In Stoneybatter, a Small Fire Ignites Fears of a Bigger One

There are stains still around the electrical box in Janet Proudfoot’s Stoneybatter apartment.

The marks were left by the water that leaked through her ceiling about five years ago, she says. “I saw all this dirty brown water coming down, it was pouring down through it.”

She was shocked, says Proudfoot, who works as a childcare worker in the local creche.

She is stood in her hall in front of her silver-carpeted stairs. She has long brown hair and wears jeans and a cream coat.

As soon as she spotted the flood, she phoned an emergency number for Dublin City Council, which manages the social-housing complex, she says.

She points to the uneven plaster work above the switchbox. Council workers roughly plastered over the hole, and they tried to find the source of the leak, but they didn’t replace the switch box, and it still bears the brown stains from the water.

Leaks like that are common throughout the complex, several residents said last week. Some believe the leaks are connected to electrical faults they have been experiencing lately – including an electrical fire in a meter box last month.

That fire at the bottom of the apartments at Marmion Court near Queen Street was “a disaster waiting to happen”, says Sinn Féin Councillor Janice Boylan.

Despite a regeneration effort 17 years ago, residents list off multiple structural and design faults in the complex, and some are convinced that the problems are interconnected.

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said that the electrical fault that caused the fire is not present in the other blocks in the complex.

Lost Lives

On 14 September, a large electricity metre box outside one of the apartment blocks caught fire.

It was terrifying, says Antoinette Ormsby, who lives in the block affected. None of the fire alarms went off, including those nearby on the ground floor.

“There was black smoke everywhere,” she says.

Sinn Féin’s Boylan says she is concerned that residents were alerted to the fire by neighbours, and not an alarm. “If that fire had happened at night lives could have been lost,” she says.

Photo by Michael Marangos.

Ormsby says that, in the weeks before the fire, her lights would flicker. Bulbs kept blowing. At least once a year, she has a major leak in her apartment, she says.

“The water comes bellowing out of the side of my block right beside the electric box,” she says. “You don’t have to be Einstein to figure out that water and electric don’t go.”

In another block, Mary Kinsella, a childcare worker who sits on the residents’ committee, has photos of the severe water damage from leaks in her apartment.

She, too, believes it affects her electricity. Light bulbs only last around a week, she says.

Kinsella says she’s concerned by how close the electrical box outside is to the gas mains. What might happen if the fire reaches the gas supply? she asks.

Call a Professional

“Water and electricity, from an electrical safety point of view, do not mix,” says Peter Barry, who specialises in active fire-safety systems for Emcon Systems.

Generally, electrical devices such as sub-distribution boards – what some call colloquially the electrical switch boxes – have an IP rating, an ingress-protection rating, which reflects their ability to withstand particulate matter or water.

“You want to make sure whatever your electric device is, whether it’s a switch or a light fitting or whatever, it’s suitable for that environment,” says Barry, who also lectures at Trinity College Dublin on fire-safety practices.

Devices outside or in kitchens and bathrooms where there’s dampness, dust, and fumes, have higher ratings, he says. Usually, IP65.

Inside apartments, it’s usually IP20, so it doesn’t keep out water. If water gets into those devices it can act as a conductor, the same as a cable, so it can short out items, he says.

Having to replace bulbs a lot? “That would be a regular occurrence due to water ingress,” he says.

Distribution boards have protective devices – the breakers that can pop sometimes if they need to isolate a circuit for safety reasons.

If water does get into the electrical sub-distribution board – what colloquially some called the electrical switchboard – those breakers are compromised, he says.

If that happens, an electrician should be called in to investigate and determined if a board needs to be repaired and dried out, or replaced, he says.

“You would always need a professional to give you their professional opinion on that,” he says.

“A Full Investigation”

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said “The fire was caused by the ESB pot head in the Meter Cabinet and was contained within this cabinet.”

(When an electrical cable comes from the street into a meter cabinet, it terminates in a pot head where the cable is sealed.)

“Inspections were carried out to the remaining meter cabinets in the complex and no issues were found,” they said.

They did not respond directly to questions as to what action has been taken to remedy the leaks, and whether the complex is safe.

A spokesperson for ESB Networks said they are aware of the incident. “A full investigation is being carried out.”

Escape Routes

If there was a larger fire, the escape routes are compromised, say the tenants.

“A fella came out last week and gave out fire alarms and smoke alarms – but the windows don’t open,” says Proudfoot.

In the bedroom, she uses a coat hanger to prise her window open. This is what she does, she says, when she wants to wash the outside of the window.

Photo by Michael Marangos.

The window frame is warped. The safety latch is broken. “You literally have to pull it and drag it out. What is the point in giving me a fire blanket? You are going to burn to death anyway,” she says.

Boylan, the Sinn Féin councillor, says that broken window latches are a common complaint throughout the complex.

