Saincheisteanna Tráthúla (Atógáil) - Topical Issue Debate (Resumed)

Wildlife Conservation

I express my appreciation to the Ceann Comhairle for facilitating me and my constituency colleague, Deputy Crowe, in raising this issue and thank the Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Madigan, for taking the question.

I do not intend to engage in any drama about the matter with the Minister. The case is well known and what happened in Seán Walsh Memorial Park has been well outlined in traditional and social media in recent days. My party leader raised the issue of the same wetlands in the House yesterday when he called for an inquiry into the matter, to which the Minister responded. It is now time to move to the next stage beyond what was justifiable outrage, anger, disappointment and frustration at what had happened in Seán Walsh Memorial Park. It is time to move to a more actionable response to determine exactly what response can be made at both central and local government level.

My colleagues on South Dublin County Council raised the matter at the meeting of the Tallaght area committee on Monday. It was interesting because, unlike in the press release issued by the council, the council officials seemed to fess up to the fact that what had happened was a poor case of miscommunications and a mistake. They were asked to reflect this in a fresh press release, although that did not happen. The incident shows the best and worst sides of the council. On the one hand, the heritage side of the council demonstrated great enthusiasm and concrete, practical support for what was happening on the wetlands and in the reserve area, whereas on the other side of the council, it was clear that there was complete ignorance of what was happening. That needs to be addressed. If a local authority wants to retain the aura of authority with the public it serves, in this case the people of south County Dublin, it must act, particularly in this case, with a degree of transparency and integrity in bringing to the fore what exactly happened. If it has to say it screwed up, that is better than hiding behind a banal press release. It is the very least the public in south County Dublin can expect.

The wetlands in Seán Walsh Memorial Park were a vibrant, multilayered ecosystem more by accident than design. There was a murder in the area and the Garda needed to dredge it. Silt was taken from the pond and put on grassland which over a couple of years fostered the creation of an ecosystem. I was one of those involved in clearing the lake, removing plastic bags and so on. I am active in the area and involved in environmental issues. The environmental vandalism was described by one person as being like a punch in the gut. It demotivates and demoralises not only environmentalists and volunteers who help in the park but also park staff. It is clear that we got it wrong. The area regenerated over the years and was bursting with life. There were newts, bats and even critically endangered European eels. Over the weekend people were devastated to learn that the wetlands had been destroyed.

The Minister has said there will be an inquiry, which is positive. It was a case of miscommunication rather than a malicious decision. Nevertheless, the environmental destruction is unacceptable and it cannot happen again in any part of the country. Serious lessons must be learned from this disaster. We are asking for something positive to emerge from this catastrophe. Will the Minister confirm the investigation is going ahead and when it will be finished? Will she liaise with local representatives on this? Does she have a similar view in that we should learn from this catastrophe to ensure it never happens again?

I thank Deputies Lahart and Crowe for bringing this matter before the Dáil. Their colleague, Deputy Colm Brophy, has also raised the issue with me. I was disappointed to hear of the incident that occurred in Sean Walsh Memorial Park in Tallaght recently as any loss of biodiversity is regrettable. Deputy Lahart mentioned that the local authority issued a statement to the press and published it on its website, giving details of what occurred. As I mentioned to his party leader yesterday on the Order of Business, my Department is investigating the matter. We have been in touch with the heritage officer for South Dublin County Council, its chief executive and the director of environmental services. We have requested a report on the matter from them. Officers from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, of my Department are arranging a visit to the area together with the heritage officer from South Dublin County Council. Following that site visit, I expect to receive a report from them for review. We should not be prejudicial or premature in establishing facts until we see the report in detail. We will then take any required further action arising from those findings.

As the Minister with responsibility for the protection and conservation of Ireland's natural heritage and biodiversity at a national and governmental level, I am very aware that we are losing biodiversity around the globe at a rate unprecedented in human history. The number of plants, insects, mammals and birds that are threatened or endangered is increasing every year. The land, ocean and atmosphere are being altered to an unparalleled degree. The Government is responding to the biodiversity emergency and the drivers of its loss and is making progress. My Department is working hard and achieving real and substantial results on a number of fronts, with the NPWS leading this work.

