Wednesday, 10 November 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, and thank him for taking the time to be with us. I appreciate that his colleague, Deputy Eamon Ryan, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, is abroad at COP26 but I wanted to take the opportunity to raise this matter. My colleagues, Deputy Harkin, Deputy Kenny, and the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, and I all agree that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, seems to be on the verge of granting prospecting licences for gold-mining in north County Leitrim. As the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, will be aware, in 2019 we declared a climate and biodiversity emergency in Ireland. In recent weeks we issued our carbon budgets. The Minister of State's party leader is at COP26 this week to advance Ireland's co-operation on the global climate action strategy that will be required to stop prohibitive temperature rises here in Ireland.
Significantly, County Leitrim, in the north west of the country, is the only county where planning permission cannot be got at the moment because of soil quality.
Many efforts are under way to try to devise a sustainable solution that would allow rural farming families and their children to secure planning permission in the area.
The Minister of State will appreciate that it beggars belief that any party in Leinster House, much less the Green Party and its leader, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, would give prospecting licences to gold-mining companies. The company concerned, Flintridge Resources Limited, is connected to another company called Omagh Minerals Limited, which had a licence in this area previously. That company breached the guidelines it was to follow regarding informing landowners of prospecting and liaising with them in that regard. That was not done.
In addition, as I am sure the Minister of State is well aware, gold mining is the most disruptive form of mining. It can lead to contamination of the water table and it has led to cyanide, zinc and other chemicals entering the water table. In a parallel to what is proposed in north county Leitrim, our neighbours in county Tyrone have experienced a terrible situation with a company called Dalradian Resources. It was the subject of a BBC "Spotlight" programme that showed how the community there has been destroyed by the proposal to carry out mining. The key point is that Flintridge Resources Limited has the same executives as Omagh Minerals Limited. That company did not contact any landowners in the area in the past.
The people of north Leitrim have a vision for their county in line with the global vision for a circular economy. It is a vision of sustainability, one that nurtures and supports the rural economy with sustainable farming methods and secures a future for their families in the local area. It is not consistent with our actions, in advance of total agreement, debate and implementation of a directive on the circular economy from Europe, for us to proceed in this way with what is the most disruptive form of mining, namely, gold mining.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. This issue was the subject of discussion last week during a Topical Issue debate and I welcome the opportunity to debate it again. The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications published a notice of intention to grant two mineral prospecting licences in north Leitrim in local newspapers on 7 October 2021. Submissions on these applications were invited until 7 November, which was last Sunday, and no final decision has yet been taken on whether to grant the two prospecting licences. All valid submissions will be considered before a final decision is made.
Mineral exploration, prospecting and mining are often confused with each other. Mineral exploration is not mining. They are two very different activities, given their potential environmental impacts and scale. Different regulatory rules apply to each undertaking. A prospecting licence relates to the activity of exploring for minerals only and it does not give the licence holder permission to mine. Most prospecting activities are temporary and involve minimal disturbance. All proposed exploration activities are the subject of environmental screening by the Department. This ensures that they will not give rise to any significant adverse effects on the environment. Furthermore, no intrusive prospecting activities, such as drilling or trenching, can be undertaken without the express consent of the landowner or tenant. It is also worth noting that few prospecting licences ever lead to mining.
I stress again that a prospecting licence does confer the licensee with any rights which would allow it to undertake mining. Mining requires three additional and separate consents. Planning permission must first be obtained from the local authority. This involves a full environmental impact assessment, EIA, and public consultation. The activity of mining then also requires an integrated pollution control, IPC, licence from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and that process also involves a full environmental impact assessment and public consultation. In addition, a mining lease or licence is also required, and this is sought from the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications. A mining lease or licence, if granted, is not granted until after planning permission and an IPC licence are in place.
The Department is finalising a draft policy statement on mineral exploration and mining and submissions received as part of a public consultation that concluded on 15 October are being considered. The Government will consider the draft policy statement early next year. It highlights the role of minerals in our everyday lives and the critical role they will play in our transition to net-zero emissions and carbon neutrality by 2050. The draft policy recognises that we need to reuse and recycle more minerals and metals, but the document also accepts that this alone will not supply the quantity of minerals required to decarbonise our energy system through solar power, renewable wind energy and batteries. Relying on imported minerals risks these activities being developed in parts of the world where less stringent environmental and human rights standards apply. It also risks our ability to secure the supply of minerals needed to make the green and digital transitions.
