Wednesday, 14 February 1996
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. Browne: (Wexford): I thank the Chair for allowing me the opportunity to raise this issue and the Minister for coming in to reply to it. This debate highlights the dumping and discovery of chemical canisters along our coastline, particularly on the south and south east coasts.
Three canisters were found in west Cork, two in east Cork and several in Wexford during recent weeks. An Army investigation into this matter is being carried out. Yesterday I listened to a member of the Army on “News at One” outline in detail the serious consequences for people who come in contact with these lethal chemical canisters. He pointed out that the public should not handle them and, if found, they should notify the Garda or the Army which would take the appropriate action to deal with them. The discovery of such dangerous chemicals is a matter of grave concern. It is important that the Minister, Deputy Barrett, should investigate their source. The Army and the Navy should be utilised to examine the markings on the canisters to trace them to their country of origin and appropriate action should be initiated against those responsible. From listening to that member of the Army yesterday. I gathered that the canisters could have been used as military markers at sea. I would like the Minister to confirm if that is the case.
Our coasts are widely used by the public, fishermen and tourists. I hope that the discovery of these canisters will not pose a danger to the public. There is concern that the Irish coast is being used constantly as a dumping ground for dangerous chemicals by passing ships and, if that were allowed to continue, it could cause problems for our fishing and tourism industries.
In recent years an estimated 2,000 dangerous objects have been washed up along the Irish and British coasts. I appreciate that the Minister of State, Deputy Gilmore, has outlined here on numerous occasions during the past 12 months that he asked the UK Government to clarify details of arms dump sites off the south eastern and north eastern coasts. The UK Government has admitted that such dumping has occurred since 1920, but some of the answers it has given to the Minister of State have been fairly evasive.
I ask the Minister to clarify the potential dangers posed by such canisters. Fishermen and members of the public have contacted me about this matter. This issue was raised initially by the  media and a member of the Army outlined the seriousness of this matter on yesterday's “News at One”.
People using our waters and beaches are concerned about the potential danger posed by those canisters. Will the Minister clarify the validity of headlines which stated that canisters containing lethal chemical gases were found on the south east and southern coasts? Will he allay the fears of local residents in this regard and outline the investigations carried out to date to ascertain the country of origin of such canisters? It is important to allay fears as quickly as possible.
Mr. H. Byrne: I thank Deputy Browne for allowing me the opportunity to contribute to this debate and the Minister for coming in to reply to it. His presence is an indication of the seriousness which which he treats this matter.
Anything I say this evening will not overstate the case. When the words “should not be touched” or “gases that are highly dangerous” are used by members of the Garda or the Army in connection with these canisters, people become concerned. Many of my friends walk the coastline in search of bits and pieces, kindling and more profitable material, but people have been warned not to touch these canisters.
As Deputy Browne said, these canisters have been washed up in coastal areas in Cork and Wexford and late this evening one was discovered up in Ardamine on the east coast. They seem to be heading for the Minister's constituency, and I am not being facetious in saying that. Fishermen, and children and adults who walk our beaches will become curious if they discover such canisters. It appears the most dangerous objects since mines were introduced during World War II are being washed up on our coasts. For that reason we must treat this matter seriously.
 Army forensic people, who have analysed the gas contained in those canisters, have said it is deadly when mixed with water. The canisters measure 17 inches in length and five inches in diameter and their origin is unknown. That is a major cause of concern.
It was suggested in some publications yesterday that those canisters may have fallen off ships. Like Deputy Browne and others, I would like to know where they come from and why they were dumped off the south coast. Recently the dumping at sea legislation was introduced, which I welcomed. Do others consider that legislation a joke because of our lax treatment of the British Government in relation to the dumping of nuclear waste in the Irish Sea? The Government has a serious responsibility to tell us where the canisters came from and the action that will be taken to deal with those who have caused this problem.
Minister for Defence (Mr. Barrett): The marine emergency service of the Department of the Marine has been in contact with the Army and the Garda to establish the source of the canisters in question and the hazards which they may pose for shipping, fishing operations and the general public. The canisters which have been washed up on our shores to date are empty and have posed no danger. They have been identified as marker location marine canisters or smoke candles, as they are commonly known.
To date this year nine canisters were found at various locations. I am not aware of the discovery of the recent canister to which Deputy Byrne referred. If he wishes to table a question, I will supply him with an answer immediately. One canister was found at Ravenpoint in County Wexford, one at Ballinesher, County Wexford, three at Inchydonney, County Cork, one at Arklow, County Wicklow, one at Ardmore, County Waterford, one at Kilmore Quay, County Wexford and one at Rosslare, County Wexford.
The canisters washed up in Wexford, Wicklow and Waterford are regular marine signal candles which would have contained substances that present no danger. These type of empty canisters are washed up on our shores each year because of storms at sea.
The three canisters washed up at Inchydonney are, I understand, the first of their type ever reported on our shores. The canisters were empty. These type of canisters contain calcium phosphide and when they come in contact with water or damp air they give off smoke and phosphine gas for about five minutes. This should not be confused with the much more lethal nerve gas phosgene. The military authorities have initiated inquiries with a view to establishing the source of these canisters.
Empty canisters pose no danger to the public. However, precautions must be taken in the unlikely event of full canisters being found. A procedure to deal with such incidents is in place. When a canister is found the gardaí notify Army operations which immediately investigate the finding and on the basis of such investigation a decision will be made as to what action should be taken. IMES will issue alert notices and navigational warnings advising mariners on how to deal with such situations.
I have been advised by officials from  the Marine Institute that because phosphine gas decomposes rapidly in water, these canisters are highly unlikely to pose any danger to fish stocks, about which Deputy Browne is concerned.
Concerns have been expressed that the canisters may have come from the Beaufort Dyke. I have been assured this is not the case. This is a separate issue I am pursuing vigorously on a number of fronts.
The Scottish Office recently published a report of the results of a survey carried out on the Beaufort Dyke dump site. This survey was made in response to requests from the Department of the Marine. While the report does not prove conclusively that the laying of the British Gas pipeline disturbed munitions in the Beaufort Dyke, the UK authorities have accepted it is likely that this was the case. The UK authorities advised the Department that the gas pipeline will not become operational until British Gas can convince its health and safety authorities there is no risk to the environment. This will require further studies and risk analysis. Arrangements are in place to meet with Lord Lyndsay, Minister for Agriculture and the Environment, Scottish Office and Lord Howe, UK Minister for Defence with a view to establishing a system of monitoring and managing the dump sites. It is expected this meeting will take place within a number of weeks.
Preparations are under way for a quality status report which will cover the Irish Sea. This report will be produced jointly by the Irish and UK authorities as part of their obligations under the OSPAR Convention for the North-East Atlantic. As a matter of priority we will examine the impact of munitions dumping. I reassure the House that the issue of canisters being washed up on  our shores is being monitored closely. Precautionary procedures to deal with it will continue to be followed. The military authorities will continue their inquiries with a view to establishing the source of the canisters.
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