Annette Flanagan fans out sheets of paper on her marble kitchen table.
Altogether, she’s collected 458 signatures from her neighbours in the pockets of small estates and pebbledash terraces around Moatview Court and Belcamp Gardens in Priorswood.
The petition they have signed has a one-line ask.
It calls on Dublin City Council to remove the illegal waste in this northside suburb, the giant mounds of rubbish stretched out in a chain on the edge of a green to the north of her home and south of a cluster of Traveller housing and halting sites.
“Everyone said the same thing,” says Flanagan. “All they want is, they just want it gone.”
The piles of dumped rubbish are mostly gravelly clay, bricks, wires, and plastics it seems, although there could be spots with contaminants, and some household waste, tyres, and crushed cans are visible too. It has been growing for more than a decade, and for a while the council promised it would haul the waste away imminently.
In March 2020, a spokesperson for Dublin City Council said that cleaning up the site was high on its agenda. It “is one of a number of priority capital projects for the year 2020”, they said.
“The scale of the problem and the health risks involved require immediate action,” say the minutes of a meeting in June 2020 of government officials from the council, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Environment and Gardaí, which mention a plan to act within months.
But months have stretched into years and those living either side of the banks of muck and rubble have watched them grow taller and longer. They’ve worried about their health, kept their kids from playing outside for fear of the rats – and seen only leaked snippets of what council plans may be.
“We’re just classed as second-class citizens, that’s what we are,” said Flanagan. “And this would never go on anywhere else. It wouldn’t.”
A spokesperson for Dublin City Council said it wasn’t true that the neighbourhood – classed by Pobal as very disadvantaged – is being treated differently to wealthier parts of the city and that this is indicative of prejudice: “Dublin City Council completely refute this.”
The council hired engineers to assess what’s in the waste, got architects to draw up ideas for what to put on the site, and has been working with central government agencies and Gardaí on how to deal with it all.
The council’s current plan is to clear the illegal dump at the same time as fully redeveloping the site, said a council spokesperson on 28 July. They didn’t respond to questions, though, as to how long it may be until that happens.
Living with the Dump
White butterflies dance above the patches of grass and yellow flowers that have grown atop some of the hills of rubbish, at least as high as the nearby houses, on the edge of the green.
Much of the mounds are made of construction rubble and dirt. But visible recently on the top layers were also bin bags, and tyres, an old warped red plastic ladder, and metal coils, and cans and plastic bottles. At the western end of the ridges of rubble, a green wheelie bin lay on its side, by an old propane cylinder.
Residents living in homes near the still-growing dump say the sounds and lights from machinery keep them up late into the night, that on breezy days, dust and dirt coats any laundry they hang out to dry.
They say they are plagued by rats, that their dogs regularly present them with dead vermin, that they can’t leave windows open, and are fearful of letting their kids out to play.
“Everyone’s houses around here have rats in their attics and all,” says Flanagan. “And the corporation’s not listening. They don’t care.”
Sat at the end of the kitchen table, Shane McDonagh, who lives on the other side of the mounds of waste – and later says he takes responsibility for one bank of waste – said he too wants that waste cleared, and other piles of rubbish around the entrance to the sites and domestic waste dumped in drivebys.
There are giant rats all over the place, he says, pulling out his phone to show rat traps and his German shepherd attacking them. He worries for his kids, he says, about bites and Weil’s disease. “It’s not if, it’s when, you get a bite of a rat.”
Joe Noonan, an environmental solicitor, says one route for residents desperate to get the council to clear the big illegal dump would be to show how it may meet the legal definition of a “nuisance”.
Common law gives birth to something called “nuisance”, he says. “Nuisance is an enforceable right to be able to enjoy and use your home without unreasonable interference from somebody else nearby.”
That draws in things like whether there are discharges or noise – or rats, Noonan says. “That can be quite a powerful legal tool to reach for in this type of situation.”
In these cases, those affected don’t have to wait for time to pass before they react, says Noonan. “If you’ve given them warning and you’ve said, you know, ‘This is appalling stop it,’ and if they don’t stop it, you’re entitled to bring that before a court.”
