Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Seanad Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 1 Apr 1981

Vol. 95 No. 14

Dumping at Sea Bill, 1980: Committee Stage.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Two additional Government amendments have been received and are being circulated.


Question proposed: "That section 1 stand part of the Bill."

I want to refer to the definition of "Irish marine structure". Does it mean a marine structure owned by or leased to an individual resident in the State or owned by or leased to a company? Is that an Irish company or a foreign owned company, or what kind of a company?

I refer the Senator back to the other term of "company" in line 10. That would be an Irish company under the Companies Act.

So we are quite clear then that it must belong to an Irish company, under the meaning of this Act — an "Irish marine structure".

"Irish marine structure" would refer to an Irish company under the Companies Act.

Question put and agreed to.
Section 2 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 1:

In subsection (1) (a), page 4, line 16, after "Minister for Energy" to insert "and certain prescribed bodies".

Before I deal with the details of amendment No. 1, I would like to mention the reasons for putting it in. I am concerned, as I explained when we were debating the Second Stage of the Bill, that in dealing with international environmental legislation of this kind we do our very best to make sure that we put a Dumping at Sea Bill on our Statue Book which will give the fullest possible opportunity for wide consultation and expert opinion to be involved in the granting of permits to dump in our waters any kind of waste, or indeed anything. It is extremely important that we find out the reason why we have decided to be different from other legislation in this respect.

All the amendments I have put down on this Bill are in line with the English Dumping at Sea Act, 1974. I am not saying that in all cases we should decide that all English or other legislation in any other jurisdiction is very good legislation and that we must slavishly follow it. But given the fact that it has taken us nine years to get this far, given the fact that there is a certain question mark over how this Bill comes to be introduced in the first place by the Department of Transport, given the fact that the Department of Fisheries and Forestry have been doing an extremely good job indeed in the work of examining permits and controlling this whole question and are determined to go on doing that good job, it is absolutely essential for us to be quite clear what we are doing here.

I am in favour, therefore, of taking the best of legislation in other countries and leaving the worst of it alone. I mentioned last week the criticism of an international environmental magazine of this Bill about its lack of openness, about its secrecy, about its reluctance to involve anybody except the Government in the granting of these permits.

I certainly do not want to go into the results of wrong decisions at this point, but dumping at sea perhaps 20 years ago would have been something that probably would not have aroused much interest and would have been thought of as not being very important. But nowadays the alarm bells do go off in people's minds when one talks about any kind of dumping. Certainly the alarm bells went off in my mind when we were presented with this Bill and I examined it to find what safeguards there were, what expert bodies and concerned individuals in the State were going to be invited to advise or contribute. To my amazement I found that except for the officials of various Government Departments there were no provisions for such consultation. I am a great believer in the officials in the various Departments and in particular the Department of Fisheries and Forestry who do an extremely good job. There was a report in one of the newspapers last week that I had severely criticised the civil service on this Bill. I would like to remind the House that the criticism was directed at anybody who had been responsible for a nine year dealy, which I found indefensible. However, I would not criticise the work that has been done in this area of careful scrutiny and regulation of permits by the various Departments, in particular the Department of Fisheries and Forestry.

So, on the first amendment I want to put in that certain prescribed bodies should be consulted by the Minister. The Minister is already going to consult the Minister for the Environment, the Minister for Fisheries and Forestry, the Minister for Industry, Commerce and Tourism and the Minister for Energy. I would like him also to consult certain prescribed bodies. I mean bodies with scientific technical expertise because, after all, the Government Departments are not the sole repositories of wisdom in the country and it would be a sad day if they were. The trend should be towards involving as many people as possible in how this country is run, in a whole range of areas and not just this area. But I certainly feel that in this area there should be an obligation to consult bodies who not only have scientific and technical expertise but who would have an interest in the environment which is the concern of every single one of us.

