Wednesday, 1 December 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for choosing this matter for debate. It is vital importance to people across my own constituency of Meath West and that of my colleague Deputy O'Rourke, Meath East. Tara Mines employs over 580 people directly and hundreds more indirectly and supports thousands of jobs across County Meath. The importance of Tara Mines to the economy of Navan and County Meath cannot be understated. There is considerable concern across the county about the seriousness of the flooding now occurring in the mines. Last week, while a pilot borehole was being drilled for a ventilation shaft, a vast amount of water was encountered that began to flood the underground mine. Thankfully, all workers vacated it safely but the seriousness of the situation only became apparent when the massive amounts of water flowing in and flooding the underground tunnels did not subside. Since then, millions of litres of water continue to flood the new part of Tara Mines, known as Tara Deep, and also the old part of the mine that currently produces lead and zinc. Production has stopped and efforts are being made to try to stop the flooding. I commend the workers who are working tirelessly to try to fix the problem. On Sunday, a surface drill rig arrived and was set up over the borehole and a packer was to be used to try to address the issue from the surface above. I welcome the Tánaiste's visit to the mines on Friday evening and hope he took away the seriousness of the current situation.
Tara Mines is Europe's largest zinc mine and one of the largest in the world. Since mining began in 1977, more than 85 million tonnes of ore have been extracted. Zinc is used to galvanise other metals such as iron to prevent rusting, with galvanised steel used in everything from cars to street lamps and bridges. Lead is used in batteries among many other things. We need these metals for essential everyday items. This highlights the importance of the work of the skilled employees in the mines. As mentioned, the flooding has not stopped since the initial breach last week and the rising waters will threaten underground workshops and pumping stations if they do not reduce. We hope the plan to plug it from above, which was supposed to happen yesterday evening or today, will work successfully. If the packer seals the breach, the next job will be to try to pump out the incredible amount of water now present in the mine. Obviously, the mines have their own pumping system but it has never faced a crisis like this before. Will the Minister of State ensure all assistance the Government or State agencies can offer is made available should Tara Mines management require it? It is vital everything is done to try to recover the mine and protect these jobs.
I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who is unavailable this morning. I thank Deputy Guirke for raising this very important matter for his constituency and for County Meath. I concur with his concerns and also with his comments on the workforce, which is very skilled and dedicated and works in a high-pressure environment.
Boliden Tara Mines DAC is the operator of Tara Mines, located in Navan, County Meath. While drilling a pilot hole for venting purposes for its return air raise shaft No. 7 for the Tara deep exploration drive, there was an inrush of water to the mine. Thankfully, there were no injuries. The pilot hole broke through into the underground vent drive early in the morning of Sunday, 21 November 2021. Initial water flow was minor but built up over a number of days to a substantial volume and became greater than the mine pumping capacity. The mine authorities took the decision to allow the Tara deep exploration drive, which is over 2.4 km long, to flood. They removed equipment from the deeper sections of the mine and stopped production operations to facilitate this work. Efforts are ongoing to stem the inflow of water into the mine and a number of contingency plans are in place. The mine is containing the water from the pilot hole within the mine workings and it is currently not being discharged to the surface.
Mining in Ireland is highly regulated. For any mine to operate in Ireland it requires planning permission from the relevant local authority, in this case Meath County Council, an integrated pollution control or industrial emissions licence from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and a State mining facility from the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications. Health and safety for the mines are regulated by the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, which brought in new mining legislation in 2018, namely the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (Mines) Regulations, Sl 133 of 2018. The regulations apply to all mines where people work and set out duties on the owner, operator, manager and employees at a mine with respect to persons at or in the area immediately surrounding a mine. The regulations came into operation on 30 April 2018.
The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications, through the Geoscience Regulation Office, GSRO, is actively monitoring the situation and is liaising with the EPA and Meath County Council on the matter. Officials from the GSRO visited the Tara site earlier this week and engagement is ongoing between the regulators and Boliden. However, it is not yet known when mining operations will restart.
The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications is currently finalising a draft policy statement on mineral exploration and mining. Submissions as part of a public consultation which concluded on 15 October last are currently being considered. The Government will consider the draft policy statement early next year. The draft policy statement highlights the important 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.
As is the case with the Navan mine, mining activities also have the potential to enhance and grow local communities, not just in terms of the provision of skilled jobs and the financial contribution they make to local economies, but also in terms of infrastructural improvements and improvements in the human capital they deliver in rural areas. It is not possible at this point to say when the Navan mine will become operational again, but the situation is being closely monitored.
I thank the Minister of State for the response. I appreciate this is a unique situation and one that the Government will not have much experience of dealing with. Nevertheless, it is vital that we do all that we can to assist. I ask the Minister of State to engage with the Office of Public Works, which has experience in the area of flood management, in regard to the OPW offering its help to Tara Mines should it be required, be that in regard to pumps or expertise. From what I have heard, the flooding is very extensive and it has consumed large parts of the current mine and the new mining area vital to the long-term future of the mine known as Tara Deep. Tara Deep is crucial to production post 2030 as it is where vast new deposits of lead and zinc lie.
I would encourage the Minister of State to remain in close contact with Tara management to ensure that any assistance the State can offer is provided so that mining can restart as soon as possible and, thus, we can protect the hundreds of jobs in Navan and County Meath.
In my initial response, I outlined the number of contacts between the different State agencies and the mining operators. I will convey the Deputy's request to the Minister with responsibility for the OPW that the OPW make contact with the mining operator to see if any assistance can be offered.
There is robust legislation and regulation in place to ensure that mining in this State operates to the highest standard. Environmental enforcement activities are carried out by the EPA through inspections, audits and emissions monitoring. Inspectors assess the results of emissions monitoring carried out at licensed facilities to determine the impact, if any, of the emissions on the environment. Officials from the GSRO in the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications also monitor mining operations. Inspections of each of the main State mining facilities are undertaken by specialist mine inspectors to ensure that they are compliant with the terms of their mining leases or licences.
Ireland still maintains significant status for zinc production in Europe due to operations at the Navan mine, the largest underground zinc mine in Europe and by far the most significant mining facility in the State. Approximately 600 people are directly employed at the mine, along with additional contract staff, as outlined by the Deputy. The mine is also important in terms of supplying the raw materials we need for our future solar and wind energy, as well as batteries required to decarbonise our energy systems.
As stated, it is not possible to say when the mine will become operational again but the relevant regulatory authorities, including the GSRO, the EPA, Meath County Council and the Health and Safety Authority continue to monitor the situation closely and to liaise with the company.