‘Coincidences’ hinder Air Corps whistleblowers’ case

A number of whistleblowers allege that a health and safety failure on the part of the Air Corps has caused their chronic illnesses. Joe Leogue looks at their case and how, just as with Garda Maurice McCabe, ‘coincidence after coincidence after coincidence’ has emerged to undermine their position

‘Coincidences’ hinder Air Corps whistleblowers’ case

“THERE are those who may say that this litany of grave errors can’t just simply be coincidence after coincidence after coincidence that is being suggested,” the senior counsel said.

The line was a standout contribution in a tribunal that made headlines in every news outlet this summer.

Senior counsel Pat Marrinan was talking about Garda Whistleblower Maurice McCabe — and how every one of a number of apparent ‘coincidences’ in his case worked to his detriment.

However, the line also resonated with whistleblowers involved in a different dispute.

A dispute that has found some at odds with the State. An ongoing scandal that has seen allegations of a cover-up, the alleged intimidation of those speaking out against the Defence Forces, and one that can be boiled down to one question: Are a number of men who served the State now seriously ill because of the Defence Forces’ failure to protect them from the effects of harmful chemicals?

Those speaking out do not believe the various occurrences — revealed in a series of articles in this newspaper since January — can be

coincidental.

The ongoing issue relating to chemical exposure in the Air Corps concerns two separate, yet related problems for the Defence Forces — the first of which was raised in 2013.

Back then, the first of a number of lawsuits against the State was filed in the High Court in which it was alleged that there were historic failures to protect technicians from the effects of the chemicals they used.

The second problem was revealed in November 2015, when the first of four whistleblowers within the Air Corps made protected disclosures to the then-defence minister Simon Coveney.

These men warned that the Air Corps was not doing enough to protect currently serving technicians from the harmful effects of the chemicals with which they clean and service the aircraft.

Their warnings would be vindicated following an independent investigation last year.

And yet the red flags should have been raised as far back as 2013, when the first of the lawsuits came — allegations that would be echoed years later by the protected disclosures.

All six cases so far involve men who joined the Defence Forces as teenagers in the 1990s, and ended up working as technicians in the Engine Repair Flight (ERF) workshop, the Avionics Squadrons workshop, and the Engineering Wing Hangar at Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel.

These were housed in two rows of terraced workshops that faced each other, and ran parallel to the Baldonnel Road on the East side of Casement Aerodrome — the Engineering Wing Hangar housed the carpentry shop, sheet metal shop, hydraulic shop, and the spray paint shop.

In their legal actions, the men claim that not only was there was a failure to educate staff on the hazards of the chemicals they used, but that superiors turned a blind eye to practical jokes, mainly played on new apprentices, that involved dousing the victims of such pranks in these hazardous substances.

Furthermore, one plaintiff alleged he was asked to climb into chemical tanks to clean out sediment and to hand pump chemicals from baths when it should have been known that it was dangerous for him to do so, that his medical complaints were not properly investigated at the time, and that he was allowed “to remain in an environment in the course of work where he was exposed to dangerous chemicals and solvents notwithstanding his having ongoing medical complaints”.

In some court documents it is alleged that health and safety laws in place during the men’s time at Casement Aerodrome were broken, and all claim they noticed unusual symptoms while working at the Air Corps — but that no connection was made between their complaints and their work with toxic chemicals.

Now, years later, the men suffer a variety of chronic illnesses. They say they have suffered a litany of neurological issues such as depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance and memory loss.

One has had fertility issues. Another endured a discolouration of his skin on the right side of his abdomen, groin and right upper leg, suffered mood swings and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

One of the men lost feeling in his arms and was told he had suffered large fibre nerve conduction loss.

The court documents state some are at risk of “the possible onset of Alzheimer’s disease and a variety of cancers”.

Since then two of the men say they have been diagnosed with cancer.

These are some of the complaints revealed in the court documents, but they all have one thing in common.

A toxico-pathologist has given his medical opinion that the men have suffered these illnesses as a direct result of their exposure to the chemicals they used in Casement Aerodrome.

