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Russell, O Laoire and the Whitestown scandal

The environmental entrepreneurs have escaped the consequences of reckless medical-waste pollution, some of which may have been by their company, as well as of the botched remediation

When hazardous hospital waste was found in an illegal landfill at Whitestown, Co Wicklow Irish institutions and agencies were shocked. This wasn’t the usual domestic dumper avoiding charges of €1100 a tonne or a local authority dumping old road materials. The average cost of disposing of medical waste in 1998 was €11,480 a tonne. Clearly someone wanted to avoid such payments.

The €40,000,000 bill handed to Wicklow County Council and, by default, Irish society that was explained in the February issue of Village puts the delinquency of those trying to avoid the disposal costs in perspective.

Lest we forget the enormity of this case, which Judge Richard Humphreys described as centring on perhaps the largest illegal land ll in the history of the State, medical hazardous waste was found strewn in multi-tonnage amounts in initial examinations of the land ll. The World Health Organisation cites such illegally disposed waste as being responsible for 40% of hepatitis cases and 12% of HIV cases worldwide. The court case was primarily focused on the potential for pollution of water but those involved in the transporting waste to the site were also at high risk. The Judge and counsel bantered about Chicago in the 1930s and the Sopranos giving a avour of the waste-industry impropriety and corruption that figured in the case.

Two of the individuals central to that case, Ireland’s Jarndyce v Jarndyce, that has lasted 16 years already, are Professor Ronnie Russell and Retired Commandant Donal O Laoire. The men have a business relationship through a range of associated directorships and companies that spans nearly 30 years to the present day.

As O Laoire Russell Associates since 2001 and EMA International before that, they list clients including the World Bank, UNIDO, the European Commission and many Irish government, industry and regulatory authorities.

With a PhD in Immunology from Glasgow University (1973-76), Professor Ronnie Russell is described on his own Linkedin page in terms that command respect: Adjunct Associate Professor TCD (1976 to present), Chairman HSE Decontamination Advisory Committee (2007-present), Vice-Chair of the Environmental Education Unit of An Taisce (which runs Ireland’s Green Schools, Blue Flags and other environmental programmes, 2015-present) and the technical representative for the disarmament section of the Department of Foreign Affairs at the UN in Geneva (1994-present) in which role he Chaired the EU Bioweapons Disarmament Expert Committee during Irish EU Presidencies.

An RAF reconnaissance liaison and trainee Concorde pilot while studying for his Ph.D, he probably had a lot to complement the distinguished military experience of Donal O’Laoire whose profile on the CEMS website describes a professional career background in the Irish Defence Forces: Donal O Laoire has practised as an independent consultant in Ireland, EU, Eastern Europe, North Africa and Asia for almost 20 years, and is a graduate and post-graduate of Trinity College Dublin. Working with agencies of the United Nations, he has designed and project-managed large-scale environmental projects including land decontamination and remediation in several countries. In some biographies he de nes a lecturing role at TCD.

This pair constitutes a formidable galaxy of knowledge, influence and contacts. What is here relevant is their involvement with one of the companies listed as having possibly contributed waste to the illegal land ll in the first place, Eco-Safe Systems Limited. Russell and O Laoire were two of the initial directors in Eco-safe Systems Ltd and both were shareholders. The implication of this company went unchallenged at all stages and was accepted by the High Court last year.

Eco-Safe Systems Ltd had become the only company granted an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) permit to dispose of treated hazardous hospital waste legally – in a, designated, Irish land ll.

The compelling, frightening image of this land ll was graphically depicted in court by Professor Ronnie Russell. On 14 July 2005 he swore a lengthy affidavit about his examination of the site. His first paragraph included the following: “The items tested included bandages and dressings, cannulas, hypodermic needles and syringes. Many of these proved strongly positive for the presence of blood indicating a contaminated state. Furthermore, intravenous lines, assorted plastic tubings, sample containers and other clinical materials showed no evidence of having been autoclaved (having been subjected to high temperature sterilisation treatment) as would be appropriate for such material before being discarded”.

C1 form needed for movement of medical waste: Eco-Safe Systems must have filled in hundreds of these stringent forms knowing their extraordinary significance. Yet there’s no evidence Eco-Safe Systems’ O Laoire, wearing his authorised-official hat, looked for the forms

O Laoire in his affidavit stated: “During this initial inspection I observed gas bubbling through waste puddles on the surface. Parts of surgical gloves were observed on the surface. All these parts of gloves seemed to have been systematically cut or shredded. Further examination of the surface revealed small amounts of broken glass, shredded tin cans, and medical equipment such as masks, syringes, surgical gloves and theatre gowns at surface level”.

Other engineers and consultants also swore lengthy affidavits in July 2005 as to what was on site, including hospital waste.

