Wednesday, 30 November 1988
Seanad Éireann Debate
Mr. McDonald: I thank the Minister for facilitating what I consider to be a very important matter for a large number of petrol retailers right across the country. May I say at the outset that I support the Dangerous Substances Act, 1972, and I believe it is very necessary to have strict criteria for the transportation and storage of dangerous substances including motor fuels. The Minister's regulations I welcome as necessary. We must have safeguards and standards and in so far as these regulations under the Dangerous Substances Act regulate new modern retail petrol stations or outlets they are necessary and in my view most desirable.
My dismay arises at the way in which these regulations are being implemented by local authorities, and the fact that most old petrol pump stations and longstanding retail outlets find it physically impossible to meet the regulations as laid down. I can tell the House that of 97  petrol stations or petrol pump outlets in my county only 20 have qualified to receive licences to continue on trading.
My county council's hands are tied as there is the statutory obligation to implement Statutory Instrument 311 of 1979. As I see it, thousands of retailers of petroleum products face the prospect of their livelihoods being taken from them. I appeal to the Minister to amend the regulations or introduce new regulations which differentiate between new retail outlets and retail outlets trading succesfully for the past 55 or 60 years.
In any rural village or town in the country, the majority of outlets are kerbside petrol pumps. How can these traders meet the regulations which say that the pump should be sited 4.25 metres away from the public road? How can these people locate their petrol pumps to meet the regulation which says that the pumps should be situated 4 metres away from a doorway or a window, when you consider that the average width of a pathway in any town or village is normally five or six feet wide? This is the crux of the problem.
It was not the intention of this House or the Oireachtas in 1972 when the Dangerous Substances Bill was being passed that 75 or 80 per cent of the petrol traders in this country should be forced out of business by these new regulations. I accept that we should legislate for improved standards but no Member of the Oireachtas would or did subscribe to the situation where regulations no matter how desirable would force a family business to close down or even relocate for that matter, as to relocate is very costly.
I appeal to the Minister to lift the air of gloom and uncertainty which at present hangs over the heads of thousands of family businesses whose livelihoods depend on the sale of motor fuels. No one has suggested that this is a dangerous business, dangerous to the vendor, the motorist or indeed the passing public. As far as I can see, taking my own county into account in particular, the only fire or  incident at a petrol pump was a small fire which occurred on a fair day in Abbeyleix about 1943 or 1944 when a pipeline from an old petrol tanker to a petrol pump at McCoys, which is long gone since, ruptured and a fire started.
When you think of the usage and the volume of motor fuels consumed in recent years, the fact that there had been no dangerous incidents reported, certainly to my knowledge, is an indication that this is not a dangerous practice. While we should and must have stringent regulations, and enforce the highest standards, the incidents at petrol or retail outlets are so rare as of themselves not to warrant special introduction of regulatory standards. I ask the Minister in the interests of justice and fair play to amend those ministerial regulations, to enable local authorities to adopt a flexible approach, which has the effect of licensing existing outlets but with the maximum safety standards obtainable on the particular location.
I hope the new regulations would be applied not only with fair play but with common sense. I have read through the regulations, both the old statutory instruments and indeed the new ones as announced last Friday. I am not altogether sure about them and I would hope that the Minister will clarify the situation for me. There are three main problems for the ordinary man in the street who is trading and, making a living from the sale of petrol. I suggest that the Seven Sisters or the multinational oil companies would prefer to have just one petrol retail outlet in every town or every county as they do not want to be bothered supplying the small family retail outlet or garage but if their business was being affected they would certainly have kicked up more of a row.
There are three points in the existing regulations: first, the regulation requires that in order to offload fuel from a tanker into an underground tank one requires an area of land for off-street parking for the  lorry. That is absolutely out if you are talking about every town and village in the country. I would hope that there would be some flexibility on that. Second, the resiting of the pumps 4 metres away from the kerb, and, again, that is impracticable in most towns and villages.
If the Minister persists with these regulations, I would like to hear his proposals for compensating people. In our society there is provision for compensation where the State requires people to give up their livelihood. Out of 97 people trading in the petrol business in my county, only 20 qualified for licences. That underlines the gravity of the situation.
