A FAMILY IN Co Mayo has had to abandon their home as it is crumbling around them.
Michael Healy and his son Dan are sharing their story in a bid to highlight the pyrite plight faced by many others across the country.
Speaking to TheJournal.ie, they say they knew there was something wrong with the house for several years – there were unusual noises and excessive cracking in the plaster – but didn’t get an answer until about two years ago.
Dan recalls: “We live in quite a boggy land area, so we carried out excavations to see if there was movement in the foundation, but nothing was going on below the ground.
“You could hear this almighty cracking, no one knew what it was.”
Michael tells us: “I was sure it was subsidence, I brought an engineer out to look at it to see if we could make an insurance claim.
When he got here he didn’t even need to get out of the car, he knew what it was straight away.
“He said, ‘There’ll be no payout on that – that’s not subsidence, that’s pyrite.’”
Michael sent blocks from the house away to be tested and, sure enough, they came back positive for pyrite and mica.
Both materials weaken concrete and cause it to crack and crumble over time.
Pyrite is a form of iron sulphide, and a type of the material – framboidal pyrite – can expand in the presence of oxygen and water. Mica muscovite is a mineral that also significantly weakens concrete.
The materials were cheap and sometimes used as ’backfill or ‘infill’ when constructing the foundations of houses – this became a common practice in some regions during the property boom. Thousands of houses around the country are affected.
‘A huge scandal’
“The bottom part of the wall fell out about three months ago, and the top fell out during the last big storm around two weeks ago,” Michael explains.
The family bought the house in Corclough West, Belmullet in 2000, after returning home from England. It was a new build at that stage.
Today, most of the mortgage has been repaid.
“I’d walk away if I could, I’ve a fortune spent on that house … Every time you think about it, you get stressed,” Michael says.
He has rented a flat nearby. His wife Catherine has been reluctant to leave the family home, but he says she too will have to leave soon.
I have moved out. My wife is still there, you can understand why she wants to stay. It’s her home and all her things are there, but she’ll have to leave soon … She’s tough, but I know it’s getting to her now too. Within the next week I’d say she’ll have to leave.
“I used to love painting it and cleaning it, I’ve just no interest in it now. There’s no point in even changing a light bulb in it now, it’s just not worth it.”
Michael, who runs a local grocery shop, says he had hoped to expand his business by getting a loan based on the mortgage, but that won’t happen now.
“If I sold something that wasn’t up to standard it’d be brought back to me, when it comes to this they think, ‘You bought it – tough.’ They could get away with murder.
My house isn’t the only one. It’s like cancer, there’s no cure.
Michael says he knows of several other properties within a 10-mile radius that have also been affected by pyrite and/or mica, telling us: “This is going to be a huge scandal in the west of Ireland.”
‘Their houses are falling down around them’
The pyrite remediation scheme is described as “a scheme of last resort for affected homeowners who have no other practical option to obtain redress”.
To be eligible, properties must be located within the administrative areas of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, Fingal, Kildare, Meath, Offaly, South Dublin County Council or Dublin City Council, and built between 1 January 1997 and 12 December 2013.
As of the end of December 2016, 1,498 applications had been received under the pyrite remediation scheme (620 in 2014, 373 in 2015 and 505 in 2016). There were 77 unsuccessful applicants.
Rose Conway-Walsh, a Sinn Féin Senator and former Mayo county councillor, recently raised the Healy’s situation in the Seanad.
She asked for the redress scheme to be extended to cover people in counties such as Mayo and Donegal. A number of advocacy groups have also been calling for this to happen.
Conway-Walsh said hundreds of homes across Mayo are affected, as are thousands of home in County Donegal.
“People in Dublin had access to a redress scheme. We need such a scheme.
Their houses are falling down around them because proper standards were not put in place and there were appalling building regulations and regulations for quarries. This matter must be brought to a conclusion and a redress scheme put in place immediately for the people affected.
An expert panel to examine the situation in Mayo and Donegal was established by Paudie Coffey, the then-Minister of State at the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, in April 2016.
Report due soon
Speaking about the issue last month, Senator Coffey said: “The previous government increased funding for the pyrite remediation scheme for the carrying out of remediation works to many of the houses that were affected, and strong and solid progress is being made.”
He said it is his understanding that the expert committee “is due to report soon”.
It has visited the houses affected which are literally crumbling around the families living in them due to concrete work that was insufficient and not of proper integrity.
He called for a debate on the issue to be held in the Seanad ”to establish what assistance is being made available and what is planned to assist those families who have been let down by poor regulation in the construction industry”.
Speaking about the group in the Dáil last July, Minister of State for Housing and Urban Renewal Damien English said: “Ultimately, the panel’s terms of reference aim to establish the facts behind the problems that have emerged in Donegal and Mayo and to outline technical options for addressing the problems identified in order to assist affected homeowners.
It is anticipated that the panel will require in the order of six months to complete their work. In this regard, I will await the outcome of the panel’s report before considering what further actions may be required to assist the parties directly involved in reaching a satisfactory resolution to the problems that have emerged in Donegal and Mayo.
In February, English said the Pyrite Resolution Board, with the support of the Housing Agency, is “responsible for the implementation of the pyrite remediation scheme” and he has “no role in the operational matters pertaining to the implementation of the scheme”.
In a statement to TheJournal.ie, a spokesperson for the Department of Housing said the expert panel has met on 12 occasions since it was established almost a year ago, adding that “a similar number of meetings have taken place with key stakeholders, including affected homeowners, the elected members of Donegal and Mayo County Councils, local authority officials, industry bodies, academics, public representatives and other interested parties”.
The statement continues: “A substantial volume of information has been provided by affected homeowners in both counties, as well as from Donegal and Mayo County Councils; additional information was also provided through the consultation process.
The panel have now concluded their meetings and are in the process of finalising their draft report which is undergoing legal proofing in advance of being finalised and submitted to Minister Damien English for his consideration.
“In this regard, the minister will await receipt of the expert panel’s report before considering what further actions may be required to assist the parties directly involved in reaching a satisfactory resolution to the problems that have emerged in the two counties.”
During a recent public consultation process – from 13 October 2016 to 17 December 2017 – about the remediation scheme and which households are eligible, the National Standards Authority of Ireland (NSAI) received 202 submissions from homeowners and experts.
Speaking about the process last month, the NSAI’s Technical Standards Manager Yvonne Wylde said: “On 19 January, the expert committee began to review each of the comments relevant to the standard itself and decide by consensus whether to accept the comment or not.
“We will ensure that the Pyrite Resolution Board receives all comments, including those not directly relevant to the standard.”
The new reactive pyrite standard is expected to be published by mid-2017.
The public consultation process refers to the new draft pyrite standard, rather than the remediation scheme and which households are eligible. Experts have been using a standard developed by NSAI to assess buildings affected by pyrite, and then using that to come back to the NSAI with proposed changes.
The decision on whom or what category of building qualifies for remediation of damage caused by pyrite is governed by the Pyrite Resolution Board, not the NSAI. The Pyrite Resolution Board is responsible for the pyrite remediation scheme.
‘You can put your hand through the wall’
So what next for the Healys?
“We’re just waiting and hoping the phone will ring, or else that we win the lotto,” Michael says.
The corners in my house are pushing outwards, all the windows and doors are buckled now. There’s serious power in it … the outside is moving and pulling the inside with it.
“Dan’s old room is inhabitable now, you can put your hand out through the wall.
“By the time [the panel] make a recommendation my house is going to be in the ground.”