Adjournment Matters. - Cork Oil Spill.

Wednesday, 26 November 1997

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 152 No. 15

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Mr. Cregan:  I am concerned about the oil spill at Whitegate and the way information was disclosed. On Monday morning after the spill [1028] occurred we were told it was less than 300 gallons, the amount in a domestic heating tank. The impression was given that not much harm would be done to the inner harbour area of the port of Cork, one the best natural harbours in the world. Further confusion was created when no information was given about what was being done on the beaches. The impression was given that one only beach, Grauballe Bay in the Crosshaven area, and no other beach would be affected. I am familiar with the inner harbour area as I spent many holidays in the Fountainstown area. Subsequently, other areas in the inner harbour were mentioned and a massive clean up operation took place. The refinery used a helicopter to assess the damage.

Approximately eight days ago the refinery said a little more than 300 gallons was spilled. People in the area were aware that 300 gallons would not have caused the damage done to the inner harbour area. If 300 gallons could cause such damage, we should be particularly worried about a major oil spill. The spokesperson for the refinery, Mr. O'Carroll, the general manager, compared the spill to that at Milford Haven where 73,000 gallons of oil spilled from a ship and he spoke about upgrading at the refinery, which was long overdue. The refinery has always operated to its fullest capacity and has given excellent service to the State. I visited the refinery as Lord Mayor of Cork and as a Member of the Oireachtas and am aware that staff must use equipment which might not be up to present day standards.

Mr. O'Carroll spoke about the £40 million investment in the refinery, the rationalisation programme and the upgrading of the refinery. I would be annoyed if he said the oil was spilled while loading a ship during heavy weather because this happened in the inner harbour area which is sheltered and where much damage could be done. At first the spokesperson said that less than 300 gallons was spilled and then subsequently said that more was spilled but he could not say how much. The Minister may be sure that the amount spilled was not small.

If upgrading took place at the refinery, why did it not occur in the area where the oil was spilled? I ask for the truth in this regard. I do not carry a flag for an environmental organisation; I represent people in that region. In the future I would like to be able to say how well the harbour looks.

Has there been rationalisation in terms of staff numbers? Did upgrading take place in this part of the refinery? Did a reduced staff have to use equipment which was not upgraded? I am not saying rationalisation or upgrading should not take place but we should not put the cart before the horse, which I am afraid happened here. Were staff numbers cut before this part of the refinery was upgraded to save some money? We could have destroyed the harbour and the entire region. People have told me there is evidence of the oil spill in Ballycotton. I do not what to be an alarmist but I did not get answers. The impression [1029] was given that this section of piping was not upgraded. Why were staff numbers not maintained until the upgrading took place? I hope I am wrong in this regard as serious damage could have been done.

The impression should not have been given that less than 300 gallons. Such a spill could have been cleaned up very quickly. The county engineer, Mr. Devlin, said that a substantial bill would be sent from the county council to the Whitegate refinery and admitted that it would be a six figure sum. Such clean up operations are expensive. I hope this spill, which could have been extremely serious, will be cleaned up within a month and that it was not caused by a reduction in staff numbers so the refinery could save a few pounds before upgrading equipment was brought in. I would like a truthful answer in this regard.

Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources (Dr. Woods): Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  The Cathaoirleach's office decides which Minister should respond to an Adjournment Matter. The matter raised by the Senator relates mainly to the Whitegate refinery for which I have no responsibility. I am responsible for pollution at sea by ships and for dumping at sea but I will do my best to respond. Senator Cregan said that at first the refinery said 300 gallons were spilled. I understand the eventual figure was 3,000 gallons.

Mr. Cregan:  One hundred times more.

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  Compared to spills from some ships, it is a relatively small amount but significant in the area. Such spills should not happen. Some 73,000 tonnes of oil spilled from the tanker, the Sea Empress, in Milford Haven. The Senator referred to upgrading at the refinery. I understand the spill occurred because of a fractured pipe in the area close to the shore. I agree with the Senator that the pipe must not have been upgraded.