All the windows are faulty and need to be replaced, says Kinsella. As well as not opening, some let in rain and add to the chronic dampness caused by leaks, she says.

She has one new window frame, as an old one got so damp it fell off, she says. “It fell in on top of my daughter’s bed – frame and all.”

Her daughter, luckily, wasn’t in the bed at the time. She could have been hurt if she had been, says Kinsella. “It took two grown men to pick it up.”

Kinsella says that the steel staircases that serve as the only exit routes from the upper floors are also slippery when wet – which could make them dangerous to run down in an emergency.

Many times, children have fallen and hurt themselves on the stairs, says Kinsella.

Photo by Michael Marangos.

Other Issues

There are the leaks and the fire-safety concerns.

There are also the pipes that freeze in winter, the water shortages in summer, chronic damp, and sewage backed up so that it sludges up into sinks and baths – the last of which seems worst for the apartments on the ground floor.

Boylan, the Sinn Féin councillor, says she was helping a girl in the bottom flat at one point who had to be moved out.

“Because of the chronic smell of sewage and the sewage flies that were coming up into her home,” says Boylan. “It was disgusting.”

Kinsella says that other residents are still living in those conditions. The infestation of rats is likely connected to the problem with the sewers, she says.

The council put down rat poison, which didn’t work, says Kinsella. Tenants are trying out rat cages themselves, she says.

Residents’ committees down the years have tried to highlight the many issues in the complex, but in vain, says Kinsella.

The current committee won’t be giving up, though, she says. “We are going to fight.”

Regeneration

Both Kinsella and Proudfoot grew up in what are known as the Queen Street apartments. The complex was built roughly 50 years ago.

Originally, there were 84 corporation flats of similar design to the social housing in Dominick Street, says Kinsella.

For the most part, the quality of those homes was “grand”, she says. “All we needed was central heating and a lick of paint.”

In 1996, the Irish Times reported that the complex was to be added to.

“Four bleak blocks of corporation flats in Queen Street, Dublin, are set to be transformed by an innovative architectural scheme which will, in effect, wrap new housing around them,” the report says.

The plan was strongly supported by the city architect, Jim Barrett, and would be a model for other inner-city redevelopments, it says.

It is unclear whether that exact design was what was built. But 17 years ago, a new apartment complex was built in an L-shape around the existing ones, says Kinsella.

Kinsella and Proudfoot both say council officials told them their homes were to be regenerated in the style of the red-brick social-housing complex at Bride Street.

Says Kinsella: “We were sold a pup.”

Residents didn’t agree to the current design, she says.

There are three sets of steel staircases on each apartment block. Each set of stairs is shared by two flats – so access to other apartments on the same floor is cut off, leaving neighbours isolated.

Dublin City Council Press Office hasn’t yet responded to queries about the design.

It would be better to have kept the red-brick to match the style of much of the rest of Stoneybatter, says Kinsella. Instead, the flats are painted white with a brown blocky design.

Photo by Michael Marangos.

Kinsella says she thinks sewage problems and water-pressure problems may be down to wrapping on those 50 extra homes. The infrastructure can’t support it, she says.

Says Proudfoot: “We were born and reared here and we wanted to come back, but it has been hell.”

The problems started “from day one” after the regeneration, she says. “There were problems with everything, absolutely everything.”

Independent Councillor Christy Burke says that one of his canvassers asked him if the apartment complex was an open prison, because of the way the multiple steel stairs look.

Dublin City Council Press Office didn’t respond to detailed questions about that regeneration submitted on 11 October.

What Next?

Next month, the residents’ committee, including Kinsella, is scheduled to attend a local area meeting of the council.

Councillor Burke says the apartment complex needs to be demolished and fully rebuilt. “We can’t keep putting plasters on a gaping wound,” he says.

The complex is on the council’s list of blocks in need of regeneration or redevelopment under its Estates Renewal Programme.

Kinsella says residents want decent living conditions, but some are also worried about moving out of their area and the break-up their community.

They want legally binding agreements saying they’d be able to move back in once any work was done, she says.

But it is a priority for people that they can raise their families in decent living conditions.

“We are intelligent, hard-working people rearing our kids, like everybody else,” says Kinsella, standing on the road that runs through the blocks of the complex.

Metal fences separate the blocks. To one side is a grubby and broken-up playground.

Ormsby says the way the complex looks leads to ghettoisation.

Kinsella says she too feels that her community is stigmatised by its appearance.

“It is very unfair when you look at the surrounding area that is so up-and-coming,” says Kinsella. “Stoneybatter is a cool place to be. Well, we deserve to be part of Stoneybatter.”

Photo by Michael Marangos.

Author:

Laoise Neylon: Laoise Neylon is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer. You can reach her at laoiseneylon@gmail.com.

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