The Government has earmarked up to €40 million to clean the site, one of the most dangerous in the country, after the European Commission warned it would set fines unless the site was made safe.
However, Mr Coveney warned it “could be too dangerous” to dislodge the mountainous slag heaps left by Irish Steel and Irish Ispat — and instead they may just have to be made impermeable so they cannot lead to further contamination.
Slag heaps are byproducts of the steel-making process and include the deadly carcinogen chromium 6.
Cork County Council recently issued tenders for an external adviser and environmental consultants to complete site reports and investigations.
The local authority is charged with finding the best way to make the site safe and will also oversee the day-to-day management of the €40m project, with the external adviser providing quality control and peer review functions.
Soil sampling is planned so that the council can “stand over the condition of the site”. Three reports have been completed on the toxic dump so far.
Mr Coveney said: “This whole clean-up plan will be peer reviewed so it’s best practice but it could be better to contain the material onsite rather than remove it. We will be doing all that is reasonable to ensure the site is safe.”
It is hoped all site works will be completed by the end of 2013 or early in 2014. A competition aimed at architects will launch in the next month to devise an end-of-use plan for the eastern section of the Cork island.
Mr Coveney said the site “could have significant amenity value”, but any projects would have to fall within the €40m budget and cannot have an “end cost” to the taxpayer.
“The European Commission is happy with the site development so far. This is all about turning a highly negative environmental scar into something wholly positive.”
Last year, a 30-metre containment wall was built around the eastern tip of the island.
Irish Steel and later Irish Ispat operated the country’s only steel plant at Haulbowline for over 60 years, until it closed in 2001.
An illegal dump covering 22 acres of the island and containing slag and waste from the steel plant’s furnaces was left behind, with the Irish Examiner disclosing the full extent of the horror in 2008.
Mary O’Leary, the chairwoman of the Cork Harbour Area for a Safe Environment group, said a definitive solution for the dump had not been decided.
“However, I am fully aware of other sites where a seal was developed, built well and properly monitored. If that is done, a site can be made very clean and safe,” she said.
Ms O’Leary was asked to join the project’s steering committee by Mr Coveney.