Seanad debates

Wednesday, 22 October 2003

Adjournment Matter. - Mining Leases.

 

10:30 am

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I note from my files on this matter that the Minister of State replied to this matter when I last raised in April. This is at least the third time I have raised it as a Member of this House. The Minister of State reported to this House last April that an order has been issued and he also said that he was pleased to inform me that the document under clause K of the mining lease had been finalised and would be served on Mogul and its directors that week by the Chief State Solicitor's office. I very much welcomed that news by the Minister of State because it seemed we were making progress.

The Minister of State will recall at that time there was considerable concern in the community because its members were experiencing difficulties arising from the dust blowing off the tailings pond in particular. January, February, March and April were particularly dry this year, as a result of which a good deal of dust blew off the tailings pond. The monitoring which is continually being carried out by the EPA for the county council showed that the levels of lead and cadmium, in particular, contained in that dust was unacceptable and that the continuing erosion of the tailings pond is causing a major problem in the community, particularly for those who are farming and those who are living in the vicinity of it.

To hear that the notice had been served under clause K by the Chief State Solicitor's office on Mogul was good news. We had hoped that in the following weeks we would see the finalisation of an agreed rehabilitation plan between Mogul and the agencies involved, specifically the EPA, in terms of a waste licence and so on, for the final rehabilitation of the tailings pond.

Very little has happened over the summer. The final rehabilitation plan, which we know will be the subject of planning permission and of a waste licence permit from the EPA, has not materialised. We are now reduced to discussing a temporary solution. Even that appears to be difficult. It is my view that Mogul Ireland is dragging its heels on this matter. I know there is a considerable degree of frustration in terms of dealings with the company. To date three submissions have been made to the county council in relation to a temporary covering of the eroded parts of the tailings pond involving organic material, and even that cannot be agreed because the proposals do not meet the county council's requirements. This relates merely to a waste permit, not to a waste licence or EPA licence or planning permission, yet nothing has been finalised.

It is now October and we are heading into winter. When January and February come we will once again be looking at the winds coming from the eastern side of the Kerry mountains and causing a problem at Silvermines. Time continues to pass. Concern is turning to frustration and anger. I asked the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, of which I am a member, to invite the views of a delegation from Silvermines, and that will happen in the new year. I intend to continue raising this matter and applying pressure.

I learned recently that the senior official who has been dealing with this issue in the Department is no longer dealing with it. I would like the Minister of State to clarify what is happening in the Department to ensure that this matter is being pursued with the vigour and will it needs to ensure that Mogul Ireland is held accountable under clause K of the mining lease, that a temporary solution is put in place as soon as possible and that a commitment is given to me and to the community that the matter will be vigorously pursued and expedited.

Photo of John BrowneJohn Browne (Minister of State, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senator O'Meara for raising the issue. As she said, I previously dealt with this important subject in the House on 9 April. It may be useful to summarise the main issues covered at the time.

Silvermines has a long history of mining, spanning more than 1,000 years. While mining was economically beneficial to the locality, it has left its mark on the environment, including old spoil dumps, mineshafts and derelict buildings left behind after mining activities ceased.

A report of an inter-agency investigation into the presence and influence of lead in Silvermines was published in June 2000. Some 36 of the inter-agency's 39 recommendations have been implemented or are ongoing. Acting on one of the recommendations, the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources appointed SRK Consulting to carry out an integrated study of the remediation and management needs of the entire area.

One of the problem areas is Gortmore tailings dam, which was owned and managed by Mogul Ireland under a state mining lease which expired in December 1998. The Department was legally advised that under clause K of the mining lease issued to Mogul there is a once off call on the lessee to remediate former mined sites at Silvermines. Mogul is responsible for about 50% of the sites; the other 50% were mined under private leases which have ceased and for which no responsibility can be attached to the former operators.

With regard to Mogul, notice of the remedial works the company is required to carry out was served by the Chief State Solicitor's Office on 10 April last. Mogul responded in a positive way on 22 April. The CSSO wrote again to the operator on 5 June seeking details of specific proposals and timescales for undertaking and completion of rehabilitation works. The company sent a detailed response on 18 June indicating its willingness to carry out rehabilitation works subject to constraints imposed by finance, access and permitting. Mogul points out that these constraints can present formidable and time consuming problems. Its response is being considered in consultation with the CSSO.

As a first step towards meeting their obligations under clause K of its mining lease, Mogul lodged a revised experimental proposal for rehabilitation of Gortmore TMF with North Tipperary County Council in August 2003. This plan was not accepted by the local authority, and is being reviewed and amended as necessary by Mogul's specialist adviser. The Department and the EPA are also involved in assessing the plan.

Gortmore is now in private ownership and any remediation proposals will require the owner's permission as well as local community agreement. This is also a feature of the other sites. Mogul is also working on preparation of remediation plans for other areas at Garryard tailings lagoon-settlement pond and Shalee south-east complex.

There are no immediate proposals to address the remediation of sites outside the clause K areas. This Department has neither the resources nor the legal powers to carry out these works. It seems likely that legislation will be required to fund and enable a designated State agency to carry out the works. In the meantime, we will continue to work with Mogul, the local authority and the EPA in dealing with the clause K sites, and specifically the Gortmore site, which is the source of most public complaint. It should be noted that some members of the local community have expressed serious reservations about SRK's proposals for remediation of Gortmore.

There is no quick fix solution to the problems at Silvermines. We are talking about an area of 2,300 hectares or nearly 5,800 acres, and there are complex issues such as funding, land ownership, local authority permitting, preservation of mine heritage and local community consultation to be addressed before any environmentally sound and cost effective solutions can be implemented.

I am anxious to see more specific timescales firmed up for proposed remediation proposals. To that end, the Department's exploration and mining division met the county manager of North Tipperary County Council on 15 October last with a view to updating of respective positions and clarifying the road map for achieving progress. A meeting will be held with Mogul early next month, after which it should be possible to agree more specific timescales for progressing the rehabilitation proposals, in co-ordination with the local authority, the EPA and Mogul. As I said already, the issue of which agency will provide the necessary expertise and funding to deal with the other sites needs to be decided. Legislation will probably be necessary.

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for his extensive reply. In relation to the required legislation, the SRK report is very extensive and has set out in great detail what is required. It is not a quick fix solution by any means but the work is done, with €420,000 spent in drawing up that remediation plan. What plans, if any, are under way to draw up that legislation? Has it reached the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel?

Photo of John BrowneJohn Browne (Minister of State, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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We have had, and continue to have, discussions with the county manager of North Tipperary County Council and we are having further discussions with the company. We will have to draft legislation as there is no legislation drafted yet. We will be looking at the road map. It seems that legislation will be required. We are awaiting clarification.

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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Can the Minister of State supply me with the road map?

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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I am afraid only one question is allowed.

Kathleen O'Meara (Labour)
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I am sure the Minister of State will supply me with it.

Photo of John BrowneJohn Browne (Minister of State, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Wexford, Fianna Fail)
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We are looking for it.

The Seanad adjourned at 7.40 p.m. until 10.30a.m. on Thursday, 23 October 2003.