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In compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I will make a statement on the eighth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in environment sectoral format that was held on 20 March at Farmleigh House in Dublin. The report has been agreed with Minister Ritchie, who was also in attendance.
The Irish Government were represented by John Gormley TD, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, who chaired the meeting, and I, as Environment Minister, with Margaret Ritchie, the Minister for Social Development, represented the Northern Ireland Executive.
The Council received a report on the progress that has been made to date on the ongoing discussions between the Department of the Environment, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the relevant competent authorities that are aimed at effecting the repatriation of illegally dumped cross-border waste.
The Ministers noted that Dublin City Council became the sole Irish competent authority designated for trans-frontier shipments of waste in July 2007, and it is committed to letting a contract for the removal of waste at Slattinagh and Trillick and its disposal in a suitable facility in Ireland. They also noted that a draft framework agreement that covers key issues surrounding the scope of the work, the methodology to be employed and the apportionment of costs has been developed and, it is hoped, will be agreed in the near future.
The Council welcomed the joint concerted enforcement actions that are continuing to target shipments of waste and noted that future action is planned. The Council also received a presentation from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on current work and the potential for co-operation on environmental research and state-of-environment reporting with the aim of providing positive outcomes for the environment and the economy.
The Ministers noted that the EPA and NIEA will bring forward proposals at the next NSMC meeting in the environment sectoral format for continued co-operation in this area.
Those will involve the development and publication of a common set of environment indicators, enhanced co-operation and further work in relation to environmental research and on environmental technologies, as well as co-operation to ensure that, building on the experience of the jointly developed North/South website for environmental research (known as the ‘aNSwer’ website), information on environmental projects across the island of Ireland is made available.
The Council welcomed the continuing progress on the implementation of the EU water framework directive for shared waters, and, in particular, the achievement of another important deadline with the publication of the draft river basin management plans for three cross-border international river basin districts: the North Western, the Neagh Bann and the Shannon.
The Council noted that the publication of the draft plans for a six-month public consultation period is a significant step towards the development and publication by December 2009 of the final river basin management plans, which will help to protect and improve the water environment in cross-border international river basin districts and throughout both jurisdictions. Ministers welcomed the opportunity for the public in both jurisdictions to contribute to the river basin planning process through responding to the consultation on the draft river basin management plans.
The Council also noted the carrying out of a jointly funded strategic environment assessment in parallel with the management plans to evaluate the environmental consequences of the plans and the programme of measures, and to consult with the public in that regard.
The Council noted the importance of the development of markets for recycled materials, and, in particular, the strategic documents ‘Towards Resource Management: The Northern Ireland Waste Management Strategy 2006-2020’ and, in Ireland, the ‘Market Development Programme for Waste Resources 2007-2011’.
Ministers welcomed the reconstituted North/South market development steering group, which includes representatives from the business and non-governmental sectors and was established to drive forward a market development programme for recyclable material. The terms of reference of the group, which will be reviewed on an annual basis, currently includes the following priority waste streams: organics; food waste; domestic waste plastics; construction and demolition waste.
The Council also noted the North/South market development steering group’s intention to consider developments in the proposal for an all-island paper mill, and Ministers agreed to consider that issue at the next NSMC meeting in the environment sectoral format. The Council agreed to meet again in that sector in September or October 2009.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement on the North/South Ministerial Council environment sectoral meeting. On behalf of the Environment Committee, I welcome the arrangements announced by the Minister for increased co-ordination and co-operation for the benefit of the environment on the entire island.
In his statement, the Minister referred to:
“joint concerted enforcement actions that are continuing to target shipments of waste”.
In April 2008, in response to a question about illegal dumping, the Environment Committee was told by the Department that the illegal depositing of waste in the North was extremely profitable to those involved due to the costs of legal disposal, and that the disparity in the cost of disposal of waste to landfill in each jurisdiction was acting as an economic driver and was encouraging the illegal transport of waste from the Republic into the North.
Can the Minister tell us, therefore, what concerted enforcement actions have been taking place to address the illegal transport of waste into the North, what his Department has done to reduce the economic drivers that might be exacerbating that, and what measures he is taking, as Minister, to prevent any increased pressure that the global economic downturn might have on that illegal activity?
