Dáil Éireann - Volume 303 - 08 February, 1978

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Zinc Smelter.

15. Dr. Browne asked the Minister for Industry, Commerce and Energy when the feasibility study regarding the establishment of an Irish smelter commenced; and when a final decision on this matter is likely to be reached.

16. Mr. Quinn asked the Minister for Industry, Commerce and Energy if he has received the report from the IDA and New Jersey Zinc on the establishment of a smelter; and, if so, when it is proposed to build a smelter in this country.

17. Dr. Browne asked the Minister for Industry, Commerce and Energy the reason for the long delay in the completion and publication of the feasibility study regarding the establishment of an Irish smelter; and when he anticipates that this report will become available.

Minister of State at the Department of Industry, Commerce and Energy (Mr. R Burke): With the permission of the Ceann Comhairle I propose to take Questions Nos. 15, 16 and 17 together.

The detailed feasibility study of the zinc smelter project commenced in April 1977. It was recently finalised by the New Jersey Zinc Company and the completed study was received by the IDA from the company on 1 February. Examination of the study by the IDA and subsequent consideration of the study and an IDA report thereon in my Department will then be necessary. The projected date for the commencement of production, not later than the end of 1981, remains unchanged.

I am informed that the study will contain certain data and information relating to marketing strategy and production costs, the publication of which would not be in the best interests of the smelter. However, when final decisions have been taken I will review the question of publication [838] with the other principals in the project.

Dr. Browne: Could the Minister give us an indication as to what the objectives of his Department are in relation to the amount of output from the Tara Mines in particular to be smelted in the proposed smelter? Would the Minister agree that the export of this raw material—enormous wealth from zinc and lead—is a particularly irresponsible way of exporting it rather than retaining it until we can smelt it ourselves and, when we get it, smelt the whole produce of the mine?

Mr. R. Burke: That sounds like a different matter and, if the Deputy would like to put down a separate question on that aspect of it, I will arrange for it to be answered. On the question of the export of the ore, obviously the Government's attitude is that we should have a smelter and that is why we asked for this feasibility study to be carried out.

Dr. Browne: I accept the correction. When the smelter is in full operation, what proportion do the Government expect to smelt? I have used a figure of one-third. Is that continuing, or will we smelt the whole produce of the mine?

Mr. R. Burke: I have not got that information.

Dr. Browne: I will put down a question.

Mr. M. O'Leary: The Minister referred to a report being prepared at departmental level and indicated that it was not yet completed. Presumably the entire enterprise depends on the quality and the conclusion of that report. Will the putative production date for the smelter possibly be delayed if there is a delay in the production of the report?

Mr. R. Burke: No. The date of 1981 remains unchanged. The delay is not in the Department. The report became available to the IDA on 1 February. It is being treated as a matter or urgency. For the information of the Deputy I hope, subject to [839] the views of the IDA board, that the project will be considered by the authority at their meeting in April, following which the IDA's views will be forwarded to the Department of Industry, Commerce and Energy.

Mr. B. Desmond: Why does the Minister regard it as proper that members of the board of the IDA, some of whom have private interests, should be privy to a feasibility study and that a private company, New Jersey Zinc, should be privy to marketing strategies, and so on, and that report cannot be placed before the Houses of the Oireachtas in the Dáil Library? Does he agree that strategy of the Government contrasts very strangely with their decision on the publication of agreements relating to Bula? Secrecy for one and publication for the other?

Mr. R. Burke: Undoubtedly the Deputy is aware those are not the facts of the situation. New Jersey Zinc have indicated that much of the report, especially the sections dealing with marketing, financial and economic evaluation, and process selection should be treated as strictly confidential because the information on these aspects would be valuable to commercial competitors of the smelter.

Mr. B. Desmond: Is the Minister aware that spokesmen for New Jersey Zinc have indicated publicly and in other areas certain internal strategies of that report? Why cannot his Department make available at this stage to the Oireachtas and to Opposition spokesmen the prospect of evaluating the different strategies in the report?

Mr. R. Burke: In my original reply I emphasised that, when the final decision has been taken, a review of the question of publication with the other principals in the project will be undertaken. It is not a closed door as yet. The whole question of publication will be reviewed in the light of the final decision.

Mr. Kelly: I want to ask the Minister two questions and I will join them together. Is it true, as reported, that the Minister's Department have received [840] a proposal from a Soviet source in regard to the building of this smelter? If it is true, or if the Minister envisages that a proposal of this kind might be officially received, would his Department consider trying any possible arrangement with a foreign source, whether the Soviets or anybody else, onto the kind of trade advantage, the kind of trade strings, which the Finns succeeded lately in tying onto a large contract with the British Aircraft Corporation to re-equip their air force?

Mr. R. Burke: The Russian proposal is a separate question but I have the information here and I can give it to the Deputy. There has been an exchange of letters between the Department and the USSR Embassy and a commercial consul here. The Minister has directed that the Russian proposals be examined and the IDA have been so informed. Obviously the Minister wishes to keep all possibilities in mind in considering the decision to be taken on the zinc smelter project and further possibilities of lead smelting also.

Mr. Kelly: Could I ask the Minister two quick questions? Could he tell the House who initiated the correspondence he referred to? Was it the Soviets who initiated it. or was it we who wrote to them? That is one question. I have another.

Mr. R. Burke: It arose out of a discussion between the Minister and the Russian Ambassador in December 1977. The question arose as to a possible Russian interest in an Irish zinc smelter project.

Mr. Kelly: Is the House to take it that the proposal came from the Russian side? Even in a conversation someone draws down a subject first.

Mr. R. Burke: I have not got that information.

An Ceann Comhairle: These are all separate questions.

Mr. Kelly: Would the Minister consider bringing Córas Tráchtála into the picture even at this stage to see if our very large unfavourable trade balance with the Soviets could be put right as a side benefit of this contract?

[841] Mr. R. Burke: I could not make a definite statement on that. Obviously it is Government policy if we have an unfavourable trade balance with any country to improve that situation. The Minister has expressed very strong views on this in the past.

Mr. Kelly: This would be the biggest contract ever awarded in this country, rivalling even the nuclear station.

Dr. Browne: I want to ask the Minister is it not a fact that, because his Government and the Coalition Government took no steps to put this priceless raw material into public owner-ship, they cannot now make any worth-while arrangements with the Canadians, the Americans, the British or the Russians? They are all equally to blame.

An Ceann Comhairle: That is a separate question.