Adjournment Matters. - Dublin Hospital Incinerator Proposal.

I thank the Minister for taking the time and trouble to come into the House to listen to this debate this evening.

As the terms of the Adjournment Motion indicate very clearly, there is a great deal of concern among many people in the Dublin area in general about the proposal to construct an incinerator at St. James's Hospital. That concern extends throughout the city. It is particularly strong close to St. James's Hospital, in Rialto and in the areas south of the canal.

It is essential that the environmental impact study should go ahead. I understand there is an obligation to conduct such a study and that is going to be done. It is also very important that the results of the environmental impact study be published and that its terms of reference should be made available. The public wishes to know when this study will be completed and to what extent the information available will be forthcoming.

The manner in which this country has implemented the EC directive which requires that such studies be carried out is unsatisfactory. The Minister is only too well aware that Article 3 of that directive has not been fully implemented here. Accordingly, there is no obligation on this country to make all the details available. I would ask the Minister for a commitment that those details will be made known.

I am concerned also that we should have full information on all the alternatives and all the options for the disposal of clinical waste. It is very important that the decision should be reached only after those alternatives are fully explained and analysed and after the implications of all the options are made known.

Concern is not confined to the residents who live in the general area adjoining St. James's Hospital. I understand 700 members of the staff of St. James's Hospital have signed a petition asking that this proposal should not be implemented, that the incinerator should not be located there. Of those 700, I am sure very many would be medically qualified, many would have nursing qualifications and scientific qualifications. These people are particularly well informed on the risks which arise from the disposal of clinical waste.

The Minister is only too well aware of the dangers attached to incineration, and the likely production of toxic chemicals. I suggest to the Minister that the full implications of the effects of small doses of toxic chemicals, or potentially toxic chemicals, are not well understood. We do not have an adequate level of data to be able to speak with certainty or confidence about the long term implications of low levels of exposure. Of particular concern is the effect and impact of the incineration of PVC materials, substances which give rise to a whole series of chemicals, in particular dioxin, which is of major concern. However, I would not limit the concern just to dioxin. A whole series of chemicals is involved.

People are worried about the long term effects of this proposal, the effects of exposure during pregnancy and the danger to young people, which could impact on them later on. One has only to look at the studies on stilbestrol which was used with great confidence some years ago. We are now seeing all too clearly the terrifying effecs which that has had on the daughters of mothers who were treated with it during pregnancy. I would like the Minister to take those concerns into account.

I thank Senator Upton for sharing his time with me. I do not intend to restate the problem as it has been presented by Senator Upton. We are asking the Minister to listen to the voice of the people in the locality. The attitude of the people in the area is not just that it should not be in their back yard. They do not seek to push it into somebody else's back yard either. They have taken a very responsible attitude towards this, but their needs are not being met.

This matter also shows some serious flaws in legislation. It shows that the commitment to an environmental impact study as required under the EC directive is not responded to adequately in Irish legislation. The type of EIS implemented in Ireland does not quite comply with the detail of the EC directive. That point needs to be addressed and is a matter of concern to the local people who wonder about the adequacy of the study that will be undertaken.

This is an unhealthy option. The creation of dioxin and other toxic chemicals causing a difficulty and will continue to do so. As well as being unhealthy it is the easiest option. It does not address the issues which have been addressed in many other countries. In California, for example, a ban has been put on any extra incinerators in the past five years. In Denmark, the amount of incineration has been reduced by 70 per cent in recent years. There is a different way of doing it which should be examined and accessed. An Irish company, at present, is attempting to provide an alternative to incineration. In the context of job creation, that should be addressed.

The local people do not know what is going on. They do not know who decided on this, what exactly has been decided, what process will take place or how much material it is proposed to have disposed of in this new incinerator. Neither has there been any technical explanation of the precise process to be implemented. The local people want to listen, to hear and to address this problem. They are being fobbed off. That may not be intentional but it is the message that is coming across. There have been meetings and interaction with the community but there has been a total lack of detail in the information provided. It has been said to the local people that this is a state-of-the-art model of incineration, this is a space age model, they do not have to worry. If that is so, they are going through a lot of unnecessary worry at present. Somebody should explain in technical terms the precise procedure it is planned to put into operation here, so that they can have an assessment made from their own point of view with reference to their own resources. That is the least that needs to be done and if that is not done quickly, there is a danger that people will take a more polarised position and it might be far more difficult to make progress on this issue later.

People are now open to at least hear the case, listen to the reasons, get all the details and to move on from there. There is no safe place to do this type of operation and it is also clear that it is not covered by the planning regulations. Under the planning regulations it would appear that the use of an existing, ordinary incinerator or dump can be changed overnight to an incinerator which will produce toxins without any need for planning approval.

I know that a planning application has been lodged, but that begs the question as to what happens after the planning process has been gone through and what will be the position down the line. We have heard tonight that local people want reassurances about what is going on and who are seeking information. They have looked at what happened in other countries with a view to protecting the environment and the people, and to dealing with this issue in the most humane and environmentally friendly way possible. That has not been done here.

The possibility of reducing the toxic elements in the materials to be incinerated has to be addressed. The prospect of alternative ways of dealing with certain materials rather than simply mass incineration needs to be addressed. New forms of disposal have to be considered. None of these things has been done at this point. People want to be reassured and to have the facts, if there is a better way of doing it they want to know about it, they want to know what is being proposed and the risks involved. Those are fair questions and I hope that the Minister tonight and, perhaps, in further discussions down the line, will clarify the position and insist that local people meet the people in the hospital and elsewhere who can give them the information they require.

I am pleased to have an opportunity to respond to this important issue and I thank Senator Upton for raising it and Senator O'Toole for his contribution to the debate.

Officials of my Department and the health agencies are currently re-examining the options for disposing of hospital waste in the light of proposed new stricter EC envirionmental emission standards. The two main current methods of disposal are incineration for clinical waste and burying at tipheads for non-clinical waste. Others technologies which are under investigation for the disposal of clinical waste include steam sterilisation and a grinding and chemical disinfection process.

Hospitals, by the nature of the medical treatments which are performed in them, will produce waste which is bacteriologically dangerous and must be made safe. The most common method used internationally of rendering such infectious waste harmless is to raise it to a temperature which will destroy all living organisms. This has traditionally been done in the hospital incinerator.

Unfortunately, the incineration of hospital waste gives rise to products of combustion which must be discharged into the atmosphere. With the present generation of incinerators, these products will frequently include visible smoke and can cause atmospheric pollution. There is no way of avoiding the production of infectious waste from hospitals and so the challenge is to render it safe while not causing pollution.

I am aware that criticisms have been made from time to time in relation to the arrangements currently in force for the disposal of hospital waste. Some of these critisms relate to the use of incinerators that are alleged to be defective or inadequate. Many of the hospital incinerators currently in use have been stated to be incapable of reaching the required temperatures for efficient operation. I accept that many of these criticisms are justified. The fact is that many of our hospital incinerators are not geared to the level of performance required to meet today's rigorous standards on a continuous basis. These standards are becoming more demanding year by year in response to society's increasing concern for the environment.

As I say, I am not disputing the fact that there are problems associated with present incineration arrangements and, while I cannot anticipate the policy on waste disposal that will emerge from my Department's studies, cost considerations would tend to suggest a solution based on a smaller number of centralised facilities around the country.

Tenders have been received for the installation of a central incinerator at St. James's Hospital to dispose of the clinical waste from all Dublin Hospitals. Some of the arguments in favour of a central incinerator are as follows: the cost of scrubbing, filtration and monitoring on each hospital site would be prohibitive; heat recovery is possible and valuable; 24 hour operation is possible, leading to cleaner operation and a smaller incinerator; and better mangement and supervision is possible.

The proposal to locate a central incinerator at St. James's Hospital arose from technical and economic considerations, including the following: a building, 45 metre high flues and site road network are already there; St. James's has a large requirement for heat. An annual saving of £90,000 is possible on the present fuel bill; St. James's is itself one of the largest producers of clinical waste.

I am well aware of the public concern which has been expressed by and on behalf of the residents of the areas surrounding St. James's Hospital, unfortunately, due to other commitments, my colleague the Minister for Health, Deputy John O'Connell, cannot be here this evening, but I understand he had a meeting with a representative group of residents on 2 April and was able to assure them, as I assure you now, Senators, first, that no decision has been taken to proceed with a central incinerator at St. James's Hospital, second, that if such a decision to proceed were to be taken, then the project would be the subject of an environmental impact study and a full planning application and, third, that the residents will be kept fully informed at all stages. In addition, as I have said already, I have initiated a study of locations for central incinerators and of alternative processes to incineration.

No decision will be taken to proceed further with the proposal for a central incinerator at St. James's Hospital until the Minister and I have carefully examined our Department's option appraisal of a range of solutions to the problem of disposal of clinical waste. This whole question is extremely complicated and my Department are in constant touch with the Department of the Environment in relation to the feasibility of different waste disposal options in the context of EC Directive and draft directive requirements.

I thank the Senator and his colleague again for raising this important question. I am aware of the understandable concern of other Senators, including Senators O'Toole and Costello, and of the local residents in relation to this central incinerator proposal and I can give a categorical assurance that these concerns will be taken fully into account in the formulation of my Department's future policy for the disposal of hospital waste.