I thank the Chairperson of the Environment Committee for his questions. I, too, recognise the importance of co-ordination, because, of course, when it comes to river pollution or other forms of pollution, the border does not act as a barrier to its movement.
Therefore, I see that there are good grounds for co-operation with the authorities in the Republic. As the Member well knows, lack of co-ordination in the past may have led to some of the problems to which he referred in his second question.
I will say two things in reply; first, about practical joint action and, secondly, about what we are doing to make that activity less profitable. There have already been a number of joint ventures between the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and the Irish Republic’s Environmental Protection Agency. In fact, the last joint action was taken in January and February this year, when the Northern Ireland Environment Agency’s trans-frontier shipment of waste team conducted joint inspections with Dublin City Council on both sides of the border. That action and those inspections are intelligence-led. It is important that the authorities on both sides of the border are aware of the likely movements of waste, especially those that will be undertaken by people with a record of illegal activity. It is important that there is not only a sharing of intelligence but co-operation and co-ordination of enforcement action on both sides of the border.
Since 2007, the Northern Ireland Environment Agency has conducted five verification inspections of notifiable and green-list waste movements, and four joint road and port inspections with Dublin City Council. Further joint inspections are planned. I want to see more of that activity taking place, and we will be pushing for more to be done.
The enforcement section in Northern Ireland has the job of ensuring that dumping illegal waste does not pay. There is evidence of where we have gone after people hard once we have identified that they have allowed illegal waste to be deposited on their land. So far, there have been 33 convictions, with five prison sentences handed out that have ranged from two to 12 months. I want to see more convictions. There have been 87 enforcement files involving incidents of waste from the Irish Republic. We are preparing the files; we are taking people to court; we are securing convictions and — in addition — we are seizing assets. So far, around £800,000 of assets have been seized. Some of those cases are subject to appeal in the court. Nevertheless, the Chairperson has made an important point: we must ensure that we do not allow people to benefit from dumping illegal waste. They may think twice about doing so if they know that they will be caught and punished severely.
The Minister referred to environmental research and to a degree of work and co-operation with the Irish Republic. Will he expand on the discussions that were held on the benefits of joint research, and will he outline the benefits of joint working between the Environment Protection Agency and its Irish equivalent on the environmental indicators?
At the meeting, there was a presentation from representatives from Northern Ireland and the Environmental Protection Agency in the Republic outlining the research to date and the work that they intend to do. That joint presentation was well received by officials and Ministers. It illustrated how each report uses similar indictors, and provided an overview of the continuing work to develop a single comparable set of all-island environmental indicators.
The possible benefits of that include having common international research linkages. Funds could be drawn down for that because EU research funds would be levered. Such a single set of indicators would also ensure that there is a value-for-money approach to research projects. Whenever we spend money on projects, the co-operation that is involved means that we should achieve maximum value from that money. Therefore, additional funding will be brought down because it will be easier to lever EU funding, and greater value for money should be ensured.
At the next meeting, we will consider proposals on the way forward. At that stage, we will perhaps be able to flesh out some of the benefits that have been realised.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. He will know that I raised the issue of illegal dumping previously in the Chamber. What is the time frame for the repatriation of the identified sites? Have any new sites been identified? In the past 12 months or so, local councils — including mine — and the Forest Service have had to pay for the removal of waste. Was there any discussion about reimbursing the councils for the resources that they have had to use to remove that waste? Go raibh maith agat.
As far as I know, about 20 sites have been identified so far. I want to see the process moving quickly, because some of those sites are already leaking leachate into water courses and are causing severe pollution. It is important that we move quickly so that we can deal with that situation.
The two sites that I mentioned in the statement are the first two to have been identified. I think that we are now close to reaching agreement with the competent authority in the Republic, which is Dublin City Council. Once that agreement has been signed, the procurement process will begin. Under the EU rules that apply to the size of the contract, that process must last for about four or five months. After that, work will start to remove the waste and to dispose of it in the Republic. Remediation work will then be done on the two sites, after which we will work through the rest of the sites.
I cannot honestly give the Member a timescale for the remediation work and for the removal of waste from all the other sites. However, I told Minister Gormley that once the process starts and we have identified the waste in the sites, I want to see the process moving as quickly as possible.
