22 August 2005

Plant's 62 years spanned boom and bust as economy evolved

Barry Roche - Southern Correspondent
The Irish Times 22/8/05

The Ispat site crumbled latterly under lack of investment, poor safety and falling global steel prices, writes Barry Roche.

This week's start of the clean-up operation of the former Irish Ispat plant on Haulbowline in Cork Harbour marks the first step in the process of rehabilitation of the island, after over 60 years as the home of Ireland's heaviest industrial activity.

Originally opened in August 1939 as Irish Steel Ltd at a cost of £500,000, the privately-owned firm went into receivership in 1946. A year later, the Government purchased the company's assets and nationalised the industry to secure some 240 jobs. The 1960s saw boom times at Irish Steel with new furnaces allowing production increase to seven days a week, 24 hours a day, with staff numbers rising to a peak of 1,200 in 1971. Then the economic crisis of 1973 triggered the start of turbulent times for the plant.

The Government had already invested some £65 million in the plant to prepare it for increasing competition, but the collapse of steel prices in Europe in the 1980s led to further hardships and staff numbers at the plant were progressively cut back from 650. Throughout the 1980s, the plant was beset with difficulties. Workers accepted a pay freeze in 1986 before recording a £2 million profit in 1989 - only for the company to record losses in the 1990s, leading to further rationalisation and job cuts.

Eventually, in 1996, the State wrote off debts of £27.5 million and sold Irish Steel to Indian company Ispat International Group for £1. This was on the understanding that £30 million would be invested in the plant and its 330 jobs would be secured under a five-year plan. Steel prices dropped on the world market and sales fell to their lowest level in 10 years but, in 1998, Irish Ispat - as the new company was called - broke even for the first time in 10 years. But sales fell again in 1999 when the company lost £1.8 million.

In May 2001, Irish Ispat sought a 10 per cent pay cut from staff, while it also sought to increase annual production to 420,000 tonnes - 70,000 tonnes more than its previous highest output - in order for the plant to survive.

But on June 15th, 2001, just days after the terms of its five-year deal with the Government expired, Irish Ispat announced it was closing the plant with accumulated losses of £10 million and losses running at an unsustainable £750,000 a month. The closure led to the loss of 400 jobs, while Irish Ispat also left debts of £45 million - including £23.7 million it claimed it owed to its parent company Ispat International, as well as £4.2 million owed to workers. Irish Ispat's tenure at Haulbowline was marked by controversy, with the firm failing to invest in the plant as it had promised when it took over Irish Steel. It also sold off land in Ringaskiddy just prior to closure, which led to accusations of asset-stripping.

Irish Ispat's ownership of the plant was also marked by tragedy. In April 1999, Cobh man John Murphy died when he fell from the gantry of a crane, while in March 2001, a British engineer suffered massive burns when he was electrocuted and died some weeks later. In January 2001, lab technician Thomas Mulcahy lost his life in a fire at the plant's administrative block. An inquest heard the building had no fire alarms, sprinklers or fire escapes, and that the company's fire engine failed to start because of a flat battery.

Siptu revealed a proposal to set up a safety committee was vetoed by Irish Ispat, while former plant safety manager Brian Purcell revealed that he had been refused a budget - estimated at €15,000 - to introduce a better fire-safety training regime.

Irish Ispat had applied for an integrated pollution control (IPC) licence in 1999 from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This followed years of lobbying by environmentalists who had campaigned for tighter controls on emissions from the ageing steel plant.

In March 2001, the EPA issued a draft IPC licence with some 15 conditions attached, relating to emissions, noise and waste management, but Irish Ispat closed the plant before ever implementing any of these. Indeed, the company cited the conditions as one of the factors in its decision to close and, after the EPA failed in a court bid in July 2004 to oblige the liquidator, Ray Jackson, to fund the clean-up, the State has now been left to foot the €30 million clean-up bill.


18 August 2005

Clean-up of Ispat plant to start next week

RTÉ News 18/8/05

Demolition work is due to start next week on the derelict Ispat steel plant in Cork harbour as part of a year-long project to rehabilitate the area. The contractors, Hammond Lane Metal, are expected to collect up to 15,000 tonnes of scrap metal from the site which will be exported by ship to mills in Europe. The demolition and scrapping process will take place in tandem with work which started last week to determine contamination levels. Estimates have put the cost of a clean-up at approximately €30m.


12 August 2005

Engineers begin clean-up at Irish Steel factory

By Eoin English
Irish Examiner 12/8/05

ENVIRONMENTAL engineers moved onto the site of the former Irish Steel factory on Haulbowline Island in Cobh, Co Cork, yesterday to begin the largest industrial clean-up in the history of the State.Consultants working for Cork County Council removed over 80,000 tonnes of hazardous and radioactive materials from the site last year. However, thousands of tonnes of waste material still has to be removed.

