Any expansion of Aughinish Alumina's bauxite refinery would pose unacceptable environmental risk to the Shannon estuary and to the health of local people, an alliance of local campaign groups has said.
Pat Geoghegan, of the Cappagh Farmers Support Group, told an online protest meeting on Monday night that the expansion being sought by the operation's Russian owners, Rusal, would lead to a further build-up of toxic material at the site near Askeaton, Co Limerick.
As it is considered a strategic infrastructure development, the largest alumina refinery in Europe has sought planning permission directly from An Bord Pleanála. It plans to raise the maximum height of its bauxite residue disposal area (BRDA) or "red mud" pond to 44m and also to raise the level of salt cake – a hazardous material – to a new maximum of 35m. These areas, which are side by side, store the two main by-products of bauxite processing.
It also wants to expand its borrow pit to facilitate further blasting of rock on-site to provide material for expanding the BRDA, with works due to begin in the coming months.
A decision on the latest application is expected in June – while observations by interested parties must be submitted by to the board by the end of this week.
Operating since 1983, the site is considered a strategic development because of the importance of aluminium in technology and industry, notably in production of electric vehicles and photovoltaic panels.
Bauxite is imported from Guinea and Brazil and alumina is then exported to be refined into aluminium metal.
In its planning application, the company warned: “The closure of the facility at Aughinish would result in a significant loss in highly-skilled employment opportunities in the wider area and result in the loss of one of the state’s major industrial manufacturing facilities.”
The developments are aimed at guaranteeing production till 2039 – as opposed to 2030 if permission was not granted, it confirmed. It employs 482 people with an additional 385 maintenance and contract jobs.
“I am alarmed by the possible effects of increased levels of pollution on human health, livestock and the environment,” Mr Geoghegan told the meeting.
“There is [ALSO]a real possibility that the use of explosives so close to the banks of a red-mud pond would result in disastrous contamination of the river Shannon.”
Ahead of the meeting, Mr Geoghegan said there was an estimated 50 million tonnes of red mud in one pond, which was in past was classified as hazardous but is now regarded by the EU as “inert”. He said the Environmental Protection Agency estimated there was a build-up of 35 to 40 million tonnes of salt cake.
He said this was probably an underestimate, and the cumulative figure was at least “100 million tonnes of toxic waste”. The material was building up with “no indication of who is going to clean this up”, he claimed.
More red mud volumes, Mr Geoghegan said, would increase the risk of wind blowing dust onto nearby farms, the Shannon estuary and beyond.
The site is close to two designated conservation sites, the Lower River Shannon special area of conservation and River Shannon and River Fergus Estuaries special protection area. Mr Geoghegan said "the likelihood of significant environmental effect in these areas is not excluded in the application report".
Cian Prendiville of People Before Profit said the Shannon region was facing unsustainable levels of pollution due to the scale of heavy industry concentrated in the area. This was due to “light-touch, self-regulation”, he told the meeting organised by Futureproof Clare.
He said the dearth of flora and fauna near the Aughinish Alumina plant, which is the largest industrial complex in the country, should set alarm bells ringing "and needs proper investigation".
Marine guide Mary Kate Bolger raised concerns about the possible impacts on dolphins in the estuary and underlined the need to protect Irish nature tourism. Previously, she said, tourists going on excursions to the area wanted to touch the dolphins but “now they want to know what can be done to protect them”.
Environmental lawyer Declan Owens, of Ecojustice Ireland, said the Shannon situation highlighted the benefits of asserting rights of nature as a way to protect the environment and people living within it.
“We can and should provide legal personhood to nature,” he added.
In its planning application, Rusal said the plant’s current permit for salt cake storage would lapse next year, and that it expects to have in place a new process that will decrease the site’s overall production of it.
The company was given permission last year to begin rock-blasting for the next 10 years to a depth of 8.5m on its site following a review of its licence by the EPA. Rusal insisted this would have no environmental impact on the stability of mud ponds, though concerns about noise impacts on wildlife were raised at the meeting.
Without these proposed developments, the company said in its latest planning application, the plant would cease operations in 2030 “based on current production levels” of 1.9m tonnes of alumina a year.
Low carbon transition
It stressed that aluminium, which is smelted from alumina, will be of “increasing importance as economies transition towards a low carbon future”. In a report to An Bord Pleanála, Limerick City and County Council said a community gain fund should be a required condition of any expansion.
It submitted that “the company should contribute towards the cost of environmental, recreational or community facilities which would be of benefit to the community in the area”.
It also recommended further information and clarification be sought regarding groundwater in the borrow pit where rock is to be blasted, recommending blasting be restricted to seven occurrences between April and September.
The company did not respond to queries.