Living in the shadow of Limerick’s superdump

Alan Jacques takes a look at the impact the local authority deal to lease the former landfill site to a US firm is having in West Limerick.

12-5-15 Gortadroma LandfillWHEN Gortadroma landfill was sealed and the site closed last year after 25 years, residents in Ballyhahill finally breathed a sigh of relief.

The burden of living in the shadow of a malodorous rubbish heap where the detritus of modern life was buried appeared to be lifted at long last for the local community.

Gortadroma was the largest landfill site in Limerick since opening in 1990, and with operations at the site coming to an end in April 2014, families in close proximity hoped that their quality of life might now improve.

No more would they have to suffer the sickening stench that filled the air and prevented them from opening windows on fine summer days. No more would they have the worry about being plagued with rats and fear for their children while playing outside. No more would they have to contend with traffic congestion on their rural country roads from heavy trucks travelling in and out of the dump. No more would people’s homes be deemed worthless or unsellable, and perhaps in time, sons and daughters of landowners who had long left the area might even return and build new houses to raise their families. These were the very real hopes of families living in Gortadroma, many who have been there for generations.

These hopes, however, proved short-lived for the local community in Ballyhahill when last September Limerick City and County Council announced a joint bid for the lease on the Gortadroma landfill by two American companies to develop a gasification plant and create 150 new jobs.

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Cadence EnviroPower (CEP) proposed to convert 1,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste a day into syngas at the Ballyhahill site. Estimated to be worth €190 million over 30 years, CEP will pay the local authority a lump sum of €50,000 on the signing of the lease agreement for the landfill, which is due to happen this week.

On receipt of all necessary consents and closure of their debt financing, they will then pay the council a further lump sum of €4 million.

According to CEP’s lease submission, the joint bid from Cadence Infrastructure LLC and EnviroPower Management Incorporated expects construction and commissioning to take one year. When operations get under way, they will pay the council €4 million a year for 30 years.

But while the deal might signify a serious windfall for Limerick City and County Council and the local economy with the creation of jobs, residents living a stone’s throw from the landfill site are still reeling from the announcement. Families in Ballyhahill are deeply angered that the lease for the gasification plant will be signed, sealed and delivered before any public consultation process takes place with those whose lives will be impacted the most — the residents. This they say only adds insult to injury.

Residents claim the council has not given them any information on the proposed gasification plant and any information they have uncovered has been through newspapers and the internet. They feel they have been left them high and dry by the council and their local representatives.

The residents I met tell me that the only correspondence they have received so far on the Gortadroma lease was a letter from Independent councillor Emmett O’Brien to outline the pros and cons of the CEP bid.

This week Cllr O’Brien said: “Following corresponding with the residents adjacent to Gortadroma by way of an information letter, I have met and received calls from these residents with respect to the proposed gasification plant at the site. Whether their concerns are real or perceived, we as public representatives must meet and listen to these residents’ concerns and a public meeting is needed in Ballyhahill to address these concerns.”

Ballyhahill residents Michael Purtill and Anthony Shine
Ballyhahill residents Michael Purtill and Anthony Shine

Michael Purtill, like his grandfather and great-grandfather before him has lived in Ballyhahill all his life. From the young father-of-three’s back garden you are looking straight across at the Gortadroma site and its three lofty mounds of rubbish sealed under a deceiving carpet of green grass.

Looking across the wild and windswept rural landscape, I shuddered as the unpleasant realisation of what actually is in them thar hills sunk in.

Turning his worried gaze from the landfill, Michael tells me that he worries for the future of his children and what they will be faced with in the coming years. He fears the next three decades will return local families to the landfill days of foul odours and the scourge of rodents for another 30 years.

“We live in a lovely rural area. Gortadroma was a local dump that became a super dump and now there are talks of a gasification plant. Where will it all end?” he asked.

“It’s all cash and dash with the council. They did this and got away with it before. They are only interested in money. They have shown absolutely no respect to the people that have to live here.

“There’s one thing saying that the plant will create 150 jobs, but we have to live next to the site, we will still be here when those workers clock out and go home. We are the ones that will be left with the mess 24/7, 365 days a year,” Mr Purtill predicts.

Anthony Shine, who has lived in Ballyhahill for 60 years, was equally concerned when the Limerick Post visited the area this week. Anthony picketed the landfill site when it first opened 25 years ago and insists that residents will not take this latest development lying down.

“Money is the only thing the council cares about, so they are going to have to cough up if they want to satisfy residents,” Mr Shine commented.

