Public buildings in Donegal, including a school, are displaying signs of mica damage
It is a scandal that has turned homes and dreams to dust in Co Donegal, but there are fears that the mica controversy may run much deeper than that.
There are now concerns that several public buildings in the county — including a school, a hospital, a council office and a public library — are showing visible evidence of significant damage similar to that caused by mica.
The mineral makes concrete weaker over time and causes it to fall apart.
A protest by the Mica Action Group will take to the streets of Dublin on June 15 as homeowners call for the Government to do more to help those affected.
But it is not just residential properties in Donegal that are impacted — public buildings accessed by children, vulnerable adults and others all bear the hallmarks of something more serious.
An investigation by the Sunday Independent has discovered that Letterkenny and Inishowen are among the worst affected areas in the northwest of the country.
There are spider web-type cracks extending from ground to roof level, and above and below windows and doors, on dozens of buildings. There are hairline cracks weaving horizontally and vertically, precarious-looking masonry and properties exhibiting structural distress.
After being contacted by this newspaper, Donegal County Council admitted it is “likely” defective blocks have been used in public and commercial buildings in the area and it is to investigate the matter. Other building owners or tenants say they too will carry out technical assessments.
One such building under the spotlight is Craigtown National School, which is located outside the market town of Carndonagh in Inishowen and is surrounded by idyllic landscape, lush green fields and sheep. There are minor cracks visible along parts of the main building, particularly around the corners and beside the main door.
Along the top of the gable end of one of the three extensions is more damage: vertical and horizontal cracking. The cracks appear to be more visible on whatever side faces the rain and takes the force of nature, such as prevailing winds.
There are cracks around and below the windows, around the door and along the edge of the extensions adjacent to the main school. Visible from the main road, there appear to be significant defects to the side of another building, and lichen and moss have inhabited the cracks.
A source has claimed the Department for Education was told more than five years ago that the structure of the school may be affected by suspected mica. When contacted, a spokesman for the department said the maintenance and upkeep of school buildings and their grounds “is a matter for the school authority in the first instance including any issues of a health and safety nature”.
The spokesman said the department “contacted the school in question and was emailed a report from a consultant which advised the school to have testing carried out on the blockwork”.
The department said it is awaiting confirmation “that this advice was followed” but could not provide a copy of the report, and the school itself did not respond when asked twice to comment.
There are similar problems at Carndonagh Community Hospital, with hairline cracks along the bottom of the building. On lightly touching a corner of one of the exterior walls, a piece of block the size of my thumb crumbled and fell to the ground.
Asked if it was aware of the problem, a HSE spokesman said the organisation is “currently reviewing our building portfolio to identify if there are any issues related to mica. We will complete technical assessments to ensure the safety of our staff and service users.”
At Carndonagh Public Service Centre, part of Donegal County Council, cracks run from the top to the bottom of the building to the left of the main entrance.
There is cracking down the corners of the wall and an exposed block has partially crumbled, with cracks around it widening. There is a measuring gauge attached to the wall to monitor how wide the defects are.
In 2014, an email from resident Phelim Doherty to the council warned that the public services centre on Malin Road “would also appear to be suffering from the same issue of defective blocks”.
In the email, Mr Doherty claimed “this building would appear to have all the signs of defective blocks too”.
“It also begs the question as to whether this public building is fit for use and whether it is now a health and safety issue for the public?”
Former Fine Gael councillor Michael Doherty claims he was one of a number of representatives who raised concerns about the potential problems several years ago.
“It was very evident inside the council building, especially along the stairwell, there were cracks. We weren’t told to be quiet, but we were told it was best to say nothing, that it was being looked into. To my knowledge, the cracks haven’t been fixed because they can’t be fixed,” he says.
Next door is Carndonagh Community Library, also run by the council, where there are cracks that are full of algae and moss. A footpath from the front door leads pedestrians around the building and on to the main street. Approximately 12 to 14 feet up, there appears to be loose masonry which looks like it could fall on to the public pavement below.
Donegal County Council was asked to outline when it was first made aware of this issue, what steps it had taken to investigate the matter and what it is doing to remedy it.
In a short statement, a spokeswoman said: “Defective concrete blocks have been used in the construction of private and social houses in Donegal. It is likely that they have also been utilised in the remainder of the construction sector including in commercial buildings and public buildings. The council is assessing its buildings in this context.”