More than 60 trial pits and bore holes will be sunk on the island site by staff from White Young Green consultants over the coming weeks to test the ground for contamination. Four holes will be drilled offshore to test the seabed to establish what levels of toxic material from the plant's east tip head have leached into Cork harbour. Air quality monitoring stations have been set up on Haulbowline in Cobh and south of the Haulbowline bridge to monitor dust levels during testing.

"The survey, which is expected to take up to two months, will give us an idea of what work needs to be done to make the 20-acre plus site safe," said Donal Hogan, project manager with White Young Green.

His team will carry out a comprehensive chemical analysis on all their samples later in the year to check for contaminants. The findings will be analysed and a final report will be presented to Cork County Council around November. "It will suggest a range of possible future uses for the entire steelworks site," Mr Hogan said.

The taxpayer will have to foot the clean-up bill, which could top €30 million. But the Green Party said it fears the bill could rise close to €70m.

The team spent yesterday afternoon touring the crumbling steelworks buildings and tip head where thousands of tonnes of slag material, some piled over 50 feet high, are dumped. The derelict factory, which at its peak in 1971 employed more than 1,200 people, will be their base for the next three months.

Mr Hogan said work on the major ground surveys will begin on Monday. The former steelworks has been exposed to a wide range of raw materials and waste products associated with the steel-making process over the last 60 years.

Consultants working for Cork County Council removed over 80,000 tonnes of hazardous and radioactive materials from the site last year. It included over 300 one-tonne bags of toxic furnace dust and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).

The plant closed in 2001 after more than 50 years of production with the loss of more than 440 jobs. Three council staff monitor the site on a day-to-day basis.

Tarnished steel - Irish Steel history:

1939: Founded as a private company.
1946: Went into receivership.
1947: Company was nationalised and went on to become the prince of Irish heavy industry.
1980s and 90s: The State was repeatedly forced to bail the company out, pumping over £200 million into the flagging operation.
1995: The Rainbow Coalition government offloaded Irish Steel to Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal for £1. He promised significant investment and a turnaround in the plant's fortunes. Irish Steel became Irish Ispat but the losses continued.
June 2001: Mittal shut the plant down, leaving 450 people without jobs and an estimated €30m environmental clean-up bill.
July 2004: The State failed in a court bid to have the Irish Ispat liquidator meet the clean-up costs, leaving the taxpayer to foot the bill.


02 January 2005

Air Quality Monitoring - Haulbowline

Cork County Council 2/1/05

Prior to any work being carried out on the steelworks site on Haulbowline, four air quality monitoring stations are being installed, as shown on the map. Each of these will be equipped with dust deposition monitors which will give monthly readings of dust collected from the atmosphere. In addition, and due mainly to the proximity of the Naval Base to the steelworks site, real-time dust monitors are being installed in the two monitoring locations on Haulbowline island. These will take hourly readings of atmospheric dust and will be equipped to give early warning of a problem arising from contractor's operations. Should dust levels exceed recognized limits, warning text messages will be transmitted to County Council personnel on site, who will take action to address the cause.


Haulbowline Steelworks Site: Award of Ground Investigation Contract

Undated 2005

Cork County Council, in conjunction with the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government, announces the award of a contract to White Young Green Ireland Ltd. Apex Business Centre, Blackthorn Road, Sandiford, Dublin 18 to carry out a ground investigation on the former steelworks site at Haulbowline island.

This site, in common with redundant steelworks in other countries, is a 'brownfield' site which has been exposed to a wide range of raw materials and waste products associated with the steelmaking process over 60 years. The aim of the contract is to carry out a thorough investigation of the ground condition and groundwater quality by means of a series of trial pits and boreholes. Some of the boreholes will be drilled over water around the island to assess the impact of the site on surrounding sediments. A comprehensive chemical analysis will be carried out on soil and water samples to check for the presence of contaminants. This investigative phase is scheduled to take about two months.

Air quality monitoring stations are being established on Haulbowline, as well as in Cobh and south of the Haulbowline bridge, so as to ensure that no dust hazard occurs, or so that any dust problem which arises can be addressed at once.

Subsequently, the results of the investigation will be analysed by White Young Green Ireland Ltd. who will indicate what remedial work may be required in respect of contamination, and consider options for the further development of the site.

Cork County Council recognizes the concern amongst local residents about the condition of the site, and is pleased to award a major contract which will scientifically establish the problems which have to be addressed.

Picture shows Michael Cunningham, MD, White Young Green Ireland Ltd., Maurice Moloney, Cork County Manager, at the contract signing. Also included are Niamh Drew, DoEHLG, Kieran O'Brien, EPA, Keith Bywater, Project Co-ordinator, Michael Saville, Site Engineer, Padraig Barrett, Area Engineer, Carrigaline, Donal Hogan, White Young Green, Marian Salter and Joan O'Doherty, Infrastructure and Development, and Mary Stack, Environment Department, CCC.