A group of residents have lost their High Court battle over proposals to build a major gold mine in Co Tyrone.
Greencastle, Rouskey, Gortin Concerned Community (GRG) were challenging the Department for Infrastructure’s decision to consider a planning application from Canadian firm Dalradian.
The group claimed preliminary consultation over the largest project of its kind in Northern Ireland was significantly flawed.
Lawyers for GRG argued that Dalradian’s proposals for operating a mine in the Sperrin Mountains were too embryonic and not “oven ready” when presented to the public.
But dismissing their bid for a judicial review today, Mr Justice Bernard McCloskey held that planning laws did not require the developer to publish and consult on a finalised scheme at that stage.
He said: “Neither a completed project concept not a highly advanced one is required by the statute or the associated common law principles.”
The ruling represents a blow for residents opposed to the controversial mining scheme, involving 144 hectares of surface infrastructure in an area of outstanding natural beauty.
Up to £3 billion worth of gold is said to be deposited in the area.
If approved, the 25-year project could reportedly support 350 jobs, with Dalradian predicting a massive boost to the local economy.
According to GRG, however, the proposed development will directly affect local residents.
In the first legal challenge of its kind to be mounted in Northern Ireland, they claimed insufficient information was provided before the 10,000 page planning application was submitted.
The case centred on the pre-application community consultation (PACC), with complaints about the details given at a public event in November 2016.
Further issues were raised about information on the stripping of peat topsoil and the size of a car park which would feature.
The court was told that if the mine is approved, it will take an estimated five years to complete restoration of the area when the operation comes to an end.
But counsel for the department countered that changes made to the plans demonstrated a “healthy” consultation exercise where the public process worked properly.
Dalradian’s legal representatives also claimed the company had the rug pulled from under it when a local venue for the public events was declared unavailable.
Newspaper adverts had been taken out and up to 1,500 leaflets distributed when it was informed the information meeting could not take place at Rouskey community centre, the court heard.
Rejecting the GRG case, Mr Justice McCloskey held that the planning applicant was only required to conduct a public engagement exercise which gives the community “a fair and reasonable opportunity to express its views relating to the general terms of the project then in contemplation”.
But with the a public inquiry into the mining plans still looming, the judge predicted it may prove to be “the first major staging post in a lengthy legal struggle”.
He added: “On one view, the real battle has just begun in earnest.”
Following the ruling a spokesperson for Dalradian said: “We welcome the comprehensive assessment and decision of the High Court and look forward to our planning application proceeding through to the public inquiry stage.”
“We will continue to work constructively with the local community and to further develop our relationships with our near neighbours.
“Modern mining is a new sector for Northern Ireland and can provide sustainable employment for decades to come.”