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In America and the UK, there have been extensive studies into what’s called environmental racism, essentially when low-income or minority communities end up living in degraded environments, amidst more pollution, or more decay.
These have led to calls for greater environmental justice, which, in the US, the Environmental Protection Agency supports through policy. And in the UK, nonprofits do the bulk of the work.
In Ireland, this hasn’t become an issue to date.
Maybe it’s because we live on such a lovely island, where everyone is treated equally. Or maybe it’s because the country is so small that no matter where we situate dumps, we’d all be within a short distance of them.
Or perhaps, this type of discrimination just hasn’t been highlighted here yet.
Here in Dublin
Looking at the Irish EPA’s handy environment map, you can check what kind of EPA-regulated activities are near your home.
So we counted how many licensed waste facilities are in some of Dublin’s poorest areas, and compared them to the figures from the most well-off places.
Using Daft’s search facility, we found five of the city’s most upmarket houses that are currently on sale and used their addresses on the map.
For addresses in Dalkey, Ballsbridge, Dartry, Killiney and Dublin 2, we found no waste facilities within a kilometre. Within two kilometres, there were five licensed waste facilities. And within three kilometres, there were 14.
We then typed in the addresses of five Traveller accommodation sites around the city, including Labre Park in Ballyfermot, Bridgeview in Clondalkin, St Joseph’s in Finglas, St Aidan’s Halting Site in Tallaght and Cara Park in Coolock.
We chose to use these sites, because Travellers are one of the most marginalised groups in Irish society and the areas they live in are usually more broadly working-class, with low-income households.
Within a radius of one kilometre, there’s eight licensed waste facilities. Within two kilometres, there’s 17. And within three, there’s 36.
Looking at these examples, it’s clear that there are a lot more facilities dealing in waste in the areas where Travellers live.
The Case of Ballyfermot
There are five active waste facilities within a kilometre of Labre Park in Ballyfermot. Residents don’t like it.
Lorraine McMahon of the Ballyfermot Travellers’ Action Project (BTAP) says the area was never zoned as residential, even though Dublin Corporation set up the site for Travellers to live in back in 1967.
Being surrounded by waste facilities certainly has a negative effect on their quality of life, she says, especially during summers. McMahon says that the nearby Thornton’s Recycling on Killeen Road is unpleasant to live near.
“In the warm weather, the stench is absolutely unbelievable,” she says. “And there’s flies everywhere.”
Last summer, locals protested outside the facility about the foul smell. On a recent rainy Wednesday afternoon, there was a smell on the outskirts of the waste-management centre, but – perhaps because of the cold weather – it wasn’t overpowering.
It’s likely that at this time of year, the bangs and clangs from nearby industrial warehouses would annoy residents more.
In 2005, Dublin City Council applied for a waste licence to open a civic amenity site right beside the halting site. On behalf of Labre Park’s residents, BTAP objected.
“They already lived in intolerable conditions,” says McMahon. “BTAP said enough is enough.”
Today, there is no civic amenity site there, but not because of any protestations. The EPA granted the council a licence, but the council never opened one up.
On the other side of the city, the survivors of last year’s tragic fire in Carrickmines continue to live at the car park of a depot owned by Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council (DLRCC).
The council accommodated the families here as a temporary measure after local residents protested their move to a piece of land near Rockville Drive. It gave each family a three-bed mobile home and connected them to services.
But the new site was located right beside a closed landfill, which operated between 2000 and 2005. It was covered over in 2010. (See map at right.)
There is an active landfill gas management system in place, and inspectors regularly monitor the site for unsafe levels of gas, an Environmental Protection Agency spokesperson said last November when we first asked about the safety of the site.
But the Environmental Protection Agency did advise the council to take the former landfill into consideration when putting in place and operating the temporary accommodation, said the spokesperson.
Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council said the landfill wasn’t leaking any unsafe gases and added that it would be carrying out extra inspections of the site just in case.
For the most part, they’re monitoring the drainage pipes outside and adjacent to the site, where the Carrickmines survivors are living. They check these to make sure no landfill gases have migrated through the cover of the landfill.
Under FOI, we received these extra inspections up until February and asked an expert to look over the readings for us.
Michael Ryan, a professor of pharmacology at UCD, found that there was no significant build-up of toxic or explosive gases found during the inspections.
He did draw attention, though, to methane levels of 81 percent during one reading on January 5, which dropped to 30 percent after five minutes of venting. Later readings saw the levels decline to 34 percent on January 19 and again to just five percent on January 27.
“The main concern would be possibility of explosive events,” said Ryan. It would be much more worrying if high levels of toxic gases like hydrogen sulphide or carbon monoxide were found, he said.
He said that the build-up seemed to have subsided and it didn’t appear to be near the accommodation. (The local authority said it isn’t near the accommodation, too.)
“The monitoring of the manholes in the vicinity of the accommodation compound is a precautionary measure to ensure surface water and leachate pipelines are flowing freely and to measure potential gas levels,” said a spokesperson for the council.
The spokesperson denied that methane levels recorded were high, and said there’s no cause for concern.
An EPA spokesperson said it couldn’t comment on the inspections as it does not have the records.
Residents on the site didn’t know about the inspections and the proximity of a former landfill, according to a spokesperson from Southside Travellers, which represents Travellers living in the Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown area.
The spokesperson said the council said there was no cause for concern, but it is eager to see the four families relocated to a permanent site.
While it appears that the site is safe, would the government settle another group so close to a landfill site?
“If you look at any Traveller accommodation across the country, it’s always segregated from the community,” says McMahon of BTAP. “Generally at the edge of an industrial site and more than often along the path of electric pylons.”
An Unclear Picture
It’s hard to know to what extent the location of waste dumps and facilities are clustered in low-income areas in Ireland. There don’t appear to have been studies done, and it’s sometimes unclear from EPA data whether facilities are in use, or open, or not.
The 25 licensed waste facilities inside the M50 that are listed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website fall within areas that have a range of incomes on the face of it.
Some, if you go by the Pobal-Haase Deprivation Index for Small Areas, are in very disadvantaged areas, and some are in very affluent areas. But the picture is confused by outliers such as the Docklands and non-residential industrial estates.