State told to warn public of Haulbowline health risks

The East Tip site on Haulbowline was used to dump waste.

An environmental group has threatened State authorities with a High Court action unless they erect public warning notices about dangerous substances on an island in Cork Harbour.

The Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE) claims Cork County Council and the Department of Agriculture are legally obliged to alert the public about the presence of high levels of toxic materials, including arsenic and lead, on Haulbowline.

FIE said it would take a High Court action against the State if signage is not erected at the entrance to Haulbowline to notify the public of the health risk from toxic airborne dust, fibres, and gases on the site of the former Irish Steel plant.

Part of Haulbowline, known as the East Tip, which was previously used to dump waste and by-products from the steelworks, is scheduled to open as a recreational area with playing pitches later this year.

Details about the dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, and PCBs, a highly toxic industrial compound, emerged earlier this month from a confidential consultant’s report prepared for Cork County Council, obtained by FIE under the Freedom of Information Act.

The materials were regarded as having “the potential to cause risks to any users of a potential future park and also commercial site users”.

The report also documented cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, zinc, and mercury above the recommended levels, which were regarded as having to potential to contaminate waters in Cork Harbour.

FIE has sent letters to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Agriculture Minister Michael Creed, and Cork County Council to highlight their view that authorities are obliged to make the public aware of imminent threats to human health under Access to Information in the Environment Regulations without delay.

FIE director Tony Lowes said the information in the consultant’s report showed there was “a serious imminent threat to human health and the environment”.

“In particular 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. There is also a risk to users of other parts of the island for recreational and military uses through dust, fibre and gas emissions.” 

He added:

The dissolved metal concentrations in the groundwater have not lessened over the last 10 years with lead leaking into the harbour from broken drains.

Mr Lowes said it is irresponsible for the authorities to “bury reports” that allowed the impression that the environment around Haulbowline is now safe when the most contaminated parts of the island remain exposed to wind and rain.

“The public has a right to know about toxic dust and lead emissions into the air and water around the island so they can decide for themselves what precautions to take,” said Mr Lowes.

The Government has committed €61m to the Haulbowline clean-up and the opening of a public park, despite a 2011 OPW report recommending that it was an unsuitable location for a public amenity. A Department of Agriculture spokesperson said €23m had been spent up to the end of 2018 on remediation of the East Tip.

Works included the laying of 47,000 tonnes of rock armour material on the site to protect the shoreline and a further 180,000 tonnes of subsoil and 37,000 tonnes of topsoil “to bring the history of exposed waste on the site to a close”.

The spokesperson said full completion of the new public park with playing pitches, walkways, and cycleways is expected within weeks.

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