I aim to assist the House by compressing what I have to say as much as possible and by attempting to restrain my natural verbosity. I understand there is a general desire that the Second Stage of the Bill should draw to a conclusion today. In all the briefings I have received from various environmental organisations they have stressed that they hope this Bill will have a speedy passage through the Houses of the Oireachtas.
I indicated on the last day on which this Bill was before the House that I had some concern about the implementation of sections of the Bill by ministerial regulation. This is not confined to this area. There is another Bill that will probably come before the House today, that is, the Child Care Bill. I have similar reservations about this Bill, because the broad outline of the legislation is contained in the Bill but, once more, important powers are reserved to the Minister by regulation. It is important that Bills of this nature should be given teeth but that those teeth should be examined here in this House. I note the Minister, in her speech, said that the agency would have wide ranging powers. One welcomes this. I hope these teeth will be very clearly retained by the time the Bill has passed and that there will be no dilution of these powers — the power to prosecute summary offences, the power to hold inquiries to publish reports on pollution incidents and the necessary powers and functions of the Air and Water Pollution Act.
I am glad that these matters of air and water pollution were so extensively dealt with. I notice that a very considerable emphasis in the Bill is on industrial pollution. I would like to shift the emphasis a little towards a broader environmental concern. I am not going to go on at great length about this because I am sure the Minister has access to a considerably greater variety of documentation than I have. I would refer the Minister to the Green Paper on the urban environment, a communications from the Commission of European Communities to the Council and Parliament. They deal with the urban environment in ways that are outside the principally industrial application of pollution legislation. They point out with regard to traffic management — this may appear to be broad but I hope to be able to link it in — that the urban environment has always had problems in this regard, including noise and traffic. This can be traced back to ancient Rome. Paris in the 18th century had traffic jams.
One of the problems we have is that every time there is an improvement in life there is a compensating disimprovement. For example, when we improve the roads system we bring more vehicles into the city and we increase the pollution as a result of exhaust fumes. Up to the 18th century there was no central organised sewerage system. There were receptacles placed in special little cavities behind shutters. The contents were fired out on the streets, which was not very pleasant for the inhabitants. Mainline sewerage systems were produced principally in the 19th century. That certainly affected hygiene in the home and in the immediate environs of the city. It also created a very considerable problem in terms of pollution of the sea. When you solve one problem in a small arena, you very often create a downstream effect on further concealed pollution. I hope that this will be taken into account by the Environmental Protection Agency.
With regard to the pollution by motor cars, and so on, the effects of these pollutants are very often long term. Very often they are more easily observed in their secondary effects than in their primary effects. They can be detected in long term health damage and also in the deterioration of buildings. One has only to look at the outside of this building to see the effect of chemical corrosion. The same applies to Trinity College. Many of the great 18th century buildings in this city are affected by the secondary results of not just industrial pollution but of the pollution from auto-motive exhausts. Hydrocarbons resulting from incomplete combustion react with other pollutants in the presence of sunlight. This results in reaction products causing eye irritation and respiratory system damage. It is also the fact that the exhaust fumes of cars in dense urban traffic lead to a situation where carbon monoxide builds up in tunnels and in underground garages. This can cause respiratory system damage. It can inhibit oxygen absorption by haemoglobin and it can actually cause brain damage in the elderly. Again, some years ago there was very considerable public concern about lead pollution from automobile exhausts and its impact. For example, it could have a bad effect on children in inner city playgrounds and this was a cause of very considerable concern. Again, this is an area in which I hope the Environmental Protection Agency will take particular interest.
Before I leave this report, I would like to turn to another area that is of very particular concern to me, that is, the question of revitalising the existing inner city areas. This may appear to be a little bit wide of the Bill, but when I place on the record just a few paragraphs from this important report I think it will be seen how this ties in to the operations of the Environmental Protection Agency. I quote from page 41:
Revitalising existing housing areas within the city is also important. The quality of life in such areas can be dramatically improved by carrying out environmental improvements and, specifically, by reducing the noise and pollution from traffic. This requires local strategies that give priority to the needs of pedestrians and inhabitants rather than to drivers passing through an area. Such environmental improvements may well provide the impetus for private investment in improvement of housing stock.
