Seanad Éireann - Volume 117 - 11 November, 1987

Adjournment Matter: Lough Sheelin Pollution.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach: On the Adjournment I have received notice from Senator D. Cassidy that he proposes to raise the following matter: the need for the Government to restore Lough Sheelin lake to its former pollution-free state.

Mr. Cassidy: Lough Sheelin is a lake of 4,600 acres bordered by the counties of Cavan, Meath and Westmeath. Three quarters of the lake and its catchment are within the administrative county of Cavan. It was renowned internationally as a brown trout fishery, offering trout of very high average weight to keen fly anglers. It was fished by a large number of overseas anglers, particularly those from Great Britain, Germany, France and [1423] most of the rest of the Continent. Its renown as such a fishery led to the establishment of hotels and guesthouses in the vicinity to cater for the expanding tourist demand. The lake was noted for the quality of its dry fly fishing, and particularly for its mayfly fishing, which taxed the capacity of the hotels and guesthouses to cater for the number of anglers seeking to fish the lake. Subsidiary industries, such as boat building, repair and tackle supply, sprung up in the area to cater also for the anglers' needs.

In the late 1960s it became evident that the water quality of the lake was deteriorating and this deterioration became acute with the first severe algal bloom in 1971. Investigations at the time showed that the algal bloom, which turned the colour of the water a pea soup green, was due to excessive enrichment of the lake by nitrates and phosphates containing the effluents originating in the catchment. Further investigation revealed that the nitrates and phosphates were mainly emanating from the uncontrolled proliferation of intensive pig production units in the catchment area. Estimates at the time equated the annual output of slurry in the catchment with the sewerage output of a city with a population equivalent to that of Cork.

Despite continued investigation and discussion with the Government agencies no effective policy for remedial action was adopted. By 1972 the problem was already so acute that some of the main angling characteristics of the lake such as the mayfly and sedge fly patches had disappeared, destroyed by the algal blooms. Little happened by way of remedial action with the exception of an occasional prosecution taken by the fishery board whenever it was possible to gather sufficient evidence to sustain a prosecution. The water in the lake continued to deteriorate and by 1979 it had reached a crisis situation, which prompted the Inland Fisheries Trust, the forerunner to the Central Fisheries Board, to publish a report in the same year setting out vividly the future prospects for the lake as a game fishery. The [1424] report was entitled Nutrification of Lough Sheelina Critical Stage. It can be very briefly summed up in its final sentence: “The indications are that Lough Sheelin will also cease to be a viable trout fishery within a few years unless positive measures are introduced to halt the ingress of excessive nutrients in the lake.”

It is appropriate at this stage to explain the effects of the nutrification of the lake. Excessive nutrients cause a growth of algal, turning the lake water into a blue or green colour, later turning brown with a purification of the algae. The discolouration of the water shuts out the sunlight and prevents it from reaching normal plant life in the bed of the lake. As a result the plant life dies off as do the insects and fauna which live in and on the plants. These insects and other fauna are the main components of the food chain of the fish. It is the insects and other fauna which give the lake its reputation as a game angling centre. Losses of the fauna have resulted in a serious deterioration in angling and has resulted in a decrease of stocks of fish with evidence to suggest that at least two years' production of young fish have already died of starvation. The behaviour pattern of the remaining stock of fish has been altered in such a way that the attractiveness of the lake as a game angling centre has been seriously affected, if not irreversibly damaged.

This is also true of Lough Derravarragh, where the algal blooms have been spread downwards from Lough Sheelin and are likely to continue downstream to affect Lough Ree and Lough Derg, which are also on the Shannon system.

Consequent on the publication of the Inland Fisheries Trust Report, 1979, local interests made an appeal to the then Taoiseach, Deputy Charles J. Haughey, which resulted in the setting up of an interdepartmental committee to examine ways and means of dealing with the then estimated 35 million gallons of pig slurry being produced annually in the Sheelin catchment area. This was the first time that an effort was made to come to grips with the problem. The committee made [1425] three main recommendations in 1979: (1) the introduction of a transport subsidy scheme to remove excess slurry from the Sheelin catchment area; (2) co-ordinated efforts by the local authority, in consultation with the agricultural services, to effectively control the spreading of slurry in the catchment of the lake; and (3), increased monitoring of the lake conditions by the Inland Fisheries Trust now the Central Fisheries Board.

