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3 December 1998 Edition

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David and Goliath battle over Silvermines dump

In a forerunner of many battles to come, a small Irish community is taking on the might of the biggest waste management company in the world. By Roisín de Rossa
Who is David? David is more than 1,000 people who last week came to a meeting organised by the Chamber of Commerce in Nenagh, at the foot of the beautiful Silvermines Mountains in North Tipperary. They came in concern that the largest waste management company in the world will get permission to make a super landfill dump in the old mine.

Goliath is Waste Management Inc., based in Houston, Texas, whose assets amount to some $22 billion - large enough to buy up a third of the 26 Counties' Gross National Product. As it is the company only wants to buy up our waste.

``It's the solution we've all been waiting for,'' says WMI in its slick promotional video, ``sustainable and environmentally friendly to the highest specifications''.

WMI proposes to ship trash on CIE trains from waste stations all over the South of Ireland, south of a line drawn from Galway to Wexford, to the `disused' quarry site at Silvermines, which was left by Macogbar's open caste mining operation.

``It's the ideal site for landfill,'' they claim: a 30 acre hole, 250ft deep, which they say ``has to be filled in if it is ever to become an amenity''.

The company plans to deposit 180,000 tons of rubbish per year from 15 counties in the Silvermines quarry for the next 25 years.

People are asking what sort of rubbish? Could it be the toxic ash left after incineration using the methane gas from the landfill site? And where is the toxic ash going? In the underground shafts? What else is going into the shafts?

The first step, for Waste Management Ireland, a wholly owned subsidiary of WMI (since June called Waste Management Holdings, Inc), is to get a licence to pump out the water from the enormous pond which lies 600 feet above sea level at the foot of the mountain range. The mountains overlook the small village of Silvermines, and below it, good farmland stretching off into the West and the Shannon basin.

It's a money spinner. Tipping fees talked about are £25 -£28 a ton, plus shipping fees. At this price WMI makes millions. Waste Management's main clients are ultimately the people who make the waste. And if charging them more makes them waste less, then a price increase would be laudable.

At last Monday's meeting over 1000 people gave a standing ovation to Eamonn de Stafort, PRO of the Silvermines Environmental Action Group. He outlined the contribution Silvermines had made to Ireland and the world as ore was burrowed out of the hills and shipped out by rail to ports Rosslare and Foynes. What could come into Silvermines in the next century, through these same ports? It's a deeper horror which the people of Nenagh fear.

The mountain is a honeycomb of mine shafts drilled by another mining company, Mogul, between a mile and two into the hill. The shafts - in layers below each other - are wide enough to drive a lorry down to vast areas, the size of football pitches, which are drilled out beneath them. One of these, K-zone, is a seven acre site right under the village, which has a garage, canteen and workshop.

Local people are asking what does Waste Management have in mind for these miles of underground shafts which lorries, and of course water, have access to.

The rock, as Jean Archer, a geologist for 20 years with the National Geological Survey, pointed out, is limestone, which is porous and long recognised as the worst possible substance on which to place a landfill because its many fissures allow the inevitable leacheate - the poisonous seepage from waste and rainwater - to pollute the ground water. She declared at the meeting that the proposed landfill will pollute the surrounding area, including the Limerick water system.

A landfill is a bathtub supposed to be engineered to avoid any connection between its toxic components and the natural environment. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) of America has observed on many occasions that no landfill is safe. Even with the best of liners, it is not possible to avoid the escape of leacheate.

As Greenpeace pointed out in its 1991 report on Waste Management Inc, safe landfill is a myth. The laws of physics dictate that disposal equals dispersal.

WMI's video talks of lining the dump to higher than European standards, but as Denis Quinn, Secretary of the Silvermines Environment Action Group, explained in a brilliant slide show at last week's meeting, WMI is talking about HDPE, which is a grand name for black plastic bags and which deteriorates in the presence of many ordinary household chemicals such as alcohol or shoe polish.

The leacheate from normal domestic waste contains 13 chemicals which cause birth defects, 22 chemicals causing genetic defects, and 32 which are cancer-causing agents. A survey done by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, which studied 2,000 landfill sites, and a further 6,000 which were in use up until 20 years ago, produced the horrifying statistic that children born within a 1.8 mile radius of landfill sites with toxic chemicals were 33% more likely to suffer birth defects. Within a radius of 4.8 miles there was found to be a significant increase in spina bifida and still births.

The pond, which Waste Management has applied to the Council for a licence to drain, contains lead and zinc pyrites and mercury. Worse, there is evidence, according to Tom Hickey, another member of SEAG, that the water from Mogul's operation has seeped into the Macgobar pond. Mogul used arsenic and cyanide, well know poisons, in its separation process.

Already farmers down in the valley have suffered from these poisons. A tailings pond dried up through evaporation and cyanide dust blew across the valley. The neighbouring 20 to 30 farmers were warned not to plant root crops again. Shades of Chernobyl.

Waste Management proposes to treat the water through a floating pump station, and to drain the pond, at the rate of 30,000 cubic metres a day for five months. The water is to be run down a 12 inch pipe into a tiny stream, the Foilborig, which runs into the Kilmastulla River, and ultimately into the Shannon.

Margaret Ryan spoke at the meeting on behalf of the farmers of Shallee and Silvermines and angrily explained their fears. The Foilborig stream runs through their farmland. It has already burst its banks. They have lost cattle from lead poisoning where the local vet found more than 2000 mgs per litre of lead present, where O.5 mg/l is considered safe. The cattle continuously get sick on this land.

She says this happens after heavy rainfall, or the cattle walking in the stream, which disturbs the bed and with it the pyrites.

