With your permission, Mr Speaker, in compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I will make a statement on the eighteenth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in environment sectoral format, which was held in Armagh on Thursday 8 May 2014. The statement has been agreed with Minister Kennedy.
Danny Kennedy MLA, the Minister for Regional Development, and I represented the Northern Ireland Executive at the meeting. The Irish Government were represented by Phil Hogan TD, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government. I chaired the meeting.
Ministers had a discussion on various priorities within their remit and noted that those will be contained in a report to be considered at a future NSMC institutional meeting as part of the ongoing review of sectoral priorities. Ministers noted that the contract for the all-island air quality research study into airborne pollution from the combustion of residential solid fuels, in particular smoky coal, has been awarded and that the study is expected to be completed by August 2014.
The council welcomed the consideration by the North/South market development steering group of a new programme related to the circular economy. It requires a new way of thinking in all aspects of the value chain and aims to keep the added value in products for as long as possible and to cut residual waste to close to zero. Ministers noted that the Northern Ireland carrier bag levy, currently applied to single-use bags, will be extended to low-cost reusable bags from January 2015. Ministers also welcomed the engagement in discussions on the proposals for a new used tyre scheme in Ireland and the exploration of the potential for a complementary scheme in Northern Ireland.
The Council noted that the proposed programme of work for 2014-15 is in the process of being reviewed and agreed. The Ministers also welcomed the intention of beginning shortly the waste repatriation at the first of those sites scheduled in the programme. Ministers also noted that Dublin City Council has established a framework agreement for the disposal of repatriated waste and continues to progress the public procurement process for the haulage of excavated waste to authorised disposal facilities. Ministers reaffirmed their commitment to continue to target resources on joint enforcement action against illegal operators and called on relevant Departments to engage on tackling this issue.
The Council noted that coordination is continuing between both jurisdictions in relation to preparations for the second-cycle river basin management plans under the EU water framework directive. The Council welcomed the publication in Northern Ireland of the consultation on significant water management issues.
Ministers welcomed the provision of funding by both jurisdictions for the cross-border pilot project for the management of invasive flora and fauna on the River Blackwater in Northern Ireland and continued cooperation on beach awards and beach care schemes such as Blue Flag and the Coca-Cola Coast Care scheme run by An Taisce and Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful. The Council also welcomed the commencement of discussions on common approaches to the implementation of the marine strategy framework directive.
Ministers noted that tenders for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) research project into the environmental impacts of unconventional gas exploration and extraction are being evaluated. The Council noted that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency’s (NIEA) second state of the environment report was published in December 2013. Ministers welcomed the publication of the EPA’s 'Who's Who' of environmental research expertise in Ireland, which will assist collaboration by environmental researchers from the island of Ireland in Europe-wide research projects.
Ministers also noted that the EPA’s research strategy for 2014-2020 will be published by the end of June 2014 and that, consequent to the enactment of the Industrial Development (Science Foundation Ireland) (Amendment) Act 2013, Science Foundation Ireland may now fund environmental research on an all-island basis.
The Council agreed to hold the next environment meeting in November 2014.
I thank the Minister for his statement. I am sure the Minister is aware that the Committee carried out an inquiry into used tyre disposal a couple of years ago. One of the recommendations in the report was:
"Northern Ireland should liaise with the Republic of Ireland when considering a suitable mechanism for dealing with used tyres. A strict producer responsibility scheme would be counterproductive unless introduced in both jurisdictions".
Will the Minister elaborate on what sort of used tyre scheme they are developing in Ireland and how it might impact on Northern Ireland? Will we work together to have a complementary scheme?
I thank the Chairperson, Ms Lo, for her question. I have held bilateral discussions with Minister Hogan on the subject. His Department is developing detailed proposals to replace the current tyre schemes in the South with a full producer responsibility scheme. Minister Hogan has invited officials from my Department to join a working group established by his Department to develop those proposals. I have only too willingly accepted that invitation and feel pretty sure that that collaboration will help to ensure a joined-up approach on the issue right across the island.
Whatever tyre scheme is eventually implemented in the South, it will be important that it is compatible with existing and future arrangements for the management of used tyres here to avoid negative consequences North or South. With that in mind, my officials and I will consider the detailed proposals emerging from the South, with a view to tabling proposals for a complementary UK-wide scheme for agreement with colleagues in England, Scotland and Wales. It will be necessary to reach that type of agreement if such a scheme is to be introduced effectively in the North.
I thank the Minister for his statement, not least because, had it been his predecessor, he would only be about halfway through the statement by now. The subject of the cross-border movement of waste comes up again and again at North/South meetings on environmental issues. That is particularly the case with the sites where waste has been illegally dumped, and there seems to be consistent promises of actions. Will the Minister put some meat on the bones? The statement refers to:
"the intention of beginning shortly the waste repatriation at the first of these sites scheduled in the programme."