The Government accepted the recommendations of the committee in September 1980 and announced the introduction of a transport subsidy scheme and additional monitoring of the lake conditions. The transport subsidy scheme was an interim measure to enable the pig producers and the recipients of the excess slurry to come up with a scheme funded entirely by the producers themselves. That is very important nowadays, that the scheme must be funded entirely by the producers themselves when the initial period had finished.

The Department of Agriculture and Food, who must accept responsibility for the creation of the problems, supplied the services of an official to co-ordinate and record the movement of slurry from the catchment area. A management committee was set up under the auspices of the Department of Fisheries to manage and control the scheme. The resultant action taken during the ensuing four years while the scheme lasted had a dramatic effect on the quality of the water and on the flora and fauna of the lake. Whereas water visibility was down to one metre and all the vegetation on the lake bed had died off except for a narrow bank in a very shallow area, by 1984 the improved water quálity had resulted in the weed bed re-establishing itself to a depth of 12 feet. This showed without doubt that removal of the slurry from the catchment in a controlled manner had the desired effect on water quality.

The vegetation which had died off began to be re-established, the water became clear, visiting anglers reappeared and there was high hopes that the lake was returning to normal. Regrettably, at this time in 1984 a number of things [1426] happened which subsequently had a disastrous effect on the lake. The Government of the day, the Coalition, decided to terminate the transport subsidy scheme without replacing it with something concrete or effective. The services of the coordinator were curtailed, the Department of Fisheries opted out of their responsibility for the lake and handed over the task to the Department of the Environment.

This transfer of responsibility from the Department of Fisheries to the Department of the Environment is something which should not have been allowed to happen. It may have been administratively convenient but unless the Department with responsibility for inland fisheries is allowed whatever powers are necessary for the protection of these fisheries, it is my opinion that the outlook for our inland fisheries is extremely bleak indeed and the potential capacity of these fisheries to contribute substantially to our attractiveness as a tourist destination will be allowed to slip away from us.

Under the aegis of the Department of the Environment a new Sheelin slurry management committee was then established and chaired by Cavan County Council. Correspondence ensued between the various agencies concerned and the local people, and grave doubts were conveyed to the Government about the effectiveness of the new arrangement which was to be introduced. The Government's response to these representations was given in a written reply in the Dáil, Questions Nos. 578 and 588 on 13 December 1984 by the then Minister for the Environment, Deputy Kavanagh, and I quote:

I am satisfied that the orderly manner in which transitional arrangements leading to the transfer of responsibility to the pig producers have been implemented provides an ideal basis for the continued protection of the lake, given a co-operative and responsible approach by the producers.

Regrettably, I must now state that the new arrangements made at that time did [1427] not work. It is claimed by the producers that they are transporting a certain amount of slurry out of the catchment, but in the absence of a full-time co-ordinator it appears that there is no person in a position to say what amount of slurry is being removed and what is going out.

Recent reports from the Central Fisheries Board confirm that the lake is now as bad or worse than it was in 1979, and it is evident to me that the agencies concerned failed to maintain the progress made between 1980 and 1984. I believe that the Minister must now initiate an investigation into what went wrong from 1984 up to now. He must take whatever steps are necessary, even at this late stage, however unpalatable they may be to the various interests, to ensure that the terms of my motion here tonight are listened to.

The technical advice available to the Department of Fisheries, the Department of the Environment and indeed Cavan County Council indicated that if Sheelin was to be returned to normal, or at least to what it was in 1984, the following suggestions were made: (1) to remove 20 million gallons of slurry from the catchment area — that is 20 million gallons and it is not a misprint or an error of mine — (2) spreading of the remainder of the slurry produced must be confined to the period from April to September, inclusive, spreading during that period to be in accordance only with crop requirements and the soil moisture deficit. Other authorities — for example, An Foras Talúntais, ACOT, the Central Fisheries Board and many other eminent people — are unanimous in their view that slurry should not be spread during the period from 1 October to 31 March in any particular year. This technical advice is freely available to all, including the local authority, which has a statutory responsibility for the enforcement of the Water Pollution Act, 1977.