For 15 years, the Ryans and neighbours have not been able to drink the local water. Acot and later Teagasc (Government Research and Development agencies in agriculture).repeatedly tested the water, without finding pollution. It was only when the waters were disturbed that the pollution surfaced. ``Imagine'', says Margaret Ryan'' the effects of 30,000 cubic metres a day!'' This pollutant will disperse into the farming land in this valley, land which is already flooded. The land will be destroyed. Every farmer will be affected - as far afield as Limerick.

What should be done? ``Leave it alone,'' says Margaret. ``Don't disturb it''.

The County Manager has promised a decision on the licence in a couple of weeks. He explained to the County Council meeting, where all the councillors declared their opposition to the proposals, that throwing the application out might be in breach of the Council's authority. The application had to be treated in a proper and fair manner, ``or it could be granted by default.''

The people complained that they are concerned that the County Council and Manager have employed M.C. O'Sullivans, Irish Consulting Engineers of MCCK, for their impact study, who are also employed by Waste Management. They also pointed out that making Silvermines `the septic tank of Ireland' was to make a joke of the £1.6m Mining Heritage centre which has planning permission as a tourist attraction for just down the road above Shallee Cross. It is here where the mountain has already collapsed leaving a 20 ft. square cavity 10 ft deep. People fear that the road itself will subside at any time.

But, as Tom Hickey from Silvermines explains, it doesn't really matter much what decision is reached by the Council on the license to drain the water, because either way it will be appealed - and there hangs the real story. Whatever happens the people of Silvermines and the neighbourhood will be involved in endless litigation to assert their right to determine what happens to their mountain and their environment.

And, as Paddy Mackey of VOICE (Voice of Irish Concern for the Environment) points out, litigation is very expensive.

He says it's not enough to talk about Margaret Ryan's cows to successfully combat the scientific studies that WMI can so easily afford. A hydrogeologist costs at least £250 a day. ``Where are we, a small community of some 300 people, many young people with small children - going with that?''

``Through no fault of our own, except that we have suffered the mine and the damage it has done to our environment for 25 years, a monster has descended upon us, which just to preserve our own heritage, we must find enormous funds to fight off,'' Tom Hickey points out.

``The government pays lip service to the need to consult with local people, but there is no provision whatever for Government funding of local people driven to contest. Waste Management has no problem financing scientific, technical impact studies galore - but we are obliged to answer science with science. How are we to match these funds? How can we take on a monster of such a size or reputation?''

Mary Ward, a housewife from Nenagh, spoke at the meeting, very briefly.

Looking directly at the huge crowd, all she said was, ``It all lies in the power in numbers. We shall overcome this.''

The papers reported the meeting as being the biggest since Daniel O'Connell addressed the Nenagh people. Did they win?


Waste Management Inc.



A Greenpeace Report into Waste Management, Inc, in l991 provides ``an encyclopaedia of environmental crimes and misdeeds.'' ``There has been a history of environmental and anti-trust law violations and attempts to gain illegitimate political influence.''

The report goes on to say that ``WM finds locations - often sparsely populated rural areas where local people are naive, politically weak and financially needy - to dispose of unwanted, dangerous waste.''

The company employs 76,500 people in a worldwide operation with over 700 subsidiary companies. It is involved in landfills, transfer stations and collection operations with over 25 million customers, according to its most recent quarterly report.

The District Attorney of San Diego County, California commissioned a report into WMI, in 1991, which concluded that ``WMI's methods of doing business and history of civil and criminal violations has established a predictable pattern, and this history requires extreme caution by any governmental entity contemplating a business relationship with WMI: that WMI engages in practices designed to gain undue influence over government officials... and to manipulate local government for its own business ends ...which practices may have a corrupting influence on local government''.

The San Diego Report on WMI includes a section on organised crime in the waste business, referring to Mafia and a more general definition as ``enterprise organised to circumvent the law for profit''. The report goes on to mention charges against Mr Buntrock, (a founding member of WMI, and later chairman of the Board) ``of using threats of physical harm and intimidation against competitors.''

Another report, the Ventura report, from the Sheriff's department in Ventura County, California itemises, in 1991, 225 different criminal and civil actions in which WMI had been charged during the previous 13 years, which cost WMI $52 million in fines and penalties.

Several cities in the United States have turned down licences for WMI on grounds that they have been convicted of bribery or bid rigging. For example, Chicago, and more recently Indiana Department of Environmental Management refused WMI a licence - because ``they had not demonstrated good environmental stewardship.''

Mark Gilligan is Waste Management Ireland Ltd's spokesperson here in Ireland. He confirmed at a meeting in Nenagh in mid November that in 1996, WMI had paid $671,000 in fines for misdemeanours in no less than 32 environmental `matters'. However, said Mr Gilligan, ``we're a big company, and we make mistakes. But at least we come clean about them.''

Gilligan denied as `absolute nonsense' a rumour that the local community might be getting a Sellafield on their doorstep. By way of justification he observed that Waste Management Ireland was not involved in handling nuclear waste. He omitted to `come quite clean' about the parent company, WMI, which controlled the largest nuclear waste company, Chem Nuclear, in the States, as stated in the Greenpeace report.


Ireland's waste problem


At the moment Ireland has a serious waste disposal problem. The EPA's 1995 survey estimates 1.5m tons of municipal waste, collected by or on behalf of municipal authorities. 400,000 of this was commercial waste.

Industrial waste is reckoned to be 4.2m tons, plus 167,000 of hazardous waste. Altogether, municipal waste plus industrial is estimated at around 9m tons annually.

Meanwhile, as landfill sites close down, there is strong resistance to opening new ones, or to incineration. There is nowhere to put the rubbish. It is big business if Ireland is to avoid prosecution for failure to comply with EU laws on waste disposal.
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