North/South Ministerial Council:  Environment

– in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:00 am on 14th November 2000.

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Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:00 am, 14th November 2000

I have received notice from the Minister of the Environment that he wishes to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting held on 23 October 2000.

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement about the second North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on the environment, which was held in Navan, County Meath, on Monday 23 October 2000.

Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Ms Brid Rodgers and I attended the meeting. The Irish Government were represented by Mr Noel Dempsey TD, Minister of the Environment and Local Government, who chaired the meeting. This statement has been agreed by Ms Rodgers and is also made on her behalf.

The Council was given a progress report on the development of a joint register of current research projects. This included plans for the further development of the register as a website. The Council noted progress and agreed that the Environment Protection Agency and my Department’s Environment and Heritage Service should proceed to tender for a jointly funded contract to develop a website of current environmental research.

A summary report by officials on the scope for co-operation on new technologies for monitoring emissions to air and water, the aquatic environment, air quality and deposition was also presented to the Council. The full report will be presented to Ministers shortly and will be available on the websites of the Environment Protection Agency and the Environment and Heritage Service.

The Council agreed that the greatest scope for successful co-operation on new technologies lies, for the present, in monitoring the aquatic environment. It was agreed, therefore, that the initial work in this area should focus on chemical and biological monitoring of surface waters and assessment of fish stocks.

The Council received a progress report on the work of the water quality management working group, which was established to consider strategies for the Erne and Foyle catchments and implementation of the EU water framework directive. The Council endorsed the work undertaken so far, particularly in developing appropriate arrangements for joint implementation of the Water Framework Directive in relation to shared waters, and the co-operation on associated technical issues. The group was asked to continue the effective development of the work and prepare progress reports for the Council.

The Council was also asked to consider proposals for the development of a database of environmental information, as a further area of co-operation. The Council noted progress to date, in both jurisdictions, on the development of environmental databases in a wide range of initiatives. It agreed that a database development and co-operation programme should be taken forward progressively by the Environment Protection Agency and the Environment and Heritage Service. It was agreed that this programme should place particular emphasis on the following: examining the options for completing the CORINE Land Cover Project 2000 in co-operation with the UK; developing and integrating key databases on issues such as river water quality, air quality and groundwater quality and a register of environmental data sources; and developing a joint Internet portal, providing access to information on environmental data.

The Council also considered a proposal for developing co-operation on the issue of the environmental impact of agriculture. It was agreed that a scoping study should be undertaken to develop co-operation on nutrient management planning in agriculture and controls on the cross-border movement and management of slurries, particularly in the context of the EU Directive on integrated pollution prevention and control.

The Council was asked to approve the release for public consultation of the draft equality scheme for the cross-border body on special EU programmes. That will assist the Special EU Programmes Body to finalise its equality scheme as soon as possible.

I took the opportunity afforded by this meeting to raise with Minister Dempsey several issues about which Assembly Members had expressed concern, following the report that I made to the Assembly on 11 September about our first sectoral meeting. The matters that I raised were as follows: the problem of pollution in cross- border rivers, such as in the Erne system; the spread of zebra mussels; the mutual benefits that could arise from the management of waste in a cross-border context; the problems with disposing of spent mushroom compost, which affect the mushroom growers on both sides of the border; and our concerns that the major accident hazards Directive has not yet been implemented in the Republic of Ireland. The Council noted those matters and agreed that they would be addressed as the work programme of the environment sectoral group was taken forward.

The Council agreed that the next sectoral meeting on the environment would take place in February in Belfast and considered and agreed the text of the joint communiqué that was issued after the meeting. A copy of the communiqué has been placed in the Assembly Library.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP

I note the Minister’s statement. Last week my Committee wrote to the Minister about the Department’s budget for the coming year. Although we welcomed the increase in the overall budget, we were concerned that a number of bids had not been met. I am thinking in particular of the ongoing moratorium on the historic buildings grant and the £3·6 million needed for vital landscape protection projects and major conservation.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea DUP

It is directly related to the statement.

