Sunday 15 December 2019

Warning of disaster at toxic waste dump

Locals demand action over cancer clusters near Cork harbour

Ralph Riegel

IRELAND'S largest toxic waste dump was twice breached by tidal surges over the past two weeks.

A former Irish Steel/Irish Ispat employee has now warned that unless immediate work is undertaken to secure the site on Haulbowline Island in Cork harbour, Ireland could face a Hungarian-style ecological disaster.

"The only difference with the Hungarian disaster is that people can actually see what is leaking from the aluminium plant at Ajka in western Hungary," Labour councillor John Mulvihill told the Sunday Independent.

"But you cannot see what is being swept out into the harbour from Haulbowline Island over the months and years -- that is the problem.

"At least in Hungary people can see the red mud and toxic residue. The fear here in Cork harbour is that no one actually knows what is being swept off the island by the tides and winds."

It is estimated that more than half-a-million tonnes of hazardous waste were dumped at Haulbowline Island in the 20 years before the closure of Ireland's only steel mill.

This includes traces of heavy metals and known carcinogens.

The clean-up bill for the former Irish Steel/Irish Ispat site is estimated at between €100m and €300m.

The Government has said that the sprawling site does not pose a public health risk and Environment Minister John Gormley has insisted that measures to deal with the site remain ongoing.

But Cork County Council is now being pressed to allow an emergency debate on the clean-up of toxic waste from Haulbowline Island.

The lobby group Cork Harbour for A Safe Environment (CHASE) has also expressed its concern about the long-term environmental consequences for one of the world's great natural harbours.

Cllr Mulvihill -- who lives in Cobh, overlooking Haulbowline Island -- pointed out that the island has more than doubled in size over the past 70 years, largely due to waste associated with steel-making operations being dumped in on-island landfills.

The town of Cobh now suffers from Ireland's highest cancer clusters -- with an incidence of the disease more than 38pc above the national average. Cllr Mulvihill's own wife died from cancer a number of years ago.

The number of cancer cases diagnosed in Cobh between 1994 and 2006 was 44pc higher than the national average, according to a National Cancer Registry (NCRI) analysis.

Over the past two decades, the figure is averaged at 38pc above the national average.

The NCRI figures revealed that 397 cases of cancer were recorded in Cobh during that 12-year period, compared to a national average of 270.

Cobh locals recently submitted a petition, with 4,500 signatures, to Foreign Affairs Minister and local TD Michael Martin, expressing their concerns over health issues.

Two years ago, Haulbowline's painstakingly slow clean-up hit world headlines when it emerged that a German sub-contracting firm that was handling waste from the island found traces of Chromium 6, which is one of the world's most dangerous and deadly carcinogens.

With almost €50m spent by the State so far on the clean-up of Haulbowline's, it is now feared that the final bill could spiral.

According to Cllr Mulvihill: "The clean-up has effectively ground to a halt since 2008 and nothing has been done to secure the landfill and prevent tides and seawater from breaching the site."

He said that the need to secure the landfill site with proper tidal defences including rock walls was highlighted 18 years ago -- but still nothing has been done.

Despite a major two-year campaign for a baseline health study to determine what impact, if any, Haulbowline may have on local lives, the Cabinet has not sanctioned such a survey.

The Government has insisted that the site does not pose a health risk, despite claims that a massive quantity of contaminants -- including heavy metals, mercury and carcinogens like Chromium 6 -- was discovered in sludge and soil.

Steel-making operations went on for almost seven decades at the 20-acre Haulbowline Island site, before the Indian steel firm, Ispat axed its loss-making Irish operation in 2001, with the loss of more than 400 jobs.

A special committee -- led by the Office of Public Works -- has now been set up to determine the future use of Haulbowline island.

The committee features officials from the OPW, the Naval Service and Cork County Council. However, it will not be responsible for the clean-up of the site.

Sunday Independent

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