I thank the joint committee for inviting the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, to discuss the issues raised on the "RTÉ Investigates" programme aired on Wednesday, 5 June and the EPA’s investigation into them. I am joined by senior colleagues who were involved in the subsequent investigations.
The EPA has a wide range of regulatory functions which it discharges through licensing, enforcement, guidance and co-operation with other regulatory bodies. In addition, under section 63 of the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992, as amended, it has a supervisory role in the environmental performance of local authorities. Two distinct issues raised on the "RTÉ Investigates" programme prompted investigations by the EPA, namely, leaks to the environment from fluid filled cables in ESB Networks' distribution system and the management and control by ESB Networks of SF6 gas at the ESB's Moneypoint generating station, including the ESB Networks compound. I propose to address each of these investigations in turn.
The first investigation concerned leaks to the environment from fluid filled cables in ESB Networks' distribution system. The EPA first became aware of the extent of losses of fluid from underground ESB Networks electricity cables in May following the receipt of inquiries from RTÉ. It subsequently received a letter from ESB Networks on 27 May which briefly outlined the extent of the underground fluid filled cables, the nature of the insulating fluid, the leaks associated with the cables, questions about possible reporting obligations to the EPA and a request for a meeting.
Concerned that there might be consequential environmental damage, a possible need for remedial actions and a failure to meet statutory environmental reporting obligations, the EPA undertook to investigate the matters. We met representatives of ESB Networks on 11 June when ESB Networks agreed to prepare a report on the extent and nature of fluid-filled cables, the types of fluid used and their classification, the maintenance and monitoring of cables for leaks by ESB Networks, actions and procedures to be followed when a leak is detected, as well as the extent of the leaks and the reporting to regulatory bodies ESB Networks had undertaken on the leaks. Withd these reports from ESB Networks, we were able to define the scope and objectives of the investigation, details of which are set out in our written submission to the committee.
Turning to the fluid filled cables and based on the information provided, the EPA understands 221 km of underground fluid filled electrical cables were installed by ESB Networks between 1950 and 1989, of which approximately 44 km have since been replaced with non-fluid polyethylene cables. Since 1980 there has been a gradual transition from fluid filled to polyethylene cables. Fluid filled cables remain functional for the transmission of electricity. However, owing to deterioration, vegetative intrusion and/or third party excavation works, the cables may leak fluid to the environment. ESB Networks has confirmed that 68 historical leaks occurred from fluid filled cables located within four local authority areas between 1993 and June 2019. In addition, there have been seven "current and new" leaks since June. ESB Networks has stated it was "not able to locate any information on identified leaks or rate of leakage prior to 1993". Table 1 in our written submission gives some of the data for the last decade.
The fluid used as an insulating liquid in the cables was originally mineral oil and, thereafter, linear alkylbenzene. When the cables lose fluid to the environment as the result of a leak, it must be replaced to ensure continuity of electricity transmission. Addition of fluid continues until the leak is located and repaired. Cable fluid added to the cables prior to approximately 1986 was mineral oil; thereafter linear alkylbenzene was used as the replacement fluid. Mineral oil is classified as hazardous, whereas linear alkylbenzene has been classified as non-hazardous since January. ESB Networks has identified that the fluid lost in the cable leaks is often a mix of mineral oil and linear alkyl benzene and that such a mixture must be classified as hazardous. Linear alkylbenzene will biodegrade in both aerobic and anaerobic conditions, whereas mineral oil is not readily biodegradable in the environment. ESB Networks has commenced a process of assessing the impact of all leaks from fluid filled cables. The assessments are being completed in accordance with relevant EPA guidance and site specific and may involve site investigations to establish the impact, if any, and identify appropriate remedial measures, as necessary.
Moving to a brief examination of the applicable legislation in considering these issues, there are four relevant items. They are the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act 1977, as amended; the Environmental Protection Agency Act 1992, as amended; the European Communities (Environmental Liability) Regulations 2008, as amended; and the European Communities Environmental Objectives (Groundwater) Regulations 2010, as amended. In particular, section 14 of the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act 1977, as amended, requires a person responsible for the discharge of any polluting matter "which enters or is likely to enter any waters" to notify the relevant local authority. Local authorities are the principal response agencies for water pollution incidents. As fluid filled cable leaks involve a discharge of polluting matter, they come within the scope of that requirement. The European Communities (Environmental Liability) Regulations 2008, as amended, came into operation on 1 April and require an operator to take measures to prevent environmental damage where there is an imminent threat or further damage if damage has already occurred. Operators must also notify the EPA of any imminent threat or case of environmental damage. A failure to comply is an offence liable to prosecution.
The EPA required ESB Networks to complete a screening of all leaks that had occurred since April. The screening identified four leaks, with the potential to cause environmental damage. On 8 October the EPA issued four separate directions to ESB Networks requiring the submission of a site assessment report by 31 October and instructing ESB Networks to take preventive measures, as required in the European Communities (Environmental Liability) Regulations 2008, as amended, should an imminent threat of environmental damage be established. A response to the directions was received by the EPA from ESB Networks on 31 October. The EPA has assessed the four responses received and is satisfied that no further action is required under the regulations in three of the cases. It is seeking further information on one case.
The main conclusions in the first investigation were as follows. There were 68 historical leaks between 1993 and June 2019. There have been a further seven "current and new" leaks since June.
The locations and scale of each leak have been identified by ESB Networks and it is undertaking site-specific investigations of each. While ESB Networks reports that it consulted a relevant authority regarding 20 of the 68 leaks identified prior to June 2019, it failed in the case of 48 leaks to notify local authorities in accordance with section 14(1) of the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act. ESB Networks failed to screen the impact of fluid leaks which occurred since 1 April 2009, for the applicability under regulations Nos. 7 and 9 of the European Communities (Environmental Liability) Regulations 2008, as amended, until after June 2019.
ESB Networks has established two protocols since June 2019 to deal with historic and future leaks and the EPA is satisfied with the approach and protocols now being implemented by the company to assess each leak and to engage with the relevant local authorities. The EPA acknowledges that decommissioning of fluid filled cables can be a challenging process but considers fluid filled cables that have a high occurrence of leakage and are in proximity to sensitive receptors should be prioritised for decommissioning. The agency is finalising a full report on this investigation and documenting its findings and recommendations with a view to publication in the coming weeks.
The second investigation concerned the management and control of SF6 gas at the ESB generating station at Moneypoint, including the ESB Networks compound. The EPA is designated as the competent authority in Ireland for the purposes of fluorinated greenhouse gas regulations 2016 and 2014. As the competent authority, the agency is responsible for compliance, monitoring and enforcement of these regulations. Following the "RTÉ Investigates" programme, the agency carried out an assessment of the management and control of SF6 gas at Moneypoint. It should be noted that SF6 is a greenhouse gas with a global warming potential 23,000 times that of CO². The EPA investigation comprised a two-day site visit in June 2019 during which the storage of SF6 was inspected and records assessed. Additional records were requested during and subsequent to the site visit which were considered as part of the overall assessment. A report on EPA findings is currently being finalised and will issue to ESB at Moneypoint in the coming weeks.
Preliminary findings of the EPA investigation indicate that management and control of SF6 at the Moneypoint site is operationally rather than environmentally focused, with sustained and prolonged leaks from equipment within the ESB Networks compound. There are four substations within the ESB Networks compound relevant to SF6. ESB Networks data indicates that 2,376 kg of SF6 leaked from one of the substations since 2013. This represents 0.02% of Ireland’s total national greenhouse gas emissions over the period. The general approach to corrective action by ESB Networks was to top up equipment with SF6 rather than undertake repair. Records available at the time of the EPA site visit relating to the management of SF6 losses from equipment and associated top-ups were inadequate to control and minimise leakage of SF6. During the EPA site visit, these records were insufficient to support the determination of SF6 losses and associated leakage rates. ESB Networks subsequently provided data to support its estimates of SF6 leakage at Moneypoint for assessment by the EPA. The site does not have a robust system for the management, labelling and storage of recovered SF6. The old 400 kV substation was fully de-energised in June 2019. ESB Networks states that since this substation was de-energised, leakage of SF6 is no longer an issue. The EPA is seeking verification of this assertion and the removal of any remaining SF6 before finalising its report. The data provided by ESB Networks indicates that the new substations installed since 2013 are currently operating at the site and have not required top-ups of SF6 since installation. The final conclusion is that ESB Moneypoint, failed to report SF6 leaks to the EPA in accordance with its industrial emissions licence and ESB Networks failed to report emissions of SF6 under European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register requirements. The EPA is considering its enforcement position under applicable legislation and is finalising a full report on this investigation with a view to publication in the coming weeks.
I thank the Chairman and committee members for their patience and for allowing me to read this statement into the record. I assure the committee that the EPA will complete those investigations and reports will issue shortly. I thank members for their attention and am happy to address any questions they may have.