“I GOT all this equipment years ago and never thought I’d be using it for this,” Justin Ryan says as he takes a tape out of his camcorder. He has been using it to record the sick and dying animals on his farm and neighbouring farms near Askeaton, Co Limerick.
Mr Ryan sent a copy of his video to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry, Mr Ivan Yates recently. It makes for gruesome viewing. In their last days the animals look more like cattle in a famine area than in one of the more fertile areas of the country. Some have raw wounds on their joints where lesions have formed. One cow is collapsed forward unable to lift herself off her knees, while part of another animal’s hide hangs off in tatters. Last Monday, Mr Ryan buried another dead cow, the 16th to die this year. The carcass lay in the field for a week but was left untouched by the birds. Even the eyes were intact, he says. In a life time of farming he has never seen this happen. The Department of Agriculture post mortem reports on some of the cattle deaths said that the organs of two of the cows were too badly decomposed to be examined. Mr Ryan believes his cattle are being “eaten up from inside”.
The three worst affected farmers in the area Justin Ryan, Liam Somers and a farmer who would not be named “in case we lose what’s left of our livelihood” have lost more than 150 animals between them since the problems started in the late 1980s. It is reported that up to 17 other farms in the area are also affected.
IN February the local animal health group sent samples of milk from three dairy herds in the area to a UK testing agency. The tests found six times the normal concentration of aluminium in one of the samples. Mr Donagh O’Grady, of the animal health group, admitted that this was a small scale test. At a public meeting with the Environmental Protection Agency in Askeaton last Tuesday night, Ms Marie Sherwood, of the EPA, said that the levels did not exceed the accepted levels in drinking water.
Her assurances met with a lukewarm reception from over 3,00 people who attended the meeting. “We don’t know what’s killing the cows and we don’t know if what’s killing the cows is going to kill us,” came one comment from the floor. It was followed by a rousing burst of applause. It is not just the farmers around Askeaton who are worried. Local people are getting worried about the air they share with the dying animals.
At the meeting, the assembled panel of experts from the EPA, Teagasc, the Department of Agriculture and the Mid Western Health Board (MWHB), outlined the scope of their investigations. Only Teagasc, the state agriculture development board, gave a deadline for the completion of their study of soil and plant samples. They expect to be finished by the end of September,
The studies will attempt to plug the gap between the evidence of dead animals and scientific proof of the cause, according to the EPA. P.J. O’Connor from the Department of Agriculture, described the process as painstaking and systematic. “It’s going to be lengthy,” he said. The MWHB will also look at the human health implications. Dr Mary O’Mahoney, of the MWHB, said that in an initial survey GPs in the area had reported no signs of a cluster of “adverse health effects” in the area.
However, according to Mr Ryan, his two year old son developed a skin rash which cleared up when he was taken off the milk produced on the firm. The local co-op collects the milk from the Ryan and Somers farms in an unmarked lorry. Recently the co-op confirmed that it was dumping the milk.
At the meeting local people spoke about experiencing a burning sensation on the face, lips and throat on certain days. One woman said that both her children had recently developed asthma. Another woman said that the sensation on some days was like “having someone holding on to your lungs”.
According to the EPA there is limited evidence on which to investigate these claims. Mr Michael McGettigan, of the EPA, said that its air pollution tests will cover all the industrial sources in the area, “both those which are readily visible on the skyline and those which may not be so visible”.
From the top of Liam Somers’s farm on a clear day the skyline takes in the smoke stacks of Aughinish Alumina and, in the far distance, the ESB stations, Moneypoint and Tarbert. The nearest, Aughinish, is about 3 1/2 miles from his farm, as the crow flies.
In the middle of the field on the Somers’s farm a small corrugated iron shed hums. It was erected a year ago by Limerick County Council to monitor sulphur dioxide levels. Results showed a 48 per cent increase, according to Mr Somers. The EPA is planning to upgrade this monitoring by checking at hourly, rather than daily intervals. And it will also attempt to pinpoint the direction of deposits, as well as deposits of aluminium, fluoride and organic compounds.
