Ispat steel plant ‘could cost taxpayer €70m’

THE end cost to the taxpayer of the former Irish Ispat steel plant in Cork Harbour may be as high as €70 million, the Green Party said last night.

The figure is over twice that of previous estimates which put the price of cleaning up the Haulbowline Island site at €30m.

The Green’s finance spokesman Dan Boyle yesterday said the €70m figure was based on calculations of the Government’s outlay since Ispat bought the plant for a nominal sum of £1 in 1996.

He said the Government had invested heavily in the company after Irish Ispat had taken over and had subsequently written off substantial sums when the plant went into liquidation. In addition, a sinking fund had to be used when the company was liquidated.

The Cork South Central deputy further said the €30m clean-up cost would only apply if the operation were to be carried out immediately. He argued that as that is unlikely to happen, the final outlay is likely to be much higher. “When you add up the cumulative costs, the net cost to the State of the Ispat involvement with the plant will be €70 million,” he said.

There are large deposits of dangerous and toxic waste on the island, accumulated over decades when it was run by the State-owned Irish Steel and, from 1996, by the Indian-owned Ispat company.

Mr Boyle has demanded a full Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee inquiry into how the costs of cleaning up the site have been allowed to escalate over the past eight years. His call follows a decision by the High Court last week that the State and not Irish Ispat should be responsible for bearing the costs of the clean-up.

“The matter has been discussed at the PAC but now the Court hearing is over, I am calling for a full investigation to be carried out,” he said.

“I am unhappy at the nature of the Government’s response. I think the case revealed weaknesses in the law and the Government, in my opinion, has taken the wrong tack.”

He instanced its failure to compel the Indian steel company to clean up the plant and site as a condition of the takeover in 1996.

He further claimed there was an unwillingness by the Government to immediately take steps to remove toxic and hazardous material. He said that had been an act of “gross negligence”.

The Government had used the protracted legal action with the Ispat liquidator over who should be responsible for the clean-up costs as an excuse for inactivity, he claimed.

Ispat, owned by multimillionaire Lakshmi Mittal, had earned a reputation for turning around the fortunes of troubled steel plants.

However, losses continued at the plant in Cork Harbour and by the time of its closure in 2001, were running at an estimated £9 million (€11m) a year.

There was considerable criticism of the company when it pulled out, particularly its decision to refuse to pay the workers anything more than the statutory redundancy payment. Unions also said the company had never invested seriously in the plant.

After the closure, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Environment commissioned international environmental consultants who carried out a full-scale survey of the site.

Their report revealed a catalogue of dangerous and toxic material, some of which was leeching into Cork Harbour. The total cost of the clean-up would be in the order of e30m, they concluded. Mr Boyle said yesterday that inaction on the clean-up has meant the final cost will now be substantially higher.

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