Adjournment Matters. - County Wicklow Quarry.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. As she may be aware, events have overtaken this matter to a certain extent because I received a letter from the Minister this morning which was very helpful. I appreciate the fact that on a matter which is of genuine urgency, it was nice to receive a reply from the Minister so quickly, giving a full, though inadequate, explanation of what has happened in this quarry. I wish to explain the facts to the Minister in the light of her letter and the reply she will undoubtedly give.

About two weeks ago I was asked by a person who lives in the area of Balleece in Rathdrum to visit his house because of an explosion at a quarry nearby. At an estimate his house is at least half a mile from this quarry. This individual is a small farmer with a wife and family, and he showed me the distressing effects of the explosion in Balleece quarry. The explosion had thrown up boulders which were devastatingly heavy, I estimated their weight at 50 kg. to 100 kg. They would certainly have killed anybody they hit. These boulders were thrown past his house and landed very close to some cattle. Had they dropped in another direction, they would have landed on the road to which his house is adjacent. This explosion, whatever the Minister says in her reply, was definitely life threatening. It is not a densely populated area, but it is an area in which people live, and it is close to a road. The boulders would have killed people if they had landed on the road and people had been passing.

This quarry is adjacent to Avondale House, one of the most picturesque and historic tourist spots in County Wicklow. While I have my own misgivings about having a quarry beside it at all because of its effect on the environment and on tourism, I have serious misgivings now that there has been an explosion of this sort because of the possible consequences had the trajectory of the explosion been in the direction of Avondale House, which is close by. This is a considerable problem which, although not immediate, could easily have happened.

The Minister in her reply says that prompt action was taken by both the quarry owners and the Department. An inspector from the Health and Safety Authority was sent to inspect the quarry almost immediately after the explosion — there was a bank holiday between the date of the explosion and the inspector's visit — and the inspector appears to have reported, and I am concerned about this, that as far as he or she is concerned, this was an isolated occurrence. I wonder how the inspector can tell this is an isolated occurrence. This is an isolated occurrence until the next time it happens. What the Minister cannot give us is an assurance that this will not happen again in the next few months. What she can say is that there was a fault which was unpredictable but what she cannot say is that there are not more faults and what she has not done in her letter to me is to promise immediate action.

Some action has been taken: I gather all personnel from the quarry are to retire to what is considered a safe distance from explosions, but I do not believe this is adequate. The public road is within range of a potential explosion of this kind. Temporary measures should have been taken to ensure immediately that no further explosions are carried out at this quarry until we are absolutely certain it is safe.

I note that Morrisey's Quarries, the company involved, have commissioned a consultant. I am always uneasy when companies commission consultants because by the nature of such a commission, the company pays for it. I do not believe it is ill-motivated, but the consultant has a job to do and can hardly be independent. The consultant is expected to produce a report that is favourable to the company. I suggest that either the Department or the Health and Safety Authority should commission such reports and not the company because it is difficult for a consultant or a company to portray such a report as objective.

I thank the Minister but I ask her for an assurance that the fault which was life threatening is no longer present. We need intermediate action lest the same thing happen again while the cause of this explosion is being investigated. Nothing in the full reply I received from the Minister, by letter, has assured me that this is an isolated incident. I would like to see interim measures implemented to reassure the local residents and the workers — one of who had to retire to hospital because he was struck — that this will not happen again.

I thank Senator Ross for raising this matter and for his reference to the courtesy of my officials.

As a local, the Senator is aware of the background to the case but it is necessary for the record to outline the circumstances. I have taken into account what the Senator said and I hope my comments will address the immediacy of the matter. I am aware of the Senator's strong interest in this case following contacts with my office regarding the accident recently.

Balleese Wood quarry has operated since 1984 without any incidents — I know that is no excuse for this one. The Health and Safety Authority is satisfied that the necessary precautions are being taken by the management of the quarry to avoid any recurrence. In addition, the company has commissioned the services of a consultant to investigate the circumstances of the incident — and I take the Senator's point that, although this shows the company's concern, the company is the consultant's employer. The Health and Safety Authority inspector's report, when completed, will be examined carefully and the Authority will take whatever action it considers necessary following this examination.

The incident occurred at 1.40 p.m. on Friday, 4 June 1993, during normal blasting operations at the Balleese Wood quarry in Rathdrum. The rock used for road construction and the building industry is extracted at this quarry and ancillary operations including, crushing, screening and washing of the extracted material, also take place on site. There is a block making and a ready mix concrete facility at the location. The Health and Safety Authority, which has responsibility for administration and enforcement of health and safety legislation, was officially notified of the the incident by the company in accordance with procedure at 9.45 a.m. on Tuesday, 8 June — as the Senator noted, after the bank holiday weekend.

An inspector from the Authority visited the site on Wednesday, 9 June and conducted an investigation into the incident. The inspector's full report is currently being prepared. Preliminary indications are that the incident was an isolated one due to encountering weak rock caused by a fault in the rock mass. In the lead up to the incident on 4 June a series of holes were bored in the rock to be blasted and these holes were charged with a pre-calculated amount of explosives. The amount of explosive used was determined by previous operating conditions and experience. Prior to blasting, all personnel except the shot-firer and his assistant were withdrawn to an access lane to the quarry and were out of line of sight of the face to be blasted, as was the normal practice during blasting operations at the location. The holes were then blasted in a delay sequence using electronic detonators.

Arising from a zone of weak rock in the face which was blasted, a far greater than usual amount of fly rock was projected upwards and outwards from the blast. Some of this rock landed in an area which, in normal circumstances, would be regarded as outside the danger area, and one worker was struck by flying matter. I understand from the Health and Safety Authority that a man suffered a shoulder injury and some cuts and bruising. He was hospitalised for a brief period but has now recovered and is expected to resume work in the coming weeks.

The Health and Safety Authority inspector has discussed the incident with the quarry management and, in advance of the completion of his report, has instructed that in future all personnel, other than the shot-firer and his assistant, must retire to the junction of the access land to the quarry and the public road, That is the formal brief outlining the circumstances and what happened subsequent to the inspector's visit.

The Senator raised two points, first, that a report had been commissioned by the quarry owner and that this report should not suffice. However, the Health and Safety Authority are also producing a report, and secondly it is not good enough for all concerned to simply say this was an insolated incident. The Senator asked what precautions have been taken regarding the weak core of rock identified as leading to the fly rock going much further than normal. When the report from the Health and Safety Authority is completed I will ask for it. Prior to that, I will immediately convey the Senator's concern to the HSA and ask for direct explanations of the matters he raised to be included in the formal report.

I appreciate that the fly rock went beyond the normal distance but one must ensure that precautions are taken in case there is more of the weak rock. I will come back to Senator Ross with news of the report but, prior to that, I will ask the Health and Safety Authority to answer the points made in this discussion.

I thank the Minister of State for her reply. I understand that the HSA inspector has made interim arrangements to ensure that all future personnel must retire to at least 750 metres from the quarry. This is a sensible precaution. However, what arrangements have been made for civilains within 750 metres of the quarry in the interim period?

When I was studying this matter this afternoon, I endeavoured to contact the appropriate person but I was unable to do so. Health and safety at work must also take into account people who are nearby. These are the points I will have addressed in the report and I will contact the Senator at a future date.