Despite the technical advice from these respected sources Cavan County Council have continued to allow the spreading of slurry during periods for which prohibition is recommended. I believe that [1428] the executive of Cavan County Council have failed to implement the provisions of the Water Pollution Act. I am aware of one occasion at least when notices served under section 12 of the Water Pollution Act, 1977, which were issued to a number of persons in the Sheelin catchment prohibiting spreading of slurry during the recommended periods of six months, were withdrawn and subsequently re-issued but covering a shorter period of three months. The grant of planning permission for a new multipound extension to a meat plant within the catchment, without ensuring the provision of an adequate effluent treatment plant and thus causing further pollution shows scant concern for the well-being of Lough Sheelin.

Following investigations by the Central Fisheries Board this company has been prosecuted and convicted on four occasions for causing pollution in the Sheelin system. This is the type of action which makes what is said in this House and in the Dáil irrelevant and brings our pollution control provisions into disrepute. Our concern for places like Sellafield must now sound hollow when we do not take action in matters over which we have control. A well known and respected angling journal has commented adversely on the position and I will give an extract from their comment:

Judged by the number of readers who have written to me complaining about the pollution situation in Ireland, fewer English anglers will be travelling to these fishery places next season.

Someone in England sent a letter to a friend of mine in Castlepollard stating that he would not be bringing his 12 or 14 friends next year because this lake had deteriorated so badly. It was for that reason I put this motion down here because it was of such a serious nature.

The current situation is completely unacceptable. At a time when our Irish angling could be sold at a premium on world markets and when it is necessary to maximise the return from our natural resources, we are well on the way towards [1429] the destruction of this unique lake. I was pleased recently to hear the Minister express his concern at the level of water pollution now occurring but, in my opinion the Minister's sentiments are not being translated into action on the ground. If the Minister wants to follow through on his expressed intention of making the polluter pay, the mind boggles at the size of the claim he would be lodging with the polluters of Lough Sheelin. A once thriving tourist industry in the Sheelin area is now in disarray with guest houses closed, hotels virtually out of business and hundreds of unused boats tied up in their moorings. This is the reality of the situation today. I want to know what the Minister proposes to do. Various proposals aimed at coming to grips with the Sheelin problem have been made over the years most of which have been ignored. I should like to pay tribute to Deputy Haughey. Had the action he took in 1980 to 1984 been continued, we would not be standing here this evening talking about this pollution.

To summarise this lake was the best trout lake in Europe in the fifties and sixties. The biggest investment ever made by the Inland Fisheries Board was made on this lake to get rid of pike and to specialise solely in trout. The pig producers came into the area and this part of Ireland is now the biggest pig producing area in the EC. I am not against people who have investment in pigs. They are to be commended and in fairness they are all determined to play their part if they are given some sort of planned arrangement for the future. The mayfly has gone completely off the lake. The 1980-84 scheme, when it was initiated, was a tremendous success. They took it up to the rich lands of County Meath and it is of great value to the farmers of those areas who do not have this slurry. The position now is that Bord Fáilte have decided to take what 25 years ago was the best trout fishing lake in Ireland off the tourist map as a recommended place where tourists should fish. That speaks for itself. I thank you, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, for allowing me to put the motion here tonight and I thank the Minister for [1430] coming in to listen to the problems I had to put forward.

Minister for the Environment (Mr. Flynn): I would like to thank the Senator for his contribution and to assure him, and everyone else in the House, that I share the concern about the condition of Lough Sheelin. I am aware that the water quality in the lake has deteriorated recently. I am concerned about the implications of this for tourism and angling in the area.

The problem in the lake has historically been associated with the spreading of pig slurry and there is little doubt that this has been the major source of the nutrient load entering the lake and the adjoining streams. The introduction of a slurry transport scheme in the lake in the early eighties was initially subsidised by the State as an incentive to encourage responsible action by the pig producers. This scheme was later funded by the pig producers themselves and brought about a big improvement in the condition of the lake. The pig producers, by agreeing to serve on the Lough Sheelin management committee, showed a willingness to play their part in ensuring the survival of the lake as an important fishery and for some time it looked as if the lake would be fully restored to its previous healthy condition.

