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People power V Fianna Fail.

Western People (Ireland)
Feb. 8, 2005

The struggle against dirty industries in North Mayo has begun in earnest. But can people power win? Tom Hanahoe investigates.

Following last October’s ruling by An Bord Pleanála in favour of a gas terminal at Bellanaboy, some disgruntled locals claimed that they had been brought face-to-face with corruption throughout the planning appeals process. If true, the unspecified and unsubstantiated allegations suggest that there is a cancer gnawing away at the democratic process in Ireland, whereby ‘big money’, especially the corporate sector, can overwhelm the wishes and needs of the ordinary people, with the planning process functioning almost as a rubber stamp for the interests of moneyed elites.

 For communities throughout north Mayo, faced with the prospect of their region being transformed into a dumping ground for dirty industries – which, to date, include the Bellanaboy gas terminal, a foul-smelling plant at Geesala to convert sewage into fertilizer and a proposed asbestos conversion plant outside Killala – such allegations fuel existing public skepticism about the impartiality, probity, accountability and independence of the planning process.

So what is the reality? Is public skepticism warranted or, on the other hand, should communities accept the assurances of the companies, of government departments and of state agencies that such industries pose no dangers to human or animal health or to the environment? Are suspicions that the state’s planning and environmental authorities show undue deference to, even collusion with, the corporate sector completely spurious? A few case studies of individual state-supported polluting industries is revealing, and disturbing, providing few grounds for public optimism in north Mayo.

An analysis of the planning process in recent decades shows that, time after time, communities opposed to polluting manufacturing industries, toxic incinerators, quarries, mobile phone masts, radio and television booster masts, high-voltage power lines, sewage treatment plants, mining operations and toxic waste dumps have, almost invariably, been faced with a daunting united front of state agencies and business interests.

Even worse, an analysis shows that state agencies and county councils have at times misled the public, even to the extent of falsely reassuring residents and workers regarding the safety of plants. One of the most controversial planning applications ever lodged was submitted in the 1970s by an American corporation, Raybestos Manhattan, to locate an asbestos-using plant in County Cork. This sparked arguably the most bitter anti-corporate and anti-toxic campaign ever mounted in Ireland. Two state agencies, the Industrial Development Authority (IDA) – which invited Raybestos to set up in Ireland – and the Institute for Industrial Research and Standards (IIRS) and also Cork County Council gave assurances that the factory would be safe and not represent a health hazard. The Chief Environmental Officer for County Cork emphasized that the company’s record was "excellent as far as the county council is concerned".

The head of the IDA, Michael Killeen, denounced the vociferous opposition as "unreasonable", because assurances on the safety of the plant had been given by a "world renowned expert". In their 1990 book Guests of the Nation: People of Ireland versus the Multinationals, Robert Allen and Tara Jones reported on how the IDA brought an "expert", Professor John Corbett McDonald, to Cork to reassure the residents about the plant’s safety. However, according to Charles Levinson, General Secretary of the International Federation of Chemical and General Workers’ Unions, McDonald had "a long history as a lobbyist for the asbestos industry. Bona-fide occupational health scientists in North America consider him an industry spokesman".

A local community spokesman in Cork concurred, arguing that "it is difficult to understand the IDA’s reliance upon the opinions of Professor McDonald, when it is known that he derives a large share of his research funds from the asbestos industry itself." The reassurances by the IDA, the IIRS, the county council and also by purportedly independent experts such as McDonald proved to be hollow, as Raybestos employees soon discovered. One Raybestos worker in Cork told Robert Allen that "safety is a joke … some men don’t have dust-proof overalls … there is so much dust around the grinding machines … there is a fellow going around with a bottle of water. That is supposed to be the sprinkler system for wetting down the dust. The dust is diabolical … the temperature at the presses is around 150 degrees … you just couldn’t wear a mask there."

 A workers’ spokesman told of a spillage at the plant, which caused asbestos dust pollution so thick it could be seen in the air. Asbestos pollution also occurred at a waste dump in Barnahely at Ringaskiddy, Co. Cork, where An Bord Pleanála had granted Raybestos planning permission to dispose of asbestos waste. The patently inaccurate assurances by company spokesmen and, particularly, by state planning and environmental agencies that the Raybestos plant would not be detrimental to the health of workers and residents will hardly be lost on the people of Killala, who also face having an asbestos-using plant imposed on them. Killala’s farmers may have particular cause for concern, given the crises experienced by farmers in other corporate-targeted areas.

