The politics of pig slurry

  • 29 February 1984
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SHORTLY AFTER 9am ON SUNDAY 29 January, Dr Vera Lang drew back the curtain and looked out her back door window at the Abbey River which flows by the end of her garden. The normally sparkling river was a dirty grey colour, with a thick foam on top. She went quickly upstairs to tell Sean, her husband, and they went out to fill jam jars with water from the river.  By Mark Brennock

This had happened several times before. For the last three years the river has occasionally become severely disscoloured for a few hours. They would ring the County Council or the Fishery Board, but by the time they came to test the water it would be running clear again. Most of the people of Ballyshannon didn't notice the problem.

This time however, the Langs needn't have bothered with the jam jars - a lot of people were going to notice.

Vera Lang picked up the phone and rang Tommy Martin.

Tommy Martin lives a short distance upstream from the Langs. His house isn't connected to the main town's water supply, so he takes his water directly from the river, just outside his front door. Every morning he goes outside and drinks five or six pints of water straight from the river. He had also noticed the occasional discolouration in the water and had talked to the Langs about it. Two and a half years ago when the river had turned brown, he sterilised a bottle and brought it himself to the Fishery Board. He never heard anything about it after that.

On Sunday morning Tommy's phone rang for a long time and Vera hung up just as Tommy went to pick it up. When he saw the river he guessed that it was Vera trying to ring him.

At 9.45, Sean Lang drove to the house of P.J~Patten, the assistant pollution officer for the area. His wife c~me to the door and said that he would deal with it tomorrow. Later, she rang Dr Lang to say that at the time she hadn't realised the seriousness of the situation.

Sean drove out the Donegal Road and met Daniel Fox, the Fishery Officer who had already been alerted. Vera left the house and drove to P.J. Patten's herself. Both of them arrived back home at the same time and made a cup of tea. The tea tasted of chlorine, but they said nothing so as not to put the children off their breakfast.

The water had been occasionally chlorinated in the past, and since last Christmas the taste of chlorine had been particularly strong. A County Council engineer insists that the water was never chlorinated, and that Dr Lang was not to be believed as she was, in his view, eccentric. The Chief County Engineer, Arthur Spears, however, said that the water was indeed chlorinated. A new gas chlorination pump was installed in the reservoir one and a half years ago as part of "routine upgrading".

"Jesus Christ what's after happening?" Michael McCaffferty was walking across the yard to the piggery from his house when he looked down at the river. It looked like a slurry pit. As he walked down to the river and along the river bank he met Charlie Maguire from the North Western Fisheries Board and two other men. When he looked up towards the slurry pit and saw the collapsed wall he realised what had happened.

No one could understand how it happened.

The slurry pit was built two and a half years ago and was grant-aided under the Farm Modernisation Scheme. Michael and Patrick McCafferty are known locally as hard working men. They returned from America fifteen years ago to buy the Cavan Gardens Piggery, and the family also has interests in a nearby quarry, which provides materials for a road surfacing business, and the Jet filling station on the Bunndoran Road.

Michael McCafferty says that when they built the slurry pit, they knew nothing about how strong it should be, so they relied on the Department specifications. The Departtment said that the walls ought to be nine inches thick htheir walls were twelve inches thick. "The fish people" call around regularly, but he says, they have never objected. "Everyone who had seen the tank reckoned it was a great job."

It wasn't until Dr Lang arrived back at the house that she realised that there was pig slurry coming out of the taps. She rang Cecil King of the Donegal Democrat and Tommy Martin.

This time Tommy answered the phone. Four or five weeks previously when the river had turned yellow he had

Michael McCafferty: "What's after happening".

telephoned the Fisheries Board and asked them to come and take samples. He was told that the person who does that wasn't in, but would be back the next day. The next day it was too late - the river had cleared up. Tommy had turned off the pump which brings the water from the river to his house, but he hadn't realised that the town water supply had been affected.

