Declassified files: Public took risk for ash liability

Power Station West.'Pic by Gavan Caldwell
Power Station West.'Pic by Gavan Caldwell
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A Stormont department agreed to indemnify the owners of a power station against claims for problems with blocks containing its coal ash, declassified government files have revealed.

The Department for Economic Development – the predecessor to DETI and what is now the Department for the Economy – made the commitment in the early 1990s when power stations were being privatised.

However the department’s most senior civil servant at the time, Gerry Loughran, did not want the news to emerge publicly “so as to not raise any undue concerns” and to avoid a rush of claims against the department.

A letter from Mr Loughran, who would go on to become the head of the civil service, set out the issue and has been declassified at the Public Record Office.

The December 9, 1994 letter was written to the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee after he had declined to publicly answer a question while giving evidence to the committee due to its sensitivity.

He said that the issue related to “the by-product from Belfast West power station”.

He said: “Clinker ash produced as a by-product by Belfast West power station was historically disposed of to a company which then used it in the manufacture of concrete blocks.

“In late March 1992 the sale of this ash was brought into question. Northern Ireland Electricity had changed the origin of its supply of coal in the need to find cheaper coal and the ash produced from the new coal was found to have high levels of calcate and unburned carbon, making it unsuitable for the manufacture of concrete blocks.

“The ash contract with the station was terminated on 30 March 1992.”

Mr Loughran went on: “During the negotiations for the sale of the power stations [the successful bidders] AES/Tractebel were concerned about the possible liabilities arising from past sales of this by-product.

“They claimed that ash from the power station had been used for brick manufacture and that its chemical composition was known to be capable of causing erosion to window frames and therefore presented the possibility of damage claims by householders.

“The ash disposal contract did not specify the purpose for which the ash was to be used and there is no evidence of any breach in that contract. AES Tractebel were not prepared to accept the possible liability and the department agreed to indemnify AES Tractebel in respect of any third party claims which might arise out of the sale by Northern Ireland Electricity of ash residue from the power station for the manufacture of bricks.

“The possible liability is unquantifiable but there is no evidence to date of any deterioration of materials manufactured with the ash.”

Mr Loughran asked for the information to be treated in confidence “so as not to raise any undue concerns about the use to which the ash was put but, more importantly, to prevent speculative claims for compensation”.

Belfast West Power Station was demolished more than a decade ago.