27 June 2008

Gormley insists steel plant site at Haulbowline is safe

Barry Roche, Southern Correspondent
The Irish Times 27/6/08

MINISTER FOR the Environment John Gormley yesterday moved to assure residents of Cork Harbour that the former Irish Steel site on Haulbowline island is safe despite claims that larger than expected amounts of hazardous material have been found there.

Mr Gormley said both the EPA and experts from the Department of the Environment are monitoring the former site and liaising with two staff on the site following the termination of a contract with a local contractor to carry out site clearance work.

"The situation is that the site clearance has now ceased and I have been assured that the highest environmental standards are being observed and both the EPA and my department have given me assurances that people will not be exposed to any risk," said Mr Gormley.

According to Mr Gormley, Hammond Lane Metal Company was contracted to remove buildings at the site of the former steel plant and the company subcontracted the clearance work out to Louis J O'Regan Ltd.

However, the contract was terminated when the subcontractors began excavating below surface level, disturbing hazardous materials.

It was decided it was safer to cease that work rather than expose hazardous materials, he said.

"It's very difficult to quantify how much hazardous material is there.

"We know that there were 50,000 tonnes deposited there every year for 10 years so there's at least 500,000 tonnes but you can never know until you bore down properly and start to remediate the site.

"Remediation is difficult because when you start to remediate, you're digging up a lot of this stuff and you are exposing people and this is where the dispute arose with this particular subcontractor and the EPA and the department felt this digging was counter-productive."

However, Mr Gormley's assertion about the termination of the contract was disputed by environmental consultant Stephen Griffin.

Mr Griffin said he was hired by Hammond Lane because of his expertise in dealing with heavy metals to advise on the site clearance. The contract with the department specified that the contractor or his agents should clear the site to "a clean safe level".

"We were obliged in our contract to leave a clean safe level site behind for remediation but there's no such thing on Haulbowline island as a clean level surface.

"When we took off the surface layers of hazardous waste, we found more layers of hazardous waste. Our initial discussion was on the removal of about 1,500 tonnes of hazardous material but when we hit 100,000 tonnes, people in Dublin became fearful about the cost."

Mr Griffin said it appeared to him that the Department of the Environment didn't have a plan to finish the job but he urged Mr Gormley to carry on immediately with full clean-up and remediation in order to make the area safe for naval personnel and others on the island. Mr Griffin said that it addition to toxic heavy metals such as zinc, lead, mercury, cadmium and chromium, there are also some 500,000 tonnes of contaminated hydrocarbons buried on the island and he expressed concern about these materials leaching out in tidal movements.

The subcontractor in dispute with the department over the clean-up, Louis O'Regan, was ordered by the High Court in 2005 to pay an estimated €210,000 costs toward an investigation into the effects of illegal dumping on lands he owned at Weir Island in Fota.

Mr O'Regan could not be contacted for comment yesterday but the Cork Harbour Alliance for A Safe Environment (Chase) called on Mr Gormley to commission a baseline study to establish the health of people living in the Cork Harbour area.

"We also call on Minister Gormley to implement his promised EPA reform, and to separate the EPA into stand-alone protection and licensing bodies. The current remit where the EPA has dual responsibility means that the community is sacrificed because the EPA must look after its customers, industry," said a Chase spokeswoman.


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