The cases are still, years later, working their way through the courts with no end in sight. The State has denied liability and in one case has appealed a discovery order granted to one of the men.

In the meantime, the Defence Forces has been looking into what happened in those workshops over the course of decades.

An internal review led to the Chemical Exposure Report (1994-2005), a document that has been submitted to Junior Defence Minister Paul Kehoe.

Its findings are largely unknown, an internal Defence Forces letter released under the Freedom of Information Act advised that “this document is currently covered by litigation privilege, as it forms part of an ongoing case against the Minister for Defence.”

“It is not advisable to release this confidential document. However, this remains at the discretion of the Minister for Defence to waive said privilege,” Brigadier General Peter O’Halloran wrote to the Defence Forces Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett.

The Irish Examiner has requested this document under the Freedom of Information Act, and is awaiting a decision. As yet there has been no indication that Junior Minister Kehoe will waive the privilege that prevents its publication.

However this newspaper has seen the findings of an internal inspection, carried out in 2014, which raises significant questions about the levels of exposure technicians suffered to a harmful substance called Trichloroethylene.

The time under review in the Trichloroethylene inspection — 1980 to 2007 — coincides with the period during which the men taking cases against the State worked in the Air Corps.

The document states that it is possible that staff may have ingested the cancer-causing chemical and suffered other exposures because there was no record that protective measures were in place to mitigate the impact of the toxic solvent.

In its summary on precautions taken with the solvent — the brand used was called Trikelone N — the report issued by the Air Corps’ Formation Safety Office asks “can the Defence Forces be found not to have done everything reasonably practicable?”

“Trikelone N exposure through inhalation, skin, hair and eyes could have resulted as individuals were not issued P.P.E. (personal protective equipment) to protect against the substance. Due to the lack of records it can not be assumed that the two fans located on the wall behind where the process took place offered adequate ventilation,” it said.

“Vapours could have traveled to the personnel’s tea making and meeting room which was located in an annex off the adjoining Engine assembly area and could have resulted in ingestion of the chemical by way of food contamination,” the report stated.

“The location of people’s personnel lockers which were located in the immediate area where the Degreasing process took place, and then relocated into the adjacent Engine assembly area at a later date. Would give a reasonable assertion that the contamination of persons clothes contained in their lockers would have taken place,” it said.

“The question posed should be was everything reasonably practicable done to ensure personals safety and health at the time. On that note did the controls deemed reasonable at the time mirror those deemed reasonable in the present.

“Can the Defence Forces be found not to have done everything reasonably practicable?” the report asked.

Speaking to this newspaper last month, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said he had met with a group of former Air Corps technicians — some who are involved in the cases against the State, but others who are not — and listed off the litany of chronic illnesses they suffer.

Mr Martin said these men told him they suffered from conditions such as rectal cancer, heart attacks, autoimmune diseases, depression and anxieties, solvent induced encephalopathy, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

He said one of the men went into private industry upon leaving the Air Corps and “couldn’t get over the contrast in terms of the attitude and directions for handling chemical spills and use of protective suits.” “The contrast was striking,” Mr Martin said.

The Fianna Fáil leader also said there was a complaint of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry lists Trichloroethylene as a known carcinogenic.

Particular links between Hodgkin’s disease and exposure to chemical solvents have been long suggested.

In 1980, a paper entitled “Occupational exposure to organic solvents and Hodgkin`s disease in men” published by the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health backed earlier findings suggesting a link.

“Our results are in agreement with other reports indicating that exposure to chemical agents may be of importance for the development of Hodgkin’s disease in man”, the researchers wrote.

“They suggest that organic solvents constitute a group of chemicals that are especially hazardous in this respect.” A more recent study can be found in Environmental Health Perspectives; a peer-reviewed journal published monthly with the support of the US Department of Health, among others.

In a paper entitled ‘Trichloroethylene and Cancer: Epidemiologic Evidence’ published in 2000, researchers found there is evidence to suggest that there is a connection between Trichloroethylene and Hodgkin’s disease and cancers.