Unfortunately, recent wet summers resulted in a deterioration in the water quality from 1985 onwards. This deterioration has occurred notwithstanding co-operation by all concerned and adherence by most of the pig producers to the terms of notices served on them under section 12 of the Water Pollution Act, 1977, prohibiting slurry spreading over certain winter months. Officials of the Department and Roinn na Mara met with officials of Cavan County Council and members of the Sheelin management committee earlier this year to consider the situation. It was agreed that slurry management plans for each of the main pig producers in the Sheelin catchment area should be prepared with guidelines regarding spreading rates, timing of applications and suitability of land. With the assistance of an officer of the farm [1431] development service of the Department of Agriculture and Food slurry management plans for the major producers in the area have now been finalised.

These plans will form the basis of a major attempt to minimise the nutrient input into the lake. The plans quantify the situation in each holding, identify on maps the land suitable for slurry spreading and limit the amount of slurry which can be spread to 2,500 gallons per acre for grazing land per year and 2,000 gallons per acre per cut of silage. These application rates are subject to the phosphorus status of the soil being suitable for spreading. Farmers will keep an accurate log book of slurry transactions relating to their holdings and these will be available for inspection on request.

Cavan County Council have issued 44 notices under section 12 of the Water Pollution Act prohibiting the spreading of slurry during the months of November, December, January and February and restricting spreading during October and March to periods when ground and weather conditions are suitable for safe spreading. I have been advised that the council will rigidly enforce these notices and, where necessary, will prosecute for non-compliance as has been done in the past.

The extent of the problem and the difficulty in maintaining the water quality of the lake in a satisfactory condition, despite the efforts of the pig producers in the recent past, has resulted in other sources of nutrient inputs into the lake being re-examined. Cavan County Council have required an industrial plant, which discharges into one of the main streams feeding the lake, to install phosphorus removal equipment which will significantly improve the quality of the effluent discharged. The council recently met with cattle farmers in the area and pointed out the contributions that slurry from their activities is making to the nutrient load in the lake. They issued notices under section 12 to 135 cattle farmers in the Cavan area of the lake prohibiting land spreading of cattle slurry from November to mid- January as an [1432] additional measure to assist in the lake's recovery. Conscious of the need to be even-handed in all their dealings the council are presently examining the need for improvements at their own sewage treatment works at Ballyjamesduff as well as examining other possible sources of nutrient inputs into the lake. Unfortunately, it is not only the pig producers who are causing the trouble in Lough Sheelin.

I am confident that this co-ordinated attack on the sources of nutrient input into the lake will help restore the lake to its former glory. However, it would be remiss of me if I did not take this opportunity to inform the House briefly of the proposals the Government have to improve water pollution control generally. Following the large number of serious fish kills which took place this summer, a special Cabinet sub-committee chaired by myself and comprising the Ministers for the Marine, Agriculture and Food, Tourism and Transport and the Attorney General was established which recently completed its deliberations. The Government recently approved the committee's comprehensive and integrated programme of measures to combat water pollution particularly from agricultural activities. I will deal with some of those now.

County managers will be requested to organise task forces comprising local authorities fishery boards, farm development services and ACOT personnel to survey farms for the purpose of indentifying potential sources of water pollution. Initially the task force will identify priority areas for inspection taking account of rivers which have been affected by pollution, Bord Fáilte's brand marketing programme for fishery waters, other beneficial users of water and so on. All of the information already available to the farm and fishery agencies will be available to assist in identifying priorities and personnel drawn from the different agencies involved will carry out the inspections on the basis of a standard survey form. Appropriate follow-up action will be taken under the Water Pollution Act where pollution prevention [1433] measures are required, or under the Planning Acts in the case of unauthorised developments.

While the primary purpose of the surveys now proposed will be to detect potential sources of agricultural pollution the task forces established by local authorities will also be reporting on industrial activities where necessary. The Department of Agriculture and Food will arrange for the production of a new brochure containing advice, guidelines and standards for farmers on the collection, storage and disposal of animal slurries, silage effluent, milk parlour washings and other soiled water. The brochure will be distributed to all farmers by next spring.

The Department of Agriculture and Food, and in particular the local farm advisory services available through ACOT, will step up the emphasis on environmental awareness education issues relevant to farmers. Discussions will be held with farming organisations to impress upon them the need for information, education and other programmes directed at their members and designed to ensure compliance by farmers generally with proper standards and procedures. Education and enforcement: one without the other will not work.

