27 June 2008

Pollution time bomb - We must have honesty and action

Irish Examiner 27/6/08

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.


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