River oil pollution incident gives cause for grave concern

A cygnet which was covered in oil following the pollution incident along the River Shannon

A cygnet which was covered in oil following the pollution incident along the River Shannon

An oil spill incident which initially effected the River Al on the River Shannon in mid August received due attention and discussion at the monthly meeting of Athlone Moate Municipal District.

Addressing the Council Chamber, Jonathan Deane, Senior Engineer, with the Department of the Environment (Westmeath County Council ) noted the significance of the pollution incident which spread along the river following excessive rainfall which resulted in water levels rising.

“Following excessive rainfall, pollution, which initially effected the River Al, spread with further complaints received in relation to the west side of the Shannon at Big Meadow and Athlone Canal, where significant concentrations of oil were noted in the reeds and weed growth” Jonathan stated.

With wildlife effected by the oil pollution (two cormorant fatalities and twelve swans requiring intervention ), spraying of a surfactant spray suitable for use on water in sensitive wildlife areas commenced and was used throughout the effected areas until August 25.

“In addition to spraying, three booms and two microfibre dams were placed in the River Al as an additional precautionary measure to intercept oil residue trapped in the weed growth with the heavily contaminated debris and weeds being removed,” Jonathan commented.

The local authority engineer noted that the task of locating the source of the pollution was made extremely difficult due to the heavy rainfall which occurred promptly following the oil spill detection.

“With this in mind, it is important that the local authority draw up a detailed Pollution Response Plan for water bodies which would cover an incident where a significant quantity of oil enters local water bodies.

“The Council will liaise with the relevant state agencies in the compilation of such a plan and have available the materials required to deal with such an incident,” Jonathan concluded.

In response, Cllr. Aengus O’Rourke, noted that the onus should not solely be upon the Municipal District to specifically address resolve such a major pollution incident.

“As a Municipal District, we neither have the experience, resources or technology to deal with such complex and environmentaly impactful events. THis was a serious learning curve for Council staff who were trust completely into the unknown when this incident happened. With wildlife and thier habitats under severe threat it was appalling to expect local authority employees to jump into boats and to assist, at very short notice, with this particular pollution clean up.

“In that regard, it is time for the establishment of a National Pollution Response Body who would arrive into town with all the material necessary to resolve such issues in the future.

“As a Council we were playing ‘catch up’ in this scenario and when you are dealing with a crisis you should never be in this situation. We should make a case to the Department of the Environment with regard to the formation of such a National body,” Cllr. O’Rourke quipped.

Noting that those voluntary organisations who assisted with the pollution clean up should not be at a loss financially, Cllr. Louise Heavin and concurred with Cllr. O’Rourke that a national approach was necessary in response to major pollution incidents.

The Green Party Councillor made reference to the Shannon Estuary Anti-Pollution team which consistsof numerous bodies, including local authorities and was initiated to form a unified coordinated response to pollution incidents on the Shannon Estuary.

“Would it be in our best interests as a local authority to become a member of this team so we have a unified approach should such an incident occur in the future?,” Cllr. Heavin queried.

Responding, Town Mayor, Cllr. Frankie Keena,was coy with regard to the reliance upon a National body to resolve future pollution issues along the River Shannon.

“I would be concerned with any further dilution of our powers by handing over our responsibilities for the cleaning of our rivers from pollutants to a National agency. At the moment we have a Major Emergency Response Team where Westmeath County Council is the lead agency. We should expand this to cover our waterways.

“I commend the works carried out by volunteers during this serious oil pollution. As a Council, we should have a process in place to compensate all volunteers who are out of pocket for their work. I am also very much aware of the massive work carried out by volunteers during the flooding crisis and in carrying out gritting of roads in times of snow and severe frost. We should have a structure in place where all such volunteers can be covered for costs.

“I am disappointed that we have not yet identified the source of the contamination. Surely we all the latest technologies we should be able to find out who is responsible and name and shame the individual. A serious fine should be placed on this person. I have concerns that this could easily happen again,” Cllr. Keena emphasised.

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