- 18 May 23
In the last issue of Hot Press, Gerry McGovern outlined how – in an apparent cross-border policy that covers the whole island – over 25% of Irish land is being made available for prospecting. And he outlined the colossal potential for irreversible environmental damage. Now, in the second part of a definitive analysis of the risks of Ireland’s current mining policy, he begins by asking: has the Environmental Protection Agency gone missing in action?
Where mining in Ireland is concerned, I have come to a startling conclusion. It would, I believe, be a gross understatement to suggest that the Irish Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been and remains missing in action.
I know that this is a controversial thing to suggest, and I don’t do it lightly.
Stop and think for a minute. A normal member of the public, stressed out with enough worries, will instinctively assume that if the EPA thinks it’s good for the environment, or doesn’t object to it, then everything must be ok – because, after all, they are called the “environmental protection agency.”
That was my honest view of the EPA when I started researching this story. However, those illusions were badly shaken by almost everyone I spoke to who is opposed to new mining licences being handed out in Ireland. I heard numerous complaints about how the EPA responded to local communities affected by mining, and other environmental concerns.
I understand, of course, that it is easy to see local opponents of mining as just another bunch of NIMBY begrudgers. And it is true that local opposition in itself is not always well thought-out or idealistically motivated. You only have to look at the appalling hostility to refugees shown in some parts of the country recently to recognise that.
But that is to ignore some of the harsh home-truths outlined in the first part of this investigation into the real dangers of mining. It is also to ignore the inescapable reality that mining is a fundamentally dirty business. And that it has already caused major environmental damage in Ireland.
So where does the EPA stand on mining and its associated risks?
If my analysis is right, the primary role of the EPA in this arena now is to support government policy. And government policy is to encourage and facilitate mining. As a result, the EPA ends up in the curious – and many would say contradictory – position of having to defend mining activities and interests.
Local communities affected by the widespread issuing of prospecting licences, however, are increasingly unwilling to play along.
Fidelma O’Kane, of the Save Our Sperrins community group, is resolute in her opposition to mining in the area where she lives, across the border in Co. Tyrone. Fidelma quotes Dr Steven Emerman, an eminent mining expert, and Associate Professor at Utah Valley University, as saying that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency was the ‘worst’ agency he had come across in the forty countries he has worked in.
One assumes that Dr Emerman did not travel south to Limerick to meet Pat and Nuala Geoghegan or he might have had to revise his evaluation.
As written about extensively in Hot Press, due to relentless pollution, on land at Askeaton, near the Aughinish Alumina plant in the Shannon Estuary, Co. Limerick, cows were dying standing up; the skin of horses was peeling off in the wind; children were getting sick; men were having heart attacks and women miscarriages. And what did the Irish authorities do?
Not only did they not help those who were affected, they slowly and grudgingly set about a process, the ultimate effect of which was to exonerate the owners of the Russa Aughinish Alumina plant.
As the Clare Champion explained it: “A €5.2 million EPA-led inquiry on report into the animal and human health problems in West Limerick concluded all available data indicate that the levels of potential pollutants in the Askeaton area in the 1995-1998 period were below those likely to cause harm to the environment generally, to animals or to humans.”
Meaning that no one could explain what had actually happened on Pat Geoghegan’s farm.
Rather, an attempt was made – led by the disgraced lobbyist Frank Dunlop – to label Pat and Nuala Geoghan as bad farmers.
Selling Ireland By The Pound
It is easy to forget that Ireland was among the poorest countries in Europe when we joined the EU in 1973. Unemployment was high. Emigration was an everyday reality. Interest rates were soaring. So was the national debt. And in the 1980s, things would get worse. With all of that as backdrop, from the 1970s onwards, a desperate Ireland in effect put its environment up for sale.
There may have been an element of old-style gombeen cynicism involved. During that period, in the US, environmental regulations were tightening. In this, Ireland Inc. saw an opportunity. Quietly, it was made clear to multinationals that they could reduce costs and that regulation would be ‘light touch’, all the better to increase profits.
And so it proved.
