Extent of Toxic Waste at Former
Irish Steel Plant (ISPAT) Revealed
THE Department of the Environment has been accused of a “cover-up” concerning the extent of highly hazardous waste buried at what has been described as potentially “the largest and most extensive pollution incident in the history of the State”.
Documents seen by the Irish Examiner indicate that the department told a sub-contracting firm involved in a clean-up operation at the controversial Irish Steel site at Haulbowline Island near Cork to “cap” lagoons containing hazardous waste, rather than remove the potentially deadly material — estimated at about 500,000 tonnes.
The documents also reveal the waste includes highly toxic substances such as chromium 6 — the second most dangerous carcinogen — as well as hydrocarbons and other oil and metal byproducts. The cost of the operation at Haulbowline to date also suggests a full clean-up of the site could cost up to €300 million.
An official investigation, the findings of which have been seen by the Irish Examiner, has already found that the waste material is “likely” to be a “severe” health risk to people locally, such as the residents of Cobh and navy personnel based nearby, mainly because of toxic dust getting carried by the wind.
It also represents a huge risk to flora and fauna.
A health and safety company, which was sub-contracted to clean up the site last October, said in its initial submission that it would remove any hazardous waste from the site “for disposal”, with the agreement of local representatives from the department.
However, a letter sent to the contractors by the department on April 18 last told them: “It is the considered view of the department, following consultations with the Environmental Protection Agency and Cork County Council, that the required course of action will be to cap the lagoon with inert slag material (or other such suitable available material), pending a detailed risk assessment of the entire site.”
This recommendation came despite the fact that an investigation and assessment was carried out six years ago on behalf of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.
The sub-contractors said they had already removed 100,000 tonnes of hazardous waste from the site, at a cost of €50m, and shipped it to Germany for disposal.
The German company involved in processing the waste has already written to the contractors expressing concern about the level of chromium 6 contained in the material. According to sub-contractors Louis J O’Regan Ltd, the Department of the Environment owes them €20m for the removal of hazardous waste and has terminated their contract. The company says health and safety legislation obliges them to complete the removal of the waste. “They told us to bury the waste and we didn’t,” said a representative from Louis J O’Regan Ltd. “Under health and safety regulations, we can’t hand back the site until it is all done.”
Environmental consultant Stephen Griffin, engaged by the contractors to oversee the project, told the Irish Examiner that information on the hazardous waste has been with the department since 2001 and that the contractors “were refused access to this”. The extent of the problem was only realised when clean-up work started.
Mr Griffin accused the EPA, Cork County Council and the department of a “a cover-up”.
To cap the waste — with further waste — rather than remove it, he said, would “go against every environmental principle that has ever been written, apart from Irish law and European law and health and safety law”, he said. However, the department said in a statement last night the sub-contractors had carried out “unauthorised works” following the discovery of the pit of hazardous waste. It accused the sub-contractors of refusing to vacate the site and continuing to operate “without authorisation and in a piecemeal fashion causing a threat to the environment by its actions” and described accusations of a cover-up as “entirely false”.
Environment Minister John Gormley last night insisted he remained committed to transforming the site from an environmental liability into an asset for the region. “My officials are finalising a report on the site, which will outline options for its future, which I hope to bring to government in the autumn. Work has been ongoing for the last five years to properly assess the site, so that an informed decision on its future can be made.
“In relation to the recent issues regarding sub-contractors on the site, the department, acting on best expert advice of the EPA, ordered the unauthorised work to stop, as there were serious concerns that the work being carried out in such a piecemeal fashion posed a significant environmental risk,” he said.
According to the Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), who accused Cork County Council of a “cover-up”, the council refused to release 19 out of 20 records on the issue. FIE described the contamination as “the largest and most extensive pollution incident in the history of the State”. Cork County Council said it was a matter for the department.
THE full extent of potentially toxic contamination on a 27-acre site in Cork is only now being revealed, despite a risk assessment carried out for the Government six years ago.
Sub-contractors engaged last year to clean-up the former Irish Steel site at Haulbowline Island said yesterday that they were unaware that more than 500,000 tonnes of hazardous material in surface lagoons and contained within the former steel works location.
However, a detailed investigation of the site was completed six years ago and found a “high” likelihood of “severe” health risks to the local community.
