State told to warn public of Haulbowline contamination or face High Court

Published by Niall Sargent on

May 21st, 2019

An environmental charity has warned the State that it will take legal action unless signs are erected on Haulbowline Island in the next month warning of chemical contamination at the island’s former steel mill.

Friends of the Irish Environment want to see signage placed at the entrance to the Cork Harbour island and at the new East Tip public park to notify the public of potential health risks from “toxic airborne dust, fibres, and gases”.

Over a 40-year period up to Irish Steel’s closure in the early 2000s, over 650,000 cubic metres of by-products and waste were deposited on a nine-hectare shallow sand spit on the island, now known as the East Tip.

Following extensive works, the area is now slated to open as a public park shortly, featuring playing pitches, walkways, cycleways, and over 200 trees and wildflower areas.

However, a 2017 risk assessment for the former steel factory site – released to FiE under Access to Information on the Environment (AIE) Regulations – states that ongoing contamination from the factory site 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.

Tony Lowes of FiE with members of Futureproof Clare at high Court Photo: Niall Sargent
Tony Lowes (c) at High Court for recent FiE case challenging gas project Photo: Niall Sargent

Public right to know

FiE Director Tony Lowes said that the steel site continues to “pose a serious threat to human health and the environment in Cork”.

As such, he says, the public “has a right to know about toxic dust and lead emissions into the air and water around the island”.

“It is irresponsible for the Council and the Government to bury reports that assess these risks giving the impression that environment around Haulbowline is now safe when the most contaminated parts of the old steel works remain exposed to wind and rain,” he added.

FiE is now giving the State 28 days to act to put up signage or it will bring it to court for a failure to fulfil its obligations under the AIE Regulations.

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

Letters were sent by FP Logue solicitors on behalf of FiE last Friday evening to the offices of the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, the Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed – charged with overseeing the remediation works – and Cork County Council’s Chief Executive.

“There is a threat to the health of occupants of the security hut and users of the part of the roadway which crosses the factory site,” the letter states.

“There is also a risk to users of other parts of the island for recreational and military uses through dust, fibre and gas emission from the factory site.”

‘No legacy health risks’

Both the Department and Cork County Council failed to provide any details as to why they did not make the results of the assessment available to the public.

The Council said that there are “no legacy public health risks associated with the remediated site” at the East Tip and that further queries should be directed to the Department of Agriculture.

In a statement to The Green News, the Department 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 180,000 tonnes of subsoil and 37,000 tonnes of topsoil were brought onto the site to “bring the history of exposed waste on the site to a close”, the statement reads.

“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.

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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