Dáil debates

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Topical Issue Debate

Naval Service Vessels

2:05 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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I am grateful to the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter for discussion and perhaps it is fortuitous that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government is here to take it as he has some responsibility in dealing with the matter of asbestos. We are grateful to Mr. Seán O'Riordan and the Irish Examinerfor today reporting that asbestos was discovered on two Naval Service ships, the LE Orlaand the LE Ciara. If we are grateful to him, we are enormously surprised to discover that approximately 18 personnel, nine from the Naval Service and perhaps as many civilians, were assigned to carry out work aboard the LE Ciarawhich involved removing asbestos from the sub-funnel area. The activity involved cutting, breaking and transporting the asbestos from on board ship while a number of civilian workers were in the vicinity. I understand no risk assessment was carried out before the work commenced and no advice was obtained from the Health and Safety Authority or consultants specialising in asbestos removal.

In 1999 and 2000 the Department of Defence commissioned consultants to examine naval equipment and instalments, as well as other departmental facilities. Asbestos was identified on the LE Deirdre, the LE Emer, the LE Aoifeand the LE Aislingand at the time the offending material was appropriately removed. A clean air certificate was given thereafter given in respect of all other facilities. I understand the plans for these ships, the LE Ciaraand the LE Orla, show specifically that asbestos was in place.

A number of questions arise. Why were the naval authorities not aware asbestos was present and why were the consultants used in 2000 able to provide a clean air certificate in respect of these two ships? What will be done by the Department of Defence and the naval authorities to provide for ongoing health screening for those exposed to asbestos? We know about the enormous dangers that arise from exposure to asbestos; whatever about the material in a dormant form, transporting it having been broken and exposed to the air puts people at risk. It can manifest initially in pleural plaques in human lungs and be expressed at a later point in the development of asbestosis in its worst form. Heaven prevent this from happening to anyone affected by this issue.

We are seeking an assurance from the Minister for Defence that there will be proper health screening of all those affected and their families who may also have been exposed to the material. Given that it can take a long time for asbestos infection to manifest, we also seek a commitment to provide for ongoing screening of those who have been exposed to this material.

2:15 pm

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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At the outset I would like to assure the House that the safety and well-being of the individuals involved in this incident are the primary concern of my colleague, the Minister for Defence, who has responsibility for the Naval Service. I am advised by the Naval Service that it is following all Health and Safety Authority, HSA, guidelines while dealing with the current situation.

While LE Orlawas in dry dock at Cork dockyard, work was being carried out in the engine room spaces. During the removal of a gasket head, Cork Dockyard Ltd., CDL, identified material which it suspected as being asbestos. CDL informed the Naval Service. The Naval Service advised that all work should cease and that the material be analysed. CDL got an outside contractor in to get the material analysed. The outside contractor confirmed that the material was asbestos, a particular type of white asbestos. CDL has since sealed the area and is awaiting a surveyor's report. Once it receives the report it will get the asbestos removed and disposed of in accordance with the guidelines and procedures set by the HSA and the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA.

LE Ciara, a sister ship of the LE Orla, had had similar work completed while alongside in the naval dockyard. Following notification from CDL of the discovery of suspect material on LE Orla, the Naval Service immediately suspended work on LE Ciara. The Naval Service has called in external expertise to carry out a full survey and analysis of the ship.

The areas of concern on both ships are currently under quarantine until the analysis and remedial work is completed. No personnel are allowed entry into the engine room spaces and suspected contaminated areas. The Naval Service contacted the HSA and the EPA. The HSA has launched its own investigation into the incident and this is ongoing. A company has been contracted independently by the HSA to analyse the material on board LE Ciara.

Since the discovery of asbestos, air sampling and monitoring has been conducted by an external contractor on both ships and the samples taken were found to be safe. All staff on board LE Ciaraand at the dockyard have been briefed on the situation to date. Health surveillance has been offered to all the relevant personnel.

No asbestos risk assessment or asbestos management plan was put in place prior to this work's commencing on board either ship because a survey carried out by an external surveyor on LE Orlain 2000 stated that there was no asbestos on board the vessel. While all types of asbestos share similar hazards, they have varying degrees of risk. The risk from white asbestos is at the lower end of the scale. Moreover, the length of exposure is also a key factor, and generally, a once-off short-term exposure is unlikely to be of concern.

Medical assessments are ongoing with the Naval Medical Officer for those who were working in the areas at the time and the situation is being monitored on an ongoing basis. To date, there have been no reports of adverse health effects. Should anyone have concerns or show symptoms, they are being advised to highlight this immediately to Defence Forces medical staff.

I am advised by the Naval Service that a full audit of all ships in the fleet will be completed shortly. While the two vessels have been withdrawn from service, this was part of a scheduled maintenance plan for the vessels. As a result, the current quarantine of these vessels will not affect the overall operational plans of the Naval Service.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister for his response. We need assurances that something will be done in respect of the firm of consultants that gave an undertaking that LE Ciaraand LE Orlawere asbestos-free. One cannot engage and pay consultants substantial fees only to find that their advice is fundamentally wrong. There is also an issue in respect of the Naval Service. I am informed - I will be corrected if I am wrong - that the plans for the ships show quite clearly that asbestos was present in the locations where it was found.

The Minister stated that there are no health implications at present and that there are no obvious symptoms. There would not be. Short-term exposure to asbestos when the material is dormant is not likely to cause problems. The problem here is that the material was disturbed and broken and presumably dust was released, which may have been inhaled. Risks arise when the material is so disturbed. I am concerned, and I believe the Permanent Defence Force Other Ranks Representative Association, PDFORRA, has expressed its concern to the Department of Defence and the Minister. The very least we expect now is that all the personnel who have been needlessly exposed to this risk due to the incompetence of the consultants engaged to deal with this and to a level of incompetence on the part of the Naval Service and the Department of Defence, will be assured of ongoing health surveillance to ensure that no problems arise down the line.

Photo of Phil HoganPhil Hogan (Minister, Department of Environment, Community and Local Government; Carlow-Kilkenny, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy is a bit harsh on the Naval Service. When these matters were discovered something was done about them. Work stopped on the ships and immediately the proper procedures were followed. It is a bit early to come to conclusions on what an external contractor found or did not find arising from the work done. Assumptions were made that may not have been correct at the time when work was being done on one ship that the same applied to the other ship, where it was done to the same specification. The logic was taken on board and it was assumed that the certificate on asbestos could apply equally to both vessels and therefore the same status applied.

My initial answer to Deputy Ó Fearghaíl stated that the EPA, the HSA and the medical staff of the Defence Forces are doing everything they possibly could to ensure the safety and health of the individuals concerned, and to monitor the potential health risks associated with this exposure, notwithstanding that white asbestos is at the low end of the danger range for asbestos. The matters are being taken seriously. I thank the Deputy for raising them and I will certainly convey his views to the Minister for Defence.

The Dáil adjourned at 2.40 p.m. until 10 a.m. on Friday, 11 April 2014.