The contractors involved in cleaning up the Haulbowline island site came across the dangerous material when an excavator sank into sludge last February while screening surface materials.
However, it’s understood that the Department of the Environment felt that the waste would remain safe while buried under the surface, and only became a risk when disturbed.
This view is disputed by the sub-contractors involved in the clean up who say that the waste is continually disturbed by tidal movements.
The sub-contractors, who were not advised to protect themselves against this level of hazardous waste before starting the job, also revealed that at least two school tours visited the adjacent Haulbowline site recently.
“The navy are playing football on a field adjacent to where all this dust is blowing,” said environmental consultant Stephen Griffin yesterday.
Mr Griffin worked with the contractor involved in the clean-up operation, overseeing the environmentally sensitive side of the job.
“We found extensive amounts of hazardous waste which they [the Department of the Environment] asked us to cover up with waste, and leave it there.”
He said it was “illegal” to leave hazardous waste in position, without a licence, for more than six months, while the whole site amounts to “the largest illegal hazardous waste site” in this country.
Mr Griffin said that neither the county council or the EPA responded in writing to any of the sub-contractors’ concerns following the discovery of the hazardous material, despite a request for advice.
“This has all been a hush hush job,” he said.
The site is devoid of plant life for the past number of years, a fact attributed to the level of contaminated material lying underneath the surface.
The navy expressed concern about the site as far back as 2001, when a senior officer wrote that the naval services “continues to suffer from the health and safety hazards of toxic dusts, lifted by the wind from sites where such dusts were deposited by Irish Ispat”.
An engineer monitoring the clean-up project on behalf of the state authorities, Keith Bywater, yesterday declined to comment on allegations of a Department of the Environment cover-up in relation to the amount of hazardous waste on-site.
“This is a sensitive issue and it would be quite improper of me to talk to the media,” he said.
Cork County Council said it was a matter for the department to deal with. “We wouldn’t really have had any direct role to play in it,” said a spokesperson.
Green Party senator Dan Boyle has campaigned for years for the Irish Steel site to be properly cleaned up, and said yesterday that it gave him “no pleasure” to be proved right when he said the cost of remediation had been under-estimated.
“There’s a huge amount of material and there has to be an ongoing commitment to removing it,” he said. “I can understand the need to put a check on things now and assess how that should be done. I have no reason to believe there’s any attempt to stop the process or leave the material there in perpetuity.”
Friends of the Irish Environment said that this was “the largest and most extensive pollution incident in the history of the state” and said the public has a right to know the full extent of the contamination, “and the ongoing danger to the public and the environment.”
Irish Steel: its history
ON Friday, June 15, 2001, Irish Ispat Limited announced the shutdown of operations in Cork. The company, a subsidiary of Ispat International NV, called a meeting of creditors on the day and said it was seeking the appointment of a liquidator.
The Cork Harbour steel plant got up and running in August 1939 as Irish Steel Ltd. Seven years later, the privately owned firm went into receivership.
In 1947 the government of the day took over the company’s assets amid demands that the 240 jobs at the plant be saved.
The steel market underwent a boom period in the ’60s with the plant operating 24/7 to meet the demands of customers. By the turn of the ’70s, Irish Steel had 120 employees.
A downturn in the economy in the ’70s marked the beginning of a prolonged end for the plant.
By the ’80s, after government investments worth £65 million, the workforce was reduced to 600. The ’80s were tough times at the plant, workers accepted a pay freeze in 1986.
By the turn of the ’90s nothing positive had happened and Irish Steel underwent further rationalisation and job cuts.
In 1996, the State wrote off debts of £27.5m and sold Irish Steel to Indian company Ispat International Group for £1.
The Government came up with a £30m investment package on the understanding that 330 jobs would be secured under a five-year plan.
In 2001, just when the five-year plan expired, so did the plant with accumulated losses of £10m. At the time 400 people lost their jobs.
What is it used for? Secondary steel production is a significant source of mercury air emissions. When mercury is deposited in water, it reacts with certain micro-organisms to form methyl mercury, a highly toxic substance that builds up in fish, shellfish and animals that eat fish, the main source of exposure to humans.
Health effects: Mercury exposure at high levels can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and immune system of people of all ages, especially to the developing nervous system of unborn babies and young children. When mercury enters the bloodstream, it can penetrate the blood-brain barrier where it can disrupt metabolic processes, causing tremor and psychopathological symptoms like insomnia, depression and irritability.