I assure the House I am very concerned about any oil spillage occurring in our coastal waters and the resultant threat to the marine environment. My main concern is the possible deleterious effect the resulting pollution may have on the wellbeing of marine natural resources which it is my statutory responsibility to protect and conserve. I am also concerned for the economic wellbeing of the many fishermen and their families who depend for their livelihood on the fisheries resources in our maritime area. I am aware that the occurrence of oil pollution in an area, although it might not adversely affect fish stocks, can result in catches from that area being difficult or impossible to market because of consumer resistance. There will obviously be implications for the local fishing communities in Cork Harbour and along the adjoining coastline from the recent incident at Whitegate. The consequences could have been far worse were it not for the speed and efficiency of the response of the various agencies involved in dealing with the spillage. Senators will be [1030] aware that the herring fishing season is in full swing off the south coast and I am glad this has been spared disruption. I congratulate all the people, private individuals and officials, who worked so hard to contain the spillage and restrict as far as possible the level of consequential pollution and damage.

I have difficulty in dealing with the matter as it is not my ministerial responsibility to regulate activities at refineries or oil handling facilities such as Whitegate. What powers I have reside in the Sea Pollution Act, 1991, which restricts me to the making of regulations in regard to pollution caused, or potentially caused, by shipping. I am constrained to dealing with pollution arising from casualties to ships and from operational or accidental discharges from ships while at sea, in harbours or alongside quays or jetties. The spillage in question occurred as a result of the fracture of a shore pipeline at the Whitegate jetty. The House will appreciate that I cannot intervene directly in this incident or bring any prosecution in the matter, if such should prove necessary. Subject to these constraints, I directed the marine emergency service of my Department, which responds to oil pollution incidents involving shipping, to work closely with the authorities directly involved and to provide any assistance and advice it could.

I appreciate that the public and Members of the House are concerned that this incident occurred at an installation owned and operated by a semi-State company. As a member of the Government, I share that concern. However, I am confident that my colleague, the Minister for Public Enterprise, to whom the Irish National Petroleum Corporation reports, will ensure the corporation learns the necessary lessons from this incident so that there will not be a recurrence.

Two other agencies are directly involved: Cork County Council and the Environmental Protection Agency. The former will be concerned as a planning authority with assessing whether the terms and conditions attached to the planning permission under which the Whitegate refinery operates have been fully observed in this instance. The regulatory authority most involved is the EPA, which is responsible for issuing the necessary integrated pollution control licence for the plant and ensuring the terms of any licence are complied with. I am reluctant to go further in setting out what the EPA has done or may do in the incident involved as the question of court proceedings may arise and I do not want to prejudice what may occur in that respect. I have every confidence the agency will carry out its statutory responsibilities to the full and will keep the Department of the Environment and Local Government fully in the picture. I will continue to take an interest in proceedings, as I have done up until now, in the capacity of watchdog for the welfare of marine natural resources in general.

I gave a detailed account of the circumstances surrounding the recent spillage incident and the [1031] follow-up action when I spoke on the Adjournment in the Dáil last Wednesday. I believe there is nothing further to add by way of elaboration except to say that I am informed the clean-up operation is continuing and will continue as long as the appropriate authorities consider it necessary and efficacious. I understand the wildlife service of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands has become involved in dealing with the welfare of seabirds and marine mammals affected by oil in the area. Arrangements have been made for the collection of oiled seabirds and for laboratory examinations to be carried out to firmly establish the origin of the oil concerned.

Mr. Cregan:  I am grateful to the Minister for his reply and accept he does not have direct responsibility for the refinery. While I accept his word that 3,000 gallons of oil was spilled, such was the number of people and organisations involved in the clean-up, we should keep in mind [1032] what would be required if more had been or were to be spilled. I believe more than 3,000 gallons was spilled.

When I raised this matter some time ago, I did not know which Minister was responsible and I am now informed that an organisation is responsible for licensing the refinery. I am sorry this licence must now be reviewed as I do not bear any ill will towards the refinery. However, we should ensure in future that we do not do what I believe was done in this case, rationalising before upgrading.

Dr. Woods: Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  I understand from the information available to me that the figure is 25 tonnes, which is equivalent to 3,000 gallons.

Mr. Cregan:  A significant number of people is involved in cleaning up after 25 tonnes of oil has been spilled.

The Seanad adjourned at 9.10 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 27 November 1997.

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