Tuesday, 18 October 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Gerald Nash: I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss this issue in the Chamber and pleased that the Minster of State, Deputy Fergus O’Dowd, who is our local Deputy and has considerable experience of the issue, is in a position to respond on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Hogan.
The operation of the waste management system has many deficits. However, the most yawning gap is the complete and utter disconnection between local democracy and the decision-making process when it comes to the final destination of residual waste. The Minister of State is only too well aware that Ireland’s first municipal waste incinerator will open soon near Drogheda at Carranstown, County Meath. The Minister of State will not need reminding that I and some of the Minister of State’s party colleagues have opposed this facility. The Minister of State has a track record in this regard since the project was first announced, which I am happy to acknowledge.
Deputy Gerald Nash: The north-east waste management strategy, with incineration as its focus, was rejected by local authorities across the region, specifically Louth County Council, but it was imposed by the then Minister, Mr. Noel Dempsey. From start to finish, the process was an anti-democratic stitch-up, with a predetermined outcome which flew in the face of any semblance of local community intervention or democratic input at local level.
It is unfortunate to acknowledge in the Chamber today that I again feel anti-democratic decision making processes are beginning to rear their heads on the question of what it is we will do as a society and a community with the bottom ash left over from the burning of municipal waste at the Indaver facility at Carranstown. The Minister of State will know that only a matter of weeks ago Louth County Council decided unilaterally to sign an agreement that would essentially welcome the bottom ash into the council’s landfill at Whiteriver, Philipstown, County Louth. This has caused a huge amount of anger, frustration and anxiety among the community at Philipstown. Local residents have gone through a tortuous enough time in recent years in terms of the operation of that site, with which the Minister of State is familiar. To add insult to injury, the council has signed off on a massive deal with Indaver to dump its bottom ash into what is already a troublesome site.
We are told by the council that the deal complies with what it calls the proximity principle. I want this matter to be informed by the precautionary principle. In other words, if there is any doubt, the bottom ash should be left out. There are huge concerns over the question of whether bottom ash is hazardous or non-hazardous, and the Minister of State will be aware that the literature and research in this area varies. As this is the first operation of its kind in the country, there is anxiety at the capacity of the authorities, such as the EPA and the county council, to deal effectively with this and to address the legitimate fears of the residents of the Philipstown area and the wider Louth area with this approach. Until such time as we can say with complete confidence that the bottom ash does not pose a threat to the people of Philipstown, I ask the Minister of State to use his influence with the Minister, Deputy Hogan, to intervene with the EPA to review the situation. We must stop Whiteriver from accepting the waste as agreed by Louth County Council, at the very least until such time as we can all be 100% certain that the safety of the bottom ash can be guaranteed.
The Minister of State might also use his influence with the Minister, Deputy Hogan, to arrange a meeting with the residents of Philipstown to attempt to assuage their legitimate and valid fears about this issue, which is a novel one given we are dealing with Ireland’s first municipal incinerator and the first case of this kind in the country.
Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government (Deputy Fergus O’Dowd): I am very familiar with this issue and for several years have been concerned about the operation of the waste facility at Whiteriver, and about the whole issue of the incinerator at Carranstown and the history of how it came about. I certainly commend the residents on their activity in ensuring, particularly in recent years, any release of toxic or noxious gases into the air has been dealt with adequately by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and Louth County Council working together. If the file is examined, one will see significant correspondence from the EPA to Louth County Council on the issue.
There are two interrelated issues of relevance to the matter raised by the Deputy. The first relates to the issue of what wastes are permitted to be deposited at the landfill site in question under the terms of its waste licence. The second concerns the determination of whether bottom ash produced at the incinerator in question is classified as hazardous or non-hazardous waste. Decisions on both issues are the responsibility of the Environmental Protection Agency. For the information of the Deputy and the House, it may be useful to set out the legislative position involved. Taking the issue of waste licensing first, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government has no role in the licensing of landfill or incineration facilities or the enforcement of conditions attaching to these. As I have indicated, these are matters for the EPA. Under section 60(3) of the Waste Management Act 1996, the Minister is precluded from exercising any power or control with regard to the performance in particular circumstances by the agency of a statutory function given to it under the Act.