What is it used for? Zinc is used principally for galvanising iron and globally more than 50% of metallic zinc goes into galvanising steel. It is also important in the preparation of certain alloys.
Health effects: Zinc is a trace element that is essential for human health. Although humans can handle proportionally large concentrations of zinc, too much can still cause health problems, such as stomach cramps, skin irritations, vomiting, nausea and anaemia.
Very high levels of zinc can damage the pancreas, disturb the protein metabolism, and cause arteriosclerosis. Extensive exposure to zinc chloride can cause respiratory disorders.
Zinc can be a danger to unborn and newborn children through the blood or milk of their mothers.
What is it used for? Compounds of chromium are used in steel production to harden the product.
It is toxic to humans, plants and animals.
It controversially came to prominence in the Hollywood film, Erin Brokovich, starring Julia Roberts.
The film was based on a 1996 case in which residents of a California desert town won a $333 million settlement from Pacific Gas & Electricity after the utility company’s tanks leaked high concentrations of chromium 6 into the groundwater.
Health effects: Common health effects include lung cancer, deep ulcers to the hand, foetal abnormalities, nasal cancer and inflammation of the liver or larynx.
What is it used for? Lead is a byproduct of steel production and a very strong poison.
Health effects: High concentrations can impair mental development in children. Long-term exposure to low levels of lead can affect the nervous system. Lead is much more harmful to children than adults because it can affect developing nerves and brains. Unborn children are the most vulnerable.
What is it used for? PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) belong to a broad family of man-made organic chemicals known as chlorinated hydrocarbons. Due to their non-flammability, chemical stability, high boiling point, and electrical insulating properties, PCBs have been used in hundreds of industrial and commercial applications.
Health effects: Once in the environment, PCBs do not readily break down and may remain for long periods of time cycling between air, water, and soil. PCBs have been found in snow and sea water far away from where they were released. PCBs have been demonstrated to cause cancer, and other adverse health effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, and endocrine system.
THIS week we were forced to acknowledge one unpleasant reality, one we have denied for far too long. We had to accept that our once booming economy is in recession.
Yesterday, we were forced to acknowledge another.
We were reminded us all of a toxic skeleton in our cupboard, one we have avoided for far too long. We all know it exists and that, sooner or later, it would have to be confronted.
We all know that the former Irish Steel plant, at Haulbowline in Cork Harbour, is badly contaminated and that it will have to be restored and redeveloped.
Yesterday, the Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) claimed that those contaminants include heavy metals such as mercury, zinc and lead, as well as hydrocarbons, PCBs and chromium 6, a powerful carcinogen. It is also believed that there still is radioactive material at the facility. Documents in our possession show that 100,000 tons of contaminated soil have been exported to Germany but that at least 500,000 tons remain on site.
So, there’s a lot of toxic material there, some of it dangerous, some of it very dangerous and those issues cannot be avoided.
Though those realities are stark enough there’s more.
The FIE also claim that Cork County Council has been less than forthcoming about the extent of the contamination. They accuse the council of refusing to release documentation on the matter. FIE say that the council refused to release 19 of 20 requested documents relating to the site.
If a public body like Cork County Council refused to release these documents they must explain why and whose interests were being served.
Were they the authority’s, the public’s, the Government’s or those of some unidentified third party? The issues at stake are too great and cannot be shrugged off with the usual public-service omerta. The charges must be either refuted or explained.
And still there is more.
A contractor employed by the Department of the Environment to do “surface clearance work” says that when he discovered vast quantities of contaminated materials, far beyond what was imagined to exist at the site, he was ordered to cover them and then quit the site pending a decision on the Government’s plans for the island. The contractor discovered the material because one of his machines sank in a huge, unmarked pit of hazardous waste.
Even the Department of the Environment has admitted that they cannot quantify the waste at the site.
It is appropriate to remind ourselves that the plant finally closed in June 2001 with the loss of 400 jobs. That’s seven years to the day more or less and it has not yet been established how much waste is on the site.
Why not? We all know it’s there and that it must be processed but, seven years later, we can’t say with any accuracy what’s buried at Haulbowline.
This is not acceptable and undermines the credibility of all organisations with responsibility in the sorry saga.