I cannot remember seeing any reference in the bids or allocations to the work mentioned in the Minister’s statement. Where will the funding for the projects that the Minister mentioned come from? If it is to come from his Department, can he specify how much will be set aside in the coming year for those projects? The Minister mentioned a contract to develop a website for environmental research. How much is that contract worth? What benefits will it deliver? How much will it cost Northern Ireland Departments?

The Minister said that he expected that a full report on new technologies for monitoring would be issued shortly. How long will that "shortly" be? He also referred to the work undertaken to develop arrangements for the joint implementation of the water framework directive. How many of his officials are involved in that joint project, and what is the total cost to date — including salaries — to his Department? When will he advise the Environment Committee about that work?

Proposals relating to the environmental impact of agriculture were mentioned in the statement. Will the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development pay anything towards them?

The Minister said that he had expressed concern on matters such as pollution in the system of Lough Erne, the spread of zebra mussels and the failure of the Republic of Ireland to implement the major accident hazard directive. He noted those serious issues, but when will something be done about them?

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

That was a long series of questions. I am afraid that I will not be able answer them all in the pedantic fashion that Mr McCrea seeks.

The meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council are, overall, very beneficial. The costs of attending the meetings are largely confined to the travelling cost of Ministers and officials to venues in the Republic of Ireland or the cost of hosting the event when it is held in Northern Ireland. For example, the cost to my Department of the environment sectoral meeting in Navan was approximately £1,000. The web site will cost £60,000, of which £30,000 will come from the Northern Ireland budget.

The EU Water Framework Directive requires cross- border co-operation. The water quality group would be carrying out that work, in any case. The work involves five staff from the Environment and Heritage Service. We will work closely with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development on all environmental issues. I spoke recently to both the president and vice-president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union. We are willing to work with them on any issue.

Photo of Jim Wilson Jim Wilson UUP

Following his statement to the House on 11 September, I congratulated the Minister on his commitment to the improvement of water quality. I congratulate him again on the action that he is taking to fulfil that commitment.

I noted in the statement that the Council received a report on the work of the water quality group. What progress has been made on arrangements for the implementation of the Water Framework Directive? Among the other matters that the Minister raised with his Southern counterpart was the spread of zebra mussels. Fermanagh is in his constituency, so he must be well aware of the infestation in Lough Erne. Will he focus on that issue as a matter of urgency?

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

I spoke about zebra mussels to Minister Dempsey at the North/South meeting, and he took my comments on board. I am very concerned at how Lough Erne has been infested with zebra mussels, and I am also aware of the problem in Lough Melvin at Garrison. We will watch the situation closely.

The Water Framework Directive requires that co-ordinated river basin management plans should be agreed between member states with transboundary waterways, such as those that we share with the Republic of Ireland. That is why implementation of the Directive was adopted as an early item of business for a water quality working group, consisting of officials from both jurisdictions. The EU Water Framework Directive has to be transposed into local legislation by member states within three years. It will establish catchment management plans and improvement programmes for the next two decades. We are making progress on that issue.

Photo of Eddie McGrady Eddie McGrady Social Democratic and Labour Party

I congratulate the Minister and his colleagues on the Council on the work that was set out in detail in his report to the House.

What consideration has been given to the question of global warming? I am sure the Minister is aware that the Hague Conference meets this week as a follow-on from the Kyoto conference of 1997. Is he aware of the urgent report by 27 European climatologists which warns of the drastic effect of global warming? Will his Council take this on board? In view of what seem to be irreversible climatic changes, will it look at the effects on the local environment, the landscape and farming and make provision for them?

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP 10:45 am, 14th November 2000

We do not take those big issues lightly, and we are monitoring the global warming situation. We are progressing with a scoping study to identify the key areas in which climate changes is most likely to impact on Northern Ireland. I assure the Member that the matter will not go unnoticed; it is being watched very closely.

