I want to raise a very serious issue with the Taoiseach which, on reflection, could represent a serious scandal. It involves an unacceptable response by the State regarding exposure to dangerous chemicals at the aircraft maintenance shops in Baldonnel by members of the Air Corps over many years.
Three whistleblowers warned the Taoiseach and the then Minister for Defence, Deputy Simon Coveney, in November 2015 about the conditions at the Air Corps maintenance shops in Baldonnel and the degree to which staff were exposed to very dangerous solvents and chemicals. The links of the particular chemicals involved to cancer-causing diseases, genetic mutations, neurological conditions and chronic diseases have been well-established. A precedent has been set by Australia where, in the early 2000s, the issue was identified and acted on by the Australian Government.
Complaints were made to the Department of Defence, the Air Corps and the Army in 2012 regarding this matter. In November 2015, the then Minister for Defence, Deputy Simon Coveney, was informed that workers were not receiving occupational health monitoring, as is required by law under the Health and Safety Act 2005. In what was an extraordinary situation, they were not provided with protective equipment and clothing as they worked with very dangerous chemicals. PDFORRA wrote to the Air Corps in 2015, warning that any health inspection of Baldonnel would produce damning findings. It took until 2016 for the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, to threaten the Air Corps with prosecution unless it implemented a number of recommendations, including the provision of appropriate equipment for handling chemicals and the surveillance of staff health to monitor any adverse effects they experienced as a result of their duties. Is it not extraordinary that in 2016 the HSA wrote to the Air Corps to demand that very basic provisions of our law be implemented?
The whistleblowers received no formal acknowledgement from the Minister, Deputy Coveney, during that 12-month period. The response of the State has been standard and deeply depressing. It has resorted to the courts. There are currently six cases before the courts, and the Government is fighting them very strongly and acknowledging no negligence. In 2000, the Australian Government appointed a board of inquiry. Arising out of that, it commissioned a study of the health outcomes of aircraft maintenance personnel working in the F111 bomber programme , which came up with some fairly damning findings.
Why was the State so slow to respond to the whistleblowers and to investigate the health conditions at Baldonnel? Why were the whistleblowers not acknowledged by the Minister? Will the Government commission an independent health outcome study of aircraft maintenance personnel, similar to that carried out by the Australian Government, of personal working in aircraft maintenance shops in Baldonnel? Will it commission a similar independent board of inquiry of the entire affair and scandal?