Filed for The Guardian, 06 May 90

The Government yesterday launched an urgent investigation into allegations that highly dangerous explosives were found by fishermen in the Clyde ten miles away from a designated seabed waste dump used until last year by the ICI chemical company.

"We would be extremely concerned if these reports are substantiated and look forward to hearing what evidence the fishermen have", a Scottish Office spokeswoman said. The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland has already made moves to speak to local fishermen and ICI.

However, she dismissed a claim that a major Scottish fishing ground would have to be totally sealed off as "extreme speculation", pointing out that £1.3 million worth of fish had been caught in the area in 1988.

The allegations, which appeared in a Sunday newspaper, have provoked widespread concern and alarm amongst the fishing community, the navy and other users of the busy sea channel between the Isle of Arran and the Ayrshire coast. Explosives are said to have been caught in the nets of prawn fishermen last week at three sites south of the dumping ground.

"I am absolutely appalled by this. It is a matter of very considerable concern to us", said Desmond Hammerton, director of the Clyde River Purification Board yesterday.

"We were aware of the explosive dumping ground. If it is true that explosives have been found so far away from it, it could be extremely dangerous to life and limb. I don't know the full facts but it seems such incredible irresponsibility by ICI."

ICI has admitted that the substances found were emulsion explosives like ammonium nitrate from its Nobel explosives factory at Ardeer in Ayrshire. Over 100 tonnes of explosive wastes from the factory were dumped in the designated zone in the year up to last August.

"It is like a baked cake that has not risen properly", explained an ICI spokesman. "There is a risk of explosion if it is knocked severely. If you found some of the stuff, the last thing you would want to do would be to handle it."

He pointed out that, although dumping had been carried out since at least the last war, this was the first report of any being found outside the disposal zone. The crucial task now, he said, was to identify precisely where the explosives had been found.

Wastes had been legally dumped in hessian sacks designed to rot away to allow seawater to break down the explosives and render them safer. However this process could take "a period of months" depending on water temperatures.

ICI was keen to assist with the investigation and had already offered to talk to the local fishing association "to put them fully in the picture". The decision to cease using the dumping ground last year had been taken by the company two or three years ago as part of a general move to phase out sea disposal of waste.

The wastes from the Ardeer plant, which makes explosives used in mining, are now being disposed of on the site either by incineration or controlled explosions. "The material is rendered totally non-explosive and we are not taking the problem to somewhere else", the company spokesman said.

Labour's Scottish Environment spokesman, Brian Wilson MP, many of whose constituents work at the Ardeer plant, said: "I would be astonished and very angry if a company of ICI's stature with long connections in this area were shown to have behaved with such incredible irresponsibility.

"Now these allegations have been made there must be urgent inquiries by the Government and the legal authorities. We clearly have to know within days rather than months the true extent of the danger."