This country with its huge coastline and therefore its vulnerability needs all the expertise it can get. I do not think that these bodies have to be listed in the Act. The bodies could be prescribed by ministerial regulation. But it is important that this provision should be in the Bill. Obviously I would give as examples such bodies as An Taisce with its expert committee on environment and on marine pollution, the Insitute for Industrial Research and Standards, the National Board for Science and Technology. I would particularly like to mention the Irish Fishermen's Association as a body that should be given a voice in the whole question of dumping at sea and marine pollution. I can think of very few bodies with more vital interest in this question than the Irish Fishermen's Association. I would like to propose that amendment to section 3.

It is a pity that it might appear that we are at cross purposes in this regard, because I believe that we are both very concerned that the proper thing would be done in having an effective piece of legislation to control dumping at sea. I always understood that the whole purpose of this Bill was to protect human health and the environment, and that is the purpose of this legislation at this time. As far as I am concerned the whole purpose of legislation is to protect the citizens of the State, and that is, in essence, what this Bill is attempting to do.

I would like to consider some of the remarks made by Senator Hussey in this regard. I do not regard the amendment as either necessary or desirable and consequently I cannot accept the amendment. I would like to draw to the attention of Senator Hussey that the four Ministers whom the Minister for Transport must consult with before granting or refusing to grant a permit would appear to me to be the repository of a considerable amount of expertise in all the field referred to. Indeed it is only when one takes them in isolation that one realises the depth and the wealth of expertise that must be there concerning the environment, fisheries and forestry, industry, commerce and tourism and, of course, energy. Each of these Departments has highly specialised and highly qualified personnel, and they would appear to me to be the most suitable people in this country to deal with this kind of situation.

Indeed, I put the case to Senator Hussey that we are continually being told by organisations in this country that the Departments should carry out studies and utilise their expertise in providing us with surveys, monitoring various aspects of environmental life, and giving the benefit of their expertise to the community. These particular Departments are being asked to utilise their expertise with a view to helping the Minister in dealing with these applications. I would agree with the Senator that all the wisdom does not lie in any one particular area of society. But at the same time, when one talks about permanency and when one talks about experts whose only job it is and whose only field of activity is concerned in this area of expertise, then they would appear to be the ones best suited to consult in so far as the granting or otherwise of permits is concerned. I would point out that the Minister for Fisheries and Forestry in particular would have a very special interest and has highly trained and highly qualified people in his Department to deal with all aspects of environmental control and indeed fish life in general in our seas. Surely they would be very suitable people to deal with this. We must always remember that this legislation is concerned with dumping at sea. It is not true to say that the alarm bells should be ringing at this time in so far as I explained on Second Stage that we only have four licences issued in this area at this time. I can quite safely say that there is not going to be a rash of applications in under this heading in the immediate future or, indeed, in the foreseeable future. This legislation is being introduced at this time to provide the necessary vehicle whereby we can deal in the future with any applications that might come in.

I am sorry the Senator has dwelt again this evening on the question of the delay in having this legislation introduced. I thought I explained in some detail on the last occasion the reasons this small delay had taken place and it should have been to the satisfaction of everybody. Consequently I would also like to point out that the international bodies such as IMCO and the Oslo commission will be very much concerned on all aspects of these applications. Surely it can be suggested at this stage that those particular bodies would have an enormous amount of expertise at an international level and at a very highly qualified level to deal with any applications and it is incumbent on the authorising body to consult with them as well. We will be sending all due notice concerning any applications that are lodged with us. I am satisfied that the interests of the public will be served and adequately safeguarded, particularly when one considers the strict criteria laid down by the Oslo and London Conventions in relation to the granting of permits. For that reason I cannot accept the amendment as being necessary or desirable.

I am sorry that the Minister takes the view he has expressed. I certainly cannot accept that he, as he says, explained everything last week. It is precisely because he did not explain everything last week that I find myself in the position of putting down all these amendments. We were assured last week, and I have accepted already, that all these Departments are full, bursting at the seams with experts. I am absolutely sure they are, and that the gang of four Ministers that the Minister referred to will do a wonderful job with their experts. There is no argument about that as far as I am concerned. Also I accept that the purpose of this legislation is protection. Of course it is protection. This is what it is all about. What I am saying is that I would like to be able to protect myself.