In recent days, farmers around the Aughinish Alumina plant in Limerick have estimated that over the past decade around 1,500 of their animals have, unaccountably, died. Some cattle became horrifically emaciated or developed raw wounds. The company denied responsibility for the deaths and ill-health. An investigation by a state agency, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), found no link between local industries and the animal deaths and human and animal ill-health in the region, stating that the problems may have been caused by farmers’ mismanagement.

It is a story that has worrying similarities with the experiences of farmers elsewhere. In July, 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of a Tipperary farming family, the Hanrahans, and against an American-owned company, Merck Sharp and Dohme, which operated a bulk chemical factory beside the family’s farm at Ballydine. By then the Hanrahans had buried over 200 animals on their farm – killed, according to the family, by toxic factory emissions. During the years prior to the court ruling, there had been a plethora of other animal health problems in the area, including miscarriages, deformed foetuses, weeping eyes, coughing, reduced milk output, wasting diseases, skin sores and also cattle stampeding or otherwise visibly distressed or reluctant to eat grass. Local residents complained of tiredness, a burning sensation in their throats and chests, reddening of the skin and streaming eyes. Metal fixtures, tractors and cars became corroded. Merck disclaimed all responsibility for the problems. In ruling in favour of the family, Justice Henchy argued that the most credible explanation offered for the ailments and abnormalities in the cattle was the toxic emissions from the factory and that John Hanrahan was "entitled to damages for the injurious effect on his health of the factory emissions".

John’s health and that of other family members had also been damaged by the enormous stress they suffered in legally challenging the corporate Goliath. Earlier, in mid-1985, the High Court had ruled against the Hanrahans, leaving the family with legal costs estimated at around £1 million. Facing a bleak future of dispossession and impoverishment, they had appealed to the Supreme Court in a final desperate throw of the dice. What was extraordinary about this planning and health debacle was the role played by state agencies.

 Merck had been invited to set up its Ballydine plant by the IDA. Another state agency, the IIRS, responsible for checking the company’s credentials as regards pollution, submitted a favourable environmental impact assessment. Merck’s eco-friendly image was also promoted by a spokesman for the IIRS who opined that the company "would operate a clean plant without detriment to any local activity". When animals began to fall ill, Merck claimed that the problems were caused by farm mismanagement, not by factory emissions. Oddly, or perhaps not, the company’s assertions were backed by state agencies and local authorities. Eventually, as animal health deteriorated further in the area, three state agencies – the IIRS, An Foras Forbartha and An Foras Taluntais – initiated investigations into the causative factors. Like the EPA at the Aughinish plant, they failed to establish any direct connection between Merck’s emissions and the health problems.

 Locals suspected a cover-up. The Hanrahans’ success, accomplished against enormous odds and at huge expense in terms of their own health and financial security, represented a rare public victory against polluting companies and against their allies in state agencies, government departments and local authorities. Around the same time, a community in neighbouring Cork also emerged victorious in a struggle with another US corporate giant. Plans announced in 1988 by the pharmaceutical company Merrell Dow, the IDA and Eolas (successor to the IIRS) to construct a plant near Youghal were frustrated by the unified opposition of the local community, who were alarmed at the company’s appalling pollution and human rights record.

 In 1966 its parent, Dow Chemical, had been the target of one of the largest public protests ever mounted in the US against an American company, because of its role in the manufacture of napalm, used to incinerate or hideously maim tens of thousands of non-combatants during the Vietnam War. Dow also manufactured Agent Orange, which was sprayed over huge swaths of Vietnam’s countryside, permanently poisoning the land and local rivers with the toxic defoliant and leaving once-forested regions virtually infertile. Dow’s defoliant left a horrific legacy of hundreds of thousands of miscarriages and grotesquely malformed still-born foetuses and babies born with spina bifida, liver problems, immune system disorders, cerebral palsy, cancers, mental retardation and other severe physical and mental handicaps.

Why should the IDA court a company with such disdain for human life and the environment to set up in Ireland? Its wooing of such a company, in the eyes of many, shredded public confidence in the agency. Other corporate polluters have been similarly facilitated by state organs. This has been especially true in the mining sector, which has bequeathed several toxic tailings ponds to the nation – notably at Tynagh, Co. Galway and Silvermines and Gortdrum, Co. Tipperary – resulting, for instance, in lead and arsenic dust blowing on to the surrounding countryside at Tynagh, causing, according to local farmers, the death of cattle, sheep and horses.