The apportionment of the cost of reimbursements for the removal of waste from now on will be part of the agreement that is finally settled. However, I make it quite clear that since the waste came from the Republic and was dumped illegally in Northern Ireland, a substantial proportion of the costs should be borne by the authority that was responsible for dealing with the waste in the Republic.
In his statement, the Minister indicated that the EPA and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency will bring forward proposals to the next North/South Ministerial Council in environment sectoral format. He stated that part of that work will involve the development and publication of a common set of environmental indicators.
Does the Minister agree that it is important that those indicators remain consistent with those that are used throughout the rest of the United Kingdom so that we are able to compare environmental standards in Northern Ireland with those in the rest of the United Kingdom?
Whenever we assess the state of the environment in different jurisdictions, we want to have comparable data. An awful lot of EU framework directives require common assessments in countries throughout Europe. Therefore, the more consistent that we can make those indicators so that one country can be compared with another, the better. That is important even from an EU point of view.
I, too, thank the Minister for his statement. First, I noticed that when he was talking about the river basin management plans the Minister mentioned carrying out a strategic environmental assessment. Will he give us details of the timing of that assessment; who will carry it out; and what sort of public consultation there will be?
Secondly, it is clear that the North/South Market Development Steering Group, which develops markets for recyclables, is good and necessary. However, the Minister expressed concerns about exporting valuable recyclable materials to the Far East at an energy and financial cost. Given that, and in the light of the co-operation required both North and South, and with the private sector, will he give us any firm indication of actual developments as opposed to aspirations?
We had been working towards the development of an all-Ireland paper mill. However, as is the case with all such initiatives, unless they are market-driven and a good strong business case can be made for them, they will not work in the long run. There is no point in setting up something that is not sustainable or profitable. However, there is renewed interest in the proposal, and it will be a case of whether business interests decide there is a market for it in the whole of the island.
No other specific projects have been mentioned to date. However, given the downturn in world prices, it is important that we look at what can be done within the curtilage of our own two countries to try and ensure that we recycle as much as possible, and recycle it here. If one looks at how waste prices for recycled material have held up in Northern Ireland, one can see that we have good long-term contracts anyhow and that most of those are with businesses that are using waste in a proper and profitable way. We are fairly well placed in that regard. I do not want to give the impression that most of the waste that we recycle is sent around the world, when, in fact, local contracts are already in place. It essentially reflects my economic philosophy that unless things can be done on the basis of business and profitability, many people will call into question the sustainability of some of the recycling targets.
The Northern Ireland Environment Agency is carrying out the strategic environment assessment of water management at the moment.
I thank the Minister for his statement, and I welcome the steps that his Department has taken to combat illegal dumping. My question is on water-quality management. Will the Minister give us details on what further North/South co-operation there will be on the implementation of the Water Framework Directive?
First, as I said in my statement, public consultation on the draft river basin management plans is ongoing in Northern Ireland and the Republic and will continue until June.
Secondly, we are holding water information days and events to engage with interested parties, and those events are being held in both jurisdictions. Officials have been co-ordinating arrangements where possible, because, in places in which there is joint interest in a river basin, it will be easier for people to give their views to either the Northern Ireland Environment Agency or the Environmental Protection Agency in the South. Reciprocal invitations have been extended to people in both jurisdictions.
Co-ordination is ongoing at policy and technical level between officials in both jurisdictions. The main reason for that is to facilitate the preparation of the final plans. We aim to have the final river basin management plans published in both jurisdictions on 22 December, so a Christmas present will be available for those who are interested in that.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement and, particularly, paragraph 4’s reference to the removal of material from Trillick, which is part of my constituency. I have been working on that issue for some months, and I am delighted that it has reached this stage. The Minister’s written statement refers to “the apportionment of costs”, but he used the word “enforcement” in his verbal statement. I would like him to elaborate on that. I agree with the Minister that the vast proportion of costs should lie with the South, because that is where the waste has come from.