All around the town, County Council officials were being notified of the problem. Dinny McCullagh, the waterrworks watchman was telephoned early in the morning by a consumer, telling him that the water smelled and looked funny. He had gone up to McCafferty's and tried to clear a blockage in the stream which was causing the slurry to flow slightly upstream and enter the water intake pipe for the town water supply. A corrugated iron roof had blown off one of McCafferty's sheds during the storm and created a dam in the river. At the same time, Dinny McCullagh dumped a large amount of chlorine into the water in an attempt to neutralise the effect of the pig slurry.

The County Council Community Health Officer, Michael McLoone was going out to dinner on Sunday so he hadn't used the water for cooking and hadn't noticed the dirty condition of it himself. Vera Lang phoned him at about 2.30pm. There had been other phone calls, but this was the first one to mention pig slurry. He left immediately and went out to McCafferty's piggery. He telephoned the County Medical Officer, Mary Cooney, at 3pm and again at 4.30pm to convey to her the seriousness of the problem.

After Spm, a car was sent around the town with louddspeakers on top, warning people not to use the water. It was more than seven hours since it was first discovered that the domestic water supply contained a large amount of pig slurry.

People were told not to use the water until further notice. At lunchtime on Sunday the local fire brigade chief, P.J. Drummond decided to organise an alternative supply of water from the nearby Finner Camp. Soon, Civil Defence fire engines, together with milk transporters were travelling out the Bundoran Road to Finner Camp and bringing back clean water to the Market Yard, where locals could fill bottles and containers with water to bring home.

The County Council also supplied free chlorine for people to take home to clean out their water tanks and cylinders. Some of them had thick deposits of sludge on the bottom. Within two days of the accident, one local entreepreneur had put notices in many local shops: "Professional water tank cleaner available. Reasonable rates". Many local people feel that the County Council should pay for the tanks to be cleaned.

On Monday the local schools opened for a few hours, until Mary Cooney directed that they be closed until the following Thursday. The schools remained closed for a week. On one of the blackboards, a child had written in chalk, "thank God for pig shit". An advice leaflet issued on February 2 by the County Council and the Health Board stated that "no illness assoociated with this accidental contamination has been reported". However, there were illnesses.

Shortly after the water was polluted on Sunday January 29, there were a lot of illnesses in Ernedale Heights, Ballyyshannon. In number 83 ,Roberrta Roper lifted the lid off her kettle and the smell of slurry nearly knocked her across

the room. When the woman from two doors up called to say that her baby was sick, she knew that there was someething wrong. Her four year old son was vomiting for several days after, and her husband was in and out of the bathroom all night on Monday.

Christina Roper, who lives elsewhere in the estate, had had a baby two weeks before the accident happened. At lOam on Sunday January 29, he was fed four ounces of water with his Cow and Gate baby food. He was very sick shortly afterwards. When she boiled the kettle at noon she realised that there was something wrong with the water. She kept two-weeks-old Jonathan up all day making him sick. The doctor would later tell her that if she hadn't done this, he might have been very badly affected.

Peter Eager, who lives on the Bundoran Road suffered from vomiting and diarrhoea shortly after drinking the water on Sunday. He was on antibiotics for a week. Another child in Ernedale Heights began vomiting up yellow stuff on Sunday. The doctor said that he had caught the flu.

Mrs Mary Treanor has an eighteen-year-old Down Syndrome child. He suffered from vomiting and diarrhoea for three days after the water was polluted.

Local people, particularly those in Ernedale Heights, say that a very large number of people suffered from gastrooenteritis after drinking the polluted water. The authorities, however, say that reporting of illness was sporadic, and not significantly greater than usual.

T J HE RECENTlNCIDENT IN BAlLYSHANNON is not the first time the town's drinking water has been adversely affected - it has been happpening on a smaller scale for years.

On Tuesday, January 31 at a public meeting in the Imperial Hotel, Ballyshannon, Dr Lang told a packed public meeting that the tap water had been chlorinated for some time previously. It was then that it dawned on many of the townspeople that the smell and taste that they had got from their water since Christmas was that of chlorine.

Chlorine serves to neutralise dangers to health caused by unclean water.

The Reynolds never had any health problems with their children until they moved to Ballyshannon at the end of 1982. Their youngest son was one year and eight months old at the time. A few months after they moved in, he came down with a very bad stomach illness which lasted for two months. He lost a lot of weight and was in hospital three or four times. Every time he vomited, Mrs Reynolds gave him water to make him feel better.

