The absence of a financial bond to cover the cost of cleaning up the RUSAL Aughinish plant on the Shannon Estuary has been questioned by TDs and senators in a joint Oireachtas committee.
Catherine Murphy, Independent TD for Kildare North, quizzed senior staff of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the matter at a meeting of the environment committee this week.
She cited the example of the Haulbowline site in Cork where the cost of cleaning up half a million tonnes of hazardous waste came to €40m.
“The estimate is that in Aughinish there is a 25 million tonne hazardous waste potential and there is no financial bond in place,” said Ms Murphy.
“Obviously it is quite predictable if it is right beside the Shannon that there could be major consequences both from a health point of view, from an environmental point of view and certainly from a financial point of view that would ultimately be a burden on the state if there isn’t a bond in place to cover that cost,” she added.
She asked the EPA to explain why it continued to issue licences when a bond was not in place.
Dara Lynott, deputy director general of the EPA, told the committee that the Aughinish site has been licenced since 1996/97 and that there had been a “significant” number of inspections and audits carried out on site since then.
At the time, the EPA accepted a “parental guarantee” by the owner of the facility, he said.
“However there has been a number of reviews of that licence in the meantime to facilitate not only new legislation under the mining waste directive and other legislation such as the industrial emissions directive, but also a major expansion of the facility to include a repository for red mud,” Mr Lynott explained.
“The red mud has been the subject of a lot of debate on whether it is hazardous or non hazardous and in February of last year, the [European] Commission wrote saying that it was their view that the red mud is a non-hazardous material.
“But that is not to say that they don’t deal with hazardous materials at that site. They deal with salt cake which by reason of its pH has hazardous properties but the commission has again looked into and reviewed the licencing by the EPA of this facility under all applicable EU legislation..and found that the agency has licenced that facility appropriately.”
However, he added: “If you expand your facility, there is an requirement to expand your financial provision and at the moment, the agency is in negotiations with Aughinish Alumina to provide for, to the fullest extent, the financial provision that is necessary.”
Following Mr Lynott’s submission, another member of the committee, Sen Denis Landy, held up a picture of the red mud ponds at Aughinish and commented: “If that hasn’t got detrimental environmental impact, I don’t know what to say”.
The company declined to respond to questions from the Leader relating to its financial provision for any potential clean-up costs.