And what a sorry saga Irish Steel has been. The State took a series of unsuccessful court cases trying to get Irish Ispat, which bought the plant from the government for £1 in 1996, to accept responsibility, or a proportion of responsibility, for the mess. At the end of the day the State is responsible, if for no other reason than it is obliged to protect its citizens.
Because of the scale of the problem enormous resources and effort will be needed to resolve the issue. It may, though it is unlikely, transpire that a large proportion of the material is less toxic than we might fear but right now no one seems to know. Whether it’s a time bomb or whether our fears are unfounded we just can’t say but ignorance breeds fear.
The Environmental Protection Agency claims it “supervises the environmental protection activities of local authorities by auditing their performance, providing advice and guidance, and, in appropriate cases, giving binding directions ... We work with local authorities and public bodies involved in enforcement ... ”
All of this sounds fine and dandy but it’s hard to make that fit with the mess in Cork Harbour where the EPA’s record is less impressive than they might wish it to be.
Though the EPA is not by any means the only organisation involved, it is the citizens’ watchdog and, in that capacity, it must quickly allay our fears or propose a course of action that can, in time, allay those fears.
As the recession bites it will be difficult to fund non-essential projects but we have been treated with contempt on this matter for far too long. We all know that, at the very least, there’s the potential for significant pollution buried at the site.
It’s time for honesty and action.
RESIDENTS living close to Ireland’s biggest environmental disaster site have criticised Environment Minister John Gormley for not meeting them yesterday.
The Ringaskiddy Residents’ Association said Mr Gormley should have made time during his visit to Cork to meet them to discuss the Haulbowline toxic waste dump.
The earliest meeting is pencilled in for next Tuesday in Dublin.
Spokeswoman Audrey Hogan said the minister, who was in Ballincollig to address a conference on local government, should have made time to address harbour residents directly.
“He was only 20 minutes away. And the earliest meeting we have been offered is in Dublin next Tuesday, but only if three resident representatives can make it.”
Ms Hogan said local residents are shocked by the sheer scale of the dumping on the former steelworks site, as revealed in the Irish Examiner.
She said revelations that chromium 6 is among the dumped toxins is particularly disturbing.
“We now want full access to all documents and reports on the site. We are preparing our own Freedom of Information request for the department, and the other agencies,” she said.
The Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment (CHASE) said the situation shows that “responsible authorities” are unable to protect the community and unwilling to take action “because they are too busy protecting their own backs”.
“With detailed investigations from six years ago finding a ‘high likelihood’ of ‘severe health risks’ to the community, disgraceful efforts to cap highly toxic waste with more waste show complete contempt for the communities nearby,” a spokeswoman said.
She called on Mr Gormley to implement his promised reform of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“The current remit, where the EPA has dual responsibility, means that the community is sacrificed because the EPA must look after its customers, industry,” she said.
“We also call for an immediate baseline study to establish the health of the surrounding populations in Cork Harbour, to assess what the health impact has been, and to set this as a marker for future damage assessment.”
Ms Hogan said there is anecdotal evidence from the Ringaskiddy area of higher levels of eye infections and skin rashes.
“People are always going to the doctor with these complaints and all they are ever told is ‘it’s a virus’,” she said.
The Cobh and Harbour Chamber said the disclosures seem to show a paralysis or uncertainty in agencies charged with clearing the site.
“To give the public confidence in ongoing clearance work the Department of the Environment, EPA and Cork County Council should publish all documents pertaining to the site and outline future plans and a timescale,” a spokesperson said.
“The problem will not go away until the site is cleared to the highest standards.
“Haulbowline is important to the development of the lower harbour and any clearance short of the highest standards will come back and delay future projects.”
Fine Gael Cllr Tim Lombard said the Government should not take short cuts when dealing with the issue.
TOXIC waste dumped on a former steelworks site in Cork harbour does not pose a public health risk, Environment Minister John Gormley said yesterday.
Mr Gormley made his comments despite admitting his department is not aware of the full extent of the problem on Haulbowline Island.
He said two officials are on site full time and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is monitoring the situation along with his own department officials.
The site is in a safe condition, he said: “I have been assured that the highest environmental standards are being applied and that people will not have been exposed to any risk.