Photo of Mr Mick Murphy Mr Mick Murphy Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat. I am grateful for the opportunity to welcome the statement from a Minister on the North/South Ministerial Council meeting on the environment. In developing and establishing experimental issues across this island we shall all learn lessons which will enhance the importance of all cross- border ministerial meetings. It is, however, unfortunate that his party Colleague, the First Minister, has —

Photo of Mr Mick Murphy Mr Mick Murphy Sinn Féin

— decided to exclude the key issues of health and education from the North/South Ministerial Council.

I am pleased to welcome the Minister’s statement that co-operation —

Photo of Mr Mick Murphy Mr Mick Murphy Sinn Féin

— between the Environmental Protection Agency and the Environment and Heritage Service will be taken forward. Does he agree that there is a lot to be learnt on waste management and recycling on both parts of this island?

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

I thank the Member for his question. It was a bit difficult to understand what it really was, but I think he referred to waste management and waste strategy. There is a lot to be learnt from cross-border issues, and I have no hesitation in working from one jurisdiction to another. It is useful for both sides of the community, so it does not concern me at all. With regard to cross- border institutions, two different jurisdictions working and living together in a neighbourly fashion are bound to help each other, and I hope it will remain that way.

I am pleased with the progress that has been made on implementing the waste strategy since its publication in March 2000. I am particularly pleased that the draft Budget proposals enable my Department to make available £3·5 million to help councils to implement the waste management strategy. That strategy requires district councils to submit individual or collective waste management plans to my Department by June 2001, and district councils have formed three waste management planning groups to meet this requirement. The north-west region cross-border group takes in Donegal County Council, and there is no problem whatsoever. We can learn from each other as two separate jurisdictions.

Photo of David Ford David Ford Alliance

I too would like to welcome the statement but ask the Minister "When?" at least six times. The development of a joint register of current research projects is mentioned. When will we see it, please? When will we see the report on co-operation on new technologies for monitoring? What about the database development and co-operation programme referred to on page 3 — when will that be in place? What about the scoping study referred to at the bottom of page 3? There are probably too many questions to expect the Minister to answer now. My point is that, while this is a good report insofar as it goes — and I welcome its breadth — unless we can have a timetable, unless we can be sure that the report referred to will be produced and that the work referred to will be undertaken in the near future, it will not be of any benefit to us.

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

We are working on those issues. These are early days. The database was demonstrated at the meeting, and outcomes are expected over the next six months or so. The joint report proposed by officials examined the technology for monitoring emissions to air and water, the aquatic environment and air quality and the deposit of airborne pollution. The report concluded that there are well-established methodologies in place for monitoring emissions and air quality. We are working on it.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

Members are reminded that it is extremely discourteous to continue private conversation while the Minister is responding. It will be difficult to hear what he is saying if Members persist.

Photo of Mr Ivan Davis Mr Ivan Davis UUP

When the Minister last reported on a North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting, a number of Members raised queries on a wide range of issues, from the increased number of zebra mussels to the major accident hazards Directive. I welcome the Minister’s willingness to take account of concerns expressed from the Back Benches of the Assembly. We are all grateful to the Minister for raising our concerns with his counterpart in the Irish Republic. Does he agree that this demonstrates how North/South co-operation can give us all a role in ensuring improvement to the environment?

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

As I said earlier, there is no hesitation as far as I am concerned. It is useful to have cross-border co-operation because we are living as neighbours, although we are two different jurisdictions. As for issues which concern Members in Northern Ireland, it was an ideal opportunity to make points about those. I was pleased to put those issues to Mr Noel Dempsey at our last meeting, and he took them on board. It was a useful, worthwhile discussion. Despite the cross-community question mark, I was willing to act as a conduit. The whole issue is the benefit that we can gain for Northern Ireland. It is a matter of living neighbourly with our neighbours, so long as they live neighbourly with us.

