Dáil Éireann - Volume 451 - 23 March, 1995

Dumping of War Gas Ammunition.

Dr. McDaid: This matter came to light when an English man contacted me six weeks ago with information regarding the dumping of chemical weapons and nerve gas off the Donegal coast. As a result I placed a notice in the local papers stating that I would raise the matter with the Minister for the Marine. Following that I received a flood of information concerning this matter. As a result I tabled a parliamentary question to the Minister for reply next week. I have not raised it as a knee-jerk reaction to the recent happenings in Tokyo. [168] I do not think Deputies would do such a thing.

The Ceann Comhairle said this morning that this matter had deen dealt with on 30 March and I presume he was referring to last year. A good deal of water has gone under the bridge since then. The small amount of Sarin gas used so horrendously in Tokyo recently caused ten deaths and resulted in more than 3,000 people being injured. A phenomenal amount of chemical materials has been dumped off the Irish coast.

The British Ministry of Defence admitted recently, for the first time, that it dumped hundreds of thousands of tonnes of chemical weapons and poison gas off the Donegal coast in the mid-1950s. Three ships containing 76,000 tonnes of aircraft bombs packed with deadly gas were secretly scuttled by the British Navy in waters between Donegal and Rockall and 3,500 tonnes of 23 lb. artillery shells containing mustard nerve gas, including Sarin gas, were dumped in sealed containers over the side of British vessels about 40 miles of Malin Head.

Those shocking revelations were contained in a letter from the British Ministry of Defence to the Glens of Antrim councillor, Oliver McMullin, who was trying for years to gain information about deadly weapons dumped around the Irish coast during recent years. It has been revealed, and accepted by the Ministry of Defence, that some badly leaking shells had to be sealed. That work involved putting one foot of concrete around them to protect lives of sea men involved in a top secret operation.

The British Labour Party called for scientific tests to be carried out on a 120,000 tonnes of chemical weapons which the Ministry of Defence admitted were dumped 12 miles off the Northern Ireland coast. During the past year or so what were thought to be flares were washed up on beaches near the Glens of Antrim and in County Down. In fact they were anti-aircraft grenades which would seem to indicate that some of those, so to speak, dumps had sprung a [169] leak. Consequently, we should be told what can be done about the matter.

The Ministry of Defence has named three ships involved although we are now aware from other information that many more were involved. I received telephone calls from Scotland, Wales and even from a man who worked on those ships at Cairnryan. He said that those ships were so laden with poison gas and chemical weapons, that some of the containers were cemented and the ships were dragged out to sea and scuttled. That man named three of those ships, including SS Vogtland. The British Ministry of Defence admitted that there was 28,700 tonnes of nerve gas on board that ship and it recognised that the SS Clare Tee contained 16,088 tonnes of chemical bombs and the SS Kokta was packed with 25,928 tonnes of nerve gas shells. Some of those shells were leaking and had to be sealed.

In “Operation Deadlight” 110 German U-boats, left after the last World War, were sent for disposal by the British, the USSR and the United States. Some of them were kept by those three nations and the remainder, approximately 90, were scuttled in the same site off the Donegal coast. I would like the Minister to reassure me on this issue. I would like further information about the British operation and on what has recently come to light regarding the possibility of a dump for such chemical material off the County Cork coast. The information has been received from people who worked on those ships. The Minister should explain how such dumping occurred in Irish territorial waters. As the British had sovereign immunity in this area before 1987, is it possible to discover how such dumping occurred?

I do not want to be alarmist, but in view of storms, particularly in the Irish Sea and the English Channel in recent years, and as the seabed is and will be used increasingly for piping and so on in the future, especially between Northern Ireland and Scotland and Nothern Ireland and northern England, what guarantee can be given that the material in the waters will not be disturbed? Experts in the cement industry have [170] told me that cement hardens and strengthens with age. As those weapons are lying in 2,000 feet of water and have probably bumped off the seabed, how do we know they are not cracked and leaking gas? If that is so, what effect will the gas have on the cement? This is a matter of concern and information and, above all, reassurance is needed. Can the Minister for the Marine contact his counterpart in Britain to allay the fears of local people?

Minister for the Marine (Mr. Coveney): I thank Deputy McDaid for raising this important issue.

I understand that the dumping of chemical munitions or war gas ammunition, as it is usually termed, in the North Atlantic by the UK authorities between 1945 and 1957 first came to the attention of the Irish authorities in 1986. Details furnished by the UK authorities at that time showed the nearest dump site to the Irish coast to be approximately 65 miles off the Donegal coast at a depth of 3,000 feet of water. The weapons were disposed of by scuttling loaded, cemented-covered ships in depths of water from 3,000 to 8,000 feet.

In 1992 Department of the Marine attention was drawn to the dumping of redundant weapons by the UK authorities off the Cork-Kerry coast. This operation involved the dumping of 8,405 tonnes of redundant munitions and explosives at a location about 200 miles off the south-western coast at a depth of 4,500 metres in international waters. At that precise time the annual meeting of the Oslo Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping from Ships and Aircraft, 1972, to which Ireland, the UK and 13 other north-west — west European states are party, was in session.

The Oslo Convention provides that nothing in the convention shall abridge the sovereign immunity to which certain vessels are entitled under international law. The UK delegation assured contracting parties that the dumping of the redundant munitions was carried out in a strictly controlled manner to ensure no damage to the marine environment, that no nuclear waste was involved and [171] that any toxic heavy metals had been removed from the material prior to dumping. They assured contracting parties that all sea dumping of such wastes by the UK would be terminated by 1 January 1993. It was agreed at the meeting that all contracting parties should make formal reports to the Oslo Commission when dumping was being carried out under the immunity provision of the convention. The subject is now permanently on the agenda for all annual meetings of the Oslo Convention.

Last November following concerns raised at the alleged potential hazard of the chemical gases to health of the communities living along the west and south-west coast the matter was again reviewed. A review of scientific assessments made in 1989 and again last November indicates that given the properties of the chemicals — being either quickly soluble in, or heavier than water — the sea depth at which they were dumped and the considerable number of years which had elapsed, the weapons were not considered to pose a hazard to the health or fishing activities of our coastal communities.

The chemicals identified by the UK authorities as having been dumped at sea at that time included the nerve gas TABUN, mustard gas, and Phosgene. SARIN, the chemical gas to which Deputy McDaid refers, was not present in either the 1947 to 1957 or the 1992 dumping of weapons. SARIN is miscible with water and is broken down in water. It is the most toxic of the three nerve gases TABUN, SOMAN and SARIN. The UK authorities have confirmed today that SARIN was not dumped.

As regards claims made in 1986 that dead birds and sea mammals had been washed up as a result of the dumping of chemical weapons there was no evidence to substantiate those claims. In the case of some sea birds with broken necks washed ashore in a small number of areas in County Donegal death was attributed to bi-catch, in salmon fisheries nets.

As regards allegations of leakages of [172] the chemicals from the scuttled vessels, it has been confirmed that no reports have been received in either the UK or Ireland to this effect.

As I have already mentioned, Ireland is a contracting party to the Oslo Convention for the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping from Ships and Aircraft, 1972. The Dumping at Sea Act, 1981, gives effect to that convention. Ireland is represented at administrative and scientific meetings of the convention. The topic of war gas ammunition was raised at the convention's technical working group on sea-based activities (SEBA). It was felt by most contracting parties that the salvage of war gases from their dumpsites was very complicated and likely to cause more risk than gradual leakage.

Studies undertaken by Belgium for traces of war gas in the water column and reports by Denmark concerning war gas in the Baltic Sea will be taken up at the next meeting of the Environmental Assessment and Monitoring Committee of the Convention in April this year. Ireland will be represented at that meeting by a senior biologist from the Department of the Marine's Fisheries Research Centre. The function of ASMO to which SEBA reports is generally to review the conditions of the maritime area covered by the convention, the effectiveness of the measures being adopted, the priorities and the need for any additional or different measures.

I can assure Deputy McDaid that I shall be taking up the dumping of chemical weapons off the coast of Ireland at the April meeting of ASMO. I shall be guided by the scientific advice on the actions to be taken by the convention as a whole or by the contracting parties.