27 March 1997 Edition

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What caused the poison?

Robert Allen finds a Limerick farmer still waiting for answers about his polluted land and sick animals

Liam Somers is a patient man. He needs to be. Like all the farmers affected by pollution in north-west Limerick since the late 80s he feels powerless, but not all the time.

Not long ago he became exasperated by it all when he heard that the 26-County Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had turned down the community appeal against the granting of a pollution licence to Syntex (now Roche Ireland) up the road in Clare.

He painted up a banner, rang Clare FM to tell them what he was going to do, got in his car and drove into Limerick city and onto the Ennis road heading toward Clarecastle where Syntex/Roche have their imposing, polluting chemical factory.

Less than an hour after leaving his farm in west Limerick the man whose herd and livelihood has been devastated by toxic pollution was standing outside the gates of the chemical factory with a banner letting everyone know what he thought of the EPA. ``How can you licence these people when you don't even know what killed my cattle?''

Somers' gesture of defiance had the desired effect. ``Radio Clare came out at 11.30 and by noon there was a massive crowd,'' he recalled. ``And the minute I was down there the EPA rang the house.''

Now Somers' patience is wearing thin again. Last week, as the Askeaton/Ballysteen Animal Health Committee and the Limerick IFA sent in their objections to Bord Pleanala against Aughinish Alumina application for an integrated pollution licence from the EPA, he wondered if the EPA would ever complete their investigation on the pollution problems in north-west Limerick. ``They are testing all the time,'' he said wearily. ``And they'd be avoiding you because they'd be afraid you'd question them.''

It's nearly ten years since Somers, along with his neighbours in the townlands around Askeaton, first encountered the vegetational and animal health problems that would kill hundreds of animals on his farm and that of Justin Ryan's and cause ill health among animals on many other farms.

It's nearly three years since the farmers came together to form the Askeaton/Ballysteen Animal Health Committee to demand that someone in authority take seriously their problems.

And it's almost two years since the state set in motion an investigation. The relevant 26-County state departments seemed surprised when several farmers gave their £1 million investigation a cool reception. The EPA had told the farmers it wanted to set up a study of animal health on the affected farms (using a control group of animals from an unpolluted farm), an analysis of the animals' immune systems and a general study of animal health in the area; sampling of soil, herbage, vegetation, animal feed, drinking water and milk; and atmospheric emissions. ``If it is industrial pollution we will attempt to prevent that pollution. We are the regulatory authority and we will take action,'' Dr Paul Toner of the EPA said triumphantly.

Reluctantly, a few months later, Somers sold his herd of 93 cattle to the 26-County state for a sum believed to be in the region of £80,000 after refusing three earlier offers, feeling sure that their investigation would reveal nothing. ``Telling us that they've found nothing would be ridiculous after 96 animals dead.''

During the course of the investigation the government has provided Somers with an income. ``We've enough to eat and it's keeping us off the dole,'' he sighed discontentedly in November 1995, resigned to the long haul. ``They are letting us have an income and we're letting them into the farm on goodwill. Otherwise I'd stand and fight a bit longer and get them to cough up for the dead animals. We've lost about £200,000 in dead animals, loss of milk quota and the benefits upgrading the farm would have brought over the past seven years.''

What disturbed Somers as the investigation got underway and the news got out that Justin Ryan had sold his farm (adjacent to Wyeth, the manufacturers of SMA babyfood) to the 26-County state for a package believed to be worth £367,000 was the cautious mood in the area that nothing would be done about the industrial pollution from Aughinish Alumina and the two ESB power stations at Moneypoint and Tarbet.

Surprisingly, while the authorities have procrasinated over their investigation, between them Aughinish Alumina and the ESB have spent £25 million on cleaning up their act. But Somers is still adamant that the EPA investigation may come to nothing.

Significantly, none of the regulatory authorities have been able to characterise all the local pollution, particularly atmospheric pollution, and as the wind patterns are variable this pollution is widespread. A westerly carries most of the pollution over Somers' farm but recently the wind has been blowing from the north so he doesn't know if the new pollution prevention measures are having any effect.

What he does know is that the EPA have still to come up with an explanation. An interim report promised shortly after the investigation began has been repeatedly put back. Understandly, Somers wonders whether the EPA will ever find out what happened to his cattle .

But he's a patient man and he's prepared to wait.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1