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Siobhan has written for The Irish Times, Sunday Times, Irish Mirror, Hot Press, Mizz Magazine, Smash Hits, Record Mirror, FSM Monthly and UK and Irish regional press.

IRISH TIMES WEEKEND REVIEW
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TARNISHING THE SILVERMINES

 

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


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.































  















IRISH TIMES WEEKEND REVIEW
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GREEN TOWN BREAKS GROUND

After years in development limbo, a pioneering eco-village will soon be built in Tipperary, but will it change the way the rest of us live, asks Siobhan MacGowan


The village of Cloughjordan, near the main town of Nenagh in north Tipperary, looks much the same today as it did in the summer of 2000. There is one long and wide main street lined with impressive l9th-century buildings housing residences, shops and pubs. There is an attractive restaurant in the middle of the street and unusually there are three churches in the village - Catholic, Church of Ireland and Methodist. Retired international jockey Charlie Swan has a home and equestrian centre here, and actor Patrick Bergin has a part-time residence here; but there is nothing to suggest that anything major is about to happen. 


Unless, of course, you look closer. Behind a relatively new shop-front in the middle of Main Street sits a comfortable sofa, fresh green plants and various desks, computers and wallcharts. We have found the office of the Village. 

Registered as a non-profit company in l999, Sustainable Projects Ireland Ltd, trading under the name the Village, is the brainchild of Scotsman Davie Philip, who lives in Dublin and runs the Cultivate Centre for Sustainable Living in Temple Bar. 

Philip and his partners, Greg Allen and Gavin Harte (now CEO of An Taisce) launched their plan for a fully sustainable, ecologically friendly and community-based village in Ireland at the Central Hotel in Dublin in 2000. 

The future members of this community would buy affordable plots of land, build energy-efficient and environmentally sound houses, produce some of their own food from an agricultural base and preserve the bio-diversity of nature within the community. 

As Philip puts it on the Village website, he wanted to "walk the talk". 

Now, six years later, some of the watching world are beginning to wonder if to "walk the talk" has proved more difficult than Philip and his founding partners first imagined. To the cynical, the Village project may seem purely idealistic, without a foot in reality and destined to be forever a wall-chart. 

However, in reality, a project as complex as this, from conception to completion, takes time, and members of the Village have remained remarkably resilient throughout these past six years. The large amount of publicity the fledgling group received may give rise to an illusion of stagnation within the project, but in turn has served the purpose of attracting worldwide membership and the interest of sponsors. In truth, the past six years have been nothing if not busy. 

There is no one more committed to this project's fruition than Mick Newham, who is the members, sales and marketing manager of the Village. A native of Dublin, he now works from the Cloughjordan office alongside two other full-time employees: business manager Shane Barrett and administrator and accountant Helen Costello. 

Newham attended the company's launch in 2000 as an interested member of the public, gave up his job as a systems engineer for a mobile networking company and became the official spokesman for the Village. 

He owns the 19th-century building that houses the Village office and rents it to the company. The living area overlooks an idyllic scene of green fields, mature trees and farming land; the 67 acres that the Village now own. 

Securing this land has played a major part in delaying the project. Negotiations between the company and the last landowner began in 2002, but it took 18 months for an agreement to be reached. 

Eventually a deal was put in place with the company paying a non-refundable l0,000 Euros deposit to the landowner on condition that the site was held for them until planning permission was obtained. 

In effect this did not allow the company to apply for planning permission until November 2004. On the plus side, they were confident of receiving it, as Tipperary North County Council had already rezoned the 67 acres of land for sustainable development, based on its viewing of the Village master plan, drawn up by Dublin-based architects, Solearth. 

PLANNING PERMISSION WAS finally received in August 2005 and construction of infrastructure was due to begin in spring of this year; however, routine archeological surveys of the site have exposed human remains and signs of ancient habitation. This has resulted in further delay, as archaeologists gather their findings and the Village awaits final clearance for construction to go ahead. The initial reports suggest that nothing of major importance has been found at the site and Newham and the company expect to be able to start work on infrastructure this September. 

Protracted negotiation has given Newham time to build the membership base of the Village. The company is run as a co-operative and one buying a plot within the Village automatically becomes a member of the company and is entitled to all the benefits of the community. They are also required to abide by its social and ecological charters, which include a commitment to buy on an owner-occupier basis and to build to the required ecological standard. 

To date, the membership drive has been successful, with 105 of the l32 plots sold. The members range from single parents to young couples, from divorcees with low income to those who have paid their mortgages and are looking for a new way to live. They come from all parts of the globe - Ireland, the UK, France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, the US and Vietnam. 

Each of these members has given a 15,000 Euros down payment to secure their site, the balance due when services are in place. The final prices of the plots, which vary in size, are estimates until the site-works price has been fixed, but indicative prices on the remaining plots stand between 24,800 Euros for the smallest apartment plot of 66.5sq m and 57,000 Euros for the largest terraced plot at 293sq m. 

The company is funded in part by these down payments, but the largest injection of cash to date has come in the form of a loan from Dublin-based Clann Credo, a social investment fund for community-based projects. 

Interestingly, the member base of the Village includes previous participants of self-organised systems think tanks, one being retired property lawyer John Jopling. He brought his 40 years of legal experience in the UK to bear on setting up a loan company, Loanstock Exchange, raising another 500,000 Euros for the project. 

THE VILLAGE HOPES to have infrastructure in place by March 2007 and construction completed in summer 2008. The timeline is a little, but not overly, ambitious - certainly no more so than the average developer's. 

If the Village is completed as planned it will contain 132 homes built by individual members. All will be fitted with solar panels and composed of energy-efficient materials; 22 of the homes will be combined with retail or commercial outlets. 

There will be two community buildings, of which one may be used for shared business services and one for social use. Agricultural land will be used to produce some community food, a further possibility being to lease a portion of the farm. 

Each member will have their own allotment, there will be an orchard and a market square. The woodland area will be free of human intervention except perhaps for coppicing of trees to produce chippings for fuel. The waste-water system will be managed by the community using reed beds. An application has been made to the European Union for a grant to install a district heating system, which consists of one central boiler for the community, rather than individually housed boilers. 

The company's ultimate aim is to provide a world model for best-practice living in the 21st century. Newham believes that the one-third human habitation, one-third agriculture, one-third woodland (fostering bio-diversity) model for the Village is a good one and is a direction in which society must move. He acknowledges that employment could be a problem within such communities, but sees eco-tourism as a growing industry and sustainable living, generally, asbound for the mainstream. 

It would be easy to scoff at such sentiments, but the introduction next year of an EU directive grading homes on their energy efficiency, Ireland's 93 per cent reliance on depleting fossil fuels, warnings of climate change and the recent shift in attitudes towards recycling, it may not prove wise. Each of us, in our own way, is taking home a little bit of the Village.