County council meets to discuss Whitestown High Court ruling
COUNCILLORS ASK QUESTIONS ABOUT THE RAMIFICATIONS FOR WICKLOW COUNTY COUNCIL FINANCES FOLLOWING RULING, WRITES MYLES BUCHANAN
COUNCILLORS met at a special meeting of Wicklow County Council on Monday to discuss a recent High Court Case which could leave the local authority with a massive bill over the clean-up of an illegal dump at Whitestown, near Baltinglass.
Cathaoirleach Edward Timmins called the meeting but Councillors were informed that an independent legal opinion from Senior Counsel Martin Hayden advised that the judgement could only be discussed in a general way and the elected members ‘should not embark upon and direct enquiries into specifics.’
Brownfield Restoration Ireland Ltd, the current owners of the site, have intimated an intention to appeal some of Mr Justice Richard Humphreys decisions.
The case involves the largest illegal dump in the history of the state. Estimates of the amount of waste dumped illegally at the site vary from 288,600 tonnes to 1.4 million tonnes. The council has estimated that a further million tonnes of soil at the site have been contaminated as a result.
Mr Justice Richard Humphreys in his ruling said that a partial remediation of the site carried out by the council had been ‘ botched.’
The council has been ordered to clear the site of all illegal waste and any contaminated soil. The Council has been given 78 months to remove the waste.
Six months after the site has been cleared, it must be returned to Brownfield Restoration Ireland Ltd, who didn’t create or operate the dump.
Cllr Christopher Fox questioned the involvement of the EPA and the Department of Environment in the process.
‘ There was obviously a tech- nical working group involved with the remediation. Who were the members? I would have thought all aspects of the remediation works were passed by the EPA and the Department. If other authorities were involved, other than Wicklow County Council, then they have to be held responsible as well if the remediation wasn’t up to standard.’
Cllr Tom Fortune stated that Wicklow County Council had been notified of illegal dumping at Whitestown by Cllr Tommy Cullen back in 1997. Yet no follow up took place until November, 2001.
‘ This massive bill could have been avoided if Cllr Cullen had been allowed his democratic right to raise the matter,’ said Cllr Fortune.
He felt the High Court ruling could have major repercussions for Wicklow County Council’s finances and the services the local authority provides.
‘ This council has been found guilty of illegal dumping, a serious offence for which people can be imprisoned. The only way forward is a full garda inquiry. The Council Executive should be placed on gardening leave to allow this examination take place. This is the greatest disgrace to ever happen in this county. The people associated should be asked to go on gardening leave,’ said Cllr Fortune.
However, when Cllr Fortune began to reference court affidavits, the Council Chief Executive Bryan Doyle interrupted to say that such matters could not be discussed because of the possibility of an appeal from Brownfield Restoration Ireland Ltd.
Jennifer Whitmore described the case as ‘very complicated’ and had questions over how the council went about the remediation process.
‘Initially all the waste was to be removed. Then when a decision was made that Wicklow County Council would be responsible for the remediation, it went from a complete remediation to a spot remediation. I don’t think Wicklow County Council on their own were responsible for the failed remediation. The EPA were on the working group. Why was the decision made to downgrade from a full remediation to a spot remediation?’ she asked.
Cllr Nicola Lawless said recent events have left the public with a very unfavourable opinion of Wicklow County Council.
‘ The council seems to be in the papers every other week over very high profile court cases. Recently we have had Whitestown, Barry Nevin and Cllr Tommy Cullen, Deirdre de Burca and Deputy John Brady, all at great cost to the taxpayer.
‘ This dumping went on from 1979 to 2001 and it amazes me that the council was unaware of what was going on. It’s hard to believe that the county council were dumping on a site alongside other agencies and noticed absolutely nothing.’
Cllr Brendan Thornhill said: ‘ this case is an unmitigated disaster with implications for the services and finances of Wicklow County Council at a time when we are desperate for badly needed funding for services such as housing. It’s a disgrace.’
Cllr Steven Matthews felt the main priority was to clean up the site as quickly as possible before any other environmental damage is caused.
He said: ‘it appears there was a free-for-all at Whitestown with trucks going in and out of there for over 20 years. I don’t think we will ever find out totally who was responsible but the people of Wicklow didn’t dump there and they shouldn’t suffer due to funding or service cuts.’
Cllr Irene Winters said: ‘ the cost will ultimately be met by the Irish tax payer and the legal costs will have to be met too. I’m sure there will be some retribution against the people of Wicklow. I’m sure we will suffer.’
Cllr Joe Behan welcomed the fact that council staff, including former County Manager Eddie Sheehy, had been exonerated by Mr Justice Humphreys.
‘ There were certain aspersions cast on present and past council members, particularly Eddie Sheehy. I never doubted his honour or integrity or that of any other member of staff, past or present. The judge made it clear he had every faith in his integrity. The judge also specifically said that anything that was done was done in good faith in an effort to address a very difficult problem that went back many, many years.’
He also questioned the Department of Environment’s involvement and the advice they gave to the local authority.
‘It is quite obvious we weren’t solely responsible. I hear figures of upwards of €100 million for the clean-up. We can’t possibly sustain a bill like that and more importantly, it shouldn’t fall on the people of Wicklow. It should come from Central Government.’
Cllr Pat Vance felt Dublin should hold some sort of accountability given that the majority of the waste dumped at Whitestown originated from the capital.
‘What about the polluter pays rule? These people came to our county, dumped huge amounts of waste in our county and now it appears they are practically allowed to get away scot-free.’
Cllr Gerry O’Neill said the impact of the illegal dump was still being felt in the Whitestown area.
‘I would have serious concerns. There have actually been deaths in the area where people took their own life and people would say it was due to this situation.’
Cllr Derek Mitchell agreed that the ‘Polluter Pays’ principle should apply.
‘I echo Cllr Vance’s sentiments. The people who did the majority of the dumping appear to have gotten away with it. Most of the waste came from Dublin but Wicklow is getting the blame.’
Cllr Tommy Cullen felt the council had been ‘ let down’ by the technical advice they received from consultants over the remediation.
‘ The remediation started in 2011 and was designed by these expert consultants. I think Bryan Doyle and the council did their best on what advice was received. They did liaise with the local community.’
Cllr Cullen proposed the formation of a working group to set out a strategy over the clean-up of the site. His proposal was supported by other council colleagues.
Cllr Sylvester Bourke was ‘flabbergasted’ to hear Wicklow County Council could be left with a huge bill as it was his understanding that the Department of Environment had agreed to pay for the remediation.
Cllr Jim Ruttle said: ‘any council management I ever came across always acted in good faith but there are serious questions over the expert advice they received. The role of the Department and their advice, whether written or verbal, also needs to be put out in the open.’
Cllr Vincent Blake said: ‘ The council, in their wisdom, took the best advice they felt was on offer to them.
‘It wasn’t our waste. In Dublin you hear all about how they don’t want an incinerator up there. Dublin has been prepared to land waste here and they should take some of the responsibility in this regard.’
A liaison committee, as proposed by Cllr Whitmore, will be formed. Regular monitoring updates will be made, while councillors and the public will be regularly updated on any remediation works.
Cllr Joe Behan.
Cllr Jennifer Whitmore.
Cllr Nicola Lawless.
Cllr Vincent Blake.
Cllr Tommy Cullen.
Cllr Tom Fortune.