YESTERDAY’S announcement that the Government has set a two-and-a-half year deadline to clean up the toxic dump at Haulbowline in Cork Harbour must be welcomed.
That welcome can be a reasonably confident one as a budget of €40 million has been set aside for the long-overdue containment of an estimated 500,000 tonnes of waste, some of it toxic.
However, that welcome cannot dispel the great frustration that it has taken so very long to do what should have been done years ago. Neither can it dispel the sad realisation that the very existence of the dump points, once again, to regulatory failure on a grand scale.
The 22-acre dump, a timebomb legacy of six decades of steel milling by Irish Steel and latterly Ispat, was rightly the cause of huge local concern and, more recently, EU interest.
It would be reassuring to think that this moment would have arrived even if the threat of massive European Commission fines was not very real but that hope may be more optimistic than is justified.
For over a decade it has been apparent that serious health, environmental, supervisory and industrial policy issues needed to be resolved at the site, but the relevant local authorities, environmental protection agencies and central government all ran for cover. This despite the fact that four reports published between 1998 and 2005 showed that waste from Haulbowline was contaminating Cork Harbour.
To this day nobody has explained how an illegal dump of this scale was allowed to develop on a site that is not exactly secluded, remote or out of the public eye — it is, after all, just next door to the country’s main naval base.
Because those with responsibility in these matters did not stop the illegal dump being developed we face a €40m bill — not to mention the possible health threats — to clean up a mess that should never have been created. Even in the best of times this would be a penal imposition, but in today’s circumstances it is doubly galling.
At a time when so many decry the growing involvement of the EU in our affairs maybe we should take a moment to consider what might happen — or more likely not happen — if the issue had not been brought to the attention of the European Parliament’s petitions committee.
This is the body that can initiate interventions when national governments fail to act on pressing issues. Ireland has a shameful relationship with this committee as it has been forced to threaten fines on myriad issues before action was taken. Haulbowline, septic tanks, water supply and protection, drift netting for salmon, turf cutting — described by a committee member as the worst environmental abuse reported to it — and, almost inevitably, abortion, are just a few of the matters referred to the committee by Irish citizens determined to see policy decisions or court rulings enacted.
It is wonderful that the Haulbowline dump issue, just one of a plethora of poisoned chalices inherited by the Government, may finally be resolved. However, we must learn the lessons revealed by the scandalous maladministration and official dodging that brought us to the sorry point that it, once again, took the EU to save us from ourselves.
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