I accept that the Minister did not bring in these regulations in order to impose hardship on families. I accept the need for the highest safety standards but with the accident reporting mechanism which the Department have they know what danger exists. While I accept that fire officers and county councils should endeavour to ensure that the maximum number of safety standards and regulations are met, in instances where it is physically impossible by virtue of lack of space, people's livelihoods should be ensured. There should be some degree of flexibility to allow them to continue in business. I appeal to the Minister to look sympathetically at the plight of the hundreds of petrol retailers.
At the outset, I compliment the Senator on his initial remark where he accepts the need for the highest safety standards. Coming from a rural area, I appreciate the difficulties which he experiences and which he outlined to us. The regulations made in 1979 under the Dangerous Substances Act, 1972, set out the requirements and licensing arrangements for petroleum stations. The purpose of these regulations was to arrange for the licensing by local authorities of petrol filling stations and private stores  for the keeping of petroleum spirit and also to prevent risk of injury to persons or property in the storage, conveying, loading, unloading or dispensing operations carried on in connection with petroleum stores. The regulations in question were the Dangerous Substances (Retail and Private Petroleum Stores) Regulations, 1979 (Statutory Instrument No. 311 of 1979). It was intended at the time that the regulations would contain flexibility to enable local authorities to issue licences to existing petroleum stores, in circumstances where those stores, which did not comply fully with requirements, were of an acceptable standard of safety.
Experience has shown that since the 1979 regulations were made, local authorities had difficulty as regards issuing licences, particularly for kerbside stations and that many stations were facing closure. Where there is general agreement that the 1979 regulations were an ideal guide for new petrol stations the intended flexibility as regards many existing petrol stations did not prove to be a reality.
While I acknowledge the good safety record which the retail petroleum industry has enjoyed in this country, the fact cannot be ignored that the industry also has potential for accidents unless proper standards and practices are maintained. Such concern must be balanced with the need to take account of the livelihoods of the operators of the many family-operated kerbside filling stations which comprise between 60 per cent and 75 per cent of retail petroleum outlets. Senator McDonald outlined precisely the situation we have in many parts of rural Ireland and in many towns.
There was concern that customers, particularly in rural areas, would not suddenly find themselves without convenient access to petrol supplies. Accordingly, early in 1988 the Minister set about drawing up amending regulations to resolve this difficulty. Consultations took place between the Department of Labour and  the Department of the Environment. Notice of the Minister's intention to make amending regulations was published in the national newspapers in April of this year so that interested parties could submit their comments. Subsequently, officials of the Department of Labour discussed the proposed amendments with both sides of industry who were in general agreement with the provisions. On 23 November the Minister signed the amending regulations and these will come into effect tomorrow.
The main provisions of the amending regulations allow for the modification of the 1979 regulations to enable local authorities to use discretion in granting licences to petrol stations subject to certain conditions and for a given timescale which, in most cases, is likely to coincide with the natural life expectancy of the underground tanks at these stations. The regulations also provide that certain stations which operate to unacceptable standards should not be allowed to continue to operate for reasons of general safety and provision is made to restrict or prohibit them from operating unless and until specific measures have been taken to reduce the risks to a reasonable level. There may also be stations which could not comply with the minimum standards in the regulations and the local authority could refuse a licence in such circumstances.
In all the circumstances the Minister is satisfied that these amending regulations  provide a satisfactory and well reasoned resolution of the problem. They will not, of course, apply to new stations built after the 1979 regulations came into effect. They will continue to be bound by those regulations.
Discussions have been arranged between officials of the Departments of Labour and the Environment as regards reviewing licence applications from stations which have had licences refused in the past but which might now be eligible for licences under the new regulations. Senator McDonald referred to the necessity to give flexibility to the local authorities. The local authorities are being given more flexibility under the 1988 regulations in considering licence applications and I hope this will meet many of the complaints Senator McDonald has referred to.
Mr. McDonald: I thank the Minister of State and also the Minister for Labour for the very positive response to the plight which my council raised with the Department some months ago and I am glad that he has introduced regulations which will allow people to qualify for the necessary licence.
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