We have committed in Project Ireland 2040 to investing €60 million to protect Ireland's natural heritage and biodiversity. We are now on our third national biodiversity action plan. This speaks to the long-running commitment that this Government attaches to this matter. The current plan runs from 2017 to 2021 and is the key national overarching policy for our work. It sets out actions that a range of government, civil and private sectors will undertake to achieve Ireland's vision for biodiversity, which is that "biodiversity and ecosystems in Ireland are conserved and restored, delivering benefits essential for all sectors of society and that Ireland contributes to efforts to halt the loss of biodiversity and the degradation of ecosystems in the EU and globally".

My Department is engaged in consultations with all Departments, agencies and state owned companies, as well as farmers, landowners, other sectors and non-governmental organisations, NGOs, to set out our priorities for action between 2021 and 2027. We will focus on the habitats and species protected under EU directives, special areas of conservation and the special protection areas designated under those directives.

We have also undertaken a comprehensive range of meaningful and productive actions in recent years. For example, we have secured approximately 17% of the terrestrial area of Ireland within the protected area network. We will continue to increase the areas under protection. We have invested a significant €50 million since 2011 on a major conservation and restoration effort for our raised bogs. I can make the rest of the reply available if the Members so wish.

It is a general response beyond the first couple of paragraphs. None of this policy matters and none of what the Department does as guardian of the wildlife and natural habitats of Ireland matters if a local authority drives a coach and four through it by dumping on and landfilling what had become a natural habitat and wildlife area. If the Minister cannot address this, some other Minister must do it. The local authority must be asked how communication broke down to such an extent that one arm of the local authority did not know what the other arm of the authority had done, culminating in what is essentially the vandalisation of a natural habitat.

Does a local authority require a licence from the EPA to dump silt and soil in particular spots? This happens widely in Ireland. Constituents have raised with me the provision of play spaces in the Dodder Valley and there are concerns that the biodiversity impact on one of those play spaces was not taken seriously by the local authority with respect to the Part 8 submission. The ESB, which is the apparent jewel in the crown of semi-State bodies, has not responded publicly in any meaningful way to its pollution of the River Dodder. An "RTÉ Investigates" documentary covered that.

The Minister's reply outlined her responsibility but she has serious questions to ask of the local authority as to how this came to happen. I urge her to make the point to the local authority that there is serious and significant goodwill among local conservationists, who maintain that significant mitigating measures could be taken immediately to undo the worst of what was done. Part of her response should be to indicate how that can be done and force the local authority to move to address such mitigating measures immediately.

I am a bit disappointed with the response. I realise the Department will carry out an inquiry but we would probably like some answers on that inquiry. How long will it take, who will be interviewed, etc? The most important issue is for something positive to come from this catastrophe. What can we learn from this? We do not need an inquiry to know that one section of the council did not seem to communicate with another, and this is the result. This came about by accident rather than design and a lesson can be learned from that. We have learned that putting silt in an area results in a positive response in the ecosystem. Other local authorities can learn from that. We want a quick response from the Department on this and an assurance that this will not be repeated in south Dublin or anywhere else.

Both Deputies will appreciate that it is entirely impossible for me to pre-empt the outcome of a report. As I said in reply to the leader of the Fianna Fáil Party, I have commenced an investigation, rather than an inquiry, into the matter. The Deputies may rest assured that I will leave no stone unturned to establish the full facts in this regard but I will not prejudge the outcome of the report. It is in train.

It is important to say this is not designated land. It is an area where silt is usually dumped. It is a silt deposit area or, if one likes, an occasional ecosystem. It can create a temporary habitat but it is not a formal wetland. The Deputies mentioned facts so we should clarify that. I do not speak on behalf of South Dublin County Council but it should be afforded the opportunity to respond to my Department on the chronology of events and what transpired. If I am found wanting in terms of reassurance, I reiterate to the Deputies in a persuasive way that I will take this seriously.

My interest lies with protected species, of which an unspecified number, including frogs, newts, eels and bats, are alleged to have been buried by South Dublin County Council when its employees spread silt on this area. I stress that is an allegation and I must take it as such until I see it established as a fact. I will be checking that and we will be talking to all the people from South Dublin County Council who are relevant to this investigation and I will give the full report to the House when I have it to hand.