Wednesday, 20 April 2005
Seanad Eireann Debate
Ms O’Meara: I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me raise this matter again. I have raised it on a number of previous occasions but the context is now considerably altered. The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources urgently needs to make a decision on a report currently sitting on his desk relating to the future plans for the rehabilitation of old mine sites in the Silvermines area.
As the Minister knows, this issue has been a source of considerable concern since 1999, but it has come to a head in the past year. The Department, the EPA, the county council and the local community have worked together, but have struggled to come to a position where Mogul of Ireland would come up with a plan acceptable to all, involving the rehabilitation of those mine sites in the Silvermines area for which the company is responsible.
When the latest “final report”— to use a Department term — sent from Mogul to the Department was circulated to the interested parties it did not meet any standard by which it could satisfactorily be considered as a rehabilitation plan. The county council, the EPA, the local community and the consultants, SRK, all had major concerns. The report was seriously substandard regarding what needs to be done, not only on the tailings pond but on other sites also.
If I can speak specifically on the tailings pond, what is needed is a rehabilitation plan to ensure that erosion, which is now quite rampant on surface of the pond, would be ended and controlled in the future. A proposal to put low-grade compost, which is unacceptable for spreading on agricultural land, on the surface of the tailings pond could not meet the requirements of such a rehabilitation plan.
A series of flaws in the proposal make it unacceptable. My understanding is that a report has been given to the Minister by officials in his Departments setting out the current situation. I do not know what is in that report because, quite rightly, the officials cannot say. It is up to the Minister to make a decision on that report, however, it has been with the Minister since early March.
Ms O’Meara: I thank the Cathaoirleach. At present, the community is awaiting the decision of the Minister on the rehabilitation plans. If Mogul does not take this on, who will? I know from my dealings with the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, and from everything that has been said to the community over the years, that a major decision must be made. If the company is not to carry out the rehabilitation the State may have to take it on or an agency may have to be contracted. We do not know what is the position. We are in a limbo at the moment and I tabled this matter in an effort to obtain information for the community so that it knows when the Minister is likely to make a decision and what the implications might be.
Deputy Hoctor stated at a recent meeting of the Joint Committee of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, which departmental officials attended, that the Minister wants to meet the community before he makes a final decision. That is very welcome and I hope that it happens. I have no information on when or where that meeting might happen and the neither does the community. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, to set out the current position and to outline the Department’s plans going forward.
Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. Gallagher): I thank Senator O’Meara for raising this matter, which was last addressed in the House on 27 January 2005. The House will be aware that the Minister requested the Department to deliver to him, during February of this year, a comprehensive report on the current position concerning the Silvermines area. The report was to deal with the current state of the Department’s consultations with all stakeholders, especially the local community and on the Department’s efforts to obtain from Mogul a credible and implementable remediation proposal that would effectively and finally address the long-standing concerns of the local community, to which Senator O’Meara referred.
In addition, the report was to address the issue of the legal responsibility of the company, under clause K of its State mining lease, to remediate the company mine workings in the Silvermines area. It was also required to outline and assess the technical and financial capacity of Mogul to design an appropriate remediation programme and to carry out the necessary work, as well as the legal and other issues arising in that context. Moreover, it was to include the consolidated and up-to-date views of the local community, the Department’s own consultants, the EPA and the local authority on the most recent Mogul proposals. The Minister also requested that the report address the implications, at a broad policy level, of any decision not to proceed with a dialogue with Mogul and the consequences, in principle and in practice, of taking an alternative route.
The House will appreciate that in light of the complex nature of the issues before the Minister and the implications of a decision from a practical, policy, legal and financial perspective, it is imperative that the matter receives careful consideration by him. It is clear that there are fundamental questions of principle involved in bringing this matter to a conclusion. For instance, is it appropriate that the company responsible for the remediation be let off the hook, given its legal responsibilities? Is it appropriate that the taxpayer should be drawn into funding a remediation that is a private, legal responsibility? What are the wider implications for public policy of any direct State involvement in remediation? Another question concerns the implications, for the timing of effective and final remediation of all of the Silvermines clause K sites, of taking the Mogul, as opposed to other possible routes. Finally, what should the public policy position be regarding the non-clause K sites in the area and, indeed, other mine waste sites elsewhere?
The Minister can make no apologies for any perceived delay on his part in progressing this complex and difficult matter. Despite the comprehensive nature of the report the Minister received, there are further questions to be answered and consultations to occur, as part of the deliberation process. Only then will the Minister be satisfied that the chosen way forward on this issue makes public policy sense from the broader perspective and is in the best interests of all stakeholders.
I assure the House that the Minister will progress this matter in full recognition of its urgency and the long-standing concerns of the local community. However, he also has to have regard to its sensitivity from a legal point of view and to the ultimate need to make a decision that is consistent with good public policy principles. He undertakes to lay out the position in a comprehensive manner when he has fully and carefully considered all of the issues I have outlined.
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