I express my best wishes to the new Minister for the Environment.
I am quite sure that having been a patient man in the Department of Health he will see this role as challenging.
The Environmental Protection Agency Bill has attracted a great deal of attention around the country and internationally. The problem is that the Government propose putting in place legislation which will take into account the mass of environmental legislation which has grown up in a fragmented fashion over the past number of years. They also propose providing a framework which will ensure that that legislation is effective in the years ahead. Given the complexity of the environmental problems now facing us, obviously this is a daunting task which will involve the expenditure of huge amounts of moneys to put in place measures which will keep our environment in pristine condition and restore our environment to what it was heretofore.
The agenda for the nineties is very different from the agenda for the previous two decades. Whether people had any great interest in environmental matters heretofore I suppose it is fair to say that the headlines in recent years about the hole in the ozone layer over the Arctic, the mysterious deaths of seals and porpoises, or the extreme weather conditions prevailing in various parts of the globe and their consequences on agriculture and other activities, have brought environmental matters to peoples' attention. It is probably also fair to say that schoolchildren and those involved in education have been aware for some time of the complexities of acid rain, deforestation, global warming and the greenhouse effect. Countries do not have individual systems — we share the same air and we suffer the consequences of transboundary pollution. For this and many other reasons I hope the implementation of this Bill will ensure that effect is given to the legislation in hand in a coherent manner.
Approximately 55,000 chemical substances are used in the western world, about 98 per cent of these are absolutely harmless. However, people have a great fear of the unknown and of the consequences arising from the use or misuse of various chemicals, and the deluge of chemical substances on the market can lead to panic. A balance needs to be struck between the use of chemical substances and modern technology and peoples' legitimate fears. While big businesses are often perceived to be the great polluter in terms of the quick buck, it should be noted that many Governments can cause pollution through inefficiency, bureaucracy and the introduction of a mass of legislation which cannot be implemented. To date, the Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Deputy Harney, has done a good job in this area. However, many questions will arise from the implementation of this Bill. I hope she will deal with these issues in her reply on Second Stage so that Members can deal with them in greater detail on Committee Stage.
On the last occasion I referred to the difference between areas of scientific interest and environmentally sensitive areas. I questioned the relationship between these areas and the necessity for compensation to be paid to people who cannot dispose of their property for farming, forestry, etc. As the Minister is probably aware, while the designation of areas of scientific interest without reference to the local authority or personnel on the ground does not have any legal status at present, it is a cause of great concern. If the Progressive Democrats/Fianna Fáil Programme for Government is to be implemented under the terms of the agreement, something of the order of £400 million will have to be cut from the Estimates. This calls into question the seriousness of the Government to make funds available to this agency so that they can do their job.
I also referred to the statement in 1941 by Archbishop Walsh of the Diocese of Tuam that there should never be any reason for able bodied people to have to emigrate in view of the level of mineral wealth under the soil; 50 years later his successor, Archbishop Cassidy, said in relation to the proposed development at Croagh Patrick that the roots of the mountain were deeper than the vein of gold which is supposed to be there. I also said that at their recent meeting members of Mayo County Council introduced a specific ban on the county development plan under the 1940 Minerals Development Act.
I questioned the Minister about who would be the dominant Minister in this area. The Minister for Energy is charged with responsibility for mineral development but if the elected members of a local authority decide after due consideration to ban all mineral development, where will the power lie? Will it lie with the Minister for Energy whose constitutional responsibility it is, or what legal effect will a county development plan have in such circumstances? Mining companies which apply to the Minister for Energy for prospecting licences will have to carry out an environmental impact analysis in the local authority area in which they propose to carry out the mining and have to get planning permission from the local authority in respect of the physical development of the site in question. If the overall decision of the elected members of the local authority in question is to ban all mining, how can such companies proceed in this regard?
Objections to developments can be taken to the extreme. Environmentalists and people interested in the environment can, on occasion, take their fears too far. It has been brought to my attention that the value of gold in the seam which runs from Croagh Patrick to the Delphi-Doo Lough area could be — I want to stress the words "could be"— of the order of £800 million. Given that new technology may be introduced in the future, the need for a balance to be struck between the creation of jobs in an area devastated by emigration and starved for industry, and the preservation and maintenance of a good and decent environment, what effect will a ban introduced by a local authority have?