I would like to feel that other people in this State, besides the organs of Government, can have a say in what gets dumped in the waters around this country which belong to all of us. They do not just belong to the four Ministers. The Minister has not explained to me why he feels it necessary to exclude citizen participation to the extent that it is excluded, why he feels it necessary to be different from other international legislation in this area which was quite clearly pointed out in the international and environmental report which I quoted last week. My mind was not put at rest by remarks in the Minister's reply last week. At this point, therefore, maybe I should ask the Minister if he could explain some of those remarks? I quote column 1290 of the Seanad Official Report of Wednesday, 25 March. The Minister says:

It might not be in the best public interest at all times if details of the waste to be disposed of were a matter for public participation.

I am sure that means something. I would just like to know what it does mean. At this point we should be told why it might not be in the best public interest. Legislators in this House have a right to know what kind of circumstance the Minister is talking about where it might not be in my interest or in the interest of the person out in the street to know what is being dumped in the sea around the country. That is one very important question that has not been answered and which I would like to know the answer to.

There is another question arising from what the Minister said last week. When I talk about alarm bells I do not want to be sensational at all. It is not my style; I do not like being sensational and I do not think sensationalism helps in the formation of good legislation. But I would like to refer to another sentence in the Minister's reply last week at column 1291:

Dumping at sea of the type of substance in the type of quantity that has been referred to is a very expensive business.

Then he repeats, "Dumping at sea is an expensive business". It does not come as news to me that dumping at sea is an expensive business. Dumping at sea will be more and more engaged in by large companies with a lot of money to spend. Those two sentences in the Minister's reply, standing alone, would be cause for alarm bells going off. I would like to know what the relationship is between the fact that dumping at sea is an expensive business and the fact that it might be better for people not to know what is being dumped at sea. It seems to me that there is something sinister in the relationship between those two remarks. I hope I am wrong. I am hoping that the Minister will assure me that I am wrong. But the best way I could be assured that I am wrong is for the Minister to allow for the kind of public participation in decision making in this area that I am asking for in these amendments, because that is what it is all about really.

Another aspect is that what the Minister has just said, when he talks about the wonderful expertise in those Departments which will ensure that everything is done in the very best interests and we need not worry, smacks of big brother in a very big way. I would have thought that where there are bodies willing, able and prepared to give advice and give expert consultation in this area, that the State would have been delighted to use that kind of advice. But I get the impression from the Minister's reply that he does not want to know about other bodies except bodies that are employed directly by the State.

The Minister also said just now, to calm our fears, that there were only four permits granted. It only needs one disaster for this legislation to be seriously questioned. I do not want to be guilty of any lack of taste or any sensationalism but I just want to say that we have had a disaster recently which has called into question a lot of things about Irish legislation. Let us make sure that legislation that we are passing is properly done so that we will not wait until after a disaster to examine it all.

The last question I want to ask is, since the English Act of 1974 has included this kind of citizen participation that I am speaking about, could the Minister perhaps tell us why Irish legislation is not deemed to be necessary for Irish people to have that kind of citizen input into this area?

I am glad to see that the Minister for the Environment has a function under this section in the granting of permits. This whole Bill is concerned with environment and the possible pollution of the sea by toxic materials which, if I understand it properly, is the waste of heavy industry, industries much heavier than we have. In effect, what we are doing in this section is issuing permits to our next door neighbour to dump his garbage in our back yard. It is very important to point out that by dumping toxic material at sea, under water, we do not reduce its lethal potential. Experience of the Love Canal in America where toxic waste, dumped under water, exercised a most harmful effect producing genetic deformities proves this. We can also look at the Windscale experience. We can look at the River Rhine, once a beautiful, clear, clean river, now dying because of toxic waste. So, I can understand Senator Hussey being so upset about this section. I am not any too happy about it myself. We will have to look carefully at it.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

The Chair is rather loath to interrupt the Senator but I think those remarks would be more appropriate on the section. We are on a rather narrow amendment to include certain prescribed bodies. If the Senator would confine her remarks to that the Chair would be happy.

