A long-running row over George Best Belfast City Airport's plans to extend its runway intensified today as details emerged of the serious health and safety concerns the project would have on residents in east Belfast.
The Belfast Telegraph can today reveal the details of warnings sounded by the Eastern Health and Social Services Board (EHSSB) — now absorbed by the new Public Health Agency — over possible safety implications and the detrimental effect extending the runway would have on the quality of life of those living under its flightpath.
And it can be revealed that the EHSSB raised its concerns after it was omitted from the original Planning Service consultation on the controversial issue.
The airport has applied to extend its runway by 590 metres in the direction of Belfast Lough to accommodate larger planes from more foreign destinations — a move which has angered residents worried about noise levels.
Last month the airport launched an investigation after residents complained that vibrations from low-flying aircraft had brought tiles off the rooves of their houses.
The EHSSB contacted the Planning Service after it was left out of a list of statutory consultees whose views had been sought on plans to extend the runway. It has since made a submission to planners and a health impact assessment is also under consideration.
Correspondence between the EHSSB and Planning Service has been obtained by the Belfast Telegraph under the Freedom of Information Act.
In the correspondence the board pointed out that:
e Increased use of the runway would degrade the quality of life of people living under the flightpath.
e A longer runway could hamper rescue services in the event of an emergency landing.
e There would be an increased risk of bird strikes posed by a nearby wildlife sanctuary.
e The close proximity to major and dense housing areas would pose new safety risks.
e The airport could run foul of future EU noise and air quality regulations.
In a letter dated January 27, consultant in public health medicine Dr Paul Darragh told planners: “Normally on such a development we would expect to be contacted as statutory consultees or at least as a courtesy as the health authority for the area.”
He warned that modelling of air quality and noise should refer not only to current activity levels but also to future EU standards which are likely to become increasingly stringent. Dr Darragh also warned that the ends of the runway present problems for emergency services if a forced landing takes place.
“The inlet adjacent to Victoria Park (old timber ponds) contains very soft estuarine mud which would make rescue particularly difficult,” he said. “Similarly the sand on Holywood bank is very soft and again would be problematic for any rescue.”
Dr Darragh expressed concerns about air approaches to the runway over an area of dense domestic housing, its proximity to several top tier COMAH (Control of Major Accident Hazards) sites and the risk of bird strikes posed by a nearby bird sanctuary.
“This project should take into account the complex environment in which it is sited and recognise that if approved there will be further demands from other airlines to use the extended facility.
“Increased use will inevitably degrade the quality of life of people living in the area of the flight path,” he said.
This week he said he had recommended that an independent health assessment should be carried out, and this has since been undertaken. “As a next step, this
assessment is being independently reviewed. The Public Health Agency has maintained throughout their submissions the need to ensure that local communities are engaged throughout the process,” he said.
The Planning Service said it had followed its normal procedure which was to consult with Belfast City Council’s health and environmental services department.
However a spokesperson added: “When it was drawn to our attention that the EHSSB wished to comment the Planning Service was happy to facilitate this. We are currently awaiting a response from EHSSB in relation to the Health Impact Statement which formed part of the additional information which was submitted in June 2009.”
Belfast City Airport said it had submitted a detailed Environmental Impact Assessment report to the Planning Service.
“Following a request from the Planning Service, the airport has also submitted a full Health Impact Assessment. The airport is fully compliant with strict Government regulations regarding safety and noise,” a spokesman said.
East Belfast councillor John Kyle said he was shocked that the Planning Service had to be prompted to seek a submission from the local health board and added that this indicated a “laissez-faire” attitude that was inconsistent with the significance of the development and the impact on the residents.
“Until we get detailed information on what future air traffic movements are going to be and the make-up of the plane mix, it's very hard for anyone to predict what the impact will be on the local community,” he said.