Like many other speakers, I said that even if the Minister of State leaves nothing else behind her in the Custom House, she should leave a legacy which the children of this nation will associate with her — a genuine attempt to clear up the social scandal of litter. As I said, television programmes which influence children should occasionally contain educational references to this problem. Young people who can influence their peers should also take an interest in this issue. If the young generation, particularly those in primary school and those at pre-primary school stage, are not given instructions in this area they will grow up with no sense of civic responsibility. This must come through an educational process as other countries have learned from bitter experience. I would urge the Minister of State to promote actively the cleaning up of our country.
I would ask the Minister of State to refer to the responsibility of the Environmental Protection Agency so far as the generation of electricity is concerned. I note that in the ESB magazine, Connecting with the Future, they state that in their stretegic plan for the nineties protection of the environment is and will be the biggest single influence on the Electricity Supply Board in the years ahead. The reason they give is that generating electricity without either coal or oil is regarded as being a major cause of many environmental problems, which it obviously is. Assuming that in future years the ESB have to increase generating capacity what influence will the Environmental Protection Agency have over the ESB given the fact that under the powers available to the ESB at present they can provide and plant pylons practically in any part of the country. We have seen them up hill and down valley with total disregard in many cases for the environment and the quality of the environment they pass through. Will the Environmental Protection Agency have an influence either in an advisory or in a directing capacity to the Electricity Supply Board in terms of their future generation of electricity and the physical fittings that go with it?
An important aspect of the Environmental Protection Agency being introduced is the fact that it will have the effect of removing local monitoring and control from local areas. For instance, the Japanese plant, Asahi, built over 20 years ago outside Killala was a major chemical plant and people will be aware of the major action plan that had to be introduced on several occasions when acrylonitrile was being transported from Dublin to Killala by train. Mayo County Council have been carrying out monitoring of the bay for the past 20 years to a very intense degree. On each of the readings, taken several times a month over two decades, everything has been in order. However, if Asahi were to apply for planning permission today to build that plant, with all the complications arising from EIA surveys — fear of chemicals and so on — it is doubtful that planning permission would issue. When the Environmental Protection Agency are set up the monitoring of an industry, such as the Asahi plant, will be removed from the local area and may well become anonymous. If there is no alternative to employment in any particular area and if the Environmental Protection Agency decide to take to the limit their authority under the provisions of the Bill they could effectively close down industries that might not be strictly in accordance with the conditions that should apply but which might be capable of being adapted to meet those conditions within a certain time. In other words, what I am saying is that if the Environmental Protection Agency take their independent powers to the limit, where no alternative industry exists there could be serious consequences for the economy of an area.
I would ask the Minister to refer to the regional laboratories which were operated by An Foras Forbartha and which will now either be subject to the local authority or to the Environmental Protection Agency. For instance, the laboratory in the west which caters for Mayo, Galway and Roscommon is contributed to in a ratio of 40, 40, 20 per cent. The laboratory do magnificent work in monitoring streams, outlets and so on.
In terms of existing agencies I would like to know what the effect will be once the Bill in introduced. The linkage between the Environmental Protection Agency and the local authorities will require some further clarification. If local authority powers are to be reduced under the Environmental Protection Agency Bill will this not cause delays, inefficiency and confusion? There are some monitoring activities which local authorities carry out at present and if these are to be removed from them and given to the Environmental Protection Agency there will be a loss of revenue to the county councils involved, many of whom are severely pressured for funds at present.
In regard to the functions of the agency if a county council or a local authority are not in a position to implement a direction given to them by the Environmental Protection Agency, because of lack of funding, how then are the agency to ensure that their direction and advice are implemented? Does section 60 (3) (b) really mean that the Environmental Protection Agency will have sufficient funds to enable them to implement their own advice and then take the local authority in question to court and recover the funding? There will be a transfer of activities from county councils to the Environmental Protection Agency; these can range up to 1,000 out of the 1,600 or 1,800 which are presently involved with local authorities.