Given that warnings over chemical exposures were made via these lawsuits in 2013, why is it that two years later Air Corps whistleblowers were compelled to make protective disclosures to the then-Defence Minister Simon Coveney?

It would appear that these lawsuits did not prompt an examination of current practices at Baldonnell — or if it did then any such inspections failed to bring standards up to scratch.

This newspaper first revealed the whistleblowers’ concerns last January.

The first disclosure to Minister Coveney came in November 2015. The whistleblower identified seven dangerous chemicals, some which are known to be cancer-causing and genetic-altering, and said that Air Corps staff were routinely working with these substances.

This first disclosure warned that the staff working with these chemicals were not being provided with Occupational Health Surveillance — something that would pick up, at an early stage, whether staff health is being affected by their duties.

Weeks later, a second whistleblower claimed that “at no point” during his Air Corps career was he ever offered health surveillance and that he believes that the Air Corps is failing to issue personal protection equipment to all personnel exposed to harmful and toxic chemicals in their day to day working environment.

The whistleblower further stated that he believed that these conditions within the Air Corps can be linked to illnesses among serving and former Air Corps personnel.

“What has happened in the past, and what is still happening regarding chemical health and safety in the Irish Army Air corps, is a grave scandal which I believe has seriously injured the health of a number of personnel,” the second whistleblower warned.

By Christmas week 2015, neither whistleblower had been contacted by Minister Coveney, who had departed for the Lebanon and Golan Heights with then-Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Junior Minister Kehoe for a visit to Irish peacekeepers.

“I really am disappointed that the leader of our country is happy taking pictures with troops abroad while the sick ones are left here to rot,” one of the whistleblowers told Mr Kenny in an email that week.

In January 2016, with the General Election just weeks away, a third whistleblower came forward to allege there were attempts to intimidate him for raising issues within the Air Corps — concerns that matched those outlined in the two disclosures already submitted to the Government.

In the meantime, someone had alerted the health and safety watchdog that all was not as it should be in Casement Aerodrome, and the results of its inspection had been revealed.

In October 2016 the Health and Safety Authority issued its report on conditions at Casement Aerodrome, based on three inspections over the course of six months — and made findings that apparently vindicated the whistleblowers’ concerns.

The report made 13 recommendations, but advised that they are not listed in order of priority.

It called on the Air Corps to introduce health surveillance of staff, ot provide adequate equipment such as gloves, goggles and respirators for protection against chemical exposure and to review its risk assessment process to address exposure by employees to hazardous substances.

“Failure to comply with this advice and relevant legal requirements may result in further enforcement action including prosecution,” the HSA warned.

The health and safety measures at Baldonnel needed to be in accordance with “established good industry practise”, it advised.

“It is your responsibility to ensure the health and safety of employees and others, such as members of the public, who may be affected by the way you run your business,” the HSA inspector said.

The Air Corps did not contest the findings, and provided a schedule for the implementation of the HSA recommendations.

“Carcinogenic and mutagenic chemicals will be subject to more stringent controls and these controls will be fully documented,” the Air Corps said in its reply.

It said it would promptly complete its inventory of ‘CMR’ chemicals — substances with carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic properties.

“Health Surveillance and Biological Monitoring will be considered and documented on the activity based risk assessments and the CMR additional risk assessment where necessary,” the Air Corps said.

“Chemical awareness training and promotion of chemical safety will now be included in the annual training plan,” it added.

All the while the whistleblowers were suffering frustration at the lack of response to their protected disclosures.

While they received assurances from civil servants within the Department of Defence, they had yet to make direct contact with either the Minister or the Taoiseach.

By May 2016, as a new government was formed and Minister Coveney was put in charge of the Housing portfolio, and after Mr Kenny officially took over the Defence Ministry, the duties fell to Mr Kehoe.

That month, one of the whistleblowers contacted the Department of Defence.

“While the minister and the department takes its time over my protected disclosure the men and women within the Irish Army Air Corps continue to be unnecessarily and illegally exposed to dangerous chemicals within the workplace,” he warned.