In other words, Wicklow County Council may have unwittingly invited two of the founding directors of that highly innovative new medical-waste-disposal company to forensically investigate the scene of a crime where waste from that company might have been illegally brought.

There are ways that this could happen without the knowledge of company principals but the looming ethics question is why they did not bring this to the immediate attention of the Garda leading the Criminal Investigation. If they had, the excellent insurance coverage Eco-Safe Systems Ltd had in place as a prerequisite to being awarded the EPA waste licence permit 54-01 could have covered 15m for each of the ndings of illegal medical waste which might have paid for the entire subsequent clean-up of the whole site before the problem was exacerbated by the botched remediation. There is no legal time-limit on hospital waste generator obligations for proper disposal. They could also have met a medical duty of care to the workers who may unwittingly have been exposed to hazardous material and now perhaps even be suffering mystery illnesses of unknown origin.

The “botched remediation” effectively blended all categories of waste on the site together leaving a new contaminated soup of 1.4 million tonnes which now must be removed under any reading of all the EU and Irish legislation as carefully documented and considered by the judge.

Any opportunity to trace the origin of this healthcare waste from theatre gowns inscribed with particular hospital insignia etc has now gone.

As the authorised officer for Wicklow County Council soon after the investigation started, Donal O Laoire was, however, also in the leading enforcement role, searching out polluters to pay for the clean-up. He was now proposing to also set up a seperate company to do the clean-up which they would own. Whitestown would become his own monopoly game where he held all the cards and everyone else paid what he decided.

The judge’s exasperation with O Laoire and Russell is pulsatingly evident in the many references throughout the judgment: “Mr. Ó Laoire developed a proposal, which he himself correctly described in evidence as corrupt, whereby he and his associates (variously described as a syndicate or consortium) would make a profit from a commercial venture designed to remediate the site, using statutory powers and court proceedings”… Professor Russell’s position has also been somewhat undermined by some of the matters that apply to Mr. Ó Laoire; particularly his membership of the syndicate…” and “ I am satisfied that Mr. O Laoire wrongly concealed from the Council the full extent of his activities in advancing the syndicate. If one looks at how he dealt with the gardaí, the council and the court, one draws the conclusion that the truth comes out in a drip-feed manner with Mr. O Laoire, if it comes out at all”.

Eco-Safe Systems waste application licence, granted in 1998, makes for astonishing reading. Both O Laoire and Russell put an enormous amount of effort into the technology. In the 1990s Irish hospitals, as elsewhere, had to cease the burning of waste in their own incinerators. This company was proposing an excellent solution with private investment at a time when large fines were already being levied. The idea involved using imported proven US equipment that would take all healthcare waste (excluding radioactive material), cut and shred it to confetti size and subject it to a high temperature sterilisation process.

EMA International, another environmental consulting company owned by O’ Laoire and Russell, led the waste-application paperwork with the EPA for the Eco-Safe System licence and answered all technical queries. The most important part of the process was that the waste could be verified as sterile before being land lled at a designated and licensed land ll. Eco-Safe Systems was taking a bio-hazardous-category waste for conversion into non-hazardous waste which could be land filled. To meet these exacting standards each cooked batch would contain vials which would be tested in an in-house laboratory controlled by the Moyne Institute of Preventative Medicine at Trinity College.

Extract from the Constitution of the Irish Decontaminatiion Institute of which Prof Russell is President

The Article 16 submission by EMA International for the waste licence is more specific about this relationship with the Moyne Institute. “The laboratory undertaking the commissioning tests will be the Moyne Institute at Trinity College, Dublin under the auspices of Dr RJ Russell. This laboratory routinely undertakes sterilization testing for its own autoclaves processing categories 1,2 and 3 hazardous pathogens. It undertakes the same testing for the Dublin Dental Hospital and the Bioresources unit at TCD. The applied microbiology and immunology laboratory under Dr Russell also undertakes the micro-biological calibration testing programme for the EPA’s laboratories around the country, totalling 35 in all”.

It goes on to cite Dr Russell’s 23 years’ experience at TCD with many Government departments, local authorities and EU technical committees.

The motto on the bottom of the EMA International letterhead above the names of directors Russell and O Laoire read “Managing Environmental Risk and Capitalising Opportunity for Industry in a Changing Commercial Climate”. O Laoire’s subsequent memos for their partnership was summarised by Judge Humphreys, “Clearly he was engaged in a massive conflict of interest that was actual rather than merely potential. In an email of 2nd March, 2002, he said that the ‘real agenda’ was to ‘capitalise on the aftershock I am generating’, that is to make money from the ‘Whitestown opportunity’ (draft document of 3 August, 2002). As it was put in that document, ‘[t]hrough his work Donal has identified an opportunity for a new player in the waste business’”. That opportunity was to catch the illegal dumpers and charge them for meeting whatever standards the partnership demanded.