When the local community at Aughinish in Limerick, for example, complained about what they experienced as the relentless pollution coming from the Aughinish Alumina plant, they were met with lavish red tape. Protecting industry, it seemed, would always trump concern for people’s health.
Senator John Whelan raised a different issue in the Seanad in 2014, but the message was the same. He stated that the industrial oil recycling plant run by Enva Ltd (a subsidiary of the publicly quoted DCC) was emitting harmful toxins such as benzene, toluene and volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere in the Portlaoise area on a weekly basis – and that the EPA was standing idly by, and doing nothing. He stated baldly that the EPA was not fit for purpose.
That was then, this is now – and sadly, you get a sense that things are not very different at all. The Government’s policy document on mining, referred to in the first part of this article, published in the April issue of Hot Press, suggests that when it comes to where we mine, we have no choice. We have to mine where the minerals are.
The truth, of course, is that there is always a choice. Even if we found the greatest reserves of lithium in the world under Howth Head or Dalkey, or in the legendary leafy suburbs of Foxrock – where the most effective NIMBY-ists can be found – we wouldn’t allow people to mine there. The communities would be up in arms, and chances are anyway that some of the civil servants and politicians who wrote the mining policy live there. As Dr. Pietro Jarre, the founder of Sloweb and of Waste Disaster Recovery, said to me, mining will always target desperate communities forcing them to make desperate decisions: jobs or the environment?
Why have the governments, both North and South, selected Green Sacrifice Zones in the ‘wilds’ of Clare and Leitrim, in the beautiful Sperrin mountains in Co. Tyrone and Co. Derry, and in dozens of sites around rural Ireland where ancient heritage meets struggling Nature? For all our picture postcard branding, Ireland is putting the natural beauty on which we have built our reputation at immediate and grievous risk.
Is this really the way it has to be?
The answer to that question is a resounding ‘No’. We can do things differently. And a movement in that direction has started. Whatever about official policy, there are clear signs of an awakening among Irish people.
Communities up and down this country are beginning to stand up against mining ecocide. As Fidelma O’Kane, of Nature’s Keepers Northern Ireland, has said: “We call ourselves protectors and defenders because that’s what we’re trying to do. To protect the Earth and the water and our land and our health.”
Lisheen: Fairytale of a Modern Mine
Lisheen started operations as a lead, zinc and silver mine in 1999. Producing mainly zinc, they were finished extracting the money-making metals by 2015.
It was, as they say, some operation. Extensive blasting was used to dig deep into the Tipperary soil. The entry shaft was 1.5 km long, 6m wide and 5m high. The ore was extracted from below the earth’s surface and then ground and milled. Water and chemicals were added (sodium, methyl isobutyl carbinol, copper sulphate, lime) and it was turned into a slurry and further ground and refined.
Toxic waste from mining activities comes in two main forms: wastewater and tailings. As those who have been paying attention will know already, tailings comprise a toxic mix of stone, soil and chemicals that have been turned into an ugly sludge. Some of the tailings are dumped back down into the mine. At least, in Lisheen, the dump was lined. But the question has to be asked: how long will that lining last? 50 years? 200 years? 500 years? No one can say for sure.
At best, however, the Lisheen tailings dump, which is located in a bog, will be maintained until 2050. At some stage before or after that date, the lining will corrode or tear and the toxic waste will seep down into the Earth, into the water table, a horrible gift of poison to future generations.
Meanwhile, pollution from the vast amount of water that was used in Lisheen was immediate. It was claimed, of course, that this water was ‘properly treated’ before it was dumped into the local Drish and Rossestown rivers – small tributaries of the River Suir, which runs through Co. Waterford and into the sea adjacent to the city itself. But the evidence suggests otherwise.
You cannot get away from the essential fact that huge quantities of dirty, toxic water result from the mining process. Large quantities of copper sulphate are used in the zinc mining process. Too much copper sulphate is known to cause infertility and hormonal imbalances. Fish are very sensitive, with trout being particularly affected, and even small concentrations in a river can have severe consequences.
The Drish river was well known for trout fishing. Testing of the river-beds in the period from 2005 to 2008 found significant heavy metal accumulation. In some studies, these accumulations were described as inert, and unlikely to cause immediate harm. However, this was not the whole story.
