and other marine related activities will in future be the subject of separate scrutiny by the agency under the Bill. Section 71 will enable the Minister for the Environment to make regulations, subject to the consent of the Minister for the Marine, requiring the prior approval of the agency in relation to the environmental implications of activities requiring licences, permits or other authorisations by the Minister for the Marine. These could include aquaculture, marine dumping and certain foreshore developments.
Local authorities will continue to be extensively involved in environmental monitoring and control activities. It is desirable that a mechanism should exist to guide standards of local authority performance and to encourage the consistent application of control procedures throughout the country.
Sections 56 and 57 give the agency general powers of advice and assistance in relation to local authorities. Section 61 provides for the taking of appropriate action by the agency if the environmental functions of a local authority are not being properly performed. Under sections 58, 59 and 60, the agency will fix criteria for the management of local authority sewage treatment plants and landfill sites and will have a general supervisory role in relation to local authority obligations for the quality of drinking water.
Under section 55, the agency also will have the right to provide advice or make recommendations to any Government Minister or public authority on environmental matters relative to their functions.
Sections 70 to 76 empowers the agency to influence and promote the use of environmentally sound practices in a variety of ways.
The agency are given an extensive involvement in the operation of the environmental impact assessment procedure. In particular, this involves power for the agency to prepare guidelines on the information to be contained in such statements. Those preparing and assessing such statements must have regard to the guidelines. I may have further improvements to propose on Committee Stage in relation to the agency's role in environmental impact assessment.
Under section 72 the agency will be responsible for promoting environmental audits through the specification of guidelines and criteria for this purpose. Section 73 places a duty on the agency to specify environmental quality objectives which must be taken into account by Ministers and other public authorities in formulating policy, setting standards or exercising their environmental protection functions.
The agency will be obliged, under section 76, to establish an eco-labelling scheme involving the use of a special symbol on the labels of products or in connection with services which meet specified environmental criteria. Here it is of interest that the European Commission have prepared draft proposals for a Community wide eco-labelling scheme; the relevant regulation is expected to be adopted in December. Section 76 requires account to be taken of these EC requirements.
There is an increasing demand for reliable and authoritative environmental information. The Bill provides a leading role for the agency in ensuring this demand is met. Sections 62 to 68 set out a range of relevant activities to be undertaken or co-ordinated by the agency.
The agency will prepare, publish and implement programmes for the monitoring of environmental quality including hydrometric data. Much of this monitoring will continue to be done on an agency basis by local authorities but will be subject to co-ordination by the agency to ensure that comparable and comprehensive data are produced. In order to provide a reliable supply of environmental information the agency will establish an analytical quality control programme and require laboratories which supply them with data to comply with a high standard of operational excellence.
The agency will have the role, under section 69, of fostering and co-ordinating environmental research. A well developed cohesive network of environmental research linked to environmental monitoring, both of which are to a large extent interdependent, will be critical to our ability to avoid environmental problems in the future and, when they occur, to respond positively and efficiently to them. Therefore the agency will co-ordinate environmental research and related programmes by public and other bodies and will prepare and publish registers of environmental research projects or operations. The agency will have power to carry out research directly, or through consultancy or commissioned work. As a matter of priority the agency will liaise with the European Commission and other international organisations so as to secure maximum funding for, and participation in, environmental research in Ireland.
To exercise such a wide range of functions effectively the agency require strong enforcement powers. Offences under the Bill will carry maximum penalties on summary conviction of £1,000 and/or imprisonment for six months, and on conviction on indictment of £10 million and/or imprisonment for ten years; fines on foot of summary convictions will be payable to the agency. These fines are of a magnitude sufficient to reflect the gravity of pollution as an offence and will act as a deterrent to the enterprises or individuals who may be tempted to take the pollution option if it would result in a short term financial saving. Other provisions of the Bill also will prove effective as a deterrent, for example, the liability under section 12 on conviction to pay the legal and other costs of the agency and the application, under sections 98 and 99, of these provisions of the Local Government (Water Pollution) Acts, 1977 and 1990 and the Air Pollution Act, 1987 relating to liability for damage resulting from water pollution or emissions to the atmosphere.
I am determined that the agency should not be seen as anti-industry. It will, of course, be pro-environment. This means that industry and other activities with major polluting potential are well regulated.
The Government are committed to sustainable economic development. Essentially that means that, in the pursuit of economic development to meet the needs for the present generation, we must not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs. I have no doubt that the greatest legacy we can leave to future generations is a clean, unspoiled environment because that is our single most important natural resource.
We do not have huge resources of oil or mineral wealth but we do have what is probably the cleanest environment in Europe, a natural resource which will never be exhausted if we take care of it.
The decisions we make in future about what type of development we want in Ireland will have to take this into account. Much of our recent economic recovery can be attributed to industries which are dependent on a clean environment, for example, food, agriculture, electronics and tourism. Continued economic growth, will depend more and more on the perception abroad that Ireland is environmentally friendly. It is no longer an issue of jobs or the environment. In the nineties we look forward to jobs because of the environment.
The Environmental Protection Agency Bill is a radical and progressive step forward. It will help to safeguard our environment and our economic future. The Bill is striking evidence to the wider world that Ireland is serious about preserving the unique quality of its environment.
The Bill is an important one. I am anxious to hear the full views of Deputies on it. However, we should all bear in mind the urgency of implementing the improved environmental management arrangements which the Bill will bring. With this in view, I would hope that, in this House, we will be able to order business and conduct our debates in such a way as to facilitate the reasonably early enactment of the Bill.