Eco-Safe Systems was subsequently granted a waste licence by the EPA in December 1999 and IPODEC Ireland, a Cork-based waste-disposal company, was licensed to carry its waste.

When O Laoire was appointed the authorised officer of Wicklow County Council in early 2002 he had access to all documents and gate records. If Eco-Safe Systems name was in these documents it implies someone in his company was by passing its treatment facility and dumping at an illegal land ll. Who was bene ting from illegally dumping medical waste should have been of immediate concern to him on many levels.

The European Commission even weighed in with concerns and on 16 October, 2002, Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström of the European Commission issued a letter pursuant to Article 226 of the EC Treaty about implementation of the EU Waste Directive.

The letter complained at paragraph 3 that the Council had been notified in 1998 that dumping was taking place but took no enforcement action. Judge Humphreys noted the correspondence between Europe and the Irish Department of Environment: “The letter of complaint appears to constitute an ‘opening of the case’ by the Commission, and the Department has been trying to close the case ever since”. Judge Humphreys made the sharp observation that the Department was trying to make the courts vigorously enforce EU directives but take a narrow view when looking at local authorities, and failed to intervene to ensure they enforced compliance.

Closing this case at all costs seems to have been the wish of then Minister Phil Hogan in November 2011 when his announcement of150m in public funds to clean up Whitestown effectively ended the 2010 case. There was much annoyance among the many aggrieved parties as it meant the les would not now be publicly disclosed. When the funding subsequently never materialised the case reopened and finally a definitive judgment was carefully reached by Judge Humphreys after fifty days in the High Court last year.

Both O’Laoire and Russell appear confused on what conflicts of interests are. This author raised questions about peer-reviewed papers on another private industry technology in which Dr Russell declared no interest, but where his share options in the concerned company were subsequently disclosed in the teeth of opposition from his lawyers as part of a discovery process in a Minnesota court case.

Judge Humphreys also chastised O Laoire and Russell for bringing defamation proceedings against a company called Brown eld Restorations where they knew its statements were actually true. “Such an action is of course oppressive of Brownfield but more fundamentally is a fraud upon the court. Mr. O Laoire has drawn his business partner Dr. Ronald Russell into the frame in that regard because the firm was added as a plaintiff in the defamation action alongside Mr. O Laoire”. Lawsuits and threats of action often just obscure the delinquency.

As one lawyer close to the US case said: “enough is enough, it has to stop”. We deserve more from our public expenditure on environmental protection. We need an independent environmental enforcement agency similar to the UK Committee on Climate Change. This idea was recently mooted by Irish EPA Director General Laura Burke at a conference in the Mansion House. Whitestown suggests and demands it.

In the meantime we must clean up Whitestown. But there may be much more – other illegal landfills that are known to local authorities but cannot be acted upon by EPA because the Council must declare them first. Former Meath County Councillor Philip Cantwell is happy to give any interested party a tour of such sites in County Meath, for example.

It is clear that there are deficits in the rules and guidelines on conflict of interest and ethics for those working in the worthy environmental sector, a sector that rarely hesitates in its efforts to hold delinquents to the highest standards. None of the the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Trinity College Dublin (TCD), An Taisce or even the United Nations (UN) in its rules for contractors, employees and consultants, seem clear as to how big a conflict has to be for their representatives before there are consequences.

Two of these institutions that rightly hold the high moral ground in modern Ireland, are Trinity College Dublin and An Taisce.

On environmental and planning issues An Taisce is a statutory consultee. It has become the accepted de facto voice of the environmental conscience of the nation. On many decisions it is noti ed at the same time as Government Ministers.

Trinity College Dublin professors and alumni stand on the shoulders of giants. They bear a huge responsibility correlative to their privileges.

How then can both organisations approve extremely influential environmental experts categorised as part of a “corrupt syndicate” continue to serve, as before, just because the findings of a court case are so complex that its import for the experts have not been synthesised by the political process?

Whitestown has been appealed and perhaps these worthy bodies, among others, could be involved in fostering dynamic collaborative solutions. Though where it would leave O Laoire and Russell is unclear.

Meanwhile Ronnie Russell is one of six directors including former An Taisce chairman Charles Stanley Smith and Patricia Oliver, who chairs the organisation’s Education Unit, who have established a company, called Enved, to take over the Unit. It was incorporated on 3 May.

Ciaran Mannion

Ciaran Mannion organised a 1992 conference on hazardous waste in Minnesota and is an environmental policy expert and entrepreneur, specialising in community environmental and social issues.