The following September — a month before the HSA would issue its report on conditions in Casement Aerodrome — another of the whistleblowers made a similar complaint.

In the last week of September the whistleblowers were told that an independent third party was appointed to review their claims, and were given a copy of the terms of reference of this investigation.

That investigation has since been completed, though its findings are unknown. Both the whistleblowers and Mr O’Snodaigh, who attended a meeting between the investigator and one of the whistleblowers, have expressed their concern that the investigator’s terms of reference are not sufficient for the type of enquiry required.

By the end of 2016, no direct contact had been made with the whistleblowers by either the Taoiseach or the Junior Defence Minister.

In January 2017, the Irish Examiner revealed the whistleblowers’ warnings to the public, how the HSA report vindicated their claims, and how in the courts the State denied liability for the illnesses endured by former Air Corps technicians.

This newspaper also disclosed the whistleblowers’ frustrations at not being able to speak with Mr Kenny, Mr Kehoe, or Mr Coveney — having made a number of calls to Minister Coveney’s Departments of Defence and Agriculture, and to his constituency office in Cork, in unsuccessful attempts to seek assurances that he had read their disclosures.

The revelations in the Irish Examiner prompted Mr Martin to raise the matter under Leaders’ Questions in the Dáil, where he accused the Government of attempting to ‘bury’ the controversy.

“Isn’t it extraordinary that in 2016 the Health and Safety Authority is writing to our own Air Corps to say very basic provisions of our law should be implemented?” he asked, before citing precedent in Australia, where members of its Air Force were compensated for illnesses they suffered following chemical exposure.

“Linkage of the particular chemicals to cancer-causing diseases, genetic mutation, neurological conditions and chronic diseases have been well established, and there is a precedent in Australia, in the early 2000s where this was identified and acted upon by the Australian government,” Mr Martin said.

“The response of the State has been standard and deeply depressing. It has resorted to the courts”, he said, accusing the Government of fighting the men “very strongly and acknowledging no negligence”.

“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?” Mr Martin asked.

“The Taoiseach has not explained what happened between 2015, when the protected disclosure was made, and why the Minister, Deputy Coveney, did not acknowledge and respond to the whistleblowers. There is a sense that this has been buried,” Mr Martin said.

“The Australian Government’s approach was markedly different to that of the Irish Government, which is to deny repeatedly and resist and more or less say to the whistleblowers that it does not accept anything they are saying and that it has no time for the manner in which they have gone about this. I have spoken to them and that is how they feel right now,” Mr Martin said.

Mr Coveney later rejected suggestions that he did not respond to the whistleblowers.

“I am not aware of any whistleblower trying to meet with me,” he told journalists at a press conference for the launch of the National Spatial Strategy in Maynooth.

“I have certainly have not got that message. When I was Minister for Defence the issues in the Air Corps were raised with me and we put in place a process of investigating those and that is what happened,” he said.

“I certainly am not aware of there being any problem with hearing from, or talking to, or understanding the concerns that whistleblowers may have. I am a pretty accessible minister and certainly there is no suggestion that anybody is being blocked or locked out,” Mr Coveney said.

A significant inconsistency in the Government’s account was to emerge, however.

A week after Mr Coveney’s claims that he was “not aware of there being any problem with hearing from, or talking to, or understanding the concerns that whistleblowers may have”, this newspaper revealed a series of text messages between one of the whistleblowers and the then-Chief Whip Regina Doherty.

These messages saw the whistleblower express his concern that Mr Coveney had not contacted him about the disclosure, and asked Ms Doherty to contact the Defence Minister on his behalf.

These messages were sent between December 2015 and March 2016 — a year before Mr Coveney said he was not aware of any issues in talking to whistleblowers.

Over the course of the messages, the whistleblower repeatedly contacted Ms Doherty seeking confirmation that Mr Coveney had read his protected disclosure, and to complain that he had received no contact from the then-Defence Minister.

In her replies, Ms Doherty repeatedly said she would call and text to follow up the whistleblower’s request.