“Slight changes to river water conditions (e.g. pH, hardness, temperature) could however remobilize them,” the authors added, “with the potential to cause significant environmental and human health impacts.” Other studies found high levels of zinc, lead and heavy metals in the rivers, with “elevated” concentrations in fish. One report stated that “An inspection of the Drish and Rossestown rivers immediately downstream of the mine water outfalls reveals the localised build-up of sludge with a high metal content.”
Word did get out to some locals. The trout caught could not be eaten, it was said. There was something wrong with the ducks. People were warned to stay quiet. It’s either jobs or the environment. You can’t have both. It’s a hard choice.
See No Evil, Hear No Evil...
Like many other places in Ireland, Thurles had suffered greatly from the depressive 1980s. In 1989, the sugar beet factory shut, with the loss of 300 jobs. Local businesses shut. People were hurting.
The Drish is a well-known angling river, with the water being mostly waist-height. Along the river there are a number of inlets that allow anglers easy access to the water. Because the river is shallow, swimming was popular too, particularly among younger kids. Nobody can remember being told not to swim there, or seeing any signs saying that the water wasn’t safe.
Over time, though, health impacts were noticed. An unusual number of people who lived near the rivers complained of stomach problems. One woman said that she wouldn’t even boil her vegetables with the local water. Out of a group of fishermen, more than half got cancer. One local man said: “I don’t know how common stomach illnesses like Crohn’s disease or colitis are, but I do know it’s not as common as at least one person per household suffering from it.”
The authorities did nothing.
Talking to various communities across Ireland about mining oversight, a common pattern emerges. The mining companies, people allege, essentially self-police. They do much of the testing and monitoring. When they go beyond pollution limits, instead of being fined, these limits are often increased to make them ‘legal’ again, as happened where waste water from the IFI plant is dumped at Marino Point in Cork Harbour.
In Ireland, the polluter doesn’t pay. Fines are rare and when they are issued, they are usually derisory, a couple of thousand euro, for example. A miner who worked at Lisheen laughed when EPA inspections were brought up.
“There was no such thing as a safe mine,” he stated. “Only a safe safety inspection. As far as I could see, the head miner decides where the inspector goes.”
These inspections are meant to be ‘unannounced’.
“We all know the day the EPA is coming,” says Geraldine Ward, spokeswoman for the Drumgossatt / Knocknacran residence group in County Monaghan, cryptically, “because they wash the road, they prepare for them.”
The Lisheen miner talked about how large quantities of hydraulic oil had been brought deep down into the mine to keep the enormous machines working, and about how the dirty oil was never brought back up. Allegedly, it was dumped there, with who knows what other waste, to pollute the water table. Its impact may occur 50 or 100 kilometres away. It may not happen for many years. But, sooner or later, it will happen.
Here’s a really scary thing I learned talking to materials scientist, Josh Lepawsky, Associate Professor in the Department of Geography at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada. Nobody has a clue, literally, about the actions and interactions and long term impacts of the galaxy of chemicals we’ve been pumping out over the past 70 years or so. It’s too complicated, there’s too many chemicals.
A Tragedy Recalled
At about 6:40 on the evening of February 2, 2011, 47-year-old mine captain Joe Fallon, from Two-Mile-Borris, a village in Co. Tipperary, left two letters in his work locker. He then took a lonely journey deep into the Lisheen mine and blew himself up with dynamite. According to coroner Paul Morris, one of Joe’s letters concerned “sloppy things being done that he didn’t agree with” and about “the potential for injury.” The coroner refused to read out the entire contents of the letter at the inquest.
Rumours quickly spread about Joe. Or were spread. That he had marital problems; that he wasn’t doing his job well.
When mining interests are under pressure, this is the kind of scenario that takes shape.
All sorts of rumours were spread about another Tipperary family, the Hanrahans, when they opposed the pollution from Merck, Sharp & Dohme in the 1970s. After a lengthy court battle, they eventually received compensation, but the damage had long since been done.
Persons unknown similarly tried to destroy the good names of Pat and Nuala Geoghegan, and the farmers in Askeaton, Limerick.
