Tarnishing the Silvermines

 

North Tipperary was once famous for its mining, but is now dealing with the pollution left behind, writes Siobhan McGowan

The Silvermines region of north Tipperary has been mined for silver, lead, zinc, copper and barites for more than l,000 years. Italian miners arrived in 1289 to a barrage of insults from suspicious locals, culminating in a brawl. According to record, a local priest, suffering injury at the hands of the miners, excommunicated the men, who then refused to go underground for fear of spiritual ruin.

The mines did not dry up until the 1980s. The mining boom left five untreated toxic, mining sites. Many owners could no longer be traced and held accountable. However, one site-owner, Mogul of Ireland, became locked in a battle with the Silvermines community that was to last 20 years.

The Mogul mine had used a l47-acre site, known as the Gortmore tailings pond, as a waste facility. From l968-1982, a pipeline had delivered toxic waste (including lead, arsenic and cadmium) to the site, leaving behind a pool of poisonous slurry.

By l984 the summer heat had turned the slurry to dust and a massive blow of this toxic waste occurred, forming black clouds over the Silvermines region and beyond. Local doctors, fearful of health-risks, advised people in the Silvermines village to evacuate the area.

As a result of this incident, the people of the village joined forces and threatened legal action against Mogul of Ireland Ltd.

Mogul, now under ownership of Irish resource company Ennex International, agreed a rehabilitation of the tailings pond and spread grass seed and vegetation on the site between March l985 and September l987.

Christian Schaffalitzky became managing director of Ennex International in l997. He states that the company made a serious effort to rehabilitate the tailings pond, spending £1.6 million between l985-87. He holds the original owners of Mogul of Ireland responsible for the dispute - they failed the Silvermines community, he says, when they left the sites untreated.

"Although there was no legal framework at the time obliging companies to rehabilitate the sites, there was always a shut-down protocol that mining companies were expected to observe. The original Mogul company, along with others, did not observe this. I totally understand why the community would be angry with the original Mogul company."

Michael Leamy is chairman of the Gortmore Environmental Protection Committee. His father, along with other Silvermines residents, started the battle with Mogul as a result of the first serious incident of pollution in l984.

He feels that the current owners of Mogul have shown "disrespect" for the community in their dealings with them and a lack of concern for local health.

In the 10 years following Mogul's treatment of the tailings pond, approximately one-quarter of the covering surface eroded due to the underlying toxic material. Householders had to clean dust from their windows every day, and the community claimed increasing rates of asthma and related illnesses, as well as seemingly high levels of cancer - some of them unusual - in the area. Despite pleas to the government, no action was taken to alleviate their fears.

THEN, IN DECEMBER l998, Senator Kathleen O'Meara, actively involved with the Gortmore action group, was contacted in her Nenagh office and told that sheep were grazing on the tailings pond - a potential health hazard, as grazing could cause further erosion of the covering. Investigation revealed that Mogul's lease had expired and the land had been transferred to a Limerick farmer, who was excavating the site, potentially unleashing toxic materials.

Tipperary North Riding County Council (as it was then called) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were alerted, and in January l999 the EPA produced a report stating that highly polluting leachate was seeping from the tailings pond and that the site posed a perpetual risk to human health and the environment.

A second incident in January l999, when three cattle were found dead in the Silvermines area, added weight to the community's concerns.

An investigation by the Department of Marine and Natural Resources, the Department of Agriculture, Tipperary North Riding County Council and the EPA concluded that the animals had died from lead poisoning; however, the source of the poisoning was not the tailings pond, but the old Shallee Lead Mine dump, operated by the Silvermines Lead & Zinc Company until 1958, which contained barrels of cyanide among other toxic materials. The toxins had leaked into the stream that supplied drinking water for the animals.

The EPA's report and the cattle deaths finally forced the Government to act. The then Department of Food and Agriculture commissioned an inter-agency group to produce a report on lead activity in the Silvermines area.

Although the report, published in 2002, concluded that Silvermines was a "safe place to live and work", it recommended careful management and hefty rehabilitation of the area, which saw the community and its livestock undergoing regular blood-checks for levels of lead, monitoring of airborne pollutants and the avoidance of contaminated areas. Its final recommendation, that the mining sites be permanently rehabilitated, was to set the stage for a three-year campaign by the community for the Government to guarantee them a safe environment.

The report recommended that the Government invoke "Clause K" of Mogul's mining lease, compelling the company to undertake a one-off rehabilitation of their contaminated sites. According to Schaffalitzky, this resulted in Mogul producing "several proposals which were all ultimately rejected by the Department of Marine and Natural Resources, I believe largely because the local community was against Mogul being involved in any capacity".

Tending to back this view was the appearance of the Gortmore Environmental Protection Committee, led by Senator O'Meara, before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Marine and Natural Resources in April 2004. Leamy stated that Mogul could not be relied upon to deliver either the finances or long-term rehabilitation necessary for his community and asked that the State assume responsibility for the necessary remedial works and pursue Mogul for compensation separately.

IN AUGUST 2005, the community's hopes were finally realised when Minister Noel Dempsey announced that the Government would be assuming responsibility for the remedial works at Silvermines, providing €10.6 million for the rehabilitation of five specific sites.

The story should end here, but it does not.

Until its final rehabilitation by the Government, Mogul are responsible for the maintenance of the tailings pond, under an interim plan devised with Tipperary North Riding County Council in l999. In accordance with this plan, Mogul monitors the pond dust on a weekly basis, determines if there is a risk of a dust blow, watering if necessary, and submits monthly reports to the council.

In June of this year, the plan failed to work. Severe winds caused a massive blow of noxious dust from the tailings pond - the most serious since l984.

Christian Schaffalitzky states that monitoring during the period did not indicate any risk of a dust blow. Frank O'Halloran, senior environmental engineer with North Tipperary County Council, confirms that Mogul had fulfilled its monitoring obligations. However, he adds that a new plan, with shorter periods between watering the pond dust, is being devised with Mogul.

The Silvermines' rehabilitation is expected to take three to four years to complete. With the July appointment of Golders Associates (Ireland) as consultants to the project, O'Halloran estimates that on-site work will begin in early 2007. When asked if the tailings pond will be given priority, he replies "I anticipate that the tailings pond will be among the earlier sites to be rehabilitated."

While the Silvermines community welcomes the Government's rehabilitation plan and Senator O'Meara sees the intervention as "hugely positive", she is outraged that the community have had to suffer another massive blow of toxic dust 20 years after the first such incident.