THE Department of the Environment has been accused of a “cover-up” concerning the extent of highly hazardous waste buried at what has been described as potentially “the largest and most extensive pollution incident in the history of the State”.
Documents seen by the Irish Examiner indicate that the department told a sub-contracting firm involved in a clean-up operation at the controversial Irish Steel site at Haulbowline Island near Cork to “cap” lagoons containing hazardous waste, rather than remove the potentially deadly material — estimated at about 500,000 tonnes.
The documents also reveal the waste includes highly toxic substances such as chromium 6 — the second most dangerous carcinogen — as well as hydrocarbons and other oil and metal byproducts. The cost of the operation at Haulbowline to date also suggests a full clean-up of the site could cost up to €300 million.
An official investigation, the findings of which have been seen by the Irish Examiner, has already found that the waste material is “likely” to be a “severe” health risk to people locally, such as the residents of Cobh and navy personnel based nearby, mainly because of toxic dust getting carried by the wind.
It also represents a huge risk to flora and fauna.
A health and safety company, which was sub-contracted to clean up the site last October, said in its initial submission that it would remove any hazardous waste from the site “for disposal”, with the agreement of local representatives from the department.
However, a letter sent to the contractors by the department on April 18 last told them: “It is the considered view of the department, following consultations with the Environmental Protection Agency and Cork County Council, that the required course of action will be to cap the lagoon with inert slag material (or other such suitable available material), pending a detailed risk assessment of the entire site.”
This recommendation came despite the fact that an investigation and assessment was carried out six years ago on behalf of the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.
The sub-contractors said they had already removed 100,000 tonnes of hazardous waste from the site, at a cost of €50m, and shipped it to Germany for disposal.
The German company involved in processing the waste has already written to the contractors expressing concern about the level of chromium 6 contained in the material. According to sub-contractors Louis J O’Regan Ltd, the Department of the Environment owes them €20m for the removal of hazardous waste and has terminated their contract. The company says health and safety legislation obliges them to complete the removal of the waste. “They told us to bury the waste and we didn’t,” said a representative from Louis J O’Regan Ltd. “Under health and safety regulations, we can’t hand back the site until it is all done.”
Environmental consultant Stephen Griffin, engaged by the contractors to oversee the project, told the Irish Examiner that information on the hazardous waste has been with the department since 2001 and that the contractors “were refused access to this”. The extent of the problem was only realised when clean-up work started.
Mr Griffin accused the EPA, Cork County Council and the department of a “a cover-up”.
To cap the waste — with further waste — rather than remove it, he said, would “go against every environmental principle that has ever been written, apart from Irish law and European law and health and safety law”, he said. However, the department said in a statement last night the sub-contractors had carried out “unauthorised works” following the discovery of the pit of hazardous waste. It accused the sub-contractors of refusing to vacate the site and continuing to operate “without authorisation and in a piecemeal fashion causing a threat to the environment by its actions” and described accusations of a cover-up as “entirely false”.
Environment Minister John Gormley last night insisted he remained committed to transforming the site from an environmental liability into an asset for the region. “My officials are finalising a report on the site, which will outline options for its future, which I hope to bring to government in the autumn. Work has been ongoing for the last five years to properly assess the site, so that an informed decision on its future can be made.
“In relation to the recent issues regarding sub-contractors on the site, the department, acting on best expert advice of the EPA, ordered the unauthorised work to stop, as there were serious concerns that the work being carried out in such a piecemeal fashion posed a significant environmental risk,” he said.
According to the Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE), who accused Cork County Council of a “cover-up”, the council refused to release 19 out of 20 records on the issue. FIE described the contamination as “the largest and most extensive pollution incident in the history of the State”. Cork County Council said it was a matter for the department.