“The council are public servants and we are their customers; we pay their wages, yet they made no effort to tell us their plans or to organise a public meeting. We are still in the dark,” he added.

Paul, who moved into the area six years ago, tells me how his family moved out to this beautiful County Limerick setting in search of country life, fresh air and a good place to bring up children.

“It’s ironic isn’t it? In all that time I kept hearing that the landfill was getting closer to its shutdown date and how things would improve when it was gone. What’s our option now? We couldn’t even sell our house if we wanted to. Who would want to buy it?”

The three local men took me on a trip around the Ballyhahill countryside. At the back of the dump in Carnagh, Ballyhahill, I am struck by the number of derelict houses. Nine homes within a half-mile of the landfill site are currently unoccupied.

“The council bought these and left them to rot. Rats and the smell plagued the people that previously lived in them. They’ve been empty for between five and ten years some of them,” Mr Shine claims.

“My own brother’s house is empty for the past two years and we haven’t had one single offer. Seven families are gone from the area and the school and the whole community is affected. People won’t even consider viewing a house here because of the dump.”

One of the derelict houses in Carnagh, Ballyhahill.
One of the derelict houses in Carnagh, Ballyhahill.

Residents feel “dumped on” by the council and are angry that they have yet to be brought to the table on an issue that has huge impact on their lives. They are fearful of what the future holds and being left out of the loop has not helped matters thus far.

The US company behind the multi-million euro energy generation project promises that if the proposal gets the green light that not only will they meet European environmental standards but exceed them “many times over”.

CEP is proposing to convert 365,000 tonnes of municipal solid waste into syngas on an annual basis at Gortadroma. The men behind the proposal gave a strong sales pitch to local councillors last November and described their company as “family people”.

Sinn Féin councillor Ciara McMahon, who has relatives living in the area, told the Limerick Post that she sees the gasification plant as a “huge opportunity” for the area. However, she insists that the residents must be at the forefront of the decision-making process.

“I understand the residents’ feeling of the heartache they have endured with the landfill. But more information needs to be given in a public meeting and public consultation process to allow all the facts to be outlined properly so an informed decision can be made by the residents. I understand the fear of this and I will be calling for the council to make a meeting happen sooner rather than later,” said Cllr McMahon.

While supportive of new jobs, Fianna Fáil TD for Limerick, Niall Collins thinks it is a mistake for people to be rushing out prematurely to welcome and promote this proposal.

“The fact is that these so-called ‘waste to energy’ plants have caused serious tension in communities where they have been constructed in the past. Residents in Gortadroma and Ballyhahill have genuine concerns about issues such as any potential effects on house prices, potential health and environmental impact, what will be done with the by-products of this process and the ability of the local infrastructure to deal with the massive upsurge in traffic arising from the development,” said Deputy Collins.

“All the commentary to date seems to centre around how much the council collect from the plant operators per annum, with little if anything accruing to the local affected community. These concerns are very real and already I have been contacted by quite a number of residents in the area who are deeply distressed by what they think is already ‘a done deal’.

“This is not a done deal in my view nor should it be. Instead of hastily rushing out to promote the scheme, I would like to see the council working together to make sure that there is proper understanding about the scale of what is being sought and a proper discussion about the environmental, health and social impacts of these developments. These discussions need to include the local community, which will be asked to have this development on its doorstep. The local community should not be an add-on at the end of the process — it needs to be involved from day one and real concerns need to be taken seriously,” he told the Limerick Post.

When contacted for comment this week, a spokesperson for the local authority explained: “Limerick City and County Council looked for expressions of interest for future uses of the landfill in 2013. After due process a preferred bidder was selected. The proposal involved processing waste for energy recovery.

“The local Gortadroma Joint Monitoring Committee action group, a group set up to represent the interests of local residents, was informed that this bid was being considered in April 2014. A presentation was given to this committee in December 2014 detailing the proposals of the preferred bidder.12-5-15 Gortadroma Landfill

“On March 11 and 12, 2015, a visit to was arranged to a plant of a similar type to that proposed. Two local residents, who are members of the monitoring committee, participated on this trip along with four local councillors and two members of staff. On March 23 the council agreed to the proposal to lease 14 hectares of land forming part of Gortadroma Landfill to Cadence EnviroPower.”

The council also points out that CEP cannot carry out any works other then a site investigation until they have all permissions in place. These permissions will require public consultation and the public will have its opportunity to object or raise questions as part of the application process.

“Following a recent Adare-Rathkeale municipal district meeting, it has been agreed to hold a public meeting in the near future to update local residents,” the council spokesperson concluded.