A key priority in the draft policy statement is to build public understanding of, and trust in, the mineral exploration and mining sector. During the public consultation on the draft policy statement, the acceptance by communities of exploration and mining operations and the provision of information that is easily understood emerged as key issues. These issues will be taken forward by the Department with the help of an advisory group on mineral exploration and mining which will be established shortly and will draw on as broad a range of views as possible.
Regarding the specific prospecting licence applications advertised recently in north Leitrim, a final decision will be made following consideration of the submissions received.
I thank the Minister of State for that reply. I appreciate that the decision has not yet been made. That is why we are here. The people of north Leitrim are not in any way stupid and they fully understand the difference between prospecting and mining. However, we are getting in early this time. We want to ensure that this process does not proceed and that companies will not be misled into feeling they will be able to undertake mining in the area.
Gold has nothing to do with the just transition. There is no shortage of gold in the world. I spoke to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, casually in the corridors last week about this. I am sure he will not mind me sharing the information here. During our conversation, he asked me if I had a phone. I said I did, and the Minister pointed out that there was gold in my phone. I am aware of that too. There is no shortage of gold in the world, although there is a shortage of energy and that does not stop us, collectively, trying to move to use renewable energy. We are importing peat, yet we have closed our bogs. If we have a debate on gold being needed because there is gold in our phones, I will win. Someone may say that gold is a necessary part of a just transition to a more sustainable economy but it is not.
The key point here is that another manifestation of Flintridge Resources Limited, that is Omagh Minerals Limited, had licences previously. It did not follow the guidelines and did not consult people in the area. The main submission among the 4,000 submissions I have been told were made is one from the community group, Treasure Leitrim. Its submission contains statements from 12 of the main landowners in the area stating they were never consulted. Omagh Minerals Limited, the sister company of Flintridge Resources Limited, has stated it prospected in the area and did all the necessary things but there was no liaison with the landowners.
We do not need this activity. We must listen to the will of the people of the area. Dare I say it, if this was happening in Ranelagh or Irishtown, I am sure the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, would not be interested in it going ahead. Equally, if this was occurring in Galway, I am sure the Leas-Cheann Comhairle would not be supporting it, nor indeed would any of us support it. It is not a case of NIMBYism. If this was something we genuinely needed, I could understand it to an extent. As I said, the people of north Leitrim have a vision for their area and it is far removed from the cold profitability of a Canadian company.
We should be aware that there are 432 active prospecting licences which cover about 21% of the country's land area. It means that 432 teams are actively prospecting, in many cases for gold, in different places all over the country. Some of those sites are within the Deputy's constituency in Sligo. It is this particular instance in Leitrim that has drawn considerable attention, not just from the Deputy but also from his constituency colleagues, Deputies Harkin and Martin Kenny.
That may perhaps be because Leitrim, especially north Leitrim, is a place that is particularly environmentally sensitive. Local activist groups there have successfully managed to block fracking in the past and helped to change the national policy on that activity.
There are also concerns about forestry, with evergreen trees putting people's homes in the shade, wind farm development and so on. There has therefore been a lot of interest in what will happen. That may be the reason Leitrim is the place where there has been a sudden interest in and a large movement concerned with gold prospecting.
The process of getting a gold prospecting consent is similar to the planning permission process, to which Deputy MacSharry referred. Anybody can apply for planning permission to build anything anywhere. It is just an application. Someone fills in the form and submits it with the fee. That is what has happened in this case. Any company can apply to prospect anywhere if it wants to do so. It pays, I think, a €190 fee and applies. That does not mean it will get a consent. We should bear in mind as well that there are two mines in the whole of Ireland that are active, namely, the Tara lead and zinc mines and the gypsum mines in Monaghan. Of the 242 active teams and many thousands of groups that have obtained consents and drilled hundreds of thousands of boreholes, only two mines ever came out of any of that activity. The chances of anything being mined are therefore extremely remote.
I do, however, take the Deputy's concerns on board and I will relay them to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. A decision has not yet been made.