I would like to conclude. I understand, a Leas-Chathaoirleach, what you say and I accept it. We would like more reassurance from the Minister that applications for permits to dump will be very carefully scrutinised.

Is it possible to say any more on it?

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Yes. We are in Committee and Senators are allowed to speak as often as they wish so long as they keep to the subject.

We are on the first amendment and I have a feeling that this is going to be a pattern that will go through the rest of this discussion with one small exception which was handed to me a few minutes ago. I just asked the Minister a list of questions on this amendment in reply to his remarks, and before I could consider withdrawing the amendment I would like to have answers to some of those questions. The silence on some of the questions is really eloquent. What did the Minister mean by the first statement I quoted from his speech last week which is that people might be better off not knowing what is being dumped? That is my interpretation of what the Minister said, and if my interpretation is not correct, perhaps the Minister could tell me what the correct interpretation is. It is not good enough to keep silent on this subject.

I apologise to the House that I should be under an obligation to repeat this, but what does the sentence "it might not be in the best public interest at all times if details of the waste to be disposed of were a matter for public participation" mean? The Minister owes it to the House and to people who have taken a great deal of interest in the Bill to tell us what that sentence means and to give us examples of what we would be better off not knowing about. I take it in conjunction with the other sentence, which is that dumping at sea is an expensive business. We might be forgiven, in the absence of any clarification by the Minister, for jumping to the conclusion that because dumping at sea is such an expensive business it would be better if we did not know about it. Then one's mind might jump on a little bit further about the connection between silence and money and pollution. It is not the kind of healthy scenario that I would like to see a Bill going onto our law books with.

Could the Minister explain to me what he meant by those statements last week? Could he explain to me why we cannot put into our legislation a simple set of enabling clauses to invite responsible people to participate in decision making and why he seems to have this reluctance to allow us to help to protect ourselves?

There is no reluctance at all on the part of the Minister of State to deal with any matter that might be raised here as long as we get them isolated and can deal with them individually, and that is what I propose to do. I am delighted that Senator Hussey accepts the fact that four Departments do have the expertise necessary to judge what might be right or wrong as far as the issuing of permits is concerned. I am pleased that she accepted that.

The Departments have not got it all.

If the Senator accepts that I cannot see why she is pressing to have others included who may not have that expertise and who are continually asking the same Departments to provide that expertise.

I would also remind the Senator of the matter of the whole essence of this legislation. One would imagine, listening to some of the contributions, that dumping is going on wholesale around our coast at this time. That is not the situation at all. The very opposite is the case. Dumping at sea is a last resort and every other avenue of waste disposal must be tried before one is permitted to apply for a permit to dump at sea. Then, considerable consultation must go on to see if it is possible to dispose of these wastes in any other manner whatsoever before giving a permit to dump at sea is even considered. It is important that people remember that.

What I meant when I said it was in the best public interest, was simply that it was by way of protection of the industrial confidentiality attached to this business. This has been brought to my notice as being a very important issue. We do not have the same situation here as they have in Great Britain and other countries where a considerable amount of dumping at sea is done and there are a large numer of companies involved. That does not happen here. Because of the fact that it is possible to glean information from certain records and certain details of dumping at sea, it is possible in the industrial sense to gain very valuable information about the competition and about rivalry in industrial competition. Consequently it is absolutely essential to protect the industrial confidentiality of these permits. That was the reason I said it would not be in the best public interest to divulge everything at this time or at any time.

The question of a disaster is somewhat sensational at this time when one considers that the dumping at sea of lethal substances is entirely prohibited under the Oslo and London Conventions. There is a black list of substances that may not be dumped at sea; there is a grey list of substances that may, under special permit granted for special locations for specified quantities and special types of substances, be dumped in a special way and under very strict control and monitoring. Surely the details as set out in the conventions make it abundantly clear to everybody that all other methods are tried before it is necessary to grant a permit for dumping at sea. Consequently, if it is carried out in accordance with the best international standards as laid down in the conventions, I cannot see how any harmful effect would accrue. For that reason I am sorry that the question of disaster has to be introduced here. It is sensational, and I do not think that kind of reference is in the best public interest.

