Excavation at an enormous scale is being carried out at Dublin Airport to remove 150,000 tonnes of contaminated soil.
The soil is contaminated with a family of chemicals known as PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances) and they pose a serious health risk and are linked to the development of kidney and testicular cancer.
PFAS chemicals can contaminate water and because of this it is possible that the contamination could impact communities around the airport if it is not contained.
Despite this, very little has been made public about the contamination until reports in waste industry press revealed that 80,000 tonnes of soil (of the 150,000 tonnes excavated) are being transported from Ireland to Norway to a specialist facility for decontamination.
To put the scale of this in context, the reports suggest that more than 8 bulk carrier ships are being used to move the soil.
The contamination likely came from the use of fire extinguisher foam at the airport over many years, mainly during fire drills.
The industry reports on the contamination contained quotes from the Head of Hazardous Waste at Geminor in Norway. He described the project as ‘one of the larger single operations we have been involved in when it comes to PFAS-contaminated soil in Europe’.
The two reports that alerted the community to the contamination have been removed in recent days.
A DAA official explained that the company have drilled 12 wells and monitor water courses around the airport to make sure the chemicals are not moving into the ground water or spreading through the water catchment.
The DAA currently have a number of planning applications with Fingal County Council and are preparing an application involving a major infrastructure development, alongside plans to increase the passenger cap.
It is not clear whether any of those applications relate to lands impacted by the contamination, risking the spread of these chemicals. In a statement to the Irish Times this week a spokesperson for the DAA said that the excavation was in full compliance with all applicable regulations and Fingal County Council and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have been notified.
Cllr Ian Carey said:
“Most people would understand that a facility like Dublin Airport is going to have highly controlled chemicals and substances. They would also understand that soil contamination is also pretty likely, especially with the widespread contamination issues from fire extinguisher foam.
“However, what is deeply troubling about what is happening at Dublin Airport is both the scale of the problem and the fact that the public have been kept basically in the dark over it.
“We are not talking about a patch of earth where fire drills were taking place, we are talking about the excavation of soil on a grand scale. The company receiving the soil say they are loading between 6,000 and 9,500 tonnes per bulk carrier ship. At this rate they would be using more than 16 bulk carries to tranport all that was excavated. That’s a phenominal amount of material being taken from Dublin Airport.
“The scale of the problem is what is worrying local people. If this is the remediation that is necessary than the risk to the public and surrounding communities is high. While monitoring is happening, given the scale of the problem contamination could occur at any time. Some people in North County Dublin rely on wells for their drinking water, have these people been located and told of the potential risks? Streams run right through Dublin Airport – have people further down the catchment been made aware of the possible risks to the watercourse? Have anglers been told to avoid certain areas?
“It is not clear to me how such an enormous operation does not need planning permission in its own right. The movement of contaminated material can risk further contamination. I would have thought that contamination and remediation at that scale would need its own series of environmental assessments.
“The DAA say they have met all the regulatory requirements but if that is true it points to a major deficiency in Irish environmental law as people have the clear right to environmental information, especially anything that could impact their health.
“Information like this should not be exposed by industry sources. It should have been immediately made public by the DAA with the communities and stakeholders who were potentially at risk being told directly about the scale of the problem and what was being done about it.
“The sad fact is that these kinds of chemicals can hang around in your body and very low exposure can accumulate and lead to problems over time.
“PFAS chemicals are known as forever chemicals because they don’t break down over time and can accumulate in your body. They are linked to various types of cancers, they have been found to impact foetal development and disrupt hormones. Because of this they are regulated by the EU under REACH and also the Stockholm Convention.
“To be fair to the airport, the scale of the remediation programme is huge and the plans for a new drainage system looks like an effort to prevent anything like this happening again but all of this should be done with total transparency and public scrutiny.
“I have written to the EPA to seek their perspective on the regulations relating to this contamination.”