Health probe ordered over Lettershandoney residents' fear that chemical waste is cause of crippling illnesses in Co Derry village
The Environment Minister has asked for a health risk assessment to be carried out at a housing estate where chemical waste was dumped unlicensed 40 years ago.
Residents living in Lettershandoney near Londonderry have spoken of their concern at the apparent disproportionate number of people who have contracted various muscle wasting conditions over the years including motor neurone disease, (MND) multiple sclerosis (MS) and Parkinson's disease.
A staggering 29 sites were identified within the Derry City Council area – 10 surrounding this tiny village – where waste from the British Oxygen Company (BOC) was dumped. At least one site was not mentioned in a 1996 Environment Service report.
Waste disposal licences were not required in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it was dumped.
BOC was repeatedly contacted for a response on the dumping and information about the material dumped, but refused to issue any comment.
Residents now want to know if there is any link between living near the chemical dumps and the number of people who have developed a neurological condition.
In the village of just 150 houses, there have been half-a-dozen people diagnosed with MND in recent years and an equal number with MS and Parkinson's.
Environment Minister Mark H Durkan has concluded there are grounds for a second look. A DoE spokeswoman said: "While the report at the time did not indicate this as a possibility, our minister will be asking environmental health officers in the council to examine this as they have the expertise and the responsibility."
The dumping sites on the Tirbracken Road, where the village sits, and at a bogland on nearby Ward Road, not mentioned in the report, contain an incalculable amount of tarry waste.
One lorry driver said the waste he drove to the dumps was "like nothing I had ever seen before".
He said: "This was the stickiest, stinking stuff I ever came across.
"It clung to your wellingtons and nothing sticks to wellingtons, not even concrete, but this stuff did, and we dumped tonnes of it.
"We dumped that much of this stuff the land could not take any more, and when it started to flow down into the burn we took the decision to stop dumping there and started on the bog behind the houses in Lettershandoney.
"But I can say there is that much in the Leiter Ward (Ward Road) that cows have disappeared into it and have never been found."
A DoE spokeswoman said: "NIEA is aware of a tar pit on Tirbracken Road, Lettershandoney.
"In 1996 an environmental consultancy group, ENTEC, was commissioned by then Environment Service to investigate the tarry waste sites and assess any risks.
"The resultant reports were shared with Derry City Council, which has statutory responsibilities for environmental health issues in this area.
"Risks were identified as low and no long-term measures were identified."
A spokeswoman from Derry City Council explained that tarry waste would have been disposed of at the site at Tirbracken Road between 1968 and 1972 when no disposal licence was required.
She added: " In 1978, legislation was introduced which made local councils responsible for issuing waste disposal licences. Following an application in 1982 to Derry City Council, a waste disposal licence was issued in 1983 for the disposal or deposit of waste from the construction industry at the Tirbracken Road site.
"At no stage was tarry waste disposed of at this site during the period of the licence.
"In 1992, the DoE commissioned an investigation to assess environmental risks associated with the deposits of tarry waste.
"A report was produced in 1996. For the Tirbracken Road site, it concluded that the risks posed by tarry wastes at the site were considered to be low "
'It was the worst smell... nothing that bad could be good for you'
Lettershandoney is a quiet village of just 150 houses nestled in a picturesque valley surrounded by low hills, but beneath this scene of tranquillity there lies a deep concern.
There appears to be an inordinately high number of people living in Lettershandoney who have been diagnosed with a neurological condition, such as motor neurone disease, multiple sclerosis or Parkinson's. T
here is also a high number of people who have had various cancers, and while statistically scientists say there is a one-in-three chance of someone developing cancer, the chances of developing MND is one in 50,000, for MS it is one in 750, and for Parkinson's it is one in 500.
The residents in Lettershandoney fear that a possible reason for this high figure could be the proximity of housing to bogland where chemical waste was dumped in the 1970s. They now want an investigation into a possible link.
Among those calling for a probe is Anne Reid, whose mother Roseleen was just 42 when she was diagnosed with MND, a devastating condition that attacks the motor neurones in the brain and spinal cord.
Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Anne said: "If it had just been my mother who had MND you could have said it was just really bad luck, but I can easily recount another five or six people who were also given the same diagnosis.
"There are as many again, if not more, with MS and a couple with Parkinson's disease. The doctors could not tell us why she contracted MND, they just said it was unfortunate, but she was a fit and healthy woman."
Pat Burke is of a similar mind.
These days Pat gets around his home on his motorised wheelchair which he needs now since he was diagnosed with MS. He has lived all his 63 years in this area.
He said: "I remember standing at our family home and watching lorryload after lorryload being tipped into the bog.
"What sticks in my mind most was the smell, it was the worst thing you could imagine.
"Nothing that bad could be good for you and I would like to know if there is any connection between that and so many people getting sick."