The need for revitalisation is not restricted to areas within the city. Many urban peripheral housing estates, particularly those constructed as social housing, are showing symptoms of urban decline more traditionally associated with rundown inner-city areas. In London and Marseilles, the Commission is already involved in pilot projects, aimed at improving economic and social development in such areas. The problems experienced by their inhabitants are often aggravated by their physical isolation from the economic, social, commercial and cultural life of the city.
Expanding the uses and activities of these areas, and thus the opportunities available to their residents, is part of a strategy aimed at integrating these housing estates into the city, and improving their environment and the quality of life of their inhabitants.
Traffic management is an important aspect of environmental control and, indeed, pollution control. Here we have a clear answer to what the city of Dublin is doing in terms of running motorways through the centre of the city. This makes it perfectly clear that it is at the heart of a pollution debate in terms of the environment. It also indicates that the Environmental Protection Agency could, and ought to, be involved in this because of the environmental impact assessments, for example, and also because of what the Minister said on the record of this House. It is clear that she sees the Environmental Protection Agency as fulfilling some role in the shaping of policy.
It is important that here in the Seanad we should indicate that we see the formation of policy through the Environmental Protection Agency in this area as being an important element of its work. This, of course, will mean that one relies on the Minister's statements with regard to the independence of the Environmental Protection Agency. I hope it will be fully independent but I have some slight concern in this area. Despite that, I am sure, is a valiant fight by the Minister to retain as much independence and as much environmental glasnost as possible, I am sure that there will be other tensions intended to retain the environmental agency within the general ambit of governmental influence, and particularly the influence of the Department of the Environment.
I would have to underline to the Minister that I and many other people believe that the strength of the Environmental Protection Agency will, in fact, largely rely upon its independence and upon its perceived independence. I have to say that a number of people to whom I have spoken have suggested to me that there is still too great control by Government of the structures of the Environmental Protection Agency. For example, look at the structure of the appointment committee. The Government approve the appointment committee's choices. There are two direct Government appointees, senior civil servants in the Department of the Environment, Government secretaries, and so on. There is a chief executive from the IDA whom one could also classify in a sense as being in the Government camp. There are also the general secretary of the ITGWU, a chief executive from the Council for the Status of Women, and the chairperson of An Taisce. It seems also that the advisory committee could be fairly tightly controlled by the Minister. I may have adverted to this and signalled that I hope to put an amendment down on Committee Stage on this matter. The Minister can remove from office a member if his or her removal appears to the Minister necessary or desirable for the effective performance by the agency of its functions. It is a very strong power for the Minister to have. It raises the question of what chance we have of getting a really strong environmental protection policy, driven by a technically sound director general and only four other directors. I wonder why there is no representation from regional areas. County managers are increasingly isolated and estranged from central Government.
I would like also to make the point that I think it is very necessary that the lines of communication between the Environmental Protection Agency and local authorities are very clearly defined and the responsibilities of each should be clearly defined. There is a fear that as it begins to operate, whether the aspirations of the Minister and her goodwill — which I think we all take for granted — there may well be a tendency for the Environmental Protection Agency to become almost a kind of additional Government Department because of the direct impact of the Department of the Environment.
I have to point out that the proposed European Environmental Protection Agency will be semi-autonomous and answering directly to the Parliament. I would like again to recommend to the Minister that she follows her own instincts, which I have no doubt are in the direction of perestroika and glasnost, and take back to the Government the strong support for this approach from environmental bodies of various kinds, as expressed through public representatives in this House.
I would like to mention briefly the question of appeals procedures, oral hearings and so on because, once again, this is a constant element in all the briefing submissions I have received. There is concern at the lack of a proper appeals procedure and mechanism which really is seen as a serious defect. It is recognised that there are two classes of appellants. In my earlier speech I indicated the different elements in the equation that need to be taken into account — the central State authority, industry, the individual and so on. One recognises that there are two different classes of appellant, one who wishes simply to protect the environment and the other that may be frustrated by a decision limiting commercial enterprise. I would have particular feelings and I would be inclined to be more suspicious and more hesitant in terms of commercial development which I thought was threatening to the environment but both of these could, in fact, be quite genuine.
I am concerned that there is, for example, no automatic provision for an oral hearing into objections against licences issued by the agencies. I would remind the Minister that oral hearings held by An Bord Pleanála have played a crucial role in ensuring that controversial issues are properly aired and sometimes result in significant improvement in planning conditions. There is a fairly general consensus that there should be provision for oral hearings.
I would like to mention one other matter which concerns me, that is the question of environmental impact statements. I recognise that these are regulated by certain statutory instruments — there is Statutory Instrument No. 349 of 1989; European Communities Environmental Impact Assessment Regulations, 1989 — and that such documents, which form part of the planning application, are filed with this, held at local planning authorities and publicly available for purchase. However, since one of the functions of the Environmental Protection Agency, as I understand it, is policy-making and educative, it would be a good idea, if possible, that copies of environmental impact assessment statements could be made available to the copyright libraries. If we want to have some kind of feed into the third level educational system it is very important that these kind of materials are deposited strategically in the place where they will make the most impression and impact. I have a couple of them here. They are very detailed. I have here a thick, copiously detailed and illustrated book of several hundred pages, An Environmental Impact Statement Concerning Redevelopment Strategy for Bord Gáis Éireann land in Grand Canal Quay, Dublin, and a non-technical summary, which is a small document. This is the kind of material that I believe should be deposited as a matter of course with university libraries. They are not covered by the Copyright Act, I wonder if the Minister would have a look at the possibility of including some provision in the Environmental Protection Agency Bill to ensure that all the third level institutions receive copies of this kind of highly significant material so that they can be more relevant to the life of the country.
I would like to express some concern in relation to the analogies that are so frequently drawn including, by people who briefed me, with An Bord Pleanála. As an aside, in parenthesis so to speak, in the light of recent and current developments and of the historic performance of An Bord Pleanála, I am not at all satisfied that this is a particularly happy model to choose. I am sure the Minister will be as aware, as I am, of the defects of that body and take into account our unhappy experience with An Bord Pleanála in drawing any analogies or in setting it up as a model.
With regard to the pollution control licence, at present the planning permission and environmental impact assessment will be done by the local authorities and not by the Environmental Protection Association. Again, I feel the Environmental Protection Agency should be the authority looking after this area, particularly in the light of the direct interest local authorities would have. They are not disinterested parties in many of these areas. It is impossible for them to take a fully objective view. It is important that this be brought directly and clearly under the operation of the Environmental Protection Agency. There is not any satisfactory delineation of the areas of responsibility that are to be divided between An Bord Pleanála, on the one hand, about which I have just expressed reservations, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
I have already suggested when I was talking about the urban environment, traffic management, noise and air pollution control in the urban developed areas that I thought there was a concentration on industrial pollution. I believe it would be correct to say there is a perceivable limitation in the scope of the Environmental Protection Agency Bill; for example, it does not deal with land use in the areas of forestry, mari-culture and agriculture as comprehensively as I believe it should. These are all areas that have an impact upon the environment.
The system of ministerial control itself is a complicated one and the very fact that it is complicated is likely to slow down the whole process. If I can give an example to the Minister — and perhaps she will be able to consider this and respond to my difficulties in this area — mariculture licences, as I understand it, can be supervised by the Environmental Protection Agency but this is only done if the Minister for the Environment asks the Minister for the Marine for permission. There is a rather convoluted mechanism by which the Environmental Protection Agency is brought into play. This is a problem and perhaps it is one that can be resolved. Again, we want a direct clear intervention by the Environmental Protection Agency, not clogged up by masses of red tape which would inhibit the effective operation of the agency.
As I understand it, it is proposed — or at least it was certainly initially proposed — that funding should be on an annual basis. The Minister has very kindly corrected my misunderstanding of the Bill on an earlier occasion. Perhaps this has been changed, I wonder if it is still the case that it is on an annual basis? If it is, I am not sure it would not be better if the Minister could give us a much longer-term commitment to the continuation of the agency. We have seen a number of agencies operating generally within this area that were wound down rapidly and arbitrarily. I would like some indication from the Minister that it will not be funded on this annual basis, that there will be a long term commitment, and that we can really put a very practical degree of support behind this Bill.
In summary, I have tried to keep my remarks condensed, although there has been a very wide range of information to be digested and placed before the House because of the very remarkable interest there has been in this Bill both from individual members of the public and from a considerable number of statutory and voluntary bodies operating in the area of the environment. I have placed on the record of the House some reservations, but I would not wish the Minister to think that I did not give a strong welcome to this Bill which I think is very important and forward looking. I hope that at least some of the reservations and doubts I have expressed may be met by the Minister in her speech. I congratulate her and the civil servants in her Department for producing what is potentially very fine legislation, from which I have no doubt whatsoever the country will benefit.