In the Shortest Time
An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) protocol for dealing with illegal waste says that dumped waste near residential areas should be removed “at all times” in “the shortest practicable time”.
In June 2020, the council proposed to remove the waste within months, put up a boundary wall and, with support from the guards, prevent illegal dumping from happening again, according minutes of a briefing with the EPA, the Department of the Environment, and Gardaí – carried out during a meeting of a subgroup of the National Waste Enforcement Steering Committee set up to look at problem sites.
Later steps would include building housing and a cultural centre, wrapping up the whole project in five years, the minutes say.
Clearing the dump quickly was still the plan a year later. In June 2021, a council spokesperson said that its immediate remediation plans included removing waste and building a wall to prevent further dumping. “This work is expected to commence in the coming few months,” they said.
But that later changed.
One concern raised in meetings of council officials and with national government officials has been making sure that – if the council clears what’s there now – people don’t build up a new illegal dump again on the same spot.
So the council has been working on a plan to develop the site at the same time as the waste is removed, the council has said. So there’s no big empty site to dump waste on at all.
On 29 June this year, a reply to a query from a Sinn Féin TD Denise Mitchell – drafted by a council official in waste enforcement and okayed by the council’s chief executive, Owen Keegan – said that: “Dublin City Council is in the process of finalising a plan for the full development of this site, which will include removal of all waste material.”
“In tandem with this approach the Council has engaged at a high level with An Garda Siochána with a view to agreeing a joint approach to dealing with any further illegal activity associated with this site,” it says.
The council official told the EPA that he couldn’t give an idea of timescale, given that the development would have to go through proposal, council approval, planning, tender, and construction.
“This can take some considerable time if there are any objections or if there are funding questions from the Dept of Housing,” he said.
The response doesn’t give details of the shape of this near-done plan. But in August 2019, Dublin City Council had hired Downey MacConville Architects and Sheridan Woods to look at how to develop the wider area – the Traveller housing estates to the north of the illegal dump, and the lands to its south and east.
The idea, says the report released under the Freedom of Information Act, is to deal with a whole cluster of things: the overcrowding and terrible living conditions on the Traveller sites, the illegal dumping, and environmental degradation.
The architects’ favoured option was to redevelop the Traveller housing estates and sites and add a ribbon of new houses where the illegal dump is today for those in crammed living conditions to move into, a revamped linear park in front of Moatview Court, and a new centre to celebrate and promote Traveller culture and achievements.
There have been hints that the council was pursuing this. The plan, it says, would require buying up three privately-owned houses.
A letter sent by council chief Owen Keegan to then-Minister for Environment Richard Bruton in December 2019 said that “the acquisition of these properties is considered essential to gaining control of lands in the area which facilitate illegal dumping”. If the council couldn’t agree to buy them, it would use a compulsory purchase order to get them, the letter said.
In June last year, one of the owners of those homes said they had accepted an offer from the council to buy their house, but then the council had taken it back. The council said at the time that this hadn’t happened.
A Chance to Weigh In
It’s likely that there will be some objections to whatever plans for the site the council eventually publishes, which could further drag out the timeline for clearing the dump.
The architects’ report mentions the need for extensive consultation with communities living in the area, on the sites to be developed and also those to the south, where people have also looked out for years onto the illegal dump.
But that hasn’t happened, says Flanagan.
She has been desperately trying to work out what the council is doing, she says, but hasn’t been able to. She is scathing of local and national politicians, who she says periodically promise to push to get the dump cleared, but then disappear.
She has asked council officials at local community forum meetings about goings on in the neighbourhood what progress there has been with clearing the landfill, she says. “Wouldn’t answer me.”
There were no updates on clearing the waste at those meetings, said Flanagan. “But this is the most important thing to talk about,” she says, jabbing with a finger at her kitchen table and the petition, as she voices each syllable.
“There’s no communication. They’re not telling us anything. None of us around here are being told nothing,” she says. “It’s like it’s all kept a secret with them. That’s the way I feel anyway.”
