Wicklow councillors meeting over illegal dump ‘disaster’

‘Who was in charge?’ asks council member

Waste at Whitestown Dump Co Wicklow.

Waste at Whitestown Dump Co Wicklow.

 

Councillors in Wicklow have been advised that it would be “inappropriate” for them to speak publicly about a recent High Court court case which has left the county council facing costs far beyond its capacity to meet.

The councillors are due to meet this afternoon to discuss what one describes as a “litany of disaster” for which no one in the council is being held responsible. However, it is expected that moves will be made to curtail or effectively prevent discussion, citing legal advice.

The High Court case concerns an illegal dump at Whitestown near Baltinglass in west Wicklow, the largest illegal dump discovered in the State to date and which the council itself is accused of partly creating by its own “wide scale” dumping there over a “long period”.

The council lost the major part of the case, which concerned responsibility for cleaning up the estimated 288,000 to 1.4 million tons of waste in the dump, together with removing a million tons of consequently contaminated soil.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Richard Humphreys described as “botched” a partial remediation of the site carried out by the council but which left 98 per cent of the waste, which includes domestic and hospital waste, in situ, without a membrane separate it from ground water.

Mr Justice Humphreys said that the council must empty all illegal waste and contaminated soil from the site and take it to a licenced facility. He accepted, broadly and after competing submissions, that this would take up to six and a half years.

Six months after the site has bee cleared, the site must be returned to its owners, Brownfield Restoration (Ireland) Limited, who did not create or operate the dump.

Judgment in the case found the council culpable for continuing environmental damage at the site because of its “dilatoriness in pursuing effectively the other polluters such that it is now not in a position to do so”.

Brownfield’s advisors have estimated that the cost of removing everything from the illegal dump could be more than €100,000. The council’s own estimate, made six years ago and which it describes as a “best guess”, is that it would cost approximately €25.3 million to remove just the illegal waste.

During the lengthy court case, which originated in 2008 but was ajourned in 2011 and revived in June 2015, the court heard that the council’s annual disposable income to pay for all services was some €10 million.

A complex order on costs has yet to be fully deciphered by both sides, however, the case ran for more than 80 days and costs are expected to be in the millions. Aspects of the order on costs seem likely to be appealed.

The proceedings have been largely ignored by the majority of Wicklow’s councillors with only two, independents Tom Forture of Kilcoole and Tommy Cullen of Baltinglass, regularly attending the High Court.

On July 10th, Cllr Fortune wrote to the Cathaoirleach, Cllr Edward Timmins of Fine Gael, and the acting manager, Bryan Doyle, demanding answers and seeking a meeting of the council.

“Where are the council going to get the money for all this?” Cllr Fortune asked. “What are the implications for the running of the local authority, have you immediately started to examine any effect on services? Have you, Cathaoirleach, held an emergency management meeting and what is the outcome?”

While a meeting has been called, on Thursday Mr Doyle wrote to all 32 councillors cautioning against discussing the outcome of the case. His letter to them raises the possibility of further legal action, including by the council itself, and therefore there should be no discussion “other than in a general way on the proceedings”.

“Please note,” writes Mr Doyle, “that the council’s law agent has been advised by solicitors for Brownfield that they had instructions to lodge an appeal against various significant aspects of all the judgements handed down by the courts to date.

“It cannot be ruled out that appeals or other forms of legal challenge might be brought by other interested parties or indeed by the council itself.

“Accordingly my advices are therefore that it would be inappropriate to comment further other than in a general way on the proceedings.”