One text, sent by Ms Doherty to the whistleblower in January 2016, reads: “Regina, my apologies, I will follow up in morning and call [whistleblower’s name] - sc”.

Ms Doherty then immediately sent the whistleblower a subsequent message that read: “Reply from Simon”.

A spokesperson for Mr Coveney said he had received legal advice “not to make himself available to meet with” the whistleblowers, but would not respond to repeated queries as to how he could be ‘unaware’ of their requests to speak with him in light of Ms Doherty’s text messages.

The revelations again brought the topic to the Dáil, where Mr Martin said this newspaper’s coverage “reveals a horror story of what is going on, and what went on, and demands at least a proper transparent response from Government.”

“I simply asked the Taoiseach why the Government Chief Whip and the former Minister for Defence are silent on the issue of the lack of response to a whistleblower to confirm to him that his protected disclosure has been received by the Minister,” he said.

The Dáil would prove to be the setting for the next twist in the tale.

Sinn Féin’s Defence Spokesman, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, questioned Mr Kehoe on how long the Government knew of issues at Baldonnel.

“There is a cover-up here,” Ó Snodaigh told the Dáil.

“I have seen health and safety reports going back as far as 1995. All of them pointed specifically to the issues that were addressed in The Examiner newspaper,” he said.

“It is a cover-up because the military authorities in Casement Aerodrome did not take the required steps when it was highlighted to them that dangerous chemicals existed,” Mr O’Snodaigh said.

The reports in question would prove to be a contentious issue for the Defence Forces, the Government, the Opposition, the Air Corps whistleblowers, and the men taking a case against the State.

The documents are allegedly reports that show that risks at Baldonnel were identified in inspections as far back as the 1990s.

The Opposition say these reports are significant as, if substantiated, they show the Defence Forces knew for decades that there were concerns around the working environment in Baldonnel.

This would significantly undermine the State’s argument that it cannot be held responsible for the illnesses suffered by former technicians.

Those taking the cases believe that these reports, along with the 2016 HSA findings and the 2014 Trichloroethylene report all point to an ongoing health and safety failure within the Defence Forces.

A problem soon emerged, however; the reports from the 1990s cannot be found.

This newspaper established that these 1990s inspections were overseen by former State industry agency Forbairt, whose functions assumed by Enterprise Ireland in 1998.

A Freedom of Information request from this newspaper to Enterprise Ireland revealed that physical records relating to Forbairt and the Department of Defence have since been destroyed.

No digital copies of these records were retained. However prior to destroying the physical copies of the technical reports, Enterprise Ireland made copies and sent them to the Department of Defence.

A list of records sent from Enterprise Ireland to the Department of Defence showed a number of entries relating to reports on the Air Corps headquarters in Casement Aerodrome.

However, the Department refused a Freedom of Information request from the Irish Examiner for the release of these documents, stating that it ‘cannot locate the records requested’.

Both the Defence Forces and the Government accept that these inspections took place, and the Irish Examiner’s Freedom of Information yielded an invoice paid to one of the companies involved in the probe — but not the reports.

Meanwhile, following Mr O’Snodaigh’s Dáil contribution, his Fianna Fáil counterpart Lisa Chambers revealed in a letter to Taoiseach Enda Kenny that a whistleblower had shown her the missing inspection.

Ms Chambers said “worryingly” tthe documents “appear to identify risks in the workplace around air quality and health and safety at work and where a number of recommendations were made surrounding use of and training around hazardous chemicals and use of respirators”.

“I strongly recommend that you seek to see these reports and listen to what [the whistleblower] has to tell you. I am sure you will share the same concerns I have around this issue,” Ms Chambers said.

“Taoiseach I believe we have to get to the bottom of this, it appears that health and safety concerns were known at the base for some time and there was a failure to act which may have unnecessarily and negatively impacted on the health of those working and serving at the base,” Ms Chambers wrote.

“If the State has failed in their duty to protect people in the course of their employment at Baldonnell then we need to identify those affected and ensure an adequate health care package is put in place for these people,” she said.

