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Sunday 16 December 2018

Locals fear site for housing development on old cattle burial ground may contain anthrax

The construction site in Mulgannon, Wexford and (inset) the anthrax bacillus (image via Wikipedia Commons)
The construction site in Mulgannon, Wexford and (inset) the anthrax bacillus (image via Wikipedia Commons)

Maria Pepper

Residents in the townland of Mulgannon near Wexford Town fear that the deadly disease anthrax may be present at a former animal burial site, which is set to see a housing development built on it.

The residents are seeking a guarantee that the site with the possible anthrax contamination will not be disturbed until rigorous testing is carried out as work begins on the first phase of an approved 181-unit Wexford housing development in the area.

Colm Neville Construction has announced that construction is due to start on 54 houses at Mulgannon, as part of a larger residential scheme called Roxborough Manor, with the third phase due to be constructed at a later stage on a site where cattle infected with anthrax were buried in 1911.

Local resident Angela Byrne said she is not against the building of houses and she accepts that Mr. Neville received planning permission for the development from An Bord Pleanála on appeal but she is concerned that a potentially serious public health hazard could be overlooked or minimised.

During the appeal, the HSE provided a report to An Bord Pleanála written by Dr Julie Heslin, consultant in public health medicine, and John Redmond, senior environmental health officer, which concluded that given the proposed use of land for domestic housing and the fact that the burial site involved two herds known to have been infected with anthrax, there would still appear to be a residual risk of anthrax spores being present in the soil.

"If a decision must be taken without such information, the safest option would be to leave the site undisturbed," they said.

"However, it would seem that the risk to workers or general public health from such a site would be remote. It might be possible to mitigate any risk by undertaking (a) a workplace Health and Safety Plan, under the guidance of the Health and Safety Authority and (b) a Waste Management Plan, under the guidance of the Department of Agriculture and Food," they added.

Developer Colm Neville said the potential of a possible 1911 anthrax burial site was considered right through the planning process and was addressed in Board Pleanala’s decision to grant planning permission for the development as far back as 2010.

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He said the company has engaged specialist environmental consultants from the UK, with experience in this area to assess the potential hazards and advise on the procedures and protocols that should be followed on foot of their findings.

"An appeals board inspector said this was considered satisfactory during an earlier appeal and she didn't any justification for not recommending the same."

"Not found" would not not guarantee "not there"

Anthrax spores can survive for decades but it is not clear if they would still be active after 90 years.

Wexford County Council veterinary officer Larry Forrestal supplied a risk-assessment report in late 2007, during the planning process, quoting microbiology expert Dr Peter Turnbull in response to a request for his opinion on the development of the site.

Dr Turnbull replied that in his opinion, while the public health risks would be minimal, he agreed it would be preferable if the site was left undisturbed.

"If you know where the burial site is, you could get the site tested. 'Not found' would not not guarantee 'not there' but would give a level of assurance that the contamination is of low significance and ground work could begin on the grounds that if bones and/or lime are encountered, work should stop at that site pending the appropriate remedial action," he wrote.

Independent testing

Angela Kelly said she was assured recently by the developer that he has engaged an expert from RPS Bristol in the UK to survey the Mulgannon site but she is campaigning for independent monitoring to ensure it is absolutely clear there is no risk to human or animal health from a disturbance of the land.

In a submission to An Bord Pleanála, residents circled an area on a map where the animal grave is believed to be located, based on historical anecdote, but Angela said the truth is that no one really knows where the site is, other than the fact that it is located on land formerly owned by Richard Richards, which extends to an identifiable 17 acres of Mr Neville's development land of approximately 65 acres which stretches through The Rocks down to the Rosslare Road, where planning permission was recently given for a link road to service the housing development which has capacity for up to 600 houses in the longer term.

"I want to see an independent person who is knowledgeable about anthrax being appointed to ensure that the guidelines set out by the World Health Organisation are properly carried out," said Angela.

"The results of tests should be given to the Department of Agriculture and the independent overseer before permission is given to disturb the land.

"If the planning authority had done its job years ago that land would have been red circled so that future generations would know where the antrax contamination was. If it hadn't been for residents informing the planning office about the burial site in the first place, this could have been disastrous."

The treatment of anthrax animal burial sites is governed by the Diseases of Animals Act 1966 which requires that the Department of Agriculture be consulted and approval obtained before any such site is disturbed.

Outbreak in Siberia in 2014

Angela points to recent cases in other countries in which old anthrax burial sites were disturbed - in 2016 in Siberia, a contaminated frozen reindeer carcass, which had been in the ground for 75 years, thawed out and led to 2,000 reindeer being infected and slaughtered, several people being hospitalised and one child dying, while in Italy in 2014 there was an outbreak of anthrax after an historic carcass was disturbed.

"I don't want to be scare-mongering about this - if it's contracted, it's treatable with antibiotics, but who needs that. If the spores become airborne, humans and animals can spread it. You're talking about housing here. You'll have people digging their gardens.

"Yes, anthrax has been eradicated in Ireland but we want it to stay that way," she said.

Anthrax outbreak in 1911

A special meeting of Wexford County Council was held in August 1911 to discuss the outbreak of anthrax on the farms of Mr. R. Richard at Mulgannon and Whitemill with Department of Agriculture veterinary surgeons in attendance.

Seven animals were initially infected and while there was no evidence of tests having been carried out at that stage, the diagnosis was not disputed.

A further 32 animals that were in contact with the diseased cattle were slaughtered as a means of halting the spread of the outbreak. There was one report of human infection, a local man who worked as a drover.

The cattle that were buried before a diagnosis was made, were later burned with vitriol poured into holes bored down to the carcases. It is thought that the other animals may have been buried in a different site. A letter from the Department of Agriculture had advised that all possible precautions should be taken in relation to carcass disposal including the railing off of graves as required by law.

Anthrax is a serious infectious disease usually found in farm animals. The bacterium that causes the illness, bacillus anthracis, creates spores which can survive in the environment. If anthrax spores get inside a body of an animal or human, they attack it, causing a dangerous infection and also producing a toxin that kills immune system cells which can be fatal.

It takes three forms in humans - cutaneous, pulmonary and intestinal. Ireland is considered by the WHO to be one of the countries with the highest rating of freedom from anthrax infection in the world with no human or animal cases notified for some decades.


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