There is an old railway station on the other side of the street, opposite the council building, which has been the headquarters for Atlan Fish Ltd, a fish processing company, since 1976. Its staff say the building, which has six rooms and a flat, is around 125 years old and is still intact. There is a noticeable difference in the condition of the two buildings.
More than 65km away in Letterkenny’s retail area, hairline cracks can be seen on numerous buildings — including a number of commercial properties. Some are worse than others.
To the left of McGinley Motors is a multi-storey car park with a glass bridge supported by steel connecting two buildings on either side. There are several cracks on the exterior wall underneath the bridge over Justice Wash Road.
Standing on the street opposite is Eamonn Jackson, chairman of the Mica Action Group, who says the situation is concerning because “it seems to be getting worse and worse”.
“People are waking up surrounded by cracks in their homes and then they walk down the main street here and they don’t see pretty buildings anymore, they see a tired town. It’s all around you, it’s everywhere you turn.”
One of the multi-purpose buildings opposite is Scally Place, which houses a number of private businesses, residential dwellings and different public services, such as Letterkenny Primary Care Centre — the temporary outpatients’ department of Letterkenny University Hospital — which reportedly costs the HSE €200,000 a year to rent.
Next to it is Tusla, the child and family agency.
Along the outside of the shared building hairline cracks can be seen underneath the windows and in the corners of the walls. Above the HSE and Tulsa offices are several apartments where the cracks criss-cross along the exterior and surround at least 11 windows.
A spokesman for Tusla confirmed it is investigating the issue, explaining it first came to the attention of its area manager on May 25, 2021, who “immediately notified relevant authorities”.
“Tusla Estates are commissioning a technical assessment to identify if there are any actions required to ensure the safety of our staff and service users.”
The spokesman said Tusla will “engage fully with any recommendations from the technical assessment, and the council, in ensuring that both the building and its surrounding area are safe for members of the public and our staff”.
On the Oldtown Road more cracks, albeit minor, can be seen on some shops. Heading out of Letterkenny, there is evidence of similar issues on several private dwellings.
At the back of Aura Letterkenny Leisure Centre, where the building is most exposed to the elements, there are two children’s slides connected to a dark purple wall that has five spider web-type cracks running down it.
Áine Temple, the centre’s operations manager, says the company is “aware of a number of cracks on the outer wall of the flume tower”.
“This has been brought to the attention of Donegal County Council. The flume/slide tower structure is made of pre-cast concrete and is structurally sound.”
Asked why the area had not been sealed off in the interests of public safety, she added: “In line with health and safety protocols, the area will be secured while investigations are carried out.”
Chartered structural engineer Pauric McDaid, who is from Letterkenny, believes the cracks visible in all of the buildings observed by this newspaper are “consistent with the type of cracking damage that I have observed on buildings, which were later confirmed as being affected with defective blockwork issues.
“In order to confirm this view, it would be necessary to carry out an inspection of the buildings to determine the extent of damage and to advise on the level of sampling and laboratory testing required.”
A report commissioned by the Department of Housing in 2017 investigated the impact of mica on people’s homes. It found that it was “not normal for concrete blocks to fail in the manner observed” and described the blocks investigated as “not fit for purpose”.
Martin McDermott, a Fianna Fáil councillor who is chairman of the council’s Mica Steering Committee, believes it may be the same situation for public buildings.
While he has been mostly focused on private homes, he says he is concerned that public buildings are now “deteriorating by the day” and are not being addressed in the same way.
“This has become a real issue for public buildings, especially in the past few months. The buildings in my area, including community centres, appear to have the same type of cracking that is all over Donegal and the same type of structural deficiencies that are in the homes.”
Last week, the Government said it was too early to make changes to its redress scheme for homeowners, who must pay for 10pc of repairs, plus any outstanding mortgage payments, with the State covering 90pc of the cost. There is no such scheme for public buildings.
“Everywhere you go in Donegal you can see these cracks on buildings. Something needs to be done. If a piece of masonry was to fall, my worry is someone is going to get hurt — or worse,” says Mr McDermott.
One local, who did not want to be named, summed up the feeling in Donegal: “This is like watching an earthquake in slow motion.”