12 July 2008

Our poisoned paradise

By Nicola Anderson
The Independent 12/7/08

The view from Mary O'Leary's garden, amid the drowsy drone of bees, is as beautiful as any you will find in Ireland: a wraparound vista of Cork Harbour with its gentle inlets, isles and vivid blue seas. Even the much-maligned Spike Island, site of a proposed new prison, has a ruggedly impressive charm all of its own.

A singular blot mars this breathtaking seascape and one which local residents are finding increasingly difficult to block from their vision, given what they now know about Spike's sister island, Haulbowline, where nothing grows on the black slagheap at the easterly 'nose'.

It stands as a barren and ominous reminder of the Irish Steel plant, which operated there for over 60 years as the home of Ireland's heaviest industrial activity and which locals who worked there remember as a 'Dante's Inferno'.

The residue from the steelworks is so toxic that some experts say it will take €350 million to clean up the site known as the East Tip. And the horrible irony for the neighbours of Haulbowline is that the same week their story caused a national outcry, the government outlined its most stringent cutbacks for two decades. The figure needed to clean up the island is almost identical to the €360 million Brian Cowen has announced will be slashed from "non-front-line programme expenditure".

Cobh is a town of strange contradictions. With its lofty, though scruffy, Victorian facades, legendary Titanic links and the pealing bells of St Colman's Cathedral, it could easily be the jewel in the crown of East Cork. But with none of the chi-chi restaurants and boutiques of a Kinsale or a Schull, the town has found itself oddly left behind, with residents telling of how tourists might briefly visit Cobh for its historical connections before being quickly bussed out elsewhere. And far more worrying than these monetary problems are recent reports that just half a mile across the water, Haulbowline's slagheap, constantly leaking into the harbour, contains the deadly carcinogen Chromium 6.

Exposure to toxic levels, as well as cancer, can cause liver, kidney, heart and respiratory disease.

Alarmingly, Cobh has a cancer rate more than 44pc above the national average, with, anecdotally, high levels of asthma among its children -- though local GPs warn more research would have to be done to definitively link these health problems with the Irish Steel slagheap.

Just as sinister, though equally impossible to pin down, are whispered reports of fishermen casting their lines into the harbour only to land a three-eyed fish or one with extra fins.

Peter Griffin of Louis J O'Regan Ltd, subcontractors employed to knock down the former Irish Steel buildings, discovered what was buried at the East Tip and spoke of watching pigeons who drank the water on Haulbowline becoming disorientated, keeling over and dying.

He revealed how soil samples sent from the northern shoreline were sent to a lab in the UK in December 2007 and one came back with 'huge levels of mercury', waste samples sent to Germany for disposal were found to have traces of Chromium 6, with traces of arsenic and zinc found in other samples.

Mary O'Leary, chairperson of the Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment (Chase) said local people are deeply frustrated with the lack of information made available to them by the authorities, claiming officials had known of the toxicity of the site since the early '90s but did nothing about it. As a mother of four, she says she is worried at the health risks posed by the dumping ground.

Over 100 pharmaceutical firms operate in a string around the Harbour area. They are also a cause of concern, with strange smells occasionally drifting across to Cobh but Mary said they are relying upon these companies to be good neighbours, given that they operate under strict licences.

Opened in 1939, the Irish Steel works employed 1,200 staff at its height, taking scrap metal from all over Europe for processing. One local man told the Irish Independent how, at the age of 17 during the 60s, he had rowed across the Harbour with friends in search of work. "After taking one look inside, I decided that there was no way in hell I could work there," he said, describing the heat of the furnaces and filthy conditions.

Local man Reynolds Forde did work there, as did his father before him. Gazing out across the harbour, he said: "They should put explosives on it and blow it up," adding: "If it's a threat, they're not doing much about it."

In 1996 Irish Steel was bought for the nominal sum of IRL ?1 by ISPAT, the steel company owned by billionaire Lakshmi Mittal and the steel plant operated until 2001 when its doors shut for good. The full extent of the pollution situation emerged when Hammond Lane Metal Company sub-contractors, Louis J O'Regan uncovered the potentially highly toxic sub-surface waste.

Peter Cunningham, Senior Licence Enforcement Inspector at the Environmental Protection Agency's Cork office, explained that the 'chicanery' surrounding the sale of the works in '96 meant ISPAT refused to pay for the clean up, the EPA no longer had a formal role in the monitoring or clean-up operation and sole responsibility fell upon the Department of the Environment.

"It's a very frustrating situation -- not helped by the fact that this material has been allowed to accumulate for 60 years," Mr Cunningham said.

"The problem is that there wasn't enough recognition at the time by the local authorities of the harmful nature of this material.

"It was considered sensible to stockpile it in the harbour. We now know better and the EPA is very concerned about the possibility of this material remaining there indefinitely." He added that they appreciate the fact that the clean-up will cost 'an enormous amount of money' but would be very concerned that any harmful materials would be allowed to remain in the harbour without any 'clear roadmap' for its removal.

Local Green councillor, Dominick Donnelly insisted that there is "nothing new" about the situation on Haulbowline. "It's the way things have been for a long time and people on the Harbour have now gotten a wake-up call with the mention of Chromium 6 getting people all excited but we've known there have been nasties out there for a long time.

"It's the slag from a steel mill -- it's got to be full of heavy metals. But I'd believe the levels are probably far lower now than when the steel plant operated."

As a Green Minister for the Environment, John Gormley has moved to address the fears. He has promised a peer review of a relatively reassuring 2005 report by consultants White Young Green, employed by the Department of the Environment to monitor the potential environmental hazards of the site.

Results are expected in the next four weeks. Kevin Cleary, a director at White Young Green said they will take samples of sediment, mussels and water on Monday, though: "physically, I'm not seeing any evidence of contamination and the water quality looks fine".

But he admitted: "If I was living there I would think concern was warranted."

Not everyone in Cobh is worried. Sean Parker, passing the time of day with two old friends by the quayside said he has been swimming in the harbour for the past 50 years with no ill consequences, while Ted McNamara, eating locally caught fish for the last 31 years says it's done him no harm.

The truth will only be revealed when the water gives up their secrets.


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