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// Toxic Island: everyone knew
Everyone knew it was ‘the most contaminated site in Ireland'. Everyone knew it was ‘the biggest environmental problem we have in Cork Harbour".
All five of the heavy metals most likely to damage your health are there - lead, zinc, cadmium, chromium, and copper. PCB filled transformers are there. ‘Shallow surface depressions' described in a 1995 Report were filled again and again with hydrocarbon sludge.
As one of the 17 key documents we have identified said, ‘there is a high risk to humans, groundwater, surface water, and marine ecosystem from leached metals, hydrocarbons and PCBs'.
One memo we discovered speaks of fears of the State's liability to shellfish growers.
Dust has blown for years across the island, exceeding safe levels for even uncontaminated dust, let alone toxic fallout.
And don't forget the dioxins. A published EPA Report suggested that the shutting down of the steel plant ‘may' have been one of causes of the reduction of dioxins in milk fat data for the area when comparing the 1995 levels to the 2004 figures.
The Navy has ‘confidential' documents. The Department of Marine and Natural Resources has ‘confidential documents'. Cork County Council has ‘confidential documents'. Ministers have ‘confidential documents'. Everyone knew.
The current revelations were triggered by a screening machine collapsing the crust of an ‘unknown' toxic lagoon. Remember the ‘shallow depressions' in the 1995 report? Everyone knew.
Fair play to the Minister for releasing the Reports when he found that the Civil Service were still refusing to do so. But if he had read them himself he could not say that there is ‘no evidence of any immediate threat to human health or the environment'.
In fact scientists retained by the Department of the Environment felt 'obliged' to make an interim report on 8 May 2008 that they had found levels of contamination ‘necessitating emergency treatment immediately'.
The underground water storage layer under the island - the aquifer - is in karst limestone. Karst limestone is like the Burren, fractured, fissured rocks that transmit pollution long distances. ‘Confidential' Reports confirm groundwater pollution.
Residents and workers who have been exposed to these conditions for many years need to form part of a baseline medical study. Cork County Council's Environmental Health Officer must publish without delay a list of which tests local doctors should seek for worried patients. This is not ‘scaremongering', Minister, or ‘misinformation' to ‘stir up fears'. It is part of a ‘coherent overall approach rather than piecemeal action' that you announced to the Oireachtas.
Haulbowline Island is a giant toxic landfill contaminating everything around it - the air, the water, the land. Toxic landfills must be lined to control the spread of the contaminants. You can't line Haulbowline Island. Toxic landfills must be pumped clean of effluents. All you would pump on Haulbowlin is contaminated salty water which courses through the ‘soil' with the tides.
And the Government's best shot after 13 years of Reports was to order a ‘site surface clearance' - just the kind of activity that the self same Reports warned could raise the emissions. We want a ‘coherent overall approach'. We do not want or need more Consultants' Reports.
We want the EPA's enforcement section, like local authority's planning enforcement sections, to be moved to an independent national Enforcement Agency.
And we want a clean up, whatever the cost. The law says so. And if this was a private company you can be sure the Government would be the first to demand just that.
In 2004 the Chairman of the local Resident's Association drew attention to a new problem that faces residents. He regretted that another project - the proposed incinerator - had ‘superseded' their concerns with Haulbowline. The recent Port Harbour oral hearing alone lasted 10 days. Around the country, residents are overwhelmed by the number and scale of the developments they must face - and the complexity of the issues.
And the cost. The last invoice for one round of laboratory testing at Haulbowline was €48,600. The new Strategic Infrastructure Act is supposed to provide funding for participation in the planning process. But this year in the first case under this Act, An Bord Pleanala awarded itself costs of €162,124.00, the Local Authority €43,076.00 and the Resident's Association €2,876.
Last week the European Commission brought proceedings against Ireland - and 8 other member states - for their failure to bring into national law the Environmental Liability Directive [ELD], aimed at situations just like Haulbowline.
FIE has now written to the Government citing non-governmental organization's [NGOs] rights under this Directive to make a ‘Request for Action'. The Government must then consult with us - and therefore the public - before commencing any ‘clean up'.
There is another instrument that could help. But this time Ireland is the only state of the EU 27 not to sign. This is the 1998 ‘Aarhus Convention'. It seeks to ensure our rights of access to information, public participation in decision-making, and access to justice in environmental matters.
And this access to justice must be ‘fair, equitable, timely and not prohibitively expensive.'
Until we have these rights, the fact that everyone knows is not going to help anyone.
(c) Irish Examiner