Their son Colin was born last March. He has been sick since he was two weeks old and weighed nine pounds when he was four months old. He has been in hospital nine times, sometimes being diagnosed as having gastro enteritis, someetimes being undiagnosed. At first they thought that Hie baby's milk was too rich, so they began adding small amounts of'water to it. At one stage he was due to have an operation, but it never happened and he began to improve when he was put back on ordinary cow's milk. Now he is fed on special food which is very expensive, but the Reynolds got a medical card for Colin after a long fight.

The tap water usually seemed to be all right in the Reynolds' house, but sometimes when they were making tea at night it would be an awful grey colour with foam on top of it.

Mary Treanor's eighteen-year-old Downs Syndrome child, Ronan, has been attending school in Drumcarr for many years. But in 1977, shortly after the Treanors moved to Ballyshannon, Ronan started getting sick for a few days every time he came home from school for his holidays.

Last summer, friends from Wales came to stay with Mrs Treanor. All of them said that the water tasted foul. All of them got sick, some of them - including a child - were diagnosed 'as having gastro enteritis. Sometimes the tap water would be a brown-yellow colour. Other times it would be clear with a strong taste of chlorine off it. Mrs Treanor's brother, Michael Desmond Mulhern, is a County Councillor in the next town. Whenever he comes to visit he says that the water tastes awful. According to Mrs Treanor, a local chemist has remarked to her that there has -always been a very high number of people looking for medicines to treat gastro enteritis in the town.

In March 1980 a local angler wrote to the Department of Fisheries pointing out four points at which the Abbey River was being polluted. On May 8'he received a reply stating that the Fisheries Board in Ballyshannon was being asked to test the river and that the Department would contact him again. He was never contacted again.

Three days after the angler wrote to the Department, the Fisheries Board tested ninejpoints on the Abbey River system for pollution levels. This test showed that beside McCafferty's piggery, pollution levels were almost three times as high as any other point on the river, though they were still not quite high enough to warrant prosecution.

Local people say that they have seen dead animals lying beside the river at McCafferty's piggery. On Febbruary 21 Magill noted three dead piglets lying in the slurry that remained in the broken tank.

The river running by the end of the Langs' garden now runs clear. The tap water tastes and looks clean, though many people still go to a spring just outside the town to get their drinking water.

The Ballyshannon water supply is no longer augmented by water from the Abbey River, and the town is now entirely supplied from Lough Uinseann. At the moment, this is proving to be adequate, but in the summer, when the water level is lower and the tourists start coming to Ballyyshannon and the neighbouring seaside resort of Rossnowwlagh, it may be difficult to do without the Abbey River. •

Monaghan: The worst county in Ireland

MOst counties in Ireland have serious water pollution probblems. In the last twelve years the proportion of rivers affected by slight or moderate pollution has doubled. The pollution is caused by pig slurry and other agricultural wastes, indusstrial wastes and by local authorities.

Pollution caused by local authoriities is the most serious aspect of the problem, which is deepened by the fact that local authorities are the main agencies charged with (he enforcement of the Water Pollution Act. It is diffiicult to have any confidence in their competence to carry out this task since they themselves are so constantly in breach of the act by discharging untreated sewage into the waterways.

Though most counies have some problem with water pollution, by far the worst affected affected is County Monaaghan. 41 miles of river'were destroyed by pollution in the county last summmer.

The rivers of the most polluted county in Ireland are used as waste disposal units for silage effluent, pig and duck slurry, sewage and some inndustrial wastes which are discharged into drains which lead to lakes and rivers. In some cases the pollutants are discharged directly into the 'lakes and rivers.

Pat Foley of the Northern Regional Fisheries Board has submitted a commprehensive list of the waters affected, together with the names and addresses of over 40 known polluters to Monaghan County Council. Some prosecuutions have resulted, but there is no reason to believe that Monaghan County Council are treating the problem seriously.