In addition, paragraph 13 of the written statement ― and the Minister may, to some extent, have answered this question ― refers to an all-island paper mill. Would that mill be about recycling, or about afforestation, the cutting of trees and feeding into the production of brand new paper, or a combination of both? On a slightly lighter note, in the House last week, the Minister talked about the skies having been blue when he was in Dublin. I had not realised that it was 20 March when he was in Dublin. I happened to be in London on 20 March and the skies were blue there, too. So, just to put his mind at ease: partition has nothing to do with the colour of the sky. [Laughter.]
I am also well informed that the skies were blue in Belfast on that day, too, so there was a certain amount of commonality across all the islands on that day. However, I must say that it was a beautiful morning in Dublin, and I had the opportunity to act in a very environmentally friendly way and walk to the meeting ― and it was a very pleasant walk.
No; I did not walk from Belfast. [Laughter.]
With regard to the Member’s questions: as far as recycling is concerned, I am not quite up to date on all the technology of paper mills, but it is my understanding that any proposed paper mill would be built, primarily, to use recycled materials. That was the whole point of the facility, and to give us some of the economies of scale that are required to deal with the waste paper that is generated in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. I suspect, though, that some virgin material would have to be put into a paper mill to make it work, but, as I said, I could be totally wrong about that because I do not know the technology behind it.
My use of the word “enforcement” referred to having proper enforcement regimes in place to ensure that the problem was not repeated. Of course, the apportionment of costs will not be a case of enforcing, it will be a case of an agreement that is reached between me and the Environment Minister in the Republic or — more properly speaking — with Dublin City Council, the competent authority. Those costs, and the apportionment of those costs, will be in the final agreement.
I made it very clear to the Minister that the issue has dragged on for too long. It is causing a problem. Increasingly, as those sites get older, the pollution problems caused by them will increase. To be fair to the Minister, he, too, wants a quick resolution. There was a meeting of minds on the issue, and I hope that the work will start sooner rather than later, and that the agreement will be signed in the next few weeks.
The whole idea of the North/South market development steering group is to involve people from business and non-governmental sectors in finding a way to drive forward the management and recycling of waste across the island. It will look at matters such as organics, food waste, domestic waste, plastics, construction and demolition waste. Any progress that can be made in helping us to meet our targets for recycling in those areas is important. We have stringent targets to meet by 2020, and any contribution, whether made by our agencies or by the steering group, will be beneficial to both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
I also thank the Minister for his timely statement. My question is similar to that posed by Mr Doherty; it refers to the transport to Northern Ireland of cross-frontier shipments of waste. That waste creates leachate and the Minister has said that he is concerned that the matter be resolved sooner rather than later. Is it likely to be resolved before the next meeting of the group, which will be at the end of this year, or can it be done sooner?
I hope that the agreement will be signed within the next few weeks. For the North/South Ministerial Council meeting, we had a road map as to how the problem should be addressed. I emphasise that it should not only address the legacy of waste that is deposited in Northern Ireland sites; it is more important to avoid it happening again. As other Members have pointed out, there are economic benefits for those who wish to engage in that trade, not least for those in the Irish Republic for whom it presents an opportunity to avoid the heavy landfill tax, and for those in Northern Ireland who take waste onto their land and probably get huge cash payments in return.
The road map considers what the issues are with illegal waste; what needs to be done in respect of it; how we will ascertain whether there is waste on particular sites; what we should do about it; the joint operations to which I referred earlier; and how, in future, we can avoid this situation.
The draft agreement is with my officials, who are checking that it reflects what was agreed in the road map. If the two Ministers can sign it within the next few weeks, there is then a four- to five-month procurement process to be undergone. That is unavoidable — it is an EU requirement because of the size of the contract. Once that contract is signed, the work should begin. I am not saying that the work will have started by September 2009, or by the time of the next North/South Ministerial Council meeting. However, I hope that all the requirements will be in place to allow it to start.
I welcome the Minister’s wide-ranging statement. The most striking aspect of this report is the growth in the range of issues that are now discussed at North/South Ministerial Council meetings and that include the environment. That being the case, the Assembly will have to look seriously at having the issue of the environment addressed by a new North/South body.
