2017 report warned of risk to users of polluted Haulbowline Island

Published by Niall Sargent on

May 15th, 2019

A public park is set to open on Haulbowline Island despite warnings in a 2017 report that chemical contamination at the island’s former steel site has the potential to cause risks to users of a future park.

Now home to the Irish Naval Service, Haulbowline formerly housed Irish Steel in the centre of the island from the late 1930s until its closure in 2001.

Over a 40-year period, 650,000 cubic metres of by-products and waste from the steelworks were deposited on a nine-hectare shallow sand spit on the island known as the East Tip.

Cork County Council was appointed as an agent for the Minister for Agriculture to oversee the regularisation of the site.

The East Tip has now been regenerated and is slated to open as a public park shortly, featuring playing pitches, walkways, cycleways, and over 200 trees and wildflower areas.

The current Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed TD recently visited the island to commend the final phases of the clean-up.

The move to open the park has been criticised as premature, however, by the Friends of the Irish Environment (FiE).

The environmental charity has voiced its concern based on findings in a Detailed Quantitative Risk Assessment (DQRA) for the former steel factory site prepared for Cork County Council in 2017.

According to the Council’s website there were “no risks to the wider community now or in long term” identified in the DQRA, with the design of the remedial solution “predicated on the findings” of the assessment.

However, the report – released to the FiE under Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations – states that ongoing contamination from the factory site itself could pose a “significant risk to human health for future site users”.

The assessment finds that remediation is “necessary to protect the health of the end users of the site” from arsenic, lead, PCBs and asbestos through direct contact, ingestion and dust and ground gas inhalation.

The steel factory site remains to be cleaned up, despite the Government budgeting €61m in 2015 to fund a whole of island approach to the remediation process.

FiE recently filed a complaint to the European Commission arguing that the State has breached its legal commitment to carry out an all-island cleanup approach.

Key report findings

The assessment  – prepared by the consultancy Young White Green – identified “elevated concentrations” of arsenic, lead and PCBs in shallow soils that have the “potential to cause risks to any users of a potential future park”, as well as commercial site users.

“There is also considered to be a potential for asbestos fibres to be present to cause risks to future end users and construction workers,” the assessment adds.

Results of water samples collected from on-site boreholes at the factory site also identified “elevated heavy metals and hydrocarbons”.

Groundwater samples also revealed that concentrations of cadmium, chromium, copper, zinc, lead, and mercury exceeded relevant water quality standards. As such, the assessment considered them to be “contaminants of concern with the potential to impact Cork Harbour waters”.

The assessment states that drains under the abandoned factory are potentially acting as contamination migration pathways and should be “appropriately decommissioned”. Dissolved lead in groundwater was identified in two drainage outlets that discharge into the harbour.

Overall, the assessment concludes that there is no evidence to suggest that any other contaminants apart from lead are causing “actual pollution of Cork Harbour waters”.

Haulbowline Island Photo: derek menzies

“Remediation of hydrocarbon concentrations, specifically free product in respect to the Cork Harbour waters is also necessary,” the assessment adds.

The report states that the groundwater discharge of hydrocarbons into Cork Harbour is another key concern. “The primary aim of any remediation will be to mitigate risks to human health and reduce the contaminant flux to the Cork Harbour water,” the assessment states. 

The assessment recommends that remedial works to remove the risk should include the placing of a “clean cover system” in proposed areas for commercial and recreational use.

“It is considered sufficient to provide a minimum of 800mm of clean material, comprising of capillary break layer and overlain by ‘clean’ topsoil and subsoil,” the report adds.

In a statement, the Department of Agriculture said that the remediation of the East Tip is the “most significant element of the remediation project”.

This involved the construction of a “perimeter engineered structure” around the perimeter of the site, and an engineered cap and surface water drainage system on the surface of the remediated site.

Some 47,000 tonnes of rock armour material has been brought onto the site to protect the shoreline, the Department said, as well as 180,000 tonnes of subsoil and 37,000 tonnes of topsoil to “bring the history of exposed waste on the site to a close”.

“Work on assessing a suitable solution for the former steelworks factory site has also been advanced in preparation for the next phase of the remediation project,” the Department added.

“Detailed site investigations have been undertaken and the preparation of an application for planning consent has also been advanced.”  

Cork County Council did not provide a statement to The Green News at the time of publication.

‘Premature’ to allow public access

Friends of the Irish Environment recently wrote to both the Minister for Agriculture and the Chief Executive of Cork County Council, pointing out that the authorities should have informed the public of the findings of the assessment as soon as they were available.

Under the AIE Regulations, in the event of an imminent threat to human health or the environment, public authorities are obliged to immediately disseminate any information it holds that could enable the public likely to be affected to take measures to prevent or mitigate harm.

According to FiE’s Tony Lowes, however, the Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed TD has “done exactly the opposite”.

“He and the Council have been in possession of this report, which demonstrates the ongoing dangers to public health and the environment, for two years.

“The local authority website assures the public there is no danger on Haulbowline Island and intends to invite the public into a park adjacent to the unremediated contaminated area which could place them at risk,” Mr Lowes added.

Mr Lowes, who first reported the contamination to the European Commission in 2009, said that it is “premature” to allow unrestricted public access” while portions of the island remain unremediated.

“If the Council insists on opening the public park, it is the law that signage and other notices that are easily accessible and understandable warning the public of the ongoing dangers must be erected on the island and in the adjacent waters,” he added.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London