In the Sperrins, Co. Tyrone, right this moment, well-organized social media trolls are spreading false and malicious rumours about the individuals in local communities who are doing nothing more than trying to protect the environment.
The intimidation goes further at times. The anti-mining protestors say that cars have been driven at them and that they have been issued with death threats. Mining is a dirty business. Always has been. Always will be.
On April 4, 2013, at about 4:30 in the afternoon, a little over two years after Joe Fallon’s death and the accompanying warnings about unsafe practices, Mario Francis was operating an LHD/scoop in the Lisheen mine when 500 tons of rock and clay fell on him and killed him.
Vedanta, who had taken over the mine in 2011, sent in a team to investigate. Of course, this team would blame Mario Francis, as well as senior management – a holdover from the previous owners, Anglo American. The internal report described sub-standard conditions which created a “high risk of falls of ground.” It proposed disciplinary action against senior management for:
• Inadequately reviewing potential loss exposures and systems
• Having inadequate controls in place and
• Inadequately monitoring compliance and procedures.
The senior management took a court case against Vedanta, essentially claiming that they were being set up. They talked about a campaign against them of relentless bullying and intimidation. One of the managers would receive an email from a Vedanta investigator asking, “Are you Irish or a jihadi?”
So who or what is Vedanta?
Well, the Irish government has been touting Vedanta as one of the prime examples of a modern mining company: one committed, that suggests, to maintaining the highest possible safety and environmental standards.
But wait. In 2010, a year before Vedanta took over the Lisheen mine, a heading in the UK Independent ran as follows: “Vedanta Resources: the world’s most hated company?”
Dig around, and the stories about Vedanta in its own native India are at times nothing less than horrifying. We read of apocalyptic pollution; of police being used to bully and intimidate the community; of 13 people being shot dead by those same police at a protest, held at the Sterlite plant in Tuticorin.
Then again, horrifying stories are told wherever you find mining. Like the genocide, unleashed on the Yanomami people in the Amazon by the former President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro – to facilitate the gold diggers, who are poisoning the rivers and the land with their mercury and cyanide. There, crops are failing, fish are dying, and the people are afraid to drink the water.
The Greed Transition: Ireland’s New Goldrush
“Gold mining is completely unnecessary,” Jacintha van Roij, a founder member of Keep Tulla Untouched, told me. “It’s just decadence and speculation.” According to the International Energy Agency, and many other bodies, neither gold nor silver are critical minerals when it comes to moving away from fossil fuels.
“This gold mining,” Eddie Mitchell, a member of the Love Leitrim community group, told me, “It’s going to be presented as precious metals for a renewable future. That’s not the truth, but it’s the PR.”
And so, we come back to the fundamental question: why is so much Irish land being made available for prospecting?
Minister Eamon Ryan recently justified the granting of gold-prospecting licenses in Mayo by saying: “The transition to a low carbon economy will require substantially more minerals and metals for use in new wind farms, solar voltage plants, electric vehicles, battery storage, electric networks, etc.”
So what is the reality? Silver is seen as a moderately important metal to build solar panels, wind turbines, etc. About 45% of silver demand comes from all forms of industry (including electronics), with 55% coming from coins, jewelry and silverware.
Even more tellingly, 80% of gold production is used for jewelry, about 10% for financial speculation and 8% for electronics. Even that 8% is for all types of electronics, not simply those that might be considered useful for energy transition. In a 2018 EU report on critical raw materials, gold and silver are hardly mentioned. And yet, of the more than 400 Irish prospecting licenses issued at the end of 2022, 91% of them include licenses for gold prospecting, and 99% of them allow prospecting for silver.
Gold mining has long been regarded as lacking any truly useful purpose. Even hardcore capitalists can’t justify gold mining.
“...The form of digging holes in the ground known as goldmining,” John Maynard Keynes said, “not only adds nothing whatever to the real wealth of the world but involves the disutility of labor.”
“Gold gets dug out of the ground in Africa, or someplace,” Warren Buffett explained. “Then we melt it down, dig another hole, bury it again and pay people to stand around guarding it. It has no utility. Anyone watching from Mars would be scratching their head.”
