THE FRIENDS of the Irish Environment (FIE) has announced that it is to take legal action against the Minister for the Environment over the continued holding of waste without a licence at the former Irish Steel site at Haulbowline in Cork harbour.
FIE spokesman Tony Lowes has told The Irish Times that solicitors for the group have informed John Gormley of its intention to seek an order in the High Court compelling him to either remove the waste at Haulbowline or obtain a licence for its continued storage.
Mr Lowes said FIE was concerned about serious levels of pollution from heavy metals, including lead, from the continued holding of waste on the site and that this had been acknowledged by the Department of the Environment as far back as 2004.
He cited an affidavit sworn by the current department secretary, Geraldine Tallon, in a legal action to recover costs from the Ispat liquidator in 2004, that “there is serious environmental pollution at the site as a result of holding, recovering or disposing of waste”.
Mr Lowes said that under the Waste Management Act 1996, any person or body holding waste for more than six months must have a licence. Despite repeated requests to the Minister for the Environment, he had failed to apply for a licence to hold the waste.
“We have repeatedly written to the Ministers involved requesting them to apply to the Environmental Protection Agency for a waste licence, but the only response has been to establish yet another ‘working group’,” he said.
In the letter, lawyers for Friends of the Irish Environment say: “Our client formally calls upon you to apply to the EPA for a licence for the ongoing holding of waste or, in the alternative, for the decontamination of the island by means of removal and proper licensed disposal of the waste currently held on the island.”
A department spokesman said he could not comment on the legal letter sent by FIE as it had not yet been received, but that it would forwarded to the department’s legal advisers for consideration upon receipt.
The spokesman said there had been “ongoing engagement” between the Department of the Environment and the EPA in relation to the site and that Mr Gormley was committed to cleaning up the site and achieving a long-term sustainable solution.
“One of the key issues for Minister Gormley is that deciding the future of the site would be done in consultation with everybody, including the regulatory authorities such as the EPA as well as with the local community and that remains his objective,” he said.
“This site has a history going back 70 years and since he took office, Minister Gormley has spent more and done more to involve the appropriate experts and relevant stakeholders to ensure a long-term sustainable solution.”
Last week, Mr Gormley said the Government would establish a new working group, chaired by the Office of Public Works and involving a range of departments and State agencies, to develop detailed proposals for the future use of the site.
Meanwhile, Cork East TD Seán Sherlock (Labour) has voiced strong criticism of Mr Gormley’s plan. “Setting up a working group is a classic kick to touch. There has to be a concrete set of proposals for the site. Whether that will mean excavation or containment is for the Minister to ultimately decide, but he should make that call now.”
Mr Sherlock welcomed the prospect of local involvement in the process of deciding the future use of the former Irish Steel site, but stressed that the time had come for straight-talking.
“If it is going to cost more than €100 million to contain or manage the site, then let’s say so,” he said. “If the money isn’t there to do that at the moment, then let’s be honest about that too.”