I can assure Senator Cassidy that all applications in this matter are scrutinised in very fine detail and the experts in the various Departments, especially in the Department of Fisheries and Forestry must be concerned. It is their obligation on behalf of the citizens of the State to be very concerned with what may or may not be done and where it may be done in so far as the protection of marine life, the environment and the health of our citizens is concerned. I see no reason why there has to be a protracted discussion on this section. The expertise is available nationally and internationally, which will enable the Minister to make a sound judgment on behalf of the citizens of the State.

I should like to clarify one point. I do not accept that the Departments mentioned by the Minister have all the expertise necessary to protect the country. They may not have all the necessary expertise. I said I accepted that they had a great deal of expertise but I did not mean they had all the expertise there is in the country. I thank the Minister for explaining what he meant when he said that perhaps it would be better if people did not always know. The message I get from that is that the preservation of industrial secrecy for commercial purposes is more important than public knowledge. This interpretation follows logically from that explanation and makes me feel that public participation is all the more important. I would prefer the general public to be protected than that commercial companies have their secrets well kept. If they cannot keep their secrets and at the same time do their duty, that is their problem. I do not think it is for us to give them that sort of present, if you like, to say not only will we give you a permit but we will make sure that nobody knows about it, so that your competitors will not know. The only people who will be in ignorance are the Irish people who are living in the country into whose waters these things are being dumped. That is one rather alarming interpretation that can be put on this explanation.

I am aware that dumping at sea is very carefully monitored and that it is a last resort. That is why we must be so careful. It is because substances cannot be dumped on land but are going to be dumped into the sea where currents will take them away, and not do anybody else any harm, that we have to be so careful in making sure that we do the right thing.

The Minister is not telling us anything new when he says that dumping at sea is a very dicey operation and can only be done with extreme caution. I am glad to have heard about the black list and the grey list of substances that can be dumped. I understand that there are two main kinds of substances. One is inert substances, like dredging from the bottom of the sea which are almost neutral environmentally. Perhaps the only dangers from them are that they might cover the sea bed, which in some instances can be dangerous but, on the whole, inert substances are less of a worry and presumably would be on a white list, if such a list existed. The other kind of substance is organic materials. This is where we almost reach the black list area. Organic materials may cause all sorts of oxygen changes in the water such as residues from the manufacture of penicillin, for example. We are concerned about large scale dumping of this kind.

None of the exchanges we have had so far explained why we do not want other people to participate in the legislation. The Minister mentioned that we have hardly any dumping at sea; that we have had only four permits and that there is very little need to get excited about this legislation and that sensationalism is in very bad taste. I do not think it is sensationalism, I am only doing my duty. The reason why this legislation is being brought in and why it has come into other countries is because it is anticipated that there will be a need for it. We would be wasting our time if we thought that there was no need for legislation. We are passing this legislation because dumping at sea is important. Therefore I cannot see any good reason for the Minister's resistance to my request that there should be certain careful, realistic provisions in the Bill to allow people an input into the decision making process regarding the dumping of materials into the seas around our shores.

The Senator referred to the delay in bringing in this legislation. The opposite is the case. We are bringing in this legislation in case it becomes necessary to deal with permits that might be applied for in the Department in the future. There is no serious dumping at sea going on around our coast at this time. Everybody should be aware of this. I assure everybody that the most careful realistic provisions are being incorporated in the Bill to deal with any licences or permits that might be asked or sought from the Department. Any permit granted will be as a last resort when all other avenues of disposal have been tried. The provisions of the London and Oslo Conventions deal adequately with the matter of dumping permits. As long as we conform in the issuing of permits with the provisions of those two conventions I can see no danger to the general environmental structure in and around our coasts.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Progress reported; Committee to sit again.
The Seanad adjourned at 8.30 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 8 April 1981.