Adjournment Debate. - Natural Heritage Areas.

Wednesday, 2 February 2000

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 513 No. 4

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Mr. Sargent: Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  Gura míle maith agat as seans a thabhairt dom an cheist seo a ardú anocht. Ag an am céanna tá súil agam go mbeidh biseach go luath ar an Aire de Valera agus cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit Ó Cuív anseo.

The legally unprotected nature of the Glen of the Downs has shown up many deficiencies, not only in legislation relating to the preservation of the environment, but also in the Government's thinking on environmental issues, sustainability, and biodiversity. The concerns expressed in the courts on this issue still have to be taken on board by Wicklow County Council. A presentation by an expert hydrogeologist to several Dáil Deputies and local councillors on 14 January was accompanied by a proposed work programme aimed at resolving “apparent flaws and uncertainties in the proposed road design”. This works document was deemed, by none other than Fianna Fáil Deputy, Dick Roche, as “a clear and lucid one, worthy of detailed examination”. I thank Deputy Roche for a great deal of what I am saying in this debate. He said it also contained proposals which “seem to be modest, low cost, and capable of implementation without causing any further undue delays”. Those are the words of the Minister of State's party colleague, Deputy Roche.

In a written reply to me yesterday, the Minister stated that “the High Court was satisfied that the issues relating to hydrology were properly addressed in the environmental impact assessment”. That, however, was hydrology, the study of the movement of water on the surface, not hydrogeology which is the study of the movement of water underground through soils and rocks. Hydrogeology still has not been properly addressed, which is the reason I have sought this [1082] debate on the Adjournment. These environmental issues have not been resolved. Instead we have seen a midnight raid on the Glen of the Downs by more than 100 gardaí to counter a handful of protesters, and felling of trees with no clear boundaries set as to where the felling can begin and end. We have seen dangerous felling of trees with recognised safety guidelines, which require a clearing zone of at least twice the height of the trees, being flouted. One of the trees that was felled landed within three feet of a bystander. In addition, there was no hoist to assist in the safe removal of tree occupants.

Is the Minister aware that trees outside the area owned by Wicklow County Council in the Glen of the Downs, on Dúchas lands, have been felled in the past week? There are reliable eye witness accounts that chainsaws were taken to trees while people were still in them. Despite these destructive actions and the felling of the glen in part, there is still time to stop further environmental damage. I encourage the Minister to step in now to ensure that this damage is halted.

At the end of the hydrogeologist's presentation, as reported by Deputy Roche, four recommendations were strongly made to Wicklow County Council. A systematic examination of the water table issues is needed, but this has not been carried out. He suggested the adoption of a low cost and rapid approach. The impact of its design for sub-surface drainage could be re-examined. An alternative approach could be considered to the proposals for a raised embankment at the northern end of the glen. The council could, for example, consider an alternative design for this section, perhaps a road constructed on an enraised structure which would not interfere with the groundwater. The fourth suggestion was to carry out further investigation of the impact of the proposed “soil nailing”, as it is called, on the west side of the glen and the geological composition of the slopes where this work is to be carried out.

I would like the Minister to respond to these observations and to use her influence with Wicklow County Council to ensure the new owners of the nature reserve resolve these deficiencies noted by the hydrogeologist. Specifically, given the concerns that were expressed by expert witnesses in the High Court in March 1999, and that in the Minister's written reply to me on 1 February, she stated that Wicklow County Council “would take account of all concerns raised”, will the Minister provide the House with details of any submissions by Wicklow County Council to her Department that describe the results of scientific studies or site investigation works carried out since March last year to assess the concerns raised in the High Court, or any modifications or revisions to the proposed road design that take into account the concerns raised?

[1083] I am grateful that, in the Minister's written reply to my question on 1 February, she assured the House her Department “will continue to monitor the scheme during the construction phase and will liaise with Wicklow County Council to ensure construction impacts are minimised”. Given this response, will she also give an assurance that her Department will seek advice and assistance in specialist groundwater matters in order to adequately assess and monitor the proposed construction and, hence, ensure that the long-term damage to the glen will be minimised?

Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands (Éamon Ó Cuív): Information on Éamon Ó Cuív  Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív  Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghlacadh leis an Teachta as ucht na ceiste seo a chur síos agus is ceist í atá an-phléite le tamall. Is ceist í a bhfuil spéis ag chuile dhuine ann agus d'fhéadfaí a rá go bunúsach go bhfuil chuile dhuine ag iarraidh dhá aidhm a bhaint amach – go mbeadh deis ag daoine dul sábháilte ar an mbóthar, go mbeadh an bóthar in ann an trácht a láimhseáil ach ag an am céanna nach ndéanfaí dochar don fhoraois íontach atá sa ngleann sin, gleann a bhfuil eolas agam féin air le fada.

The existing route of the N11 between Kilmacanogue and the Glen of the Downs runs through the Glen of the Downs nature reserve. In 1990 it was proposed to widen this section of the road to accommodate a dual carriageway. The purpose of upgrading the road to a dual carriageway was to address safety concerns and to meet the needs not only of the local community but also of the private and commercial traffic between Dublin and Rosslare. The N11 forms part of Euroroute One and is an important part of the Government's strategy to address the problems associated with our geographical peripherality in relation to the rest of the European Union. Wicklow County Council reports that an average of 25,000 vehicles per day used the road in recent years and that this section of the N11 has a tragic history of over 100 accidents, resulting in the deaths of five people.

Mr. Sargent: Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  Not in the glen.

Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív  Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív  Dúchas, the Heritage Service – the then National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Office of Public Works – was concerned at the potential impact of the proposed dual carriageway on the Glen of the Downs nature reserve. It informed the Department of the Environment and Local Government of its concerns as far back as 1991 and objected to the road scheme originally proposed by Wicklow County Council on the grounds that it did not take sufficient account of the conservation value of this important natural heritage site.

The primary concerns related to the area of land required for the road, the number of trees [1084] to be felled and the impacts on the stream and the wet woodland on the eastern side of the nature reserve. The county council made several major adjustments to the road scheme. Initially, it proposed to realign the road to the west. National Parks and Wildlife officials objected to that particular alignment as it involved a significant incursion into the woodland on the western side of the glen. The county council then proposed a more central alignment. Following further consultation, the council agreed to reduce the width of the proposed road by several metres. This was effected by reducing the width of the median and hard shoulders.

The consultation between National Parks and Wildlife officials and county council officials was substantial and detailed. Agreement on the road scheme was only reached after approximately four years of deliberation. The consultation served to fulfil the formal requirements of section 12 of the Wildlife Act, 1976. A full environmental impact assessment was carried out in accordance with regulations. The assessment was certified by the Minister for the Environment and Local Government. Wicklow County Council also carried out extensive formal and informal public consultation in relation to the scheme.

I am aware that submissions on hydrogeology were given in evidence to the High Court during a judicial review action concerning the proposed road widening scheme through the Glen of the Downs which was heard in 1999. Wicklow County Council assured the court that its road design scheme would take account of all concerns raised. The High Court was satisfied that the issues relating to hydrology were properly addressed in the environmental impact assessment. A permeable layer will be included in the road construction to ensure that groundwater flow is not impeded by the road. The High Court and Supreme Court have held that a valid environmental impact assessment has been carried out for the proposed road scheme. Dúchas will continue to monitor the scheme during the construction phase and will liaise with Wicklow County Council to ensure construction impacts on the glen are minimised.

I am satisfied that every effort has been made to mitigate the negative effects of the road scheme on the glen. In addition, substantial compensation measures are being undertaken. These compensation measures include the planting of 6,000 native oak seedlings in and around the current nature reserve. Some 0.85 hectares of land will be added to the nature reserve in return for the 0.68 hectares removed.

In all, the impact of the road scheme on the glen is minimal. Some 87% of the improved road through the glen will be built over existing or former road surfaces. It is wild exaggeration to describe the scheme as leading to the destruction of the glen. It should be remembered that the wood has been bisected by a public road for cen[1085] turies. What we are seeing now is the widening of that road by a small degree. I suggest that those who are concerned about the road scheme will be very surprised when they see how small an area of the woodland is affected by the scheme. I remind the House that the road improvement scheme is being carried out in an effort to improve the safety of traffic flow on a road where five people have lost their lives and many other accidents have occurred.

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