When an industrialist, an individual or an organisation apply for planning permission at present to a local authority there is a strict time limit on the issuing of that permission. That period is two months and extensions of time can be requested and are normally granted. In respect of pollution, water or waste disposal licences there is no time limit involved but when these licences are integrated and given to the Environmental Protection Agency will there be a time limit parallel to the local authorities' time limit for issue of the individual licence? I ask the question because one could find an organisation or an industry applying for an extension permission, obtaining the planning permission and not having the required licence issued for some time. That area needs to be cleared up.
Under the provisions of the Water Pollution Act it would appear that section 81 would allow for provision of buildings without planning permission if the Environmental Protection Agency decide that this should be so. This is a section of the Water Pollution Act which is not normally used to a great extent but in the case of an industry if the advice offered from the Environmental Protection Agency stated that provision of a further building was necessary, such development, without planning permission, could cause difficulties in built up areas. That aspect of the Bill should be looked at and referred to by the Minister. Section 51 refers to the protection and the quality of our environment. I assume that means the existing quality of the physical environment as well as other aspects of it. For example, under the Department of the Marine, the amount of money allocated in 1990 for coastal protection was £1.049 million. The corresponding amount in 1989 was £90,000 and there was no allocation in this respect in 1988. Yet in a report furnished to the members of Mayo County Council, a county with a coastline totalling 866 kilometres and with islands which have a combined coastline of 302 kilometres, that is 16.7 per cent of the national total, the cost of repairs to public property arising from the storms of this year, and general erosion, is more than £2.092 million. The cost of repairs to private property is £4.613 million, making a total of £6,706,000 in one county alone, to protect the quality of the environment. Local authority engineers involved in that survey were competent in determining what needs to be done. If a function of the Environmental Protection Agency is to give advice in that area, is not that a duplication of effort without any funding to back it up? There is little point in establishing an agency and allocating £1 million to get it up and running this year if it will not have the resources necessary to implement the powers given to it under this Bill. I know the agency will be entitled to seek the views of local and regional experts on various matters and will produce reports occasionally, including five yearly reports, on the state of the nation's environmental health. Obviously, there will be a great deal of overlapping between reports produced by local authorities, other organisations and the Environmental Protection Agency. I would like to think that, as this is an all-encompassing Bill, the Government are really serious about giving sufficient funding to get on with the work.
The Taoiseach recently visited Clare Island where after 70 or 80 years a detailed survey is being carried out on flora, fauna, soil, the atmosphere, the quality of water and so on. It is important to consider what changes have occurred in one of the most westerly islands in Europe, over 70 years, given all the technology that has been developed since the last survey and the consequences of pesticides, chemicals and so on. Will the Minister in her reply refer to the role of the Environmental Protection Agency in that area? This survey is being conducted by the Royal Irish Academy and will obviously update information in relation to that island. If the Environmental Protection Agency are to enhance the quality of our environment or give advice on it, what role will they play in that sort of survey?
Much has been said about pollution of the Irish Sea. I note that sufficient sewage is discharged from both sides of the Irish Sea on a yearly basis to cover the Isle of Man to a depth of six feet. Most speakers referred to the Sellafield reprocessing plant and called for its closure. I visited Sellafield a number of years ago. It is obvious that BNFL have no intention of closing it, nor have the British Government when up to 14,000 people are working there. The British Government's intentions are clear in that regard, despite calls from the European Parliament and from this side of the water. It is also interesting to note that evidence has been produced that at Seascale down the road from Windscale, the incidence of leukaemia in that area was higher than normal in 1928 which was some 14 years before the atom was split. Experts can produce this sort of evidence.
When Fianna Fáil were in Opposition on 12 March 1986, Deputy Ray Burke, now Minister for Justice, in support of Deputy Vincent Brady, now Minister for Defence, called for the closure of Sellafield. Fianna Fáil continuously raised the issue and said it was a matter of regret that the Government of the day could not go with Fianna Fáil on the issue of the closure of Sellafield. Deputy Burke on 12 March 1986 said that the honourable thing for the Irish Government to do was to unite the House on the Fianna Fáil motion and call on the British Government to close Sellafield. We now have a new Government and a new programme. The programme does not say what action will be taken about this but the Minister of State, Deputy Harney, and her senior Minister should ensure that whatever action can be taken is taken.