When specifically are we due to see the first removal and repatriation of waste? By what stage do we hope to have the waste removal from those sites completed?
I thank Mr Weir for that question. I am pretty sure that he is aware of the commitment in the road map agreement with our counterparts in the Republic of Ireland to undertake the repatriation of waste. In total, 17 sites were identified, with an estimated total of 273,000 tons of waste to be removed.
I welcome the level of cooperation that has existed between the two Departments and competent authorities since the signing of the framework agreement. A total of nine sites have been completed since repatriation began in 2010, giving a total of 76,000 tons of waste to date. It is extremely important that the remaining sites, some of which contain the larger amounts and quantities of waste, are repatriated in a timely manner to minimise potential environmental harm or damage.
This year's work programme is still being finalised, but I expect that the removal of waste from three — hopefully, four — sites will be done this year. I expect work on the first site to start by the end of this month. It may have already started, and I will come back to the Member on that.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabhail leis an Aire as ucht a fhreagra go dtí an pointe seo agus as ucht a ráitis fosta. I want to ask the Minister about the planning aspects of wind energy policy and the possible future focus on that in the North/South Ministerial Council. Does the Minister see any merit in a single island approach to wind energy policy? I think specifically of setback and separation distances of wind infrastructure from residents.
Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabhail leis an Uasal McElduff as an cheist. I thank Mr McElduff for that question. The issue of wind energy has become more and more controversial in the North. That is not exclusive to the North; it is being experienced similarly in the Republic of Ireland. We share a land border, and there are often proposals for wind turbines or wind farms along the border that have as much impact on those living in the North as on those living in the South and vice versa. Therefore, I certainly see some merit in Mr McElduff's suggestion. I have had informal discussions about it with my officials, and I have had an informal chat with Minister Hogan. I see merit in it and shall pursue it.
I thank Mr Eastwood for that question. Whilst Ministers and officials engage bilaterally in mitigation and adaptation with colleagues in the South, a more formal arrangement through the NSMC would ensure wider engagement on relevant interests to everyone's benefit. There are many areas of climate change where increased and enhanced cooperation within the NSMC structure would be beneficial. For example, following the recent extreme weather events right across this island and, indeed, beyond, which resulted in severe flooding, it would be mutually beneficial to learn lessons and cooperate where appropriate on this environmental, economic and social problem. The jurisdictions also have a common goal to ensure that greenhouse gas emissions are minimised and to support the development of a low-carbon economy. It has been the practice that Ministers on both sides of the border have met bilaterally to discuss common issues, including climate change, and it is also the case that climate change has been an issue of huge interest within the British-Irish Council structure, and I know that there was a statement on that earlier. Officials have been working on climate change mitigation and adaptation. They keep each other briefed on policy developments and participate jointly in conferences and other events. A lot of cooperation is ongoing that, I believe, could and should be enhanced, and it will be.
I thank the Minister for his statement. Obviously, he will be aware of the importance or non-importance attached to fracking in County Fermanagh and other areas of Northern Ireland. The Minister's statement notes that tenders for the Environmental Protection Agency's research project will be initiated. What input will the Department of the Environment or any other Department of the Northern Ireland Executive have into that report and research?
I thank the Member for that question. I think that he might have beaten Mr Flanagan to the punch on that one. Fracking is a hugely important and controversial issue in Fermanagh especially but also right across the North and, indeed, the world. Therefore, it is vital that we carry out as much research as possible into the potential dangers and risks associated with it. That is why I have been keen for my Department to work with the EPA on this research programme.
NIEA had initially committed to co-funding the all-Ireland research programme with £50,000 in 2014-15 and the same amount the following year. The earlier answers that I gave in the Assembly were based on these figures. However, given the increased attention that the issue is attracting in the Chamber and throughout Ireland and the UK, the agency wished to ensure that maximum value was realised from the research programme. We, therefore, believed that a more significant contribution was required to put the agency on a more equal footing with the other two funding partners, which have committed €500,000 each. So we are on a more equal footing but still nowhere near an equal footing. My Department will contribute £100,000 in this financial year and £100,000 in the next financial year.
I thank the Minister for his statement to the House. On the cross-border movement of waste, I particularly welcome the commitment to continue to target resources at joint enforcement action against illegal operators. Why does the Department ignore offences committed in the Republic when considering waste licence applications from firms in Northern Ireland that have been engaged in illegal dumping activities?
I thank Mrs Cameron for her question. Some would say that the Department also ignores offences committed in the North when dealing with applications for licences here. More work needs to be done on identifying who is a fit and proper person to have a waste licence. That will involve increased and enhanced cooperation with our neighbours in the South as we share a land border.
