HAZARDOUS chemicals removed by the army bomb disposal unit from a Shannon waste treatment plant could, if they had exploded, have caused major damage within a 1,000 metre radius, it has been claimed.
Industrial buildings and offices at Smithstown Industrial Estate, part of the town centre and a section of the N18 motorway would have been in the line of fire.
Clare County Council made the claim in a letter sent to the gardaí a few weeks prior to the December 1 joint army, garda and fire service exercise to dispose of materials from the Enva plant in Smithstown Industrial Estate.
The council claims that “hazardous materials”, which had been stored at Enva, were classified as “high risk” with a “potential blast and fragmentation radius of 1,000 metres”.
They included 36kg of Dinitrophenyl Hydrazine (DNPH) and 628kg of Cellulose Nitrate (CN), both of which are potentially explosive materials.
The council letter noted the gardaí had “previously requested that this matter be dealt with over two years ago and that while the Defence Forces were in a position to carry out this request, they had to await confirmation from the Department of Defence before they could do so”.
The Department of Defence has rejected the assertion there was not a two-year delay in sanctioning the disposal of this material. “As soon as the Department was made aware of this issue, the necessary arrangements were put in place with the Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána to ensure that plans were made for the safe disposal of the material,” said a Department of Defence spokeswoman.
Enva has admitted it sought the assistance of the relevant authorities to dispose of the materials in question and noted the EPA has full access to the facility’s inventory.
On its website, Enva states, “The safety and health of our employees and the public is of the highest priority within Enva. We achieve this by operating a comprehensive and effective safety management system. We have gained OHSAS 18001 certification for our activities in all facilities in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.”
The local authority letter highlights the risk to the “safety of fire personnel if called to deal with an incident at the Enva premises and the safety of the public and personnel working in and around Smithstown”.
These revelations have prompted calls for Environment Minister Phil Hogan to set up an independent inquiry into the circumstances leading up to and during the removal of these highly dangerous substances.
The DNPH and CN materials were brought on site between 1998 and 2003, prior to the facility coming under Enva’s control. DNPH is a common laboratory reagent that is considered as potentially explosive, unless maintained in a mixture with water to about 30% (v/w). CN is described as a flammable compound that forms the main ingredient for modern gunpowder and is also used in the manufacture of certain types of lacquers and paints.
The EPA stated that in 2012, it approved a request from Enva to seek the assistance of the army to dispose of materials that could not be disposed of by conventional means.
The agency has explained these materials were deemed to be unsuitable for international transport and disposal through normal waste disposal routes, due to the nature of the materials, and were also unsuitable for significant handling by personnel for safety, health and welfare considerations.
According to the EPA licence, waste material should not be retained on site longer than six months without the agreement of the agency, which highlighted the urgency to dispose of it quickly. During the holding period, the EPA noted these materials were stored in safe and secure compartments.
The EPA understands that the nature and quantities of chemicals removed were discussed at meetings involving the army, gardaí, Clare Fire Service and Enva, where the exercise was planned and risk assessments were completed.
Enva held a quantity of DNPH that was brought onto the facility by the previous owner between 1998 and 2001, as well as a quantity of CN that originated from a commercial enterprise around the early 2000s.
The company considered the age and condition of the items was uncertain and decided to manage it in a low-risk manner.
Superintendent Derek Smart said gardaí put all the necessary procedures in place for the safe disposal of material from Enva, following consultation with the army bomb disposal unit, who decided an evacuation of nearby premises wasn’t necessary.
He pointed out the description of the potential blast and fragmentation radius was the worst-case scenario if an explosion took place, which didn’t happen, as the materials were transported without any incident to Bunratty for disposal.
Councillor Patricia McCarthy said Minister Hogan should appoint an independent person to conduct an investigation, as she has lost faith in the EPA. Councillor Pat McMahon said an independent investigation is necessary to lift the veil of secrecy and establish the full facts in an effort to restore public confidence.
Councillor Sean McLoughlin has also called for an independent investigation into all IPPC licences held by the EPA by an independent body.
However, Councillor Gerry Flynn said councillors should wait until all avenues, including receiving information requested from Minister Hogan and the Department of Defence, are exhausted before any decision is taken on whether an inquiry is needed. He said Shannon Town Council, in keeping with one of its reserved functions, should have approved the disposal exercise.
At a county council meeting on Monday, one of the main issues that emerged was why a major evacuation plan was not implemented for those who may have been working in adjoining premises.
It was outlined that chief fire officer, Adrian Kelly, became aware of this issue on October 25 and brought it to the attention of the county manager on November 4, following discussion with the gardaí.
County manager Tom Coughlan told the meeting the council had no role in approving the disposal of these materials and confirmed he wrote to the Health and Safety Authority and the gardaí expressing concern about what was being stored in Enva on November 5 last.
Speaking to The Clare Champion, Senator Tony Mulcahy has supported calls for the establishment of an independent inquiry into the recent “covert operation” to fully restore public confidence that a major incident would not occur in the town. He said he doesn’t trust the EPA and the current self-monitoring regime for companies with IPPC licences.