A US EXPERT in environmental chemistry has called for an independent investigation into Aughinish Alumina after a visit to west Limerick.
Dr Paul Connett was in the county to speak at a Limerick Against Pollution meeting about Irish Cement, but spoke at length about the red ponds at the alumina plant, calling them “disgusting”.
He described as “reckless” the proposal by the firm to create a borrow pit by ‘blasting’ rock adjacent to the millions of tonnes of red mud, which is a waste product from the bauxite refining process.
“Looking at this, it’s only a matter of time before that waste ends up in the Shannon Estuary. There’s probably leachates going in there now,” said the retired professor.
“What a beautiful country. I’m looking at the most fertile valley in the whole of Europe, the Golden Vale. And then you see this savage red pond here, built right next to the estuary, just a few feet from the estuary - it’s sacrilege,” added Dr Connett.
The professor thinks that “poisonous” chemicals in the highly alkaline red waste have the potential to wreak havoc on both human health and the environment, if a spill were to occur. He also believes that the material could already be polluting the area through the groundwater and wind.
“There are so many problems with this it’s hard to know where to begin. You have emissions from the plant itself, emissions from the station that’s generating power, blow off from the red ponds, and you’ve got leachate from the stacks, which is going into the river,” he said.
“I don’t know how much fishing goes on, but that,” he said, pointing at the red ponds, “is the kiss of death for fish in this area,” he added.
Dr Connett, who is also a prominent fluoridation critic and zero-waste advocate, studied at Cambridge and Dartmouth, before spending more than 20 years as a professor of environmental chemistry at St Lawrence University, Canton, New York.
He claims that previous EPA reports on the level of toxic chemicals “didn’t even measure some of the key things”, and he called for an independent investigation into both the plant and “the government officials who continue to allow it to be here”.
“And now they plan to blast the rock. What a ridiculous, reckless thing to do, to set off explosives near the wall of the ponds, because you could easily break the barriers, and all the waste would go into the Shannon Estuary. That is crazy, really reckless,” he said.
When asked if there is a safe way to deal with the red waste, Dr Connett suggested solidifying it, as the loose dust is “open to the elements”.
Plans to blast rock on the Aughinish site are being put forward due to the dwindling stockpile of rock needed for the plant’s operations, all of which is due to be consumed before the end of 2017.
An environmental impact statement is now being prepared, and Limerick City and County Council confirmed that a pre-planning meeting has taken place.
If planning is successful, the borrow pit will operate over a 10 year period, with blasting occurring six to seven times per year between March and September.
A spokesperson for the EPA said that the agency had “not been made aware of” the consultation for an Environmental Impact Statement “as yet”.
“Aughinish Alumina operate under Industrial Emission Licence (P0035-06) issued by the EPA. If changes are being made to activities at the licenced site - which could have an impact on the environment - then AAL will be required to notify the EPA of these. If these activities are not provided for in the licence then a licence review application may need to be made. The EPA has not received any such application to date.
“The licence application assessment process is open to full public participation.”
An Aughinish spokesperson said: “Aughinish Alumina operates in compliance with Industrial Emissions Licence (IEL P0035-06). Any work on the Bauxite Residue Disposal Area (BRDA) or its environs is carried out according to our permitted activities. For clarification purposes, