Adjournment Matters. - Dumping of Hazardous Materials.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for giving me the opportunity to raise this important issue and I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House to reply to this short debate. Man, animals and plants are all affected by the quality of the environment. A polluted or endangered environment is harmful to life and could even threaten our survival. This was stated in a recent publication by the Environmental Protection Agency and it underlines the urgency of dealing with environmental problems, which are now the new global threat, and reminds us of the necessity for strong Government action to ensure the elimination of these hazards which, if neglected, may eliminate us.

While I have no wish to scare people or be unduly alarmist, there is a widespread and growing alarm regarding the undesirable practice of dumping toxic waste, munitions of various kinds, mustard and other gases and hazardous waste of various descriptions, which has been engaged in, especially by the British Government, around our coastline. Recently, after the widespread alarm caused, not only in our own community but throughout the United Kingdom also, by the dumping of nuclear waste off the northwest coast of Ireland, there is now a public demand to know what the actual position is in relation to this dumping. This information must be made public so that the public is aware of what is involved and there must be some indication given of what action is being taken by the Government at both European Union and international levels to deal with this matter.

Not only is there concern at what is taking place but there is also a widely held belief that this dumping is continuing at present and may also be engaged in by other countries, with the long term serious implications that would have if it were the case. It is, therefore, with great anxiety that I am raising this matter in the hope that we can have positive assurances from the Government on how it proposed to protect the people of this island from this primed timebomb.

I would like the Minister to outline what action the Government is taking, especially with the United Kingdom authorities, to determine the extent and the location of the sites adjacent to the Irish coastline where the dumping is taking place. I would like to get some indication from the Minister whether he has established or endeavoured to establish the extent and amount of hazardous substances dumped by the British authorities in particular over a long number of years. I would also like some indication from the Minister and his Department as to whether they propose to undertake any study of the sites to determine the present state of the dumped materials. Does the Minister propose to do this and is he seeking assistance from his colleagues in the European Union? Will he endeavour to provide funding to undertake such work this year?

While we have introduced some modern legislation to deal with environmental issues, such as the progressive legislation we passed only recently to set up the Environmental Protection Agency, I would like to know if the Minister is satisfied that the legislation, either in this area or in the other areas under his remit, gives him sufficient powers to act on offshore dump sites, especially those outside our territorial waters. What is the position in relation to the dumping which took place before the enactment of the legislation we have at present? Many conventions and Acts have been put in place since this dumping took place.

The Minister will also be aware that the Canadian authorities quite recently introduced an extension of their environmental protection legislation to cover somewhat similar situations off the Canadian coastline. I am anxious to find out if the Minister has any plans to act along similar lines. I want to assure him that in the event of his taking any such measures, he will have our wholehearted support to deal with that.

The issue of the control of pollution and dumping at sea is complex; I do not deny that. I dealt with it as Minister of State for quite a while. Between the Oslo Convention, the Paris Convention, the Helsinki Convention and all the agreements and representations in place it is a minefield. It is difficult to come to grips with the whole range of legislative arrangements that deal with various substances. I read the minutes of the Oslo Convention held last June and I wish to compliment the Department on sending them to me so quickly. There was no indication that there was any discussion at that convention on the dumping of deleterious material like nuclear waste around coastlines and what position the convention proposed to take on that issue. I strongly suggest to the Minister of State — and I know of his keen interest in this regard — that he take a lead in the Oslo Convention by putting a matter of that kind on the agenda for discussion.

I understand that some ministerial committees are in place at that convention in advance of the global programme of action for the protection of the marine environment which, as the Minister of State knows, is taking place at the end of this month and in early November. I strongly suggest that the Minister should raise this matter at the Washington Convention. International public attention should be diverted to deal with the situation.

The Minister of State will also be aware that quite recently the European Parliament expressed grave anxiety about the developments which were coming to its notice and which to a large extent have not been made public up to now. As a result of anxiety expressed at the Parliament I understand that the European Commission has set up an inquiry. Can the Minister of State say whether the Government has made representations to the Commission or not? He should visit the Commission to express our dissatisfaction with what has taken place around our coastline. He should ascertain what proposals, if any, the European Commission can put in place to alleviate this situation. The Minister will be aware that under the sovereign immunity of international law some governments are immune from such action.

I am not certain how much that covers. Is it the case that at this stage, under the present regime of legislation we have in place, sovereign Governments are immune, for security or other reasons, from disclosing the nature of munitions and other hazardous materials they are dumping? If that immunity still covers governments dumping off the coastlines of neighbouring states, then arrangements should be made immediately to eliminate the sovereign immunity which exists under international law. This is something that has to be dealt with at international level.

I am not sure what those provisions mean. They may well relate to military activity. Whatever they relate to, if immunity deprives us of an opportunity to know precisely what the British, Canadians, Russians and others are doing off our coastline within our economic zone, then these matters must be dealt with at international level. I am sure the Washington Convention will present a suitable opportunity for the Minister of State to do so.

The coastal communities, including fishermen and their families, and those who use our beaches — and thankfully there was widespread use of our beaches this summer — are deeply worried about the prospects that could arise from accidents at these unsupervised dumping sites. Immediate action is being demanded nationally to deal with the crisis. I hope that this short debate will spur the Government on to take serious note of what is taking place around our coastline and to be more positive and active than they appear to have been to date in trying to deal with this situation. The Government should firmly lay it on the line for the British authorities, and others who may wish to dump deleterious material off our coastline, that this is not acceptable and will be fought in every international forum in which we have a say to have it stopped and eliminated.

I thank Senator Daly for raising this matter and for his presentation. My Department has been in touch with the corresponding UK authorities over a period of time regarding these various matters and has been informed that the Minister of Defence used to undertake sea dumping of chemical weapon stocks and conventional munitions as a means of disposing of redundant and surplus stocks and dealing with the legacy of weapons produced in the World Wars.

According to the information made available some 150,000 tonnes of obsolete chemical munitions were dumped at sea in the aftermath of both World Wars in locations situated 200 miles to the south-west of Ireland and 65 miles to the north-west, in both cases in very deep water going down to depths of 4,500 metres.

We have also been informed that the Beaufort Dyke — a long, deep trench up to 900 feet in depth on the Scottish side of the North Channel — was used historically until 1973 for the disposal of conventional munitions ranging from small arms ammunition to large calibre artillery and naval shells to aerial bombs. We have been informed that the only dumping of chemical munitions at this site was in 1947 when 14,000 tonnes of phosgene-charged material were disposed of there.

The chemicals identified by the UK authorities as having been dumped at sea in the south-west and north-west locations included the nerve gas TABUN, mustard gas, and phosgene. A review of scientific assessments made in 1987 and again in November 1994 indicates that given the properties of the chemicals — being either quickly soluble in, or heavier than, water — the sea depth at which they were dumped and the considerable number of years which had elapsed, the weapons were not considered to pose a hazard to the health or fishing activities of our coastal communities. Nevertheless, I remain very concerned at the extent of the dumping and the possible environmental and health hazards that may occur.

The UK authorities have given assurances at all times that no dumping of nuclear material or material containing toxic heavy metals have taken place at any stage at any of the dump sites mentioned.

I am very concerned at recent reports that radioactive and other waste materials may have been dumped by the UK authorities at these various sites in recent decades and I have written to the UK Secretary of State for Defence asking for urgent clarification of the reports in question. I have stressed the public disquiet that the suggested disposal operations give rise to here both in terms of environmental damage and public health and have asked in particular to be provided with the following information in respect of the dumping in question, namely: the exact location of the dumping operation, the volumes, nature, radioactivity, casing etc. of the material involved; an assessment of their present state, their likely impact on the local and Irish Sea environment generally; the steps the UK Government have taken, or intend to take, to monitor the materials, sites, and contiguous conditions; and the measures the UK Government plans to implement to minimise any adverse impact the materials are having, or are likely to have, on the areas concerned. I can assure the Senator that I will personally be following this matter up closely with a view to obtaining disclosure of the full facts.

On an international level the dumping of chemical weapons is a matter of major concern to most contracting parties to the Oslo Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping from Ships and Aircraft, 1972. Ireland is a party to the Oslo Convention and the Government is actively pursuing the general issue of munitions dumping through that forum.

The Assessment and Monitoring Committee (ASMO), a scientific working group of the convention, has considered studies undertaken by Denmark concerning war gas dumping in the Baltic Sea and concluded on the basis of the best available information and technical advice that, given the nature of the chemicals, seepage is not considered to pose serious hazards and efforts to retrieve or remove would be more dangerous than leaving the dumped material in place. Nevertheless, this remains a matter of serious concern and further investigation into this whole area is required.

I am, therefore, determined to ensure that a comprehensive investigation of the impact of the dumping of chemical weapons off the coast of Ireland should be initiated. In this regard it was decided at the April meeting of ASMO this year that as part of a wider quality status report on the maritime area covered by the Oslo Convention, the impact of the dumping of war gas ammunition would be specifically addressed. This wider quality status report is to be completed by the year 2000. Ireland and the UK are responsible for the preparation of that part of the report in respect of a region which covers the Irish Sea, Celtic Sea and areas to the west of Ireland and west of Scotland and the aim is to have the war gas aspect addressed as speedily as possible.

The Seanad adjourned at 8 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Wednesday, 18 October 1995.