In June last year, part of the architects’ reports were leaked to some locals, but council officials haven’t shared the full report with them, or with local councillors.
Some residents say they’d be okay with some more housing on the strip. Flanagan says she wouldn’t be, that she would like to see the green space turned into a beautiful neighbourhood park, with a sensory garden and stuff for kids. “There’s nothing for the kids.”
“I think the entire space could be reimagined,”says Labour Councillor Alison Gilliland, who sits on an oversight group that is responsible for making sure recommendations for changes in Darndale made in a recent report are carried out.
Gilliland suggests cost-rental housing to add to the mix of housing in the neighbourhood – where roughly 45 percent are social homes – improving the green space, and maybe workspaces for small businesses around there that may currently be operating out of back gardens or homes.
Says Sinn Féin Councillor Larry O’Toole: “My preference would be for it to be a nice parkland.” But whatever they do with it, it has to be discussed with local residents first, he says.
A council spokesperson didn’t directly say whether the housing, centre of excellence and linear park, or any of the options on the architects’ report, are still in play. “Future use is currently being assessed,” was the response through the press office.
The government body responsible for making sure the council enforces laws around illegal dumping, and keeps moving along, is the EPA.
If the EPA wants to force the council to make sure the waste is cleared, it can easily do that, said Owen McIntyre, a professor specialising in environmental law at University College Cork.
It has significant powers and under section 63 of the Environmental Protection Agency Act could issue a direction forcing the council to have the waste removed, he said.
McIntyre says he doesn’t know of guidelines for what is a reasonable amount of time for the council to clear the waste, but that doesn’t mean it is open-ended. “That would mean that that would be subject to a reasonable timeline.”
“And three years would not be reasonable, having regard to risks, health risks, risks to children of accidents, and loss of amenity and everything else,” he says.
The EPA first learnt of the illegal dump in February 2019, it has said. (Dublin City Council had been aware of it long before, records suggest. During a site visit in April 2019, a council official told the EPA that the dumping may date back to 2003.)
McIntyre said it’s difficult to push the EPA to issue a direction to the council. They have discretion, he says.
“There’s a lot of these discretions in Irish legislation which allows the enforcing authority to take a whole range of things into account,” he says. “So they can’t really be forced to exercise their powers.”
Meanwhile, “the courts don’t like forcing statutory authorities to do particular things because they don’t know what the resource constraints or other circumstances are”, he says.
A spokesperson for the EPA said on 16 August that it hasn’t issued any notice to Dublin City Council about the illegal dump, but had been in ongoing contact with the council about the site for years.
Based on information from the council, an update from it in December 2019, and the need of multiple agencies to get involved, the EPA decided the matter was in hand, they said. “And that the issue of a notice under Section 63 of the Environmental Protection Agency Act would not be helpful or appropriate at that time.”
“The EPA may of course review this decision from time to time as new information becomes available,” said the spokesperson.
EPA records released under Access to Environmental Information regulations included the December 2019 update from Dublin City Council Chief Executive Owen Keegan on plans for the site which said the council would put up blockades in early 2020, then clear then dump at the same time as putting up a concrete wall to stop access.
But the records don’t show any subsequent one-to-one check-ins between the EPA and Dublin City Council to see how progress on clearing the site was going.
The site was discussed at a meeting with the council, the EPA, the Gardai and government officials on a National Waste Enforcement Steering Committee (NWESC) subgroup in June 2020, but isn’t mentioned in the minutes of the one subgroup meeting held since then.
An EPA spokesperson said that, given it hasn’t opened a “Section 63 “ file about the site, it couldn’t answer questions about whether it had agreed a particular timeline with the council, whether it had agreed to the council’s plan to wait until the whole site was redeveloped to clear the waste, and what it considers to be the “shortest time practicable”.
These questions should be directed to Dublin City Council, they said.
In the mid-morning on 10 June, strolling east from Flanagan’s house, Shane McDonagh paused on a gravelly path, just before two staggered metal gates that sit between Moatview Court and Belcamp Gardens.
