Thursday, 22 February 2001
Dáil Eireann Debate
33. Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for the Environment and Local Government the steps he has taken in the past three years to eliminate pollution of rivers, lakes, streams and other waterways; the extent to which any such measures have been effective in terms of a reduction in the extent of pollution; if he will pursue any other measures in this area; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5167/01]
130. Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for the Environment and Local Government the extent to which his Department has provided positive incentives with the objective of eliminating pollution of waterways; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5318/01]
Statutory responsibility for the monitoring, management and protection of water quality is assigned primarily to local authorities and the Environmental Protection Agency. By international standards, Irish waters are of good quality and compare favourably to waters in other countries of the European Union. However, monitoring and reporting by the EPA has identified eutrophication, or over-enrichment of waters, as perhaps Ireland's most serious environmental pollution problem. Eutrophication is caused mainly by excess inputs of phosphorus from various sources and now affects one third of the river system. Agriculture has been identified as the single biggest contributor in this regard accounting for 73% of total phosphorus inputs. Significant inputs also arise from sewage discharges and industry.
Since 1997, my Department has pursued a comprehensive, integrated strategy to tackle all sources of eutrophication. Major catchment-based projects for the establishment of water quality monitoring and management systems are well under way, or nearing completion, in relation to Lough Derg, Lough Ree, Lough Leane and the River Boyne, the River Liffey and the River Suir. Substantial investment, of over £160 million, is also being made in sewage infrastructure in these catchments. This strategy is already beginning to show evidence of some improvements in water quality. In some instances, for example, Nenagh and Athlone, where phosphorus has been incorporated in sewage treatment, there has been a significant reduction of phosphorus concentrations in the receiving waters. The recently published EPA report, River Shannon – Lake Water Quality Monitoring 1998 & 1999, a copy of which is in the Oireachtas Library, has identified a reduction in the symptoms of eutrophication in Lough Key, Lough Ree and Lough Derg due, in part, to the impact of zebra mussels. The strategy is also underpinned by the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act, 1977 (Water Quality Standards for Phosphorus) Regulations, 1998, which set clear targets for reducing phosphorus levels in rivers and lakes by end 2007.
My Department is now promoting the establishment by local authorities of river basin management projects to address water management  in all inland and coastal waters, including groundwaters, and all sources of water pollution. These projects will facilitate implementation of the recently adopted EU Water Framework Directive which requires the achievement of good water status, as defined in the directive, generally within a 15 year time frame, in a co-ordinated programme of measures by all relevant authorities in relation to the management of water quality and quantity. Financial support is being provided by my Department for expenditure incurred by local authorities in relation to such projects.
The comprehensive approach is being supported by my Department's major investment programme in sewage infrastructure facilities throughout the country. The National Development Plan, 2000-2006, provides for capital investment of £3 billion, the major portion of which will be devoted to waste water infrastructure. The investment programme places particular emphasis on the provision of phosphorus reduction facilities where a need is indicated in this regard. Discharges to waters from industrial sources are subject to licensing controls operated by local authorities and the EPA.
Phosphorus losses to waters from agriculture arise from inadequate waste management at farmyard level and from leaching and run-off from land, particularly following the land spreading of slurries or the use of chemical fertilisers containing phosphorus. Facilitated by regulations which I made in 1998 to extend and strengthen their powers, by-laws were made by certain local authorities under the Local Government (Water Pollution) Acts to protect waters against pollution by agriculture. My colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, has substantial initiatives under way to tackle phosphorus inputs from agriculture, including the rural environment protection scheme and the proposed new farm waste management scheme.
A voluntary agreement has been concluded with the Irish Detergents and Allied Products Association – IDAPA – which provides for an incremental move to zero phosphate domestic laundry detergents by IDAPA members. The agreement sets targets of 55% by end June 2000, 90% by end 2001 and 95% by end 2002. The June 2000 target has been met.
The most recent comprehensive report by the EPA in relation to water quality, 1995-97, indicates that nitrates in rivers are generally well within the limits – 11 mg/one nitrogen – set by EU legislation in relation to raw waters for treatment and supply as drinking water and that there was no widespread pollution of particular aquifers. The report identified localised instances of elevated levels of nitrates in certain groundwaters. The EPA has estimated that the loads of nitrogen entering water from agricultural activities far outweigh those from other sources, including waste water, and comprise 82% of the total.
 Additional protection against pollution of waters by nitrates will be provided by action programmes to be developed in relation to those areas where the levels of nitrates in groundwaters are approaching or exceeding the limits set by European legislation. As I indicated in a public statement in July 2000, the affected waters are located in counties Carlow, Cork, Kerry, Louth and Waterford. Work is under way on the identification of the catchments related to these waters and, on its completion, I will formally designate the appropriate areas as nitrate vulnerable zones – NVZs. Designation of an area as an NVZ will place higher emphasis on the measures that are already in practice. The voluntary code of good agricultural practice to protect waters from pollution by nitrates – the blue book issued in 1996 – will become mandatory in an NVZ. A primary consideration will be the management of manures and slurries. I am keeping the position under review in relation to other groundwaters and surface waters which may need additional protection.
Other forms of water pollution, such as contamination by metals, synthetic organic chemicals and hydrocarbons, can damage or destroy aquatic life. While these forms of pollution are considered to be of minor significance in Ireland, reflecting the low level of heavy industry, I recently made the Water Quality (Dangerous Substances) Regulations, 2001 – SI 12 of 2001 – to assist in reducing further the discharges of these contaminants. These regulations set water quality standards for a number of substances, including certain pesticides, solvents and metals, to provide additional protection for waters and give further effect to EU Directive 76/464/EEC, the Dangerous Substances Directive. I will take such additional measures as I consider appropriate from time to time to provide for adequate management and protection of water quality to combat water pollution from all sources.
In addition to the major policy, investment and regulating initiatives outlined, my Department provides grant support to An Taisce annually for administration of the blue flag scheme, which has become a symbol throughout Europe of clean bathing water. Although the overall number of blue flags awarded in 2000 – 75 – was slightly down, there has been a steady improvement in Irish bathing water quality throughout the 1990s.
My Department and the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources each contribute annually to the budget of the OSPAR Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic of which Ireland is a contracting party. The main objective of the convention is to prevent and eliminate pollution of the maritime area of the north east Atlantic, in particular through the cessation of discharges, emissions and losses of hazardous substances to the marine environment by 2020.
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