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Foundations of iconic Poolbeg chimneys at risk of corrosion due to presence of sulphur

The ESB plans to carry out intrusive works on the towers this year.

Image: Leon Farrell

THE ESB HAS warned the foundations of Dublin’s iconic Poolbeg chimneys are at risk due to the presence of sulphur at the base of the towers as Councillors continue calls for the stacks to be restored and repainted. 

In a letter sent to Dublin City Council’s chief planner John O’Hara in February, and obtained under Freedom of Information by The Journal, the ESB said chemical analysis undertaken last year identified the presence of the corrosive element which could affect the durability of the chimneys’ foundations. 

The red and white chimneys were built in the 1970s and used as part of the ESB’s gas turbine which provided electricity for half a million homes in Dublin.

The chimneys had an operational lifespan of 25 years. The associated power plants at Poolbeg ceased production about ten years ago and the chimneys were decommissioned in 2006 and 2010.

The ESB has committed to a maintenance programme to ensure the chimneys’ medium to long-term stability – owing to their popularity – however cracking to the exterior shell and contaminated lining of the chimneys has put their future at risk. 

Specialist consulting firms in 2019 recommended further investigation of these cracks but this will only be possible by removing the brick lining of the chimneys which has “considerable weight [and] is dependent on the condition of the foundations”, the ESB told the Council in its letter. 

However, the chimneys may also be affected by sulphate attack – which deteriorates concrete – due to the presence of sulphur in soil at the foundations, chloride affecting the chimneys’ brickwork and acid attack from chemicals present on the floor of the chimneys from when they were operational. 

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The ESB has said “intrusive works” to the foundations were due to be carried out last year but were postponed due to Covid-19. It is planned for these works to be carried out this year. 

The presence of sulphur makes these works “all the more important”, the ESB said, and should inform future options for the chimneys. 

According to the ESB, if the foundations are in good condition the internal brickwork of the towers will be removed, sealed and repaired and the chimneys repainted. 

However, the ESB warned the removal of brickwork from the chimneys “will be difficult due to the hazardous nature of the work”. 

Labour councillor Dermot Lacey told The Journal that the “chimneys have become iconic” and has called on the ESB to protect and repaint them. 

“We should preserve them,” said Lacey. “They don’t look overly secure and we need to think about what we’re going to do with them.”

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It was reported last month that the iconic chimneys may need to be encased in fibreglass or concrete to ensure their long-term survival. 

A spokesperson for the ESB said works to preserve the chimneys will run to “several million euro” and that that proposal to encase certain sections of the chimneys in fibreglass which was first mooted in 2017 is only one possible option being explored by ESB engineers. 

They said work on the foundations will inform future options. 

Green Party councillor Claire Byrne said the Poolbeg chimneys “are undeniably an iconic part of the Dublin skyline”. 

“The issue of sulphur impacting on their foundations is a new problem,” said Byrne, who has called for the site at the chimneys to form part of a redeveloped peninsula at Poolbeg. 

“I welcome the news that the ESB are doing further explorations on this. Obviously safety has to be a priority, but I would like to see a list of options presented with keeping the chimneys intact as a priority.”

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