Dumped in a corner next to the gates at this edge of the green were a couple of big empty cardboard boxes, crushed cans, and sofa cushions, ripped open to spill their yellow foam.
Another bag of rubbish and an upturned chair had been dumped by one of a trail of boulders towards the middle of the green – and then further still towards the horizon were the long mounds of the much larger dump.
McDonagh takes responsibility for some of that, he says.
“See this muck bank? See the one with the green on it?” he says, pointing beyond the grassy field and beyond the piles of domestic waste towards a big mound about 80 metres away. “I have made that.”
He had been tidying up on the other side of the hill and adding to a pile on the Moatview green, he had said earlier, because the council wouldn’t clear it up and people kept driving in to fly-tip. He has been doing work to clear a space for his kids to play too, he says.
“I put that muck bank there. I take responsibility for that one. But not that one,” he says, gesturing towards another bank beside it. “That one has nothing got to do with me.”
“Dublin City Council, EPA, they’re all well aware that I have put that there. They’ve been looking at me doing it,” he says.
Who did the other one next to it? “I’m not going to comment on that one,” he says, with a shake of his head.
He tried to tidy up the bank he made, McDonagh says. “I cleaned it best I could, I put grass seed on it.”
But it’s still a mess on the other side of the mound by his home, he says. McDonagh scrolled through some pictures on his phone.
“That’s what I have to look at because they won’t move anything,” he says, showing an image of a cliff with layers of rubbish running through it. “That’s pure rubbish, household rubbish. That’s all on the other side of that bank.”
He tried to green this side, he says. “Because it’s more important to me to keep everybody on this side happy.”
Who Should Pay?
McIntyre, the environmental solicitor, says the council does have the right to go through the courts to recoup the cost of clearing the waste from those who put it there, but working out where waste is from can suck up resources. “And local authorities don’t tend to want to get involved in that.”
In some cases, where evidence gathering might be complex or there are fears of violence, they can ask for help from the Gardai, if they feel that’s needed, he said.
Keegan’s December 2019 update to Bruton does detail the work done by the council’s waste enforcement unit and the guards that year with covert and overt monitoring, and stopping and searching vehicles suspected to be involved.
The council’s waste enforcement unit had up to November that year dedicated 97 officer days to enforcement there, served two legal notices under the Waste Management Act, impounded three vehicles, and taken legal action against three residents in the area, it says.
But they had to pause at times because of safety risks to officers, Keegan’s update says. When an engineer went in to test the waste too, they had their car burnt out too, and didn’t quite finish, the update says.
At the end of July this year, a response from the Department of Environment to a query from Sinn Féin TD Denise Mitchell said that Dublin City Council is still investigating the illegal dumping in the area, and actively engaging at a senior level with An Garda Siochana.
A council spokesperson said: “There is no evidence available as to who was responsible for the illegal dumping.” The cost of the clean-up – the most recent estimate for which was €6.5 million, as of 2020 – will currently fall to the council, they said.
Residents and councillors won’t name those responsible, but many say it is an open secret, hardly hidden.
Gilliland, the Labour councillor, said enforcement has to happen. “I would be very concerned that it’s sorted and the perpetrators brought to justice.”
It is critical that that happens so that there isn’t commercial-scale illegal dumping in the future, and to make sure there is respect for the law, the environment, and communities around there, she says.
Flanagan, the local resident who has been pushing for the dump to be cleared, says that right now she thinks the way forward is to set aside past wrongs, and have the council, and Travellers and settled residents living all around the dump – many of whom have lived side by side for generations – work together to all unite behind clearing the piles of waste.
Mostly, she blames the council for the waste, she says, for just watching on for years while the rubbish piled up on council land, a neighbourhood park – as the mounds grow taller and taller, and longer and longer – and doing nothing.
A spokesperson for the council said: “Waste Enforcement Officers have spent considerable time on prevention programmes in this area for several years with limited success.”
Two months after Flanagan posted her petition of hundreds of signatures to Dublin City Council, she hadn’t had any acknowledgement, she says.