I want to ask the Minister about the illegal waste at Garrison and Trillick, particularly at Garrison, as it is close to Lough Melvin, one of the best fishing lakes in these islands and which has, and has for centuries, made a very important contribution to the local economy. On 21 November, I received an answer from the Minister in which he said pretty much what has been repeated here today. He said that the remaining issues could be resolved before the end of the year and that the contract procurement could be allowed to proceed.
I understand the Minister’s difficulties; however, we are not any further forward. When this matter comes up again at the next North/South Ministerial Council meeting, will representatives from Dublin City Council be present so that there can be some sort of face-to-face encounter? In Fermanagh and Tyrone, the feeling is that sites in the west are not a priority. Will the Minister give his views on that?
If it takes me as long to get agreement as it took the Member to get his question out, I think that we will still be talking about it this time next year.
I reject the Member’s point that there has been no progress since November. We now have a road map and a draft agreement. Perhaps the Member would have preferred that we had not gone down the normal route. It is a mandated issue and it had to be dealt with at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting. The matter was dealt with at the first North/South Ministerial Council meeting since I became responsible for the environment. We are now in the process of checking the details of that and signing off on it.
I have given the Member a timetable, and the road map includes the details of the agreement. Minister Gormley and I have agreed that that is a way forward. It is now the case, of course, that it has to be written down in the form of a contract. I have told the Member that it will be signed off in the next few weeks. I have told him what the procurement process is going to be and how long it is going to take. I do not know what else the Member wishes for.
As far as I am concerned, the issue was raised with me when I became Minister, and I made it clear that I wanted it dealt with as quickly as possible. The fact is that we now have ministerial agreement on it, which we did not have in November; we have the details of that, which we did not have in November; we are on the point of signing off on that, which we were not in November; we know what has to be contained in that, which we did not in November, including the identification, removal and disposal of illegal waste, the making good of the site and the apportionment of costs.
I cannot understand how the Member came to the conclusion that he has. Then again, I do not always understand his thought processes; for example, he still thinks that the sun moves around the earth.
I thank the Minister for his statement. Illegal waste is often associated with fuel laundering and smuggling — and I am thinking about the lorry load of fuel that went on fire between Lisburn and Carryduff. Has the Minister had any co-operation with his counterpart in the Republic of Ireland in relation to the fight against illegal fuel launderers and the smuggling of illegal fuel?
The Member is quite right: fuel laundering is polluting in nature because the chemicals used to remove the dye are usually dumped in water courses. As that is a clandestine activity, it is very hard to identify the full extent of the environmental damage that that residue might cause.
I am not avoiding the issue of co-operation with the Republic, but HM Revenue and Customs deals with fuel laundering. It tackles and prevents illegal fuel laundering and smuggling. It is not appropriate for me to comment on the level of co-operation, because the Department is not involved in that.
The Department recognises that recycling must be dealt with at local level. We must ensure that local people are signed up to community recycling. Networking with communities is done through the waste and resources action programme (WRAP), which the Department funds to the tune of around £1 million a year. Its job is to work closely with businesses and to encourage them to undertake initiatives to deliver increases in recycling, such as using recycled materials in construction and manufacturing. That, of course, reduces the amount of waste that goes to landfill.
Earlier, questions were asked on the markets for recycled materials. I hear the public expressing quite a bit of concern that because of the economic downturn, some of the existing markets for recycled materials have disappeared. Will the Minister give an assurance that when householders recycle materials, those are genuinely going into recycling?
The market for recyclables is similar to any market, but it is more prone to the ups and downs of the economic cycle. People who are involved in recycling will know that in the 1990s, it hit a low patch. As I said in answer to earlier questions, Northern Ireland is much better placed in the use of recycled materials, because we entered into long-term contracts and although we are not immune to the ups and downs of the market, we are less prone to that. We have a market for the materials that we collect.
It is not clear when the markets will function normally again, but we believe that the low prices are a temporary phenomena. Therefore, we have allowed the storing of recycled materials. Normally, restrictions are placed on that, but we have recognised that rather than having recycling materials used in a way that they should not be, some storage should be allowed.
I was concerned about some of the stories that appeared in the papers about that, because I want to encourage people to continue to recycle materials as much as possible.
In a statement on 12 January 2009, I made it clear that materials that are collected for recycling in Northern Ireland do not go to landfill, but are used for the purpose for which they are intended.