Given the immensity of the power and influence wielded by business interests within government and over state agencies, is it even remotely possible that the people of north Mayo can achieve a victory against Irish Environmental Processes (IEP), the company that intends to open an asbestos recycling facility in Killala, and over other planned projects which, people fear, will make their outstandingly beautiful region a dumping ground for polluting industries? Worryingly, given the degree of perceived government deference and docility to business interests in the past, many believe that the outcome of IEP’s planning application for a plant in Killala is, already, a foregone conclusion, a fait accompli. Many are now losing faith in the democratic process, in government politicians and in the state’s planning and environmental agencies, such as An Bord Pleanála and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The perception that such agencies are intended to function as obsequious servants of individual ministers was reinforced in December, 1982, just before the Fianna Fail government lost power, when Environment Minister Ray Burke appointed a number of people – some with no experience or connection with planning matters – to An Bord Pleanála. The appointees included his own constituency adviser Tony Lambert and architect John Keenan, who had designed Burke’s luxury home, and who worked for controversial builders Brennan and McGowan. As a member of Dublin County Council, Burke had been to the fore in rezoning land for the company and had received a "planning" payment of £15,000 from them, a very significant sum at that time. The ostensible raison d’etre for An Bord Pleanála was, ironically, to remove planning matters from the political arena. The EPA is also supposed to be independent of political control over its decisions. However, numerous pro-corporate decisions by the EPA and also corporate-connected appointments to the agency’s board have diminished public confidence in the agency. The July, 2004, appointment of Laura Burke as a director to the EPA by Martin Cullen – then Minister for the Environment – was condemned by other political parties as utterly compromising the position of the EPA as a body seen by the public as being independent and impartial. Immediately prior to being recruited by the EPA, she had worked with Indaver Ireland, a company that was seeking the imprimatur of both An Bord Pleanála and the EPA to construct a domestic waste incinerator at Carranstown, County Meath, and a toxic waste incinerator at Ringaskiddy in Cork. Indaver’s project manager for both proposed incinerators had been Ms Burke. Two years earlier, a new director general, Dr Mary Kelly, had been appointed to head the EPA. She had been assistant director of IBEC, which describes itself as "the national voice of Irish business and employers". The two appointments gave considerable cause for public concern – despite the undoubted professional integrity of both appointees. Faced with the immense combined power of business interests and their perceived allies in government and in state agencies, low-population communities, such as those in north Mayo, would appear to be easy pushovers in any planning tussle with corporate developers. Their weakness and vulnerability is especially apparent when one realises that An Bord Pleanála and the EPA, as state agencies, must implement government policies. Their decisions reflect the wishes and whims of the Environment Minister – who has responsibility for both agencies – rather than the demands of the local communities. To date, the current Environment Minister, Dick Roche, has given no reason for hope to the people of north Mayo that the former Asahi site will not become the location for a national asbestos conversion plant When communities find that their voices are being ignored, when they lose faith in their, purportedly, democratic system and leaders and when they are confronted by, what they believe to be, a hostile, unaccountable and secretive pro-corporate state bureaucracy, the reactions of local communities become unpredictable. Some become apathetic and quiescent, believing that opposition is futile. In Killala, however, the prospect of an asbestos plant being imposed on the town, has generated an unprecedented level of anger and unity among the people. They fear that such a plant would not only ruin any prospect their area has of realising its full potential as a tourist destination but would provide a toehold for an inflow of further dirty industries and lead to the closure of some of the existing factories. If government politicians do not listen to them, and ignore their concerns, political disaffection is likely. A poster in the first mass street protest in Killala warned that "We may be remote – But we still vote." It is a warning that the government parties can hardly ignore, given the precarious nature of their current support in the county. In the local elections of mid-2004, Fianna Fail had it worst national result in seventy years, experiencing dismal results in north Mayo. With Fianna Fail currently holding just one out of five Dáil seats in the Mayo constituency and with reports of a virtual ‘civil war’ within the party in Castlebar, the omens are not good for the party if it further alienates the Mayo public before the next general election, scheduled to take place before mid-2007. The scale of the protests in north Mayo, particularly in the Killala area, suggest that voters are serving notice on politicians that their voices must, and will be, heard.

Tom Hanahoe is a former Irish Press journalist and author of the book America Rules, an in-depth analysis of the global power of Corporate USA. He lives in Killala.