People commit crimes on both sides of the border. It is something that I certainly will want to look at, and I will want to look at the procedures and processes that the Department or the agency use when assessing applications and to have a complete overhaul of that system, which, at times, seems over-cumbersome for good and legitimate operators, yet huge gaps remain in it that can be exploited by opportunistic criminals.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. Buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. The Minister raised the issue of UGEE. Obviously, some technocrat somewhere has taken issue with the use of the word "fracking", but I think that we should continue to call it fracking and should not hide behind any smokescreen of whatever UGEE is supposed to be.
Will the Minister indicate to the House why, despite the fact that, as he has acknowledged himself in a written answer to me, a significant number of the 1,356 respondents to the public consultation on the research programme indicted that they wanted to see a health impact assessment carried out, that is not being included as part of the work? Both Governments are now spending nearly €1 million on it. It will be a waste of money if it is not done right. Will the Minister explain to the House why it has not been included and whether there is any chance that he could change his mind and actually put it in?
I thank Mr Flanagan for that question. The research that has been commissioned into fracking and its potential harmful and ill effects is not and will not be exhaustive. In March, I visited the EPA in Washington to have a look at the research that it has carried out over a number of years at a cost of some $20 million, and that, in itself, is, as yet, far from conclusive. I can tell the Member and those who called for a health assessment to be part of this study that any planning application that comes forward for anything associated with fracking will be subject to a full health assessment.
I note the Minister's answers to the last two questions about fracking. It seems to me that the debate on fracking has not yet reached the point where people can make full decisions. Will the Minister give a sense of where we are at with that debate, North and South and within the context of the North/South Ministerial Council?
I thank the Member for that question. I reiterate to the Member my decision on fracking, which is that, in the absence of sound evidence that fracking is safe, is not harmful to the environment and is not harmful to human health, no application for fracking will be passed. In my opinion and that of the Member, and any Member who has raised the subject of fracking here, that evidence does not currently exist. Given what I learned from my visit to the EPA in Washington, it is unlikely to exist in the foreseeable future.
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Dallat] in the Chair)
I thank the Minister for his report. Minister, you refer to the environment, air pollution and smoky coal. It is my experience that there are smoke control zones and, therefore, people there should not be using smoky coals. What are your views on the burning of other hydrocarbons, such as lignite and, indeed, peat?
I thank Mr Cree for that question. Air pollution from residential combustion of solid fuels is of significant concern to both jurisdictions. The Northern Ireland levels of certain carcinogenic air pollutants known to be produced, particularly by burning smoky coal, can reach and sometimes exceed EU target levels. However, as the Member quite rightly pointed out, it is not only smoky coal that causes damage to our environment and our health. Therefore, when the levels for what is "smoky" coal are set, as they have been in the Republic and will potentially be here in the future, they encompass other fuels as well, believe it or not. In the Republic, peat falls under the level, so it is deemed non-smoky. The levels that are proposed or which will be set here for the purposes of this study are much lower than those in the Republic, so, in this jurisdiction, peat would be above the level and would therefore be classified as a smoky fuel.
I think that the Minister identified 17 illegal dumping sites, of which nine have been cleansed and eight remain. If my calculations are right, that leaves 197,000 tons to be removed. Will the Minister tell us how many prosecutions are pending for the nine sites that have been cleansed?
I thank the Member for his question. In my answer to Mr Weir, I outlined the extent of work that was still to be done in the repatriation of waste. I do not have at hand the information on the number of prosecutions associated with sites that have been cleansed. However, I will certainly get back to the Member on that in writing.
First, I am surprised at the way in which the Minister has ruled out any permission for fracking applications before he has even heard them or his Department has considered them.
To follow up on Lord Morrow's question about illegal dumping sites where waste from the Republic was dumped in Northern Ireland: this is an issue that was first raised when I was Environment Minister. At that stage, the Irish Republic agreed that it would cover the cost of clearing those sites, since the rubbish had come from the Republic. Given the passage of time and the way in which the costs are likely to have escalated, has his Department any figures on what the cost of clearing the rest of the sites will be? Secondly, if the cost has gone up, has it been discussed with Ministers from the Republic how that additional cost will be dealt with by the Exchequer in the Republic and not fall to the public purse in Northern Ireland?
I thank Mr Wilson for his question. I am not sure whether he heard my earlier answers because I am pretty sure that I did not rule out permission for any applications for fracking. I ruled out any permission for fracking, or anything associated with it, in the absence of evidence that it is safe and sustainable. As yet, that evidence does not exist.
On Mr Wilson's question about the repatriation of waste and the cost of doing that: the cost will still lie with the Republic of Ireland, which accepts sole responsibility for it. As Mr Wilson quite rightly pointed out, the cost has gone up. Therefore, the programme has undoubtedly slowed down as a consequence. I do not have the exact cost here, although I can get it to the Member later this afternoon. However, conversations are ongoing between the DOE and Minister Hogan's Department on this issue. We are looking at the possible use of sites in the North for this waste, maybe to cut down on fuel costs and so forth.