Local authorities have already been encouraged by the Department to establish committees. Committees will be established in every county council area to co-ordinate the drive against pollution from agricultural activities. These committees are in place in many areas. They include representatives of fishery boards, angling clubs, farming sector, environmental groups and tourism interests. They seek to prevent pollution through greater awareness and co-operation. Those counties that have not got them will be directed by me to have them. Efforts to increase awareness of the risks of pollution generally will be pursued through the schools. If our young people do not understand the importance of the environment and are not educated to appreciate and preserve it, we are wasting our time starting anywhere else.

Regulations will be made to restrict further the scale of agricultural developments [1434] which can be undertaken without planning permission. I am going to change the rules about exempted developments. Apart from these measures, the Government have also approved the general scheme of the Water Pollution (Amendment) Bill, 1987. The main features of the legislation will be an increase in the maximum fine on summary conviction to £1,000, an increase from £250; and £500, an increase from £100, for every day on which the contravention is continued, the increases to apply both to the Water Pollution and the Fishery Acts, a new maximum penalty on conviction on indictment of £25,000, an increase from £5,000; and £5,000 from £500 for every day on which the contravention is continued and/or imprisonment for a period of up to five years. It was two up to this. The increases will apply to both Water Pollution and to the Fishery Acts which are being given the increased powers and penalties as well. An amendment to the good defence provision of the 1977 Act puts a greater onus on the person charged to prove that he could not reasonably have foreseen that his act or omission would cause pollution of waters. That has been one of the reasons put forward by local authorities for their inactivity in pursuing these matters up to court prosecutions. I am removing the good defence section 3 (3) of the existing Act.

There is a strengthening of the local authorities' power to serve notices regulating practices such as silage making and animal slurry spreading which, in their opinion pose a risk of water pollution. This will enable more effective control régimes to be implemented in areas such as the Lough Sheelin catchment and that new arrangement is particularly aimed at dealing with the situation that has been referred to by the good Senator Cassidy.

There will be an extension to any person of the right to apply to the courts for an order seeking the mitigation or remedying of the effects of a pollution incident. I am making explicit provision for remedial measures such as the replacement of fish stocks and the making good of consequential losses suffered by [1435] any person or body as a result of the pollution.

There will be a review by local authorities of effluent discharge licences at any time where there are reasonable grounds for believing that any of the beneficial uses of water are significantly threatened. A lot of the pollution in this country comes from excesses under the existing licences granted to allow effluent to be discharged into receiving waters. There will be a new provision allowing for registration by local authorities of specified agricultural operations, activities, practices or uses of premises in its functional area, or any part of it, which in the opinion of the authority constitute a risk to water pollution, with power to attach conditions and to prohibit or to require the discontinuance of a particular activity. There will be provision for appeals and for offences involving failure to register or to comply with any conditions set by the local authority. This provision will also be of special significance to an area such as Lough Sheelin.

Senators will see from this general outline programme that the Government are committed to the preservation of our waters as an amenity for all our people. It would be selfish and shortsighted of us to permit the continued pollution of our rivers and lakes. They are too precious to be taken for granted.

Senators: Hear, hear.

Mr. Flynn: One of our great assets when marketing this country abroad, both from the tourist perspective and from the viewpoint of selling our agricultural produce, is the image of a clean, unpolluted country. I believe there is very [1436] little deliberate polluting of our waters going on. A lot of it springs from ignorance of what is happening when effluent is allowed to run into a stream, lack of knowledge as to what the proper farming practice is, lack of understanding as to the damage that can result from pollution being allowed to run down into a stream. I am concerned that farming communities recognise the value of a clean environment because, inevitably and eventually, their own produce has to sell on an open market where it gets the best price when it can be established that it comes from a clean environment. They have a vested interest and from my discussions and consultations with the farming communities and the farming organisations they are absolutely committed to co-operate in everything I propose doing to deal with this matter over the next couple of years.

It will not be possible in the short term to eliminate all fish kills and pollution. Some of that pollution is created by industry, local authorities and farming activities. But we will make a start; and if we are determined and stick together and if the local authorities pursue this new legislative framework I am giving them to tackle this, then we can achieve the desirable results.

The programme myself and my colleagues in Government are now putting in train will ensure that this image of a clean, unpolluted environment will be maintained and indeed improved upon. I know that I have the unanimous backing of the House and the Dáil in all matters concerned with the improvement of the environment.

The Seanad adjourned at 8.55 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 12 November, 1987.