“People are living in an area free of risk and there is no health hazard... I want to assure them that we are doing everything we can to ensure the site is safe.”
Mr Gormley also defended his department’s decision to stop the clean-up of the site. He said as soon as the contractor working on the site began to dig down and expose more hazardous materials, he was asked to stop.
“In the view of the department and the EPA, they felt the work the sub-contractor was doing was counter-productive,” he said.
Mr Gormley said his department is now involved in a contractual dispute with the contractors.
“There are large sums of money involved, and it will end up in the courts.
“As far as I am concerned, I would like to see full remediation,” he said.
But he admitted that it would be very costly. Estimates have been put at close to €300 million.
Mr Gormley said the media is being used to “get leverage” in what has become a contractual dispute.
“This is going to enter the courts. I think if you looked at the Examiner, the people reading those pages would be very fearful indeed.”
THE Naval Service has long had concerns about the environmental impact of the former steel site on Haulbowline Island in Cork Harbour.
Sharing the island with Irish Steel, subsequently Irish Ispat, the navy expressed their worries in writing before and after the steel plant closed down in June of 2001.
Just one month before the jobs were lost and the doors closed for the last time on a working facility, a naval officer questioned who would end up paying for the “proper decommissioning” of the plant and the subsequent clean-up.
“In the interest of the health of Naval Service personnel, the plant, and its associated tip-head, cannot be left in its present condition if Ispat fails to properly decommission its facilities in the event of closure,” wrote the officer.
Within a month, that predicted closure came to pass.
By early July, the same officer was writing about various issues affecting the navy, such as roadway maintenance in the Haulbowline area, ground maintenance, berthage at the west wall of the island, and recovery of the area leased to Ispat as part of the government deal. However, also of interest to the Naval Service, according to this letter, were the potential hazards borne by the sea breezes.
“The Naval Service continues to suffer from the health and safety hazards of toxic dusts, lifted by the wind from sites where such dusts were deposited by Irish Ispat. These sites are in both their production facility and the landfill site. These toxic dusts are lifted from the deposition sites by the wind, particularly in dry weather, and are deposited on Service personnel, civilian employees, contractors whilst they are in their place of work and accommodation.”
The Naval Service was represented at creditors’ meetings following the winding-up of steel operations at Haulbowline, and quickly realised that there was no funding available from Irish Ispat to clear up “this environmental, health and safety hazard”.
ENVIRONMENT Minister John Gormley yesterday afternoon suggested that this paper was being used by individuals who, he expects, will be involved in a court action with his department over contracts to clean the badly contaminated Irish Steel plant site at Haulbowline in Cork Harbour.
He suggested that we published revelations about unknown quantities of the highly-toxic chemical chromium 6 — also known as hexavalent chromium (Cr(VI)) — as well as hydrocarbons, lead, mercury and radioactive materials dumped on the site to gain leverage for these individuals.
These are serious, and as Mr Gormley knows, utterly unfounded allegations. His was an amateur, half-cocked attempt to undermine the messenger, and amount to no more than a momentary diversion in a scandal that has run unchecked for nearly a decade. A scandal that has been the direct responsibility of Mr Gormley’s department since 2003.
However, it must be admitted that Mr Gormley cannot be held responsible for the inaction between 2003 and his elevation to cabinet a little over a year ago. Before he became a minister he would have been leading the charge, full-on, full volume, demanding action, answers, reassurances, access to reports — either those in his department or those squirrelled away by Cork County Council.
Basically, nothing more than the tens of thousands of people living and working in the environs of the toxic mess and this newspaper have sought for over the years.
Mr Gormley has sadly proved the adage — the best way to silence a revolutionary is to give him a seat at cabinet — to be as true as it ever was.
If this paper is culpable, it is that we ignored the scandal for too long. We should have pursued it more vigorously because the outrageous delays, anti-democratic secrecy, ineptness and sense of threat surrounding the whole affair are a national scandal.
The department has been directly responsible for the site for five years and still they don’t know what was dumped there. What have they been doing? How long will they need? Ten years? Twenty years, maybe? After all we are not exactly talking about Texas here. Haulbowline is just 84 acres and the steel mill just a portion of that.
To put this snail’s pace public service delivery in context, the Channel Tunnel was built in six years.