Photo of Mr Arthur Doherty Mr Arthur Doherty Social Democratic and Labour Party

Will the new technologies for the monitoring of emissions to air and water provide accurate information about the nature and effect of the emissions from Sellafield?

On a different issue, will the Minister inform us of the current situation with regard to EU regulations on the transport of various types of waste across frontiers? Will these regulations impact negatively on the important work being done through cross-border co-operation on the development of waste management strategies?

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

Again, this is a matter of co-operation and working together. There is no doubt that there are benefits to be gained from this sort of thing.

The Member referred to the issue of Sellafield, which is raised quite often. The Sellafield plant is being watched closely. It is not our responsibility, but we do take water quality samples. Half of the radiation received by the average person in Northern Ireland is due to exposure to radon gas in the home, 12% comes from medical exposure, and nuclear discharges account for less than 0·1%. While there are concerns about Sellafield, it seems from my Department’s monitoring programme that there are no serious issues to be found in the water quality of the Irish Sea because of the Sellafield plant.

The overall question is co-operation and what can be gained by both parts of the community.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

There is nothing pedantic about the Chairman of the Environment Committee asking reasonable questions of the Minister. It is the role of the Committee to scrutinise the work of the Minister. [Interrpution] I am coming to the question, Mr Deputy Speaker. You were fairly liberal with other Members.

I welcome the mention of the major accident hazards Directive. Did the Irish delegation give a timetable for implementing the Directive, and what excuse did they give for not having implemented it thus far?

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

I thank the Member for his reference to the concerns that were raised here last time. I made the point to Mr Dempsey, and he took it on board. He did not give any timetable. I am glad that I can put these questions to the Minister from the Republic of Ireland on behalf of the DUP. It wants us to act as a conduit, but to blame us if anything goes wrong. That is rather sad. It is a little hypocritical.

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

It is a little bit hypocritical.

Photo of Peter Robinson Peter Robinson DUP

He has waffled long enough.

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

The implementation of EC Directives by individual member states is monitored and regulated by the European Commission. However, as I said, I have registered a concern with Mr Dempsey in the Republic of Ireland. He has taken it on board. We are awaiting a response, but he has not given a definite timetable.

Photo of Gerry McHugh Gerry McHugh Sinn Féin

A LeasCheann Comhairle, will the Minister put it to Mr Dempsey that the proposed incinerator in County Louth, just across the border from us, will affect the clean, green image of the country as a whole in the future? We will not be able export food that is free from dioxins if we go down the road of incinerators to deal with waste management.

Will the Minister also impress upon the Department of Agriculture here that it is vital for the future of the environment that we have an environmental scheme in place to ensure good water quality in our lakes and rivers? Farmers will be policed by the Department, but there is nothing in place to address the difficulties that they face in keeping the water free from pollution.

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

Water quality is a big issue. Incineration is also a big issue at present. I have nothing definitive to report on that aspect yet, but, as the Member has requested, I will pass on his concerns the next time that I am in touch with the Minister. I have no hesitation in doing so.

The Member has referred to a number of issues. They will be taken on board. That is part of our role and responsibility in relation to the environment.

Photo of Mr James Leslie Mr James Leslie UUP

I welcome the Minister’s statement, and I note that he has diligently raised a variety of issues with Mr Dempsey that had been raised by the Assembly during questions on previous meetings of this sector of the North/South Ministerial Council. Does the Minister agree that it is somewhat curious and contradictory that he is expected and required by the DUP to raise matters on its behalf at the Council, yet its Ministers are unwilling to shoulder any responsibility in this regard themselves?

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

Yes, it certainly is a strange set of circumstances. There is no doubt at all about that. The DUP expects me to act as a conduit, as I said earlier. The question also gives the answer. It is circumvention. It is hypocritical and very sanctimonious. It is a pretence. The DUP ignores the bodies to which it wants questions put. It also communicates with the Executive Committee, despite the fact that it refuses to sit on the Executive Committee. It is highly hypocritical.