Major waste facilities, including incinerators and landfill sites, are subject to stringent environmental standards set out in national and European Union environmental and waste-specific legislation. The landfill facility concerned is licensed by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Waste Management Act 1996. The agency, when it decided to grant a licence for the facility, only would have done so on the basis that it was satisfied that, subject to compliance with the conditions of the licence, any emission would not give rise to environmental pollution. It has significant oversight and enforcement powers to safeguard the environment and ensure compliance with waste licence conditions. The Minister is satisfied that a rigorous and risk-based enforcement regime, including emissions monitoring, inspections and audits, is actively pursued by the agency.
I wish to make it clear that on the question of whether the waste is hazardous or non-hazardous, the Environmental Protection Agency is directly concerned with the issue. While due process is under way within the agency, it has met representatives of the residents and when I expressed their concerns to it, it assured me it would be happy to meet them and ensure no hazardous waste would be dumped there. Certain wastes are automatically considered to be hazardous by virtue of their demonstration of certain properties. Other wastes not specifically identified also may be classified as hazardous on the basis of their properties. Determination in this regard is entirely a matter for consideration and decision by the EPA.
I understand the commissioning of the thermal treatment facility concerned is ongoing and that the normal testing of output from a facility’s processes required as part of the licensing process is under way. The testing is necessary both to ensure the facility in question is compliant with the terms of its waste licence and the bottom ash produced may be appropriately disposed of in the landfill facility concerned, having regard to the terms of the licence. Pending approval from the Environmental Protection Agency to proceed with the disposal of bottom ash at the landfill site concerned, I understand the ash produced by the thermal treatment plant is being stored on-site and that it is a matter for the EPA to control all such matters in its capacity as the licensing authority. The point is the EPA will not issue a licence unless it deems it to be non-hazardous.
Deputy Gerald Nash: I thank the Minister of State, Deputy O’Dowd, for his personal interest in this matter as a constituency colleague with a track record in the area. He has correctly pointed out that the Environmental Protection Agency has an enormous responsibility with regard to this facility, the testing of the ash and the classification as to whether it is hazardous or non-hazardous. I attended a meeting between local residents and the EPA three weeks ago and accept the assurances given to me by the agency to the effect that it was doing everything in its power to ensure what was produced at the site would be safe and that only non-hazardous waste would find its way into the Whiteriver site if this particular aspect of the project was to proceed. However, this is a novel situation in that this is the first challenge in Ireland to the disposal of bottom ash from a municipal waste incinerator. While I understand the EPA’s responsibility in this regard, because this is such a novel prospect, I request the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, to keep a watching brief with the EPA on the exercise of the agency’s functions. Moreover, I ask that the agency exceed and go above and beyond its statutory obligations, if confidence is to be given to the people of Philipstown and County Louth as to the safety of this practice.
I wish to make a final point on the classification of bottom ash. There are variations in scientific attitudes towards the question of whether bottom ash is hazardous or non-hazardous. I wrote to the Minister recently in this regard and repeat that the precautionary principle should be deployed if there is a concern regarding the nature of bottom ash. Fundamentally, if there is any doubt, we should leave it out. The trend elsewhere in Europe appears to be that bottom ash is used in the construction industry, particularly as road infill material and so on. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy O’Dowd and the Minister, Deputy Hogan, to examine this possibility with regard to the future operation of the site in question outside Drogheda and what is to be done with the bottom ash. In addition, I respectfully ask whether it would be possible for the Minister to meet the residents of Philipstown to assuage their legitimate fears about the facility, given that it is the first of its kind in Ireland.
Deputy Fergus O’Dowd: It is clear that the residents, Deputy Nash and I agree on the fundamental issue that no hazardous ash should be dumped at the facility. The statutory authority to decide this issue does not rest with the Deputy, me or Louth County Council but with the Environmental Protection Agency. I am sure the Deputy, if he has not already done so, will inform the agency of his concerns which I acknowledge the people of the area share. As for the Minister meeting the residents, in view of his statutory position, I am unclear on whether he can legally do so. However, I will be happy to bring the request directly to his attention. Depending on the status of the law, it might be deemed that were he to do so, he would technically be in breach of his powers or the law, but I will bring the request to his attention. I assure the Deputy of my ongoing concern about the issue.
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