Officials from the government and Derry City Council are believed to have rubber-stamped the disposal of radioactive waste at Culmore, it has emerged.
Environmental officials however concluded that the waste from Altnagelvin Hospital was not harmful and that precautions above and beyond those required had been taken before it was disposed of.
The findings came to light at a special meeting of Derry City Council’s Environment Committee on Friday.
The meeting had been hastily arranged to discuss the recent revelations contained in declassified government documents for the period 1977 to 1983, that radioactive waste had been dumped in Culmore Landfill site and at another site in Belfast during this period.
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan attended Friday’s meeting in person along with officials from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), whom he has tasked to investigate the circumstances which led to the waste being dumped.
Minister Mark Durkan said he had ordered the probe to address the ‘very real concerns in the Culmore area in particular and right across the Derry City Council area following these revelations’.
“There are quite a few constituents with concerns about what was dumped, where it came from, was it harmful and who knew,” Mr Durkan said.
John Kelpie, Strategic Director with Derry City Council, said council officials have also been recalled over the holidays to carry out research and searching archived files, and also to liaise with officials from the Public Health Agency and the NIEA.
David Bell from NIEA confirmed their ongoing investigation is expected to be completed within days.
He told the committee and members of the public gathered at the meeting that their findings so far had been ‘very reassuring from our perspective’.
Records had been unearthed which showed there were two consignments of radioactive waste dumped in Culmore in 1982 and 1983.
The radioactive waste came from Technetium 99 M, an element of Molybdenum, which is found in the core of spent generators used for patient scans and diagnostic tests in hospital.
He said that no such material was sent to Culmore from 1984 onwards because of a change of policy.
He said that the radioactive matter had a ‘half-life’of 66 hours, which means that if it is held securely for 66 hours its power is reduced by 50%.
Mr Bell said that their investigations had revealed that the Altnagelvin Hospital was holding the material for much longer than the recommended three months- at least six months, and in some cases up to two years before it was sent to Culmore.
After six months, the power of the substance was reduced to around 1% of what would be administered to a patient during a bone scan, Mr Bell said.
“The reduction in activity for six months is a factor of 40 billion billion”(CORRECT) he said, adding:
“This ties in with anecdotal evidence from staff, who said it had essentially been effectively deactivated before going to the site.
“Our view is we just don’t think there is any risk to the public.”
In answer to a question from SDLP Councillor Gerard Diver, Mr Bell confirmed the NIEA believed the risk to human health had been negligible.
Sinn Fein Councillor Tony Hassan said that while officials may be saying the substance was not harmful, local people needed to be convinced that was the case.
“What has been dumped out there over the years that we don’t know about?” he asked.
“That is what is worrying people, especially those who are on the boundary there.”
Mr Hassan questioned whether Derry City Council at the time and the Environment Agency at the time knew about the matter.
Mr Bell said the Agency didn’t exist at the time, but confirmed that there was an authorisation issued to the then Western Health and Social Services Board from the appropriate department.
This, the council was told, would have required communication and the government, the health authority and the council would have known about the matter.
DUP Councillor Maurice Devenney said answers were needed as to who ratified this within the council, and questioned whether such secret dumping had been happening in the preceding decade since the dump opened in 1973, and whether it could happen today.
Mr Kelpie said that this could not happen today, adding that an exhaustive search through the records had found no indication of anything prior to 1982.
He also stressed that the waste now uncovered had not been nuclear waste.
Mr Devenney said that while he took the comments onboard, it was worrying that had the secret documents not come out, people would have remained completely in the dark for another ten years over the dumping that had now come to light.
Minister Durkan reassured him: “Just because we haven’t found anything else doesn’t mean we have stopped looking.”
Sinn Fein Councillor Mickey Cooper said that there was still a lack of clarity and that the council would be demanding a full report into the radioactive dumping.
He also questioned whether their own predecessors on the council had been aware of what was taking place on a council-owned facility back in the early 80’s.
Mr Cooper called for the radioactive waste and any potential fall-out to be incorporated into current, ongoing health study looking at the impact of heavy industrial activity on residents of the Strathfoyle, Maydown and Culmore areas of Derry.
Culmore SDLP Councillor Angela Dobbins said that there remained deep concerns among local people, but said the information shared at the meeting had gone some way to allay her own fears.
John Kelpie said the report by the NIEA would be brought straight to the council as soon as it is published.
“We believe this will be a matter of days,” he said.
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