The frustration surrounding this saga deepened early yesterday when opposition deputies were not allowed raise the matter in the Dáil. Though they were later successful our parliament was again diminished and is sadly seen as a kind of set-piece variety act increasingly irrelevant to the day-to-day life of the country.
Despite all of this indignation, this ducking and dodging and finger-pointing, the core issue remains unchanged. Within miles of this country’s second city there is an old industrial dump containing — well we don’t know definitively and it seems, neither does anyone else. We believe that there are a range of toxins as well as carcinogens on the site. Mr Gormley said “his officials” have assured him that the site does not represent a danger to the people living in the area.
If he cannot tell us what is in the dump how can he tell us it is safe? We need to know what has been dumped at Haulbowline and we cannot wait another five months, not to mention another five years.
The great pity about Mr Gormley’s inadequate response — the latest in a long line from government on this issue — is that he has damaged his credibility and possibly jeopardised his capacity to deliver on the very many vital environmental issues within his remit.
Again we say, it’s time for honesty and action.
THE Government has been accused of misleading the public after admitting it does not know the full extent or nature of waste buried underground at a former steelworks site in Cork Harbour, while at the same time insisting there is no risk from the site to public health.
Fine Gael’s Simon Coveney said the public were given a number of assurances in the past that a full site investigation was carried out at the Irish Steel site on Haulbowline Island.
He was responding after Minister of State at the Department of the Environment Máire Hoctor told the Dáil last night that only a surface investigation had taken place.
During a special debate on the toxic waste scandal that was exposed in yesterday’s Irish Examiner, Ms Hoctor said: “The level of contamination over-ground has been identified but as to what exists underground has not been clearly quantified, the extent of it or the nature of it.”
Just hours earlier during a visit to Cork, Environment Minister John Gormley insisted there was no risk to public health from hazardous waste.
“I have been assured that the highest environmental standards are being applied and that people will not have been exposed to any risk,” said Mr Gormley.
“People are living in an area free of risk and there is no health hazard.”
Mr Coveney said there was a clear contradiction in what the Government was saying: “If what Minister Hoctor is saying is true, then the Government has deliberately ignored what everyone suspected to be subsurface contamination at the site.
“If on the other hand, as is common knowledge, a subsurface investigation has taken place, then the minister has deliberately misled the Dáil, and is complicit in a cover-up of the Government’s knowledge as to the extent of the hazardous material. If this is the case, and government ministers have been sitting on information and have not exposed the true extent of hazardous material on the site, their actions can only be described as grossly negligent.”
The Irish Examiner has also learned that Mr Gormley cancelled by text message a meeting scheduled for yesterday morning with the environmental consultant who blew the whistle on the scandal.
Stephen Griffin was due to meet the minister to brief him on the situation at Haulbowline.
But he received a text message on behalf of the minister about 30 minutes before the meeting that read: “The minister is unhappy with how the story has broken. He will be dealing with the media and cannot now meet you.”
Originally employed to remove 15,000 tonnes of hazardous material, contractors have already removed up to 100,000 tonnes of material from the site.
Mr Gormley’s department has called a halt to the work over a contractual dispute.
Mr Griffin said he felt duty bound to highlight through the Irish Examiner what he described as the “biggest ever pollution incident in Ireland”.
“I told the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Cork County Council, the Health and Safety Authority and the Department of the Environment. They all put their heads in the sand,” he said. “They have been sitting on this problem for eight years and they’re running again.”
Taoiseach Brian Cowen was also quizzed about the situation yesterday.
“Minister Gormley has been advised by experts in his department that there’s no risk in respect of exposure and that obviously he’s awaiting a report on how to proceed,” he said.
Meanwhile, the HSE said it will carry out its own investigation to see what risk the material poses. HSE spokesman Gerry O’Dwyer told a HSE (South) forum meeting yesterday the agency hadn’t been contacted by either the EPA or Cork County Council about the situation but he said his officials will examine the site.
THE projected cost of cleaning up the former Irish Steel/Ispat site in Cork Harbour has rocketed in recent years, from an estimated €30 million in 2004 to €300m today.
An unpublished report compiled in 2002 on behalf of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources — which has been seen by the Irish Examiner — found that the likely environmental management cost of the site would be €30m.
This included a sea wall, at a cost of €7.5m, for which planning permission was secured in order to protect the sea from pollutants, but was never built.
