Is This the ‘Wake-Up Call’ We Needed?
Writes Ciaran Dineen
With the plumes of black smoke from the latest fire in the Port of Cork now settled, debate surrounding the response to it will be hotly contested for some time. A lot of questions remain unanswered and, in the meantime, frustrated and worried residents live in fear of what the future may bring. Next time we might not be so lucky.
Timeline of Events
At approximately 8am on Saturday morning (January 9th) a fire incident commenced in the R&H Hall animal feed store, located in the Port of Cork. Thick black smoke began to disperse into the harbour at 8:40am, about the same time as local residents raised the alarm bells. At the time the origin of the blaze was unclear, but the colour and density of the billowing smoke was a clear sign that some sort of material was burning up into the atmosphere.
The benefits of social media came through, as the Ringaskiddy and Districts Residents Association were very alert to the situation. Shortly before 9am, through their Facebook page, the Association stated that the Port of Cork had advised that the grain store had caught fire, with on-site fire services beginning operations. At this point residents in the area were informed to stay indoors and keep their windows shut.
Shortly after, both the The Carrigdhoun Newspaper, and RTÉ News had disseminated this information, but the latter suggested that “an emergency plan, involving the evacuation of the area” was underway.
This was false, no such evacuation plan was executed, in fact many interested in seeing what the commotion was all about were able to freely travel down to Ringaskiddy to take photos and videos. There were no checkpoints, no presence on the road from An Garda Siochana and no sign of any plan. The implications that the smoke was having in the area quickly began to materialise, with a ‘toxic’ taste and smell lingering in the air around Ringaskiddy Village.
By 11am the Port of Cork had advised that the fire had spread from one store into another, but it was decided that fire fighters would enter the facility and quench the fire, as opposed to letting it burn itself out, which could have taken a number of days.
The effects of the fire were not limited to Ringaskiddy however, with reports and signs of smoke travelling around the harbour, across to Fountainstown, while air quality in Cobh was also impacted. It was confirmed that the material on fire was animal feed, with no toxins in the air and luckily no asbestos in the building.
Thankfully the fires were extinguished and controlled due to the heroic work of fire fighters from across the county. Carrigaline Fire & Rescue arrived on site at 8:42am, with support from corresponding units in Crosshaven, Midleton, Cobh and Bandon, as a total of 32 fire fighters worked side-by-side.
A night crew from Kinsale Fire Brigade took over on the day of the blaze, with the day crews reporting for duty again on Sunday morning. The community rallied behind their fantastic efforts at bringing the situation to a close, with a number of businesses getting involved, providing meals for all the workers. The tireless task continued until Tuesday night, four full days since the initial fire broke out.
As the brave work was ongoing, serious questions were being asked in response to the situation. Those living in the area and a number of local TDs and Councillors have been very critical over the lack of adequate communication between the relevant authorities and local residents, who in reality were left to fend for themselves.
At the same time, the only nearby air quality monitor, located in Cobh, took hours to record any data on the effects that the fire had on the environment. Fortunately for Cobh, the prevailing wind which is generally carried downstream of Ringaskiddy, was on this occasion not pointing in their direction.
Local councillors, Marcia D’Alton (Ind), Seámus McGrath (FF) and Ben Dalton O’Sullivan (Ind) have been very vocal in recent days, conveying the concerns and anger felt by the communities that they represent. Meanwhile, the activist group CHASE looked to highlight the potential impacts that a similar incident could have on an incinerator site, referencing the ongoing Judicial Review in relation to the Indaver application.
In a press statement they argued that the topography of the surrounding area and thermal inversions in Cork Harbour added to the consequences of this fire incident. They said that the smoke dispersal provided a real-life modelling pattern of how the thick plume could drift around the coastal area, idling in low terrain for some time after the event. If planning for the waste management facility is granted, there are claims that similar incidents could develop into environmental disasters.
On Monday afternoon, at the full meeting of Cork County Council, public representatives were keen to place the response to the fire high on the agenda. Cllr McGrath declared the events of the weekend as a ‘wake-up call’, arguing that an evacuation plan for Ringaskiddy needed to be put in place.
Cllr D’Alton also added that another contingency strategy should perhaps be developed for the Cobh area, in preparation for any major explosions that may occur in Ringaskiddy. She also argued that air monitors should be set up around the harbour area as part of any emergency plan.
Cork County Council Chief Executive, Tim Lucey, was conscious of the concerns raised by local councillors and residents, revealing that a formal incident review will take place. He declared that due to the direction of the wind, it was only the Port of Cork’s emergency plan that was implemented. If this was not the case and had the incident been more serious, Mr Lucey implied that the Council had appropriate contingency plans in place and could have stepped in if the situation had been worse.
A lot of questions remain unanswered and given that this was reportedly the third fire to occur at the site over the space of just a couple of months, there are justified local concerns that another incident could come at any time.
On this occasion there was a great deal of good fortune involved with weather conditions being as they were, but what if this wasn’t the case? Without a total reassessment of emergency procedures and communication one wonders if next time it could be too late. This is the first and last ‘wake-up call’ needed, and we don’t have time to press snooze.