On 17 December 2021, John McEvoy was walking Alfie, his Jack Russell terrier, along the banks of the Grand Canal near Blackhorse Bridge and noticed something off with the water.

“It was kind of scummy,” said McEvoy, last Saturday, as his dog stood next to him shaking with pent-up energy.

A few days later, he saw a boom, a floating barrier that can sop up some pollutants and stop them spreading, and a truck from an environmental company. It looked as if the workers were sampling the water, he says.

“I thought okay, it’s being dealt with,” he said. “I didn’t call anybody at the time. It was Christmas, I was going home.”

On 15 January, though, he saw the boom again on the canal.

That alarmed McEvoy, prompting him to ask questions, to phone and call around, he says.

A spokesperson for the Electricity Supply Board (ESB) says a leaking cable caused the water pollution.

“ESB Networks responded to a third party contractor dig-in to one of our cables last week which resulted in the release of cable fluid,” they said in an email on 22 December 2021.

On 12 January, an ESB spokesperson said that the contamination was ongoing. A cable was damaged and they repaired it, they said.

“Following these repair works, a small amount of residual fluid remains in the soil near the location of the leak,” they said.

Rainwater moved some of the fluid into the canal, they said, but ESB and environmental experts have been monitoring the canal while working with Waterways Ireland and Dublin City Council to fix the problem.

The spokesperson said that the leaked fluid is biodegradable but with past leaks, their classification of the mix of liquids that seep from cables has set them at odds with the Environmental Protection Agency. As did the ESB’s failure to properly report leaks for years.

McEvoy says that, as much as anything else, he wants to see more transparency around what ESB has found and is doing.

“I still haven’t read or heard anything about it, which is disappointing and worrying; I think being transparent puts people’s minds at ease,” he said.

Clouding the Canal

Last Saturday, two booms sat on the grand canal. Around the one of them nearest to Blackhorse Bridge, the water seemed cloudy, blurring a red can of Coca-Cola sitting at the bottom of the canal.

An ESB spokesperson said that the leaked material was linear alkylbenzene (LAB). LAB is biodegradable in the water, they said.

They have sent a sample of the canal’s water for testing, but Covid-19-related staffing issues at the laboratory have delayed the release of the results, the spokesperson said.

An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report from February 2020 on the scale of cable leaks in the past and how the ESB has dealt with them, says that the leaking fluid is usually a mix of mineral oil and LAB.

“And therefore must be considered hazardous,” it says, because mineral oil is classified as hazardous, even while LAB isn’t.

A spokesperson for the EPA said that the ESB didn’t have to report the leak on the Grand Canal “as it didn’t occur at an EPA licensed site”.

They should report such incidents to local authorities, they said.

John McEvoy with his dog Alfie by the Grand Canal in Inchicore. Photo by Shamim Malekmian.

A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said that its water-pollution control unit is aware of the incident, but Waterways Ireland would be the responsible agency.

A spokesperson for Waterways Ireland said the ESB notified them about the leak on 16 December.

“Waterways Ireland is satisfied that ESB Networks is dealing with the situation with the urgency required,” they said in an email on 21 December 2022.

On 14 January, the Waterways Ireland spokesperson said the agency learned about further spillage into the canal on 12 January. They contacted the ESB straight after, they said.

“The ESB advised that immediate measures would be taken by their specialist environmental sub-contractor to address the incident,” said the spokesperson.

ESB’s sub-contractors are there daily to tackle the problem, they said.

McEvoy, the Inchicore resident, said he had contacted Waterways Ireland on Friday 14 January, and they were helpful and responsive. “They were back to me by the Monday,” he said.

Other locals likely reported it too, he says.

More Transparency

In July 2019, Seamus O’Loughlin, an ESB worker – who’d gone to RTÉ Investigates about ongoing cable-fluid leaks, and other issues at the company – testified before a Dáil committee.

ESB high-voltage cables use fluids as an insulating medium, he said.

The annual cable-fluid leakage rate over the past 20 years had been 17 percent, he said, and as high as 30 percent in the worst years. By comparison, in the UK, he said, the rate was 2 percent.

After the RTÉ Investigates report, the Dáil testimony, and an EPA investigation into the issue, ESB in September 2020 said all the existing leaks at that time had been fixed.

The ESB spokesperson didn’t say how many cable leaks there have been into the Grand Canal in 2021.

“We have no further comment to add to our statement at this time,” its spokesperson said in response to the query.

McEvoy says what worries him the most about the recent Grand Canal leakage is the lack of transparency about the incident and its impact.

Locals around Blackhorse and Inchicore have heard different responses.

On Saturday, a group of volunteers were pulling rubbish out of the canal. Stephen Hough, a member of the Inchicore Environmental Group, had lined up heaps of litter.

Hough says he’d noticed the booms and asked someone working on the leak what the pollution was.

“I think he said oil,” says Hough, but it was a bit hard to make out. Hough says he’s happy that at least they seem to be working on it.

Padraic Fogarty, campaigns officer at the Irish Wildlife Trust, says that one problem with the canal is that the water is nearly stagnant. “It has very little capacity to dilute or break down pollutants.”

People use the canal for swimming and other water sports, and any pollution in the water is cause for concern, Fogarty said.

As locals ran, walked their dogs or strolled around the canal last Saturday, McEvoy stood near the water’s edge.

The ESB should have made a statement about the leak to the public, he says.

“They should’ve said, look, here’s the issue, here’s what it does, and here’s what we’re doing to fix it, I just wanted that, I think everyone does,” said McEvoy, as his impatient dog stood next to him.

Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at shamim@dublininquirer.com

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