The only conclusion we can draw, then, in the midst of an environmental crisis, affecting climate, biodiversity, water and soil alike, is that gold stands for greed.
We don’t need more gold mining. Gold mining is a speculative, greed-driven industry that is incredibly damaging for the environment. Mercury and cyanide, used to refine gold, have horrendous consequences for living systems. Gold mining in the Amazon decimated the Yanomami people, one of the most important indigenous people’s on this Earth.
Besides, there’s more than enough gold in the world to recycle if we wanted to.
And yet, apparently under the guise of a transition to a Circular Economy, the Irish government is ushering in a new, greedy goldrush.
My research shows that the gold speculators swooping into this country are full of investment bankers, accountants and lawyers. In just one company alone that was recently given a license, I found a seedy network of serial company directors, some with more than 40 interweaved company directorships, and some of whom are well represented in the Panama Papers and other offshore banking intrigues.
These are the type of characters being invited into Ireland to get rich quick while almost inevitably ruining the environment for generations. This is silent policy par excellence.
The only Green Transition that’s happening here is the transformation of Irish minerals into greenbacks that are then transferred to some account in the Cayman Islands.
It’s not Green in any shape or form. It is the Greed Transition. And we need to bring it to a halt...
The Solution: Less Consumption
We must reduce consumption of energy and virgin materials by at least 40% in order to begin to live sustainably on this beautiful Earth. The first step in doing this is to reduce waste, which is everywhere in our current systems.
At least 30% of all food produced goes to waste. 90% of data produced goes to waste. Data centers are terrible for the environment. In a typical home, 20% of electricity is wasted by devices that are always on but not being used. We can do amazing things if we pursue a zero waste strategy.
One of the best ways of addressing waste is though material simplicity in the design of our products. Thirty years ago, a mobile phone contained a few elements. Now a phone contains more than seventy, making them impossible to fully recycle. Designing materially simpler products would allow for much easier reuse, separation and recycling of products, and will thus truly usher in a Circular Economy, where no material is allowed to go to waste.
We must tax SUVs and large cars (electric or not) out of existence because it is not sustainable to use 2,000 kg of materials to transport an 80 kg mammal. We must ban all disposable products, particularly battery-driven disposables such as vapes. We must ban e-scooters, like they’ve just done in Paris, and get children walking and cycling. We must make waste a cultural sin. We must shun the idea of flaunting wealth and power through devouring obscene quantities of materials.
Ecological economist, Caroline Whyte, has outlined four very sensible steps for reducing energy and material use.
1. A global approach, emphasising solidarity and science.
2. Clear and binding limits on mineral extraction, along with other forms of resource extraction (including fossil fuel).
3. A participatory process for decision-making on mining, based on estimates of what’s needed for decent living.
4. Democratisation of the financial system: support for community banking, social money, debt restructuring or cancellation, commons-based taxation, fair trade, UBI, UBS.
A global approach is essential. What gets dumped in a poor country in the Global South by middle class consumers from the Global North, sooner or later comes back in the air, the rain, the fish we eat, the toys our children play with. The only home that matters is Earth. The only life that matters is all life.
We must, as humans, find a balance again within Nature. We must stand up for the family that got their home destroyed by toxic tailings in Bento Rodrigues as much as we stand up for families in Askeaton or Manorhamilton, because it’s called ‘global’ warming. It is a global multi-crisis and can only be solved by humans acting as one community.
We need less technology. We don’t need any AI to tell us that walking, cycling, public transport, 15-minute cities, are the true building blocks for a sustainable future. We need smartphones that last at least 10 years. We need laptops that last at least 20 years.
“I can’t live without my smartphone,” some will say. You can live without your smartphone if you have to. Our environment is the only thing that’s too big to fail.
It is at a community level that practically all the things we cherish most have been nurtured and grown. Fair working conditions were won through community action. Better healthcare was won through community action. Democracy and the right to vote were won through community action.
Eddie Mitchel from Treasure Leitrim told me that the key lesson they learned in making sure that fracking didn’t come to Leitrim or Ireland was that only the people could stop fracking – by getting organised.
It is the only way…
Read Part 1 of this special report here.