A problem which has been brought to light in the west of Ireland in recent years relates to the level of radon gas there. The Western Health Board carried out surveys on some of the primary schools located in areas where the reference level of 200 becquerels per cubic metre was exceeded. It is estimated the 180 deaths from cancer directly linked to evidence of radon gas occur every year. What surveys can the Environmental Protection Agency carry out to assist local authorities and health boards in monitoring this? As 437 schools were surveyed in counties Galway, Mayo and Clare there should be a longer term survey of the pupils attending those schools. The Environmental Protection Agency should be in a position to advise local authorities to issue, with all planning permissions, information about the level of radon gas in any area and where the 200 becquerel limit is exceeded, advice should be given to householders as to how to eliminate the problem. At the moment that is a function for the local authority in conjunction with the Nuclear Energy Board.
Speakers referred to afforestation and the resultant acidification in areas densely planted with pine trees. The 35th report of the Salmon Research Institute of Ireland Incorporated for the year ended 31 December 1990 states that in the west the water chemistry data has shown that streams in the upper Burrishoole catchment area are severely affected by acidification. The centre carried out an intensive count of fish numbers in the area in November/December 1990 and found that the spawning escapement of 151 was the lowest on record, down by 67 per cent on the 1989 figure of 224. They found that in terms of the downstream movement of fish the total of 2,063 was the lowest smolt run recorded since total accounts commenced in 1970. The main run was during April and May and water levels were consistently low from mid-April to mid-June and water temperatures were high during the same period. If Connacht is not to turn into a national forest we need clear advice on where we are going. If Government policy is to double tourist numbers over a set period, this is obviously an element of the economy that must be looked at carefully.
I note the farming community responded well to the promptings of Government in the last six years in particular, with regard to agricultural pollution and the disposal of effluent. The Minister of State is aware of the increase in baled silage. She may not be aware that the ordinary round bale is triple wrapped and that that cover is extensive enough to cover a tennis court. There could be up to ten million sheets of plastic used in the western counties alone this year because of the advantage of having baled silage in the generally bad weather. Obviously, there will be a serious problem over the next number of years if the countryside is covered in plastic.
We should encourage the farming community to do as they have done over the last number of years. I raised the matter with the Minister for Agriculture and Food recently and suggested that even a small subsidy should be made to those who want to involve themselves in providing baled silage because of its less polluting effect than that of badly sited silage pits that have run offs into streams. If even a small subsidy were made available to groups or co-ops it would be a very beneficial effect indeed.
The number of fish kills is down as a result of more care being taken by the farming community. For instance, in the northern region as of 7 October 1991 there were nine fish kills of which five were agricultural, one unknown and three due to eutrophication; in the Shannon region there were 13 fish kills. Two were chemical and six agricultural; in the north-western region there were no fish kills reported in 1991; in the south-west-ern region there were seven fish kills of which two were domestic, two unknown, one agricultural and two due to eutrophication. Right around the country the total number of kills was 62, of which 24 were agricultural, 11 due to eutrophication, 12 unknown, two domestic, five chemical and eight industrial. That number is down on the figures for previous years and that trend should be continued. The principle enshrined in the Minister's Environmental Protection Agency Bill that the polluter pays the cost needs to be followed through quite clearly.
I welcome the introduction of this very broad Bill. I genuinely hope that the Government see to it that it is not merely an exercise in setting up a legislative body to oversee, implement, advise on and monitor the various aspects of the environment. The Government should also see to it that the resources are available to implement the measures in the Bill.
I want to commend the Minister on the methods of selection and appointment of personnel to the board. That appears to be clear and is obviously important in terms of the public perception. I hope also that up to date and fully relevant information will be available to the public and that matters relevant to our environment will not be hidden from them.
I wish the Minister every success in having the Bill passed through Committee Stage. For the good of our country over the next 50 years, I genuinely hope that this will prove to be fundamental legislation. I hope the agency will be able to cope with the undoubted increasing pressures in terms of the quality of our environment both now and in the times ahead.