MR SOMERS has lost 89 animals since the spring of 1988. More than 40 calves died seconds after being born covered in a jelly like mucus, he says. He has seen grass on his land turn pink, purple and then brown. He and his family also suffer recurring skin problems.
In August 1994, Aughinish Alumina put forward a proposal for testing the cause of the animal deaths. In a final clause it was stated that the results were to be kept within the committee and only reported to Liam Somers or his vet, John O’Mahoney, if they were “demanded by legal subpoena”. After taking legal advice Mr Somers refused to co-operate with the tests. The public relations officer of Aughinish Alumina, Mr Pat Lynch, describes this as a “misunderstanding over one clause that should never have gone in.”
Mr Somers is collecting reports and information on the complex chemical cocktail that he believes is poisoning his animals, while Mr Ryan says he has been in touch with German environmentalists; they may consider taking a case against the State to Europe.
At the Aughinish Alumina plant a digital readout board at the entrance proclaims that day’s production rate. On Tuesday it was 2,095 tonnes, 6,546 tonnes behind the “1.18m tonne status”. According to Mr Lynch, Aughinish’s role now is “to pull back from the limelight and let the independent bodies get on with it”
Meanwhile Mr Ryan is getting used to burying dead cows. “This time last year it was devastating, but now it’s normal routine.”
The Irish Times
December 15, 1995
Interim EPA report says animal deaths on two Limerick farms a mystery
By CATHERINE CLEARY
AFTER more than six months of investigations coordinated by the Environmental Protection Agency, the animal deaths on two Limerick farms remain a mystery.
In an interim report published yesterday the EPA said its observations had provided “no evidence of significant pollution in the area.”
The farms are about eight kilometres from the Aughinish Alumina plant and further west there are two ESB plants, Moneypoint and Tarbert. The three plants together emitted 5 per cent of the national annual sulphur dioxide emissions between 1988 and 1994, according to the report. The cost of the separate investigations, by the Department of Agriculture, the Mid Western Health Board, Teagasc and the EPA, is likely to run into millions.
Last month, the Department bought one of the worst affected fans for Pounds 1 million, to carry out veterinary studies, and is leasing the other farm from its owner, Mr Liam Somers. The dairy farmers have lost almost 200 cattle between them in seven years.
Local reports of human health problems have not been supported by an initial survey of GPs. According to the EPA the health board is to study incidences of cancers, miscarriages and twinning in the area.
“In addition there will be a systematic study of acute health defects such as respiratory problems and skin rashes,” it said. These human health studies will probably take two years to complete.
The report said the EPA agreed with a review by the American EPA which found that milk from farms in the area was “safe to drink in terms of exposure to aluminium and fluoride.”
In its studies of plant, soil and water, Teagasc found little change in sulphur levels in the grass and plants compared to a baseline survey carried out in the 1970s. However, a study carried out last year found high levels of sulphur.
According to EPA programme manager. Dr Paul Toner, more detailed work will be done on the sulphur deposits. “A number of things have now been written out. We have ruled out dioxins but we wouldn’t have expected them.”
Teagasc has completed its plant, soil and water studies, according to the EPA, although further studies will be done. The animal and human health studies are not expected to be completed before the end of 1997.
Last February the Minister for Agriculture, Mr Yates, invited the EPA to coordinate a general investigation.
Teagasc began taking samples on the two farms and a third control farm in the area in April. It concluded the study in September. According to the report, it found levels of copper, iodine, selenium and zinc which were “less than optimum for animal health”.
“A few results were at the extremes of the typical ranges, in particular the fluoride concentrations in the soils. The high values recorded for the latter seem to reflect the naturally raised levels of fluoride in this area of Co Limerick,” it said.
Dr Toner said the EPA had charted the hourly averages of sulphur content in the air. “There were short lived peaks and the hourly values can certainly exceed the daily levels, but these are still below the World Health Organisation safe limits.”
