MINISTER FOR the Environment John Gormley yesterday pledged to ensure the former Irish Steel site at Haulbowline Island in Cork harbour is cleaned up for future use after an environmental report showed waste material posed no identifiable risks to human health.
Mr Gormley said his priority was "to ensure a sustainable future for the site so that it turns from being an environmental liability into an asset for the entire local community". He will present a memo to Government on the matter early in the New Year.
The memo, he said, would include an assessment of the site as it currently exists, the work carried out to date, the various options in terms of future use of the site and the remediation that would be required for these possible uses.
He pledged there would be continued monitoring of the site, which is adjacent to the Naval Service HQ on the island, and stressed he was committed to "ongoing consultation with the local community in advance of any Government decisions as to what becomes of the site".
Mr Gormley was speaking following the publication of a report by environmental consultants White Young Green, who carried out an analysis of soil, slag, dust, surface and groundwater samples to determine the level of risk to human health from waste at the former steel plant.
The site, which is owned by the Department of Finance, covers some 20 hectares, comprising about 11 hectares formerly occupied by the steelworks and a further nine at the East Tip which has been built up by slag deposits over the decades.
WYG project manager Kevin Cleary told The Irish Times the study focused on the East Tip area but stressed the study advocated further investigation, including beneath the former steelworks buildings. "The remaining areas of the main steelworks site will need to be investigated and assessed as a separate investigation to quantify the potential for contamination from historic site operations and underground structures," he said.
Mr Cleary said the report clearly highlighted the need for continuing monitoring.
"The nature of these things are dynamic - atmospheric conditions change, for example. We have drawn a line in the sand with this report but the site needs further monitoring."
The study found elevated background concentrations of mercury, arsenic and nickel in some marine samples while an elevated lead concentration was found in a mussel sample, but none was considered to be linked to waste at the East Tip.
The authors note that chromium was detected in mussels near the East Tip and the main steelworks but they could not determine conclusively if the concentration is recent or historic. They recommend further comparative study using mussels from "a clean site".
The study also recommends that an environmental audit be undertaken on the East Naval Base site to identify potential sources for lead dust in the area of the East Tip. It recommends that ambient air monitoring be carried out during dry, windy weather for at least 30 days.
The authors compared the findings with a report they carried out in 2005 and concluded that, apart from excavation work carried out on sludges at the East Tip, there was no major change in water quality, leading to the conclusion the area was in a stable state.
However, they note that during a period of combined high tide and adverse weather conditions, the excavation works carried out in the northern area of the East Tip resulted in seawater breaching the embankment and flooding the excavated area, where oily sludge material was exposed.
The authors recommend engineering works, including rock armouring, be carried out near the shoreline to raise the site so that there is no repeat of this.