Photo of Eugene McMenamin Eugene McMenamin Social Democratic and Labour Party

I welcome the Minister’s statement. With regard to work being done on water quality management in the Erne and Foyle catchment areas, does the Minister have any information about the effect of the current water quality on the health of the rich native mussel beds in Lough Foyle?

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

I am not yet aware of any issue relating to mussel beds in Lough Foyle. Could the question be repeated, please?

Photo of Eugene McMenamin Eugene McMenamin Social Democratic and Labour Party

My question is about the water quality in Lough Foyle and the health of the rich native mussels. What effect is the water quality having on the mussels?

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP 11:00 am, 14th November 2000

Water pollution is a major issue, and water quality is continuously monitored and assessed. However, consideration of mussel beds is not part of the Foyle catchment study. Nevertheless, the Member’s point will be taken on board.

Photo of Mr Oliver Gibson Mr Oliver Gibson DUP

Is the Minister aware that the only time the border with the South of Ireland has been sealed was when BSE first broke out in Northern Ireland? I note from his statement on the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting on the environment the proposal to develop co-operation on the environmental impact of agriculture. What has been initiated by the joint committee to prevent the illegal importation of contaminated meat, live or dead and causing ruin, given the fact that we are pushing for a zero-incidence BSE status?

Secondly, what is being done on a co-operative level to prevent fishing in the Foyle estuary by poachers from the Republic?

Thirdly, can the Minister assure us that there are no zebra mussels in the Foyle estuary?

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

I thank the Member for his wide-ranging questions. Any cases of cross-border contamination will certainly be examined, for that is an environmental health issue.

I am not aware of the existence of zebra mussels anywhere outside the Lough Erne catchment area or Lough Melvin.

The importation of BSE carcasses has been referred to, and rightly so because there is a concern about contamination. This is a very important matter which is the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, and not just the Department of the Environment.

Photo of Billy Armstrong Billy Armstrong UUP

Will the Minister continue to listen to the views of the agriculture community so that it may be fully involved in any environmental improvements? I am reassured that the Minister of Environment is alert to the needs of the agriculture sector and to the impact of the environment on agriculture and on those who depend on the environment for their living, not least our farmers.

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

We take very seriously the impact of agriculture on the environment. Recently I spoke to the president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, and on Saturday I met the union’s deputy president. Everyone acknowledges that agriculture is a major contributor to the economies of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Coming from a rural constituency, I fully appreciate the parlous circumstances in which Northern Ireland’s agriculture industry finds itself.

However, we must also recognise the potential impact of agricultural activities on the environment. The greatest problem is the run-off of nutrients to lakes and rivers, leading to the excessive growth of algae and plants, which can cause oxygen levels to fall. This is the most serious water quality problem affecting waterways on both sides of the border. That is why at a recent meeting Ministers agreed to examine the scope for co-operation on the environmental impacts of agriculture. We agreed that the most mutually beneficial areas for co-operation might include planning for the controlled use of fertilisers and manures in agriculture and controls on the cross-border management and movement of slurries, particularly in the context of the European Directive on integrated pollution prevention and control.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds DUP

What does the Minister mean by the joint Internet portal, to which he referred, and how does he envisage this working?

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

These are early days of co-operation, but there is no problem with our working together — it is very important that we meet and work with each other.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds DUP

I asked what was meant by the term "Internet portal".

Photo of Mr Sam Foster Mr Sam Foster UUP

The joint Internet portal is a shared system of access to the web site, and it will give us a degree of awareness.

It will enable us to present our respective difficulties and interests, thus keeping us up to date with activity on either side of the border.

Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds DUP

It would be easier on Mr Davis’s shoe leather if the civil servants whose messages he is carrying were simply to come and read out what they write.

Photo of Mr Donovan McClelland Mr Donovan McClelland Social Democratic and Labour Party

Mr Dodds, you know as well as I do that that is not a point of order.