Crucially, Ms Chambers said the whistleblower told her the Defence Forces cannot locate the 1990s reports because they were destroyed — an allegation that would be made directly to Mr Kehoe by two separate whistleblowers.

In April a whistleblower made a protected disclosure to Mr Kehoe in which it was alleged the inspection reports were destroyed as per the instruction of an individual named in the submission to the Junior Minister.

The eight-page disclosure claimed that the former civil servant appointed to investigate his previous submission told him “he was not given the required powers to investigate the remit given to him by Minister Paul Kehoe”, had “no powers to compel witnesses”, nor the remit to make any findings.

It was further alleged that there had been attempts to “engineer the dismissal of a serving Irish Army Air Corps Protected Disclosure whistleblower” and that in a separate instance the Defence Forces settled a case with a new, fourth, whistleblower who was due to take his grievances to the Workplace Relations Commission.

“A settlement was made to yet another Irish Army Air Corps whistleblower as a result of the bullying & mistreatment he received after raising Health & Safety concerns to the authorities at Baldonnel,” the disclosure alleged.

It also named an official that the whistleblower alleged was the person who ordered the destruction of the 1990s inspection reports.

It would later emerge that a second of the whistleblowers met with Mr Kehoe to make the same claim — that an official within the Defence Forces ordered the destruction of the documents.

Despite this, Mr Kehoe initially indicated that he had no plans to seek an investigation into the reports’ disappearance.

“The Military Authorities have indicated that there are a range of potential causes for the loss of the reports such as the changeover of electronic recording systems in 2004 or that the reports were misplaced over time. However this is purely speculative,” Mr Kehoe told the Dáil.

Amid increasing opposition pressure, and further revelations in the Irish Examiner, Mr Kehoe eventually sought an explanation from the Defence Forces — but did not order an independent probe.

“Certain allegations were made that the documents were destroyed,” Mr Kehoe said, confirming the reports in this newspaper.

“I didn’t destroy any reports, nor am I aware of anyone destroying any reports but I have asked the Chief of Staff of the Irish Defence Forces to investigate this matter, to find out about these reports and what happened them, and to the reasons why they are not kept on record in the Defence Forces,” he said.

Last month the Irish Examiner substantiated a claim made in the April disclosure — that one of the four whistleblowers within the Air Corps was facing dismissal.

The man has been summoned to appear before a Defence Forces Medical Board today — August 14.

A brief report issued prior to the Board meeting has accused the member of ‘chronic ineffectivity’ due to anxiety and a ‘work-related industrial dispute’.

The issue prompted heated exchanges in the Dáil, but as yet there has been no indication that the proceedings have been brought to a halt.

Today, it emerges that Comdt Mark Donnelly, the Air Corps formation safety adviser, rejected claims that the reports from the 1990s were destroyed, and said that in his opinion the missing reports were “misplaced with the passage of time”.

“AC Formation and former Formation safety personnel have already commented on their concerns regarding these allegations,” Comdt Donnelly wrote in an email on March 8 last.

“These allegations of deliberate destruction of such documents are completely unfounded,” he said.

“It is my opinion that these comments are intended to be inflammatory, vexatious and malicious,” Comdt Donnelly wrote.

Just like in the case of garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe, there are some who will state that the fate that has befallen the ill former Air Corps technicians and the whistleblowers who have raised concerns about Casement Aerodrome is a matter of coincidence. These men do not believe this however. They do not believe it is a coincidence that two of four whistleblowers have had industrial relations issues within the Air Corps, with one potentially facing dismissal today.

They do not believe it is a coincidence that the Defence Forces — an organisation with its own military archive — has ‘misplaced’ inspection reports key to a legal action against the State but yet still has the invoices for these probes.

While the State is denying liability in the courts, these men do not believe it is a coincidence that the Health and Safety Authority found standards were below par in 2016, or that in 2016 an internal Air Corps report cast doubt on the measures used to protect staff from Trichloroethylene.

And they do not believe that it is coincidence that a number of former Air Corps technicians are now chronically sick with the very illnesses that are known side-effects of the toxic chemicals with which they worked for years.

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