The situation in Monaghan is not comparable to the recent incident in Ballyshannon. It is far worse. But though though the rivers and lakes of Monaaghan have been, severely polluted for several years the water supply was never known to be affected.

That was until the people of Monaghan towns noticed "that pig slurry had got into their tap water in 1980. The reservoirs which supplied the town had become contaminated and an auxiliary resevoir had to be brought into operation. The person responsible was convicted the followwing year. But convictions are rare
although obvious examples of polluution are everywhere to be found in Monaghan.

On a hill overlooking a marsh at the edge of Monaghan town for example, there is a pigmeal factory. The drain which runs from the factory through the marsh contains thick blue-grey liquid, and under the water, what is left of the vegetation is coated with a fluffy fungus.

The drain flows into the river Blackwater, one of the best trout fishing rivers in County Monaghan, 100 yards a way, and the Monaghan Blackwater eventually flows Into the Ulster Blackwater.

The Glennan River also flows into the Ulster Blackwater. There are eleven known points of entry of polluting matter from farms into the Glennan river system. In one farm, there is an open concrete silage pit about three feet deep. The tank is cracked at one end, and there is a flow of silage downhill into-a drain.

Nearby is a farm where Pat Fole was threatened with a pitchfork when he went in to point out that the farmer was in danger of polluting the river.

On the bank of another drain is a large pile of silage. The water in the drain is a dirty brown colour as a result of effluent draining into it.

There are many other similar farms in the Glennan river system. One of the offending farms looks like it is straight out of Dallas. As Pat Foley says "you wouldn't mind if they were poor mountainy people, but they're not".

There has been widespread desstruction of fish in County Monaghan. Last summer, according to Pat Foley, large stretches of river had their entire fish populations wiped out.

On the Mullaghduff River, from the border to Lough Muckno - a stretch of six miles - silage effluent caused the total destruction of fish. Silage effluent from eleven different sources on three miles Of the Glennan River caused a massive kill of fish. All fish life was destroyed on a seven mile stretch of the Finn River due to both silage. effluent and sewage from the County Council plant at Smithboro.

One four-mile stretch of the River Blackwater had all fish life wiped out, and another four-mile stretch was seriously affected - by sewage, silage effluent, industrial waste and other unidentified matter. On the mountain stream at Emylake, all of next year's fish for Emylake were destroyed along a three mile stretch by silage effluent.

The Castleshane River is a spawning river for the Blackwater. Silage efffluent has caused the destruction of the future fish population on a two mile stretch. The fish population is extinct on a four mile stretch of the Dromore River at Ballybay, due to silage effluent and sewage. There are County Council discharge pipes from Loughmourne housing estate being disscharged into the same river system. Lough Major, at Ballybay, is a very popular lake for anglers. On the east side of Ballybay, a river which leads into Lough Major is being contamiinated with silage effluent, and this may shortly affect Lough Major.

Monaghan County Council have themselves been in breach of the Water Pollution Act. They are responsible for the sewage treatmentplant at the edge of one of the Dromore lakes, beside the town of Ballybay, which renders the town's sewage harmless before discharging it into the lake. The only problem is that for four months of the year the water level rises above the sides of the treatment plant, flooding the filter beds and causing the sewage to rise over the sides and flow unntreated into the Jake. There is also a bypass pipe allowing 'some sewage to pass into the lake without going into the treatment plant.

Two and a half miles. downstream at Baird'S Shore, water is taken from the lake to provide domestic supply for over 600 householders.

On February 14, Monaghan County Council was convicted of polluting a tributary of th~ Blackwater at their sewage treatment plant in Monaghan town. The Council has stated that their pumps had broken down at the time of the offence, causing untreated sewage to flow into the river. When this reporter visited Monaghan last month, the pumps were not in operaation, and a thick blue-grey liquid was being discharged into the water from a pipe leading from the treatment plant. Just upstream from the discharge pipe, the water was clear and there was green vegetation on' the· river bed. Downstream from the pipe, .the water was severely discoloured and all the vegetation was dead. Thus the main authority for enforcing the Water Pollution Act in County Monaghan, Monaghan County Council, seemed to be still polluting the river, even after they had been fined by a court for doing so.