He said the highest peak had been recorded on the control farm, but it was difficult to identify the source.
Dr Toner said the EPA was not ruling out a pollution involvement, “but it wouldn’t be unusual in these situations not to have a clear cut answer.”
Aughinish Alumina had applied for an Integrated Pollution Control licence from the EPA.
“People in the area are against them getting a licence but there is nothing in our data to involve them.” He said sulphur dioxide levels were “nowhere near the levels that would cause, the problems that are out there.
The report recommends that local vets should contact the regional veterinary laboratory and that the Department of Agriculture should have access to veterinary toxicological expertise.
The report also recommended that statutory arrangements be put in place to allow access to farms for future investigations.
The Irish Times
August 10, 2001
‘No evidence’ that environment had caused ill health
By DECLAN FAHY
Two Co Limerick farmers reported unusually high levels of animal health problems on their farms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Mr Liam Somers and Mr Justin Ryan reported, among other things, that calves were dying and cows were in extremely poor health.
Reports of problems on 25 other farms followed, with concerns about the level of human illness in the area.
The EPA report into the animal health problems in the area looked in detail at research findings in four areas as detailed below.
Locals in Askeaton expressed concern about the number of miscarriages, foetal abnormalities and the incidences of cancer in their area. There were reports from locals of skin, eye and respiratory problems. There were also fears environmental pollution was involved.
In their conclusions, investigators said “this study has not found a significant degree of excessive ill health in the Askeaton area”.
The study has “not found an explicit link between pollution and ill-health”. It did find a “mild excess” in the people who report themselves as being ill. A GP study also found people in the area had “proportionally more worries about rates of miscarriage, serious illness and patient health”.
There was no evidence of “an excess of cancer incidence in the risk area” and the study found a “significantly lower level of cancer in the risk area” compared with the MWHB area and the rest of the State. Three birthing studies found no evidence of abnormal ill health.
Problems on the Somers farm were reported to have begun around 1988. The main animal health issues reported were infertility, mortality in cows and growing stock, perinatal calf mortality, diarrhoea in calves and skin lesions in cows and cattle.
Severe animal health problems were reported on the Ryan farm in 1994 and 1995, the main being a high incidence of cows being in poor condition, illness and mortality in cows and growing cattle, abortion, calving difficulty, infertility, and illness and death in calves.
The report said Mr Somers, Mr Ryan and about 4,000 people in the area felt environmental pollution was the key cause of these animal health problems.
The report concluded that certain farms in the area, including the Ryan and Somers farms, had “an unusually high incidence of animal disease and production problems at times from 1988 to 1995”.
But there was “little evidence” to suggest this was part of a problem in the wider area, or that “unusual underlying factors, such as environmental pollution, were responsible”.
Overall, there was nothing to suggest factors other than those normally considered – “nutrition, management and infectious agents” – needed to be “cited to account for disease incidence in the Askeaton area”.
Locals said the animal health problems, and the concerns over human health, were caused by environmental pollution, in particular emissions from alumina production at Aughinish Alumina Ltd (AAL), which is located eight kilometres west of the affected farms.
There are also two major ESB plants, Moneypoint and Tarbet, near the affected farms.
Among the pollutants which were suspected to be responsible were aluminium and fluoride, as well as organic compounds such as dioxins and PCBs.
These suspicions were based on information from scientific literature, not from any record of contamination in the area.
The report said “the available data indicate that the Askeaton area was not subject to harmful levels of pollutants during the period of the investigation and this was the position at least since the mid-1980s”.
Levels of pollutants measured from the industries were within existing safety limits, the report found.
Soil, Herbage, Feed And Water
Soil was analysed to find evidence of previous inputs that may have contributed to animal health problems at the Somers and Ryan farms. The report found there was “no evidence that soils were contaminated” by elements deposited by pollution washed out of the atmosphere.