Of this €30m, environmental experts Enviros Aspinwall estimated that €11.5m should be billed to Irish Ispat for their part in contaminating the site before closing down in 2001, with the State eventually regaining control of the Haulbowline location.
The 2002 report included an assessment of possible future land use for various parts of the 27-acre Irish Steel site.
Constraints which could prevent redevelopment included the existence of “potentially contaminated land” at the steelworks area, in the dock basin and at the East Tip of the island, along with “remediation requirements to render risk from toxic substances to end users” at these three locations.
The experts envisaged environmental remediation works being complete by the end of 2005, with a view to a “potential handover to developer and/or Navy” in 2006, at the earliest.
Following the closure of the Irish Ispat works in 2001, the government of the day embarked on a legal action against the site liquidator and Ispat in an attempt to secure funding for the clean-up, but this ultimately failed.
Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal effectively walked away from the entire operation in June 2001 after business ceased at Irish Ispat.
THE Government must “do the right thing” and tackle the toxic waste scandal on Haulbowline Island once and for all, an environmental expert said yesterday.
Environmental consultant Stephen Griffin, who blew the whistle on the scale of the problem, said it would be “criminal” to leave the site as it is.
“The department should never have started the clean-up job without a plan to finish it,” he said.
“Can you imagine if you or I owned that site, we would be in Mountjoy. If this was run by a private waste company, they would be in prison now.”
He also dismissed assurances from Environment Minister John Gormley that everything possible is being done to minimise the risk.
“This is the largest ever pollution incident in the Republic of Ireland,” Mr Griffin said.
“People should be fearful for their health. It’s urgent for local communities and the environment and is extremely dangerous for naval staff at Haulbowline.
“Two school tours were allowed on the site when we were there. Is that not ridiculous?
“There isn’t a heavy metal I know of that isn’t there — zinc, lead, mercury, cadmium, chromium 6 — the periodic table is there.
“The site is surrounded by water and it is inter-tidal. The waste has no resilience to water. The site sits on one of the most important aquifers [underground layer that yields water] in the region.
“If the minister has a green agenda, and I believe he has, he should take the bull by the horns and do the right thing, and continue the clean-up” said Mr Griffin. He was speaking in Cork after the minister cancelled a meeting with him.
He was engaged as a sub-contractor in October 2007 to clean 15,000 tonnes of hazardous materials from the surface of the former Irish Steel site and leave a clean, level surface.
But Mr Griffin said there is no such thing as a clean, safe, level surface on the Haulbowline Island.
“No matter where we dug we couldn’t find a clean, safe, level surface,” he said.
“We had a contract to remove surface layers of hazardous material. But when we took it off, six inches in some places, up to three metres in others, we found surface layers of hazardous materials, and more below those again,” he said.
“There is no such thing as a clean, safe level site on Haulbowline Island. The whole island is made up of waste.
“Some is non-hazardous but we found it hard to find non-hazardous material.
“If the minister runs and hides, then the green agenda is gone.”
Minister for the Environment John Gormley has appointed consultants to carry out an independent assessment of the former Irish Steel site at Haulbowline, Co Cork, after claims that larger than expected quantities of hazardous material have been found there.
Mr Gormley yesterday assured residents of Cork Harbour that the site on Haulbowline island is safe after a contract with subcontractors employed to clear the site was terminated.
In a statement today, Mr Gormley said he was committed to dealing with the “legacy issue” of waste at the Haulbowline site.
He wished to reassure local residents that the Department and other relevant local agencies were properly managing the situation at the former Irish Ispat site “in a manner consistent with best practice and minimisation of risk to human health and the environment”.
The Minister said he has today engaged consultants White Young Green to carry out an “independent and rigorous assessment of site conditions following extensive unauthorised works by sub-contractors of Hammond Lane Metal Company Ltd”.
“This assessment, which will begin next week, will involve analysis of soil, slag, dust, surface and ground water samples for all likely contaminants including heavy metals such as chromium.”
Mr Gormley said the same consultants carried out an “extensive” site investigation in 2005 which indicated no evidence of any immediate threat to human health or the environment.
He said they were best suited to determine the best way forward in securing the site from an environmental and health and safety point of view should they find any immediate threat as a result of the unauthorised work of the sub-contractors.
© 2008 The Irish Times
TIDE movement on Cork harbour would mean that any potential chemical waste from the former Irish Steel plant is effectively swirled around the harbour.
In navigational terms, Cork harbour is the second largest natural harbour in the world — just behind Sydney.
According to Eddie English, who runs the renowned SailCork school and navigates the harbour every day, the potential human fallout from waste leaching into the water would be “significant”, due to the harbour’s tidal patterns.
While explaining the tidal movements around the harbour, Mr English told the Irish Examiner he has long been suspicious of waste disposal around Haulbowline.
He relocated his sailing school from a nearby site because of the “smell and the difficulty in breathing” when the wind was blowing from the former Ispat plant.
According to Mr English, after high tide (HW), the “tide ebbs in an eastwards direction from the west side of Haulbowline where the controversial slag heap is situated”.
The tidal movement continues along the eastern part of Spike Island with the tide washing outwards in a southwards direction towards the mouth of the harbour.
Cobh, Aghada, Rostellan and Ringaskiddy are all pitched right on the tidal paths. The tide then moves past popular bathing spots like Whitegate and Trabolgan.
“This ebbing goes on for six hours before the turning of the tides in the opposite direction,” said Mr English.
As the flooding of the harbour begins, the water flows over the north of Haulbowline with the water driving from the mouth of the harbour onwards, pushing the tide towards Rushbrook and Little Island and inwards towards the city suburbs and into Cork city itself.
Residents from the town of Ringaskiddy have long tried to slow industrial development in the region, most recently having scored a coup with An Bord Pleanála’s refusal to allow the Port of Cork to develop a massive new container port.
Tidal movements would mean that Ringaskiddy would be right in the line of fire if the alleged toxic dump from the former Irish Steel plant leaked into the sea.
Waters around Crosshaven and Cobh would also be at risk as would the two picturesque villages of Whitegate and Aghada. Much of this area is also used for fishing.
It was revealed in the Irish Examiner last week that the Department of the Environment had told a subcontracting firm involved in cleaning up the site to “cap” lagoons containing toxic waste, rather than removing 500,000 tonnes of dangerous material.
But Minister for the Environment John Gormley strongly refuted the claims by the subcontractor, who said the waste contains chromium 6, a highly carcinogenic material dangerous to humans.
THE squeeze on the public finances may delay the clean-up of toxic waste on the former Irish Steel plant in Haulbowline, Co Cork, it emerged last night.
Environment Minister John Gormley promised a residents’ delegation from the Cork harbour area that the site would be cleaned up as quickly as possible, but admitted that cost could be a factor.
A spokesman for the minister later said: “[Mr Gormley] wasn’t prepared to make false promises and blanket promises.
“What he is saying is that the problems will be identified as soon as possible, the range of remedies will be identified and costed as swiftly as possible, and the best possible option will be acted upon as swiftly as possible, but there is no point in pretending the budgetary concerns aren’t an issue.”
But Mary Hurley, a spokeswoman for Cobh Action for Clean Air, one of the harbour community groups represented at the meeting, said money should not be an issue.
She said the delegation had “grave concerns” over Mr Gormley’s acknowledgement that budgetary concerns could be a factor.
“The minister can’t give us guarantees about [meeting] the costs of the clean-up here, and the costs involved we believe are going to be extensive, and if a proper job is going to be done, we believe money should not be an issue.”
Last night’s meeting took place in Government Buildings and lasted over 90 minutes, being described as “positive but very spiky” by one of the participants.
While the residents’ delegation had concerns about the lack of guarantees, they acknowledged that Mr Gormley had provided them with several reports on the site which were in his department’s possession.
This included a previously unpublished 2005 report prepared for Cork County Council which, it is understood, found that levels of the carcinogen chromium 6 were above acceptable levels in the area.
“The minister has approached us with a level of openness,” said Frank Kelleher, a spokesman for the Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment. “He’s decided to make available all reports that his department has in the past received. He’s commissioned an up-to-date report and has undertaken to release that to us immediately.”
The new assessment, by independent consultants, is expected to be concluded in five weeks’ time, and Mr Gormley agreed to allow it be peer reviewed by other experts.
But Mr Kelleher stressed that the minister had to go further, saying the health risks involved had not yet been fully addressed.
The issue will be debated in the Dáil today.
Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment