Waste Disposal.

Given all the legislation passed already by the House, and the Bill currently on Committee Stage in the House, and the collective effort being made throughout the country to clean up the environment, it is almost beyond comprehension that further illegal dumps are being found. I want to know how an unregistered and illegal dump in a scenic area, which I believe is being considered as a wildlife protection area, could conduct its business for years, with trucks coming and going without anyone in South Tipperary County Council knowing about it.

Under the legislation passed in the House I tried to investigate this matter with the officials concerned. The reply I received was that I should put my request under the Freedom of Information Act, which is unacceptable. Why was Dúchas, which forms part of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, using the dump? Last Monday morning, a Dúchas truck dumped all sorts of material in the illegal dump, including literature from Dúchas. This unregistered dump near a fen is surely a risk to contaminating the local water table. The lock on the gate leading to the dump is of Dúchas issue, one which is commonly used throughout the country by Dúchas. A sign located in the site is exclusively used by Dúchas and it is my understanding that this illegal dump may be used exclusively by Dúchas, not just by its Kilkenny depot but by a number of other depots located in the area. I cannot say with certainty the length of time this has been going on, but I have reason to believe it has been going on for years. Furthermore, I have reason to believe that hazardous material such as asbestos has been dumped by the sack load in the dump. A Government agency has not only broken the law but has done so in a manner that is appalling to contemplate. What did the Dublin-based managers know about this? More to the point how could they not know that Dúchas was dumping lorry loads of waste in this illegal dump?

As I have said already, I believe a number of depots were involved. Where did they think the material was going? This is not something that can be laid exclusively at the doors of local managers. At best this is mismanagement or at worst gross incompetence. There is a lack of knowledge or a turning of a blind eye – both are equally damning.

Over the years I have asked many questions of Dúchas and it has frequently demonstrated by way of answer to those questions its lack of interest in being accountable. I appeal to the Minister of State to raise the appropriate questions with this organisation to ask if there are other—

Acting Chairman

The Deputy's request raised the matter in a very general way. It may be better if he did not pursue the matter by way of specific allegation.

It is not allegation, Acting Chairman, it is fact and this has been recognised in a statement issued by the Department today.

Will the Minister of State ask if further unregistered dumps are being used elsewhere in the country? He should determine how this arrangement was brought about within the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Dúchas, and how it was paid for by the Department. If it was using and paying for the facility, either the Department or the local organisation must have known about it. As a result of my experience with Dúchas I do not accept that it can conduct within its organisation an inquiry into this matter. I ask the Minister of State to ensure there is an independent inquiry conducted by someone outside the organisation.

The list of items dumped includes galvanised steel, plastic buckets and builders' and other material. We need to find out how long the dump was used, what was dumped there and what are the intentions of the Department in reclaiming the land or restoring it to the way it once was as agricultural land. A full explanation is required and I ask for immediate action.

I can reply to the issue as raised by the Deputy. Since taking office, the Minister has gone on record on several occasions to make it clear that waste management is one of the Government's top environmental priorities.

Substantial powers are already available to local authorities under the Waste Management Act 1996 to enable them to tackle this problem. Under section 55 of the Act, a local authority has the power to order measures to be taken in relation to the disposal of waste as they see fit, including the remediation of any effects arising from illegal activities. I am aware that several authorities have availed of these powers and have taken action. Section 56 of the Act empowers local authorities to directly take appropriate actions to remedy or counteract such activities and to recover their costs through the courts.

Sections 57 and 58 provide for access to the High Court and for orders in relation to remediation to be made. So the legislation is there. In addition, the maximum penalties for illegal waste activities are a fine of €12.7 million and/or ten years imprisonment, which are quite substantial.

The Government has already demonstrated the seriousness with which it views illegal dumping. The Minister's predecessor requested the Garda Commissioner to assist in the investigation of such activities in Wicklow. In response, the Commissioner assigned a large, full-time investigative team from the National Bureau of Criminal Investigation to investigate the allegation of criminality in connection with unauthorised dumping. While the initial focus of the investigations has centred on activities in Wicklow, the ongoing investigations are not limited to any geographical area.

Substantial powers and further amendments are being introduced on Committee Stage of the Protection of the Environment Bill which is currently going through the Oireachtas to increase the maximum fine to €15 million with associated increases in other fines and to provide that the courts in considering penalties to be imposed will have regard to the costs of remediation required. Other amendments to that legislation are also proposed.

In addition to the increases in allocations to local authorities from the local government fund, the Minister will shortly be announcing funding from the environment fund to directly support local authorities in ramping up their overall environmental enforcement effort, with a particular emphasis on combating dumping and other unauthorised waste activities.

Obviously the legislative framework exists. However, there is a problem, a culture and an ethos in some places, and it is hard to get through to people. I heard what the Deputy says. Dúchas now forms part of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It was taken over last year in the reorganisation of Departments by the incoming Government. Sections of it will soon go to the Office of Public Works. On behalf of the Department I deeply regret that unauthorised disposal of some waste appears to have occurred from the Kilkenny depot. The matter has only come to light recently and it is being investigated.

The Deputy referred to Dublin-based officials. The Oireachtas and Dublin-based officials can promote and pass legislation, but people on the ground around the country have to be the eyes and ears of the regulatory authorities. I do not know how these illegal dumps come about and whether they are coming from Dúchas depots or elsewhere without people in the know not seeing and reporting them. It is embarrassing for the Department that there has been illegal dumping in any form. It is wrong and I totally condemn it. On behalf of the Department I deeply regret this and we have instructed that an immediate investigation into this incident take place. The Secretary General will get a report on the case as a matter of grave urgency.

Once legislation is passed it is everybody's responsibility to try to enforce it and act as the eyes and ears of the Oireachtas throughout the city and country so that such legislation can be meaningful.

The Dáil adjourned at 7.40 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 20 June 2003.