The communities of Greencastle, Rouskey and Gortin in the foothills of the Sperrin Mountains in Co. Tyrone, are not easily accessible. The services of a local guide are required to get there from the nearby town of Omagh. From Omagh, it’s a 20-30 minute drive. That drive is sufficient to justify why it has official status as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
But in this are of beauty a conflict is underway. A conflict between the local community and Canadian gold mining giant Dalradian Gold Ltd. Local people are not deterred by Dalradian’s size. Instead they are focused on protecting their community from environmental destruction and they will do whatever it takes to protect it.
Gold mining plans
Dalradian applied for a full gold mining licence, at the nearby Curraghinalt site, in November 2017. It plans on extracting an estimated four million ounces of gold over the next 20 years. In extracting the gold Dalradian will use and store cyanide in the area. Locals are justifiably fearful of the environmental impacts.
Local fears and concerns
The experience of Baia Mare Romania in January 2000, where a cyanide leak wiped out 80% of the local fish population, is sufficiently chilling to cause alarm. Other parts of Romania suffered a similar fate as a result of cyanide. Additionally Canadian mining company, Barrick Gold Corp, faced sanctions in Argentina after three cyanide spills in 18 months. One of these included a one million-litre spill into drinking waterways.
Cormac McAleer, a spokesperson for local community opposition group Save Our Sperrins, said he has grave concerns about the use of cyanide and the entire plan. He’s concerned about the “lack of experience and of expertise among the relevant environmental monitoring/enforcement statutory agencies”. McAleer continued by saying the “lack of transparency that has emerged with Dalradian has exacerbated those concerns”.
James Orr, Director of Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland, sees the damage this mine can do. He said: “What we see by this type of development is that the community has been left to pay the price. These companies are not wealth creators, but wealth extractors and the cost is very high.”
Damage to local river
The Owenkillew River rises in the Sperrin Mountains. It’s one of Ireland’s few examples of freshwater pearl mussel. It’s also a protected Special Area of Conservation (SAC). Regardless, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs granted Dalradian permission to discharge effluent into it.
Safety, the licence and police
A number of safety incidents at the current exploration mine site have caused local fears to rise. Safety concerns were raised in early 2017 when personnel from Vertase FLI Limited who were working at the mine, suffered serious injuries.
Confusion arose over the conditions attached to Dalradian’s exploration licence. The licence only permitted it to remove ore for “analysis, test, trial or experiment”. But it did not permit the sale of ore. The Crown Estate, which receives royalties on all gold mined, denied this when it was revealed that Dalradian shipped 15,000 tonnes of ore to the USA.
The Crown Estate said Dalradian “has permission to sell any gold”. Furthermore, the Crown Estate’s involvement means it will receive the benefit and not the local region, as claimed.
Indeed it’s not just local people who are unhappy with the gold mining giant. In 2016, Dalradian was caught in a public dispute with the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) over the payment of a £397,000 security bill.
Historical and Religious
The area in the immediate vicinity of the proposed gold mine is of religious and historical interest. It’s thought to be one of the most ancient routes in Ulster and the site of a Mass Rock where Catholics attended mass in the 17th century. Locals fear they may no longer have access to this site as Dalradian already refused access for a religious ceremony.
Locals are fighting Dalradian on a number of fronts.
Local campaigners were buoyed by news of a court appeal decision in July 2018 against a local incinerator. This appeal decision could spell trouble for Dalradian as it means civil servants may not make large-scale planning decisions in the absence of a government minister. Northern Ireland has been without a government in Stormont since January 2017 and as Brexit negotiations ramble on it does not appear as if it will return any time soon.
Local campaigners established a protest camp, near the site of the proposed mine, called the Greencastle People’s Office (GPO). Hardly a coincidence it shares the initials of the building from where Irish independence was launched in 1916.
Campaigners took their protest to Canada where Dalradian representatives attended a trade fair. They let potential investors know opposition to the mine is strong.
Local campaigner Fidelma O’Kane, said she is taking a judicial review against the Northern Ireland Environment Agency who granted Dalradian permission to discharge effluent into the Owenkillew River. After experiencing several delays a review will finally take place on 7 and 8 October.
Another campaign group known as GRG (Greencastle, Rouskey, Gortin Concerned Community) were granted leave for a judicial review. The review would have examined the flaws in Dalradian’s pre-application consultation. Although the High Court dismissed their bid for a judicial review they intend to appeal that decision.
What is happening in the north of Ireland is not a local issue. The Mining Injustice Solidarity Network (MISN), based in Toronto, aims “to draw attention to and resist the negligent practices of Canadian mining companies”.
MISN has highlighted environmental concerns worldwide, such as the Barrick spill in Argentina, and human rights concerns such as “murder, sexual assault and exploitative labour practices”.
Dalradian were contacted for comment. They said it refuted claims it lacked transparency as it “engaged in an extensive public consultation process with the local community and other stakeholders in 2016”.
In relation to fears over cyanide it says “only a small amount of the mined ore, around 10%, will come into contact with cyanide”.
A failed Stormont could mean courts will block all major planning decisions until it reconvenes. More importantly local campaigners are determined to oppose this mine and to protect their environment.