EPA accused of collusion in row over toxic fumes
Labour senator calls for independent testing of 'carcinogenic emissions' from recycling facility
SOME describe it as an oily, gassy odour and others liken it to sweaty socks and sewage fumes. Residents who live near the Enva plant in Laois say they have put up with the smells which they attribute to the recycling facility for years.
Now a Labour senator has called for independent testing of the foul fumes, claiming to have "irrefutable, irrevocable and empirical evidence" that unlicensed, unregulated and potentially hazardous emissions are being pumped into the atmosphere by the waste recycling facility in Portlaoise.
Senator John Whelan has accused the Environmental Protection Agency of "colluding with the company in what is a cover-up of what are, in some instances, carcinogenic emissions into the atmosphere and waste water in the vicinity".
Using parliamentary privilege in the Seanad last Thursday, Whelan blamed "light-touch" and "lax" regulation by the EPA, depicting an "Erin Brockovich scenario, where people are living in fear, living in silence".
Enva dismissed Whelan's allegations as "unfounded" this weekend while the Environmental Protection Agency said that the company has been "largely compliant" with its licence and insisted that there are no health risks to residents.
While Whelan's allegations have been robustly denied, local people attest to the pungent fumes they claim have emanated from the plant for years.
Michael Browne worked in the CIE depot adjacent to Enva for 11 years until he retired in 2005. Throughout that time, he said the odour from the plant became so bad at times that he began to keep a diary noting every time the stench descended.
"Every day the smell was there, I logged it in the diary," he said. "In the last few years [before he retired], it was terrible," he said. "CIE got on to the EPA. The EPA was to put up a monitor. Up to the time I left, there was no monitor... I don't know how you can describe the smell. I used to think it was like burnt oil. It was never dealt with satisfactorily by the time I left."
The odour continued to have an effect on Irish Rail workers at the depot, who complained it was causing headaches.
In 2009, a safety executive at Irish Rail asked the EPA to intervene.
"Our staff at Portlaoise depot have advised that they suffer headaches as a result of the emissions. Enva have advised us previously that the emissions that give rise to the smell are harmless but our staff remain apprehensive without an independent assessment."
In 2011, the EPA commissioned an independent inspection of the odour. The inspectors found the company to be in breach of its licence. They detected "gassy", oily-type odours downwind of the plant, which they said were emanating from Enva.
The company disputed the finding of non-compliance, claiming that the odour didn't come from the plant. Nevertheless, the Environmental Protection Agency issued two non-compliance notices.
Enva has installed an odour-neutralising product which has been in use at the plant since then, according to the EPA.
Enva said that it conducts "regular independent monitoring at the facility".
According to local residents, the odour persists. It is not constant but when it does emanate into the atmosphere, it can persist for minutes, hours or even a day, before dissipating.
Sean and Kathleen Clancy live about a quarter of a mile from Enva and the couple, who are now retired, can see the plant from their window.
"The smell is still there. It depends on which way the wind is blowing," said Sean Clancy, who added that he last experienced it a fortnight ago.
"It's like the smell of sweaty feet," he said. "And sometimes, if the washing is hanging outside, the smell seems to cling to the fabric."
He has complained in the past to Enva and one of their managers even called out on a Sunday. By the time she arrived, he said, the smell had gone. Sean Clancy said he just doesn't bother complaining anymore.
Another resident, Mary Murphy, described it as a "blanket odour," a "bad gassy odour" that "goes down your neck".
"In the last week, we got a bit of it. It depends on the wind."
She has called Enva in the past to complain. But by the time a representative of the company arrived at her house, the smell had evaporated.
Natasha Hearns, who lives with her two children in Rockview, also last detected the odour more than a week ago. "It's hard to describe it," she said. "It can be like gas is leaking. Sometimes it can be a dirty, oily smells like diesel."
Either way, she said, it was "overpowering". Both she and her 15-year-old daughter have suffered headaches. Her daughter's headaches are particularly bad, but doctors at Crumlin children's hospital have been unable to diagnose the cause.
A spokesman for CIE said there have been no complaints of headaches from staff at the Portlaoise depot in three or four years. But there is active communication with Enva about dust migrating into the depot from the plant, and the issue of odours has also been raised.
In reply, Enva stated that it was not exceeding occupational exposure limits for the pollutants produced by its activities, and was compliant with its licence conditions.
In its statement this weekend, Enva said: "Enva strongly rejects the unfounded claims made by Senator Whelan under Oireachtas privilege. We regularly carry out monitoring at our Portlaoise site to ensure our staff are not exposed to levels of substances that would impact their health or the health of anyone living in the surrounding area. As part of our ongoing environmental management processes, Enva routinely uses international environmental consultants RPS to conduct additional monitoring and to assist us in dealing with any queries raised by the EPA."
The EPA also issued a statement saying it has received just 18 complaints from members of the public about the plant since it got its waste licence in 2004. The agency said it hasn't received a single complaint since April last year.
"The EPA treats every complaint seriously and the agency has gone to great lengths to investigate each one to determine whether or not there might be any issue that would give cause for concern. Every single assessment carried out has satisfied the EPA that that there is no risk to local residents, to health, or to the environment," the statement said.
"As with any licenced facility, minor issues have arisen from time to time through inspections, incidents or complaints and the EPA is satisfied that Enva has taken appropriate corrective action to address these. For example, odour nuisance issues were addressed through the installation of an odour-neutralising system which absorbs odour-causing emissions."
The agency has issued three non-compliance notices against Enva in recent years – two in 2011 in relation to odour and another one last year in relation to waste soil classification.
The agency said the site is scheduled to be visited again this year. "To conclude, the EPA is satisfied that the activities of Enva Ireland are compliant with its licence and do not pose a risk to local residents, to health, or to the environment."
The Department of the Environment confirmed this weekend that it has no control over the performance of the EPA, an independent agency. But Senator Whelan said he now plans to ask the Oireachtas committee on the environment to request the EPA to appear before it. He has also called for independent verification of the monitoring methods at the plant.
"What we need now is to restore public confidence," he said.