The Earth’s Corr: Dalradian gold mine ‘inquiry’ didn’t get off to a good start

Stormont Departments didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory at this week’s pre-public inquiry for a goldmine that will change the lives of a rural community for the coming decades.

I looked on in horror as barristers and civil servants stumbled over answers to very simple questions they’ve had years to prepare for – a point the Planning Appeals Commission quite rightly highlighted.

I’m not going to get into the pros and cons of mining here.

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We know it’s environmentally destructive – there’s no way of getting around that no matter the procedures in place. It uses vast amounts of electricity and water and they will need to build dry stacks and ponds to deal with the waste produced.

We heard at the public inquiry how Dalradian, which hopes to mine gold, silver and copper in the Sperrins Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, has already caused a number of pollution incidents in nearby waterways.

But the company says it will create jobs and bring investment to Northern Ireland. And so we arrive at the age-old debate about whether to sacrifice natural resources for profit.

But what I really want to talk about is the lack of faith in public bodies that surfaced at the meeting on Wednesday.

DfI, DAERA, NIEA, NIE Networks, community representatives and spokespeople for Dalradian were all there to talk about the shape the public inquiry, called by former DfI Minister Nichola Mallon, will take when it opens in September.

Discussions are expected to run for five-six weeks, after which the PAC will write a report for DfI about whether they think planning should be approved or not.

But, ultimately it will be up to the Department for Infrastructure and its minister to decide whether to give the project the greenlight.

There was a lot of anger in the room at Strule Arts Centre in Omagh – not least of which was about the weight this inquiry will hold.

We heard repeated calls for a judge-led inquiry, with many raising concerns about DfI making a decision on possibly the largest project Northern Ireland civil servants have ever overseen.

Stormont departments were accused of being less than transparent with the information they hold on the mine in relation to freedom of information requests.

And the fact the live streamed meeting would not be available to the public to watch back afterwards, was met with alarm and calls the process has already been less than transparent.

Data protection was the reason given – but I’m not sure that flies since it was live streamed.

All public meetings come with minutes – yet the PAC said they wouldn’t be publishing public minutes afterwards.

Council meetings and Stormont committee meetings are posted online afterwards for people to watch at their leisure because they might not have time to watch live broadcasts or make the meeting in person because of jobs and caring responsibilities. So why not this pre-public inquiry?

Maybe the powers that be are worried about backlash from what was said in the meeting or even the way officials lacked certainty about some of the questions asked. We’ll never know for sure. But a few things really struck me about the whole process.

In the centre we have the government departments, flanked by Dalradian and then on the other side, self-described protectors.

DfI struggled to answer questions about whether the environmental impact assessment submitted in 2017 along with the planning application for the project was recent enough or if more data was required given updates in the law since then.

According to their website they did ask Dalradian for further environmental information on the project in September 2020, giving them three months to comply.

DfI finally admitted at the pre-public inquiry that more information was not required – despite the fact we are four years on.

But since 2020, Northern Ireland has passed a Climate Act, guidelines given on ammonia emissions have been recalled after action from the Office for Environmental Protection.

Then in 2022, former DAERA Minister Edwin Poots added further environmental protections to the 2021 Environment Act.

He said at the time: “These measures will not only enhance existing environmental protections but will create mechanisms that will benefit future generations through a cleaner, healthier and more sustainable Northern Ireland.

“Protecting and enhancing our environment is a priority for my Department and I am pleased to introduce these new provisions to further safeguard our planet.”

I only hope that when the time comes to examine the planning application for a new mine in Co Tyrone all of these laws are considered as it is only right any planning application faces the full force of current laws.

It can’t fall to the community to make sure they are. Civil servants and planners need to start stepping up on this.

We heard repeatedly at the meeting in Omagh that many feel this is already an unfair process. When planning applications are submitted, it is the applicant who carries out the environmental impact assessment for authorities to consider.

To be clear, it’s not an independent assessment.

Dalradian Gold holds six mineral prospecting licenses in Northern Ireland - they are outlined on this DE map with the initials DG
Dalradian Gold holds six mineral prospecting licenses in Northern Ireland – they are outlined on this DE map with the initials DG
(Image: Department for Economy)

Anyone who objects to a planning application, and over 50,000 objections have been submitted to this one, then has to pay for their own expert commentary.

If it’s a community going up against a multinational with millions behind them – that’s not really fair.

If we want a planning system that has fairness and transparency at its heart – why doesn’t DfI do their own independent environmental impact assessment of major developments like goldmines?

It would remove any doubt from the minds of the public about reports that have been submitted and probably be fairer to all interested parties.

Stormont departments are already paying through their nose on this one with a public inquiry, legal bills and more.

It might have saved them some money in the long run – and put worried minds at ease that they have done everything they can to examine the merits and potential harms in an application as big as this one.

Building regulations and safeguards need a huge overhaul

Victoria Square apartments in Belfast City Centre
(Image: Jonathan Porter/PressEye)

My heart honestly goes out to the people being kicked out of faulty apartments blocks in Belfast.

First we have the long running saga with the Victoria Square block and this week it emerged another Radius development has uncovered similar concerns and has to find new homes for 32 tenants.

It really makes you wonder if the building regulations and safeguards in Northern Ireland are up to scratch.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to give people 30 years to raise concerns such as these in a court of law – we expect buildings to last much longer.

It’s high time the law was changed to reflect that and reignite public confidence in a system that is meant to protect us from such issues.

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BelfastLive – Co Tyrone