05 July 2008

What next for Haulbowline's poisonous steelworks?

Barry Roche, Southern Correspondent
The Irish Times 5/7/08

Recent events at the former Irish Steel plant in Haulbowline, Co Cork, are a matter of dispute, but what matters to residents is that one of Ireland's most toxic sites is made safe as quickly as possible

IT MAY NO longer hum and hiss to the sound of molten metal being poured, but the former Irish Steel plant at Haulbowline has lost none of its capacity for creating controversy, as events over the past fortnight have shown with front-page headlines and heated debates in the Dáil.

While the dispute over the former site between contractors and the Department of the Environment has been marked by claim and counter-claim, both sides are pretty much in agreement that the former steel plant is one of the worst cases, if not the worst, of industrial pollution in Ireland.

In one sense, the only surprise about the issue is that anyone is surprised. After all, Irish Steel operated as a heavy metal industry for almost six decades, during which time environmental protection was scarcely a consideration, let alone a legislative requirement.

By the time the plant was closed in 2001 by its then owners, Irish Ispat, it had been operating for more than 60 years without any environmental monitoring. While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a draft Integrated Pollution Control (IPC) licence in 2001, it was never implemented by Irish Ispat.

An attempt by the EPA in 2004 to compel the liquidator, Ray Jackson (of KPMG), to fund the clean-up of the site failed, leaving the State to foot the clean-up bill, which at the time was estimated to be around €30 million but which the contractors claim is likely to be 10 times that amount.

The contract for the first phase of the clean-up was awarded to Hammond Lane Metal Ltd, which in turn hired environmental consultant Stephen Griffin, of CTO Greenclean, to advise on the work, with Griffin subcontracting clearance work to Louis J O'Regan Ltd.

According to Griffin, Hammond Lane had demolished buildings on the site in 2005 and 2006, and in September/October 2007, Louis J O'Regan began work on removing the debris as part of its contract brief to "leave a clear, level, safe site" for remediation. The 20-hectare former steel-plant site, which is owned by the Department of Finance, can be broadly divided into two main sections: the main steel plant adjacent to the naval base and the East Tip, which had been built up over decades by dumping slag from the plant on the foreshore.

According to Griffin, work went well initially, but tests he had ordered on the material began coming back in December 2007 with readings that showed high levels of contamination for a range of heavy metals including zinc, mercury, nickel, cadmium and chromium.

Test results also began showing high levels of hydrocarbon-saturated soil in the East Tip area. In February, one of Louis J O'Regan's machines started to sink through an earth crust into an oil lagoon and the subcontractors had to excavate tonnes of oil-soaked waste to retrieve it.

According to Griffin, the Department of the Environment instructed him to put the oil-soaked waste back in the lagoon, but he refused to do so. He declared an emergency response situation and created an enclosed, bunded area using mixed dry soil to soak up the oil. This action led to a stand-off with the department, which, according to Griffin, advised that he cease further work and back-fill the contaminated lands still remaining. After taking advice from his health and safety consultant, Griffin refused to sanction such work.

According to Griffin, the health and safety consultant advised that he would be liable for any risk to workers and public arising from such back-filling and that there was no option but "to continue with the removal of all contaminants from the site".

The Department of the Environment has a different view of events, claiming that "following the uncovering by Louis J O'Regan Ltd of the sub-surface sludge pit of hazardous waste, a series of unauthorised works resulted as a consequence".

"Despite repeated instructions to stop these unauthorised works, including by letter from the Chief State Solicitor's Office on May 23rd 2008, the subcontractor continued to excavate significant volumes of buried hazardous material."

According to the department, the contract with Hammond Lane was, following legal advice, terminated with immediate effect on May 30th 2008, with instructions to vacate the site by 5pm on Tuesday, June 3rd.

The subcontractors refused and continued to operate without authorisation and in a piecemeal fashion, actions which the department claims caused a threat to the environment. They finally left the site following discussions with Hammond Lane Metal Company Ltd, according to the department.

THE CONTROVERSY, which broke in the Irish Examiner, has generated an angry exchange of claim and counter-claim regarding the hazardous waste. The debate is notable for its lack of precise detail as regards concentration levels of the various hazardous materials.

According to Griffin, some 100,000 tonnes of hazardous debris material were removed from the site and shipped to Germany in 41 shipments between December 2007 and early June 2008, and it was tests done in Germany on this material which raised concerns.

Griffin claims that these tests on leachate found levels of the carcinogen, chromium six, four times higher than what is deemed safe, while further tests done in the UK found that one sample contained mercury levels 26 times what is allowed in a legal lined landfill site.

Visiting Cork last week, Minister for the Environment John Gormley sought to reassure people living and working on Haulbowline and in the Lower Harbour area, while admitting that the full extent of hazardous waste on the site has yet to be established.

"It's very difficult to quantify how much hazardous material is there," he said. "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 counterproductive."

Griffin, however, disputes this. "We were obliged in our contract to leave a clean, safe, level site for remediation, but there's no such thing as a clean, level, safe surface on Haulbowline because every time we took off surface layers, we found more layers of hazardous waste. "Our initial discussion was on the removal of about 15,000 tonnes of hazardous material, but when we hit 100,000 tonnes, people in Dublin became fearful about the cost, and the issue of unauthorised works came up simply because we were finding hazardous waste everywhere."

The Department of the Environment entirely rejects this version of events. "The nature of the material which was lying on the surface and which was the subject of the contract was clearly understood by the contractors before the work started," the department told The Irish Times yesterday.

John Gormley was unable to meet local residents during his visit to Cork, so he invited them this week to Dublin, where, following accusations of a cover-up by Griffin and Friends of the Irish Environment, he offered to make all reports on the site available to them.

His officials handed over the most recent official report, from 2005, by consultants White Young Green, which involved a site investigation focusing on two distinct main areas: the main site of the steelworks and the East Tip, where slag was dumped over the decades. Gormley subsequently announced that White Young Green is to go back to Haulbowline to provide an updated report on the site in terms of hazardous materials. He also agreed to a peer review of the consultants' findings.

Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment (Chase), which represents a number of residents' groups, has welcomed Gormley's commitment to make all reports available and his promise to go to Cabinet to seek funding for a baseline health study of residents in the harbour. While Chase acknowledges that the Department of the Environment is in a contractual dispute with Stephen Griffin and Louis J O'Regan over payment for clearance work on the site - a dispute which may end up in court - the residents' group says it still needs reassurance regarding the health risks.

Chase spokeswoman Mary Hurley was one of the residents who attended the Dublin meeting with Gormley this week and she reiterated the determination of residents to ensure that the Haulbowline site is made safe.

"We accept John Gormley's bona fides about giving us the reports, but we're more interested in what he's going to do to clean up the site," Hurley says. "There's a dispute between the department and the contractors, but we don't want the concerns of the community getting lost in that wrangle.

"The Minister told us that he has to go to Cabinet for funding for the clean-up. We believe the costs involved are going to be extensive if a proper job is to be done. This is about ensuring a safe, clean environment to protect people's health, and money should not be an issue."


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