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When human cost of 'going green' can be far too high

Buncrana tragedy shows the banning of some unpopular chemicals, such as those which could have cleared pier of slippery algae, can be catastrophic

By Phelim McAleer

Published 11/07/2016

Louise James (front left) carries the coffin of one of her sons killed at Buncrana
Louise James (front left) carries the coffin of one of her sons killed at Buncrana
Louise with baby Rioghnach-Ann, partner Sean and sons Evan (left) and Mark

The Buncrana pier tragedy should give us pause. It's a moment to consider life, hug our loved ones and contemplate how we might prevent such horrors happening in the future.

A major piece missing from the Buncrana pier discussion is how empty platitudes and feel-good environmental policies may have contributed to the death of five family members. We owe it to the McGrotty and Daniels families - and our own families - to take a hard look at the culture of dogmatic environmentalism.

You can't ask basic questions of environmentalists anymore without being labelled a "denier", or "anti-science" or, worst of all, a "conservative". We're supposed to "go green" without a second thought.

But when we turn off our brains for the sake of dogma - any dogma - we lose sight of the consequences of our choices. It's likely the McGrotty and Daniels families weren't thinking about environmental policy on their St Patrick's weekend outing.

They were rightfully enjoying each other's company, the weather and the beautiful view from Buncrana pier.

It was their last stop before the six of them were to return home.

But, as Sean McGrotty made a three-point turn on the pier, his tyres slipped on the dangerously thick layer of algae and never regained traction. The car plummeted into the water.

"The algae was absolutely lethal," said Davitt Walsh, an eyewitness who, after seeing the accident, dived into the water and by sheer willpower, fighting the rising tide and exhaustion, was able to rescue four-month-old Rioghnach-Ann - the only family member to survive.

"When I was heading out to the family, I slipped and nearly cracked my head. On my way back, holding the baby, I could not get my feet again. I never experienced anything like it," Davitt recalled.

"The slipway is like a skating rink because of all that algae and those poor people didn't stand a chance, because they didn't know the area."

How could such a tragedy happen? How could a popular pier become so algae-dense that it contributed to five people's deaths?

The answer should cause us to question green dogma and consider the real-life cost of environmental policies.

According to an Irish Times report, this build-up of algae is a new phenomenon: "Restrictions on use of chemicals harmful to crustaceans and the marine environment also mean that algae removal on piers, slipways and at popular bathing spots is more difficult and more labour-intensive for local authorities."

"Going green" feels warm and fuzzy. It makes for good headlines and good feelings.

But no amount of emotion can overcome reality: five people lost their lives, in part because of our fear of "chemicals" and environmental impact.

Deciding to power-wash Buncrana pier instead of using more effective chemicals directly contributed to the dangerous conditions and was a major factor in this tragedy.

We must confront this truth and ask ourselves: Is it really worth it?

If the McGrotty and Daniels families were the only victims of environmental dogma I suspect some people maybe could look past their senseless deaths for the "greater good".

Although just how many crustaceans are worth a child's life these days?

But the frightening part is that these families are only the latest victims. They are five deaths out of millions. Consider the environmentalists' attack on DDT.

The use of DDT to combat malaria around the world was widely considered one of the biggest successes in scientific history. In 1965 the US National Academy of Sciences said of DDT: "To only a few chemicals does man owe as great a debt as to DDT. It is estimated that, in little more than two decades, DDT has prevented 500 million human deaths due to malaria that would otherwise have been inevitable."

By every account DDT was a miracle chemical with little risk and big rewards.

Enter Rachel Carson. Her book, Silent Spring, which started the modern environmentalist movement, purported to show the effects of DDT on birds, mammals and the wider ecosystem (her "scholarship" has since been widely debunked).

The media fell in love with the book and it gained so much traction in pop culture that, in 1972, the US banned DDT. Other countries quickly followed.

Since the DDT ban more than 50 million people have died from malaria. Yes, you read that right. And malaria is particularly dangerous to humans with weak immune systems, so children and pregnant women are over-represented in the silent slaughter.

Environmentalists often talk about "externalities" - examining the "true" societal costs of modern development. That's fair. We should examine these costs.

But we must also look at the externalities - the true costs - of going green.

What are the costs of enforcing green policies? Well, in the US car companies are producing smaller and lighter cars to meet green-inspired, government-enforced "mile-per-gallon standards".

Again there is a great feel-good factor that ignores the facts that these cars are more dangerous in crashes. The environmental movement seems to hate "chemicals". They use the fear of chemicals to push for banning everything from fracking to cleaning a pier.

And what are the costs of banning unpopular chemicals in Ireland? The McGrotty and Daniels families know all too well.

After the recent election the SDLP announced it was meeting the Green Party MLAs as part of its outreach to other "progressive" parties. But, with its unfounded fears of modern chemicals, the Green Party seem to be progressives who no longer believe in progress.

There are costs to banning chemicals, drilling and other industrial progress. There is a cost to "encouraging" people to "go green". There is a cost to dogmatic platitudes and feel-good laws.

Sometimes these costs are people's lives. We must never forget that.

  • Omagh-born Phelim McAleer is a journalist, film-maker and playwright. He has made several documentaries asking difficult questions of the environmental movement and is currently producing a feature film about America's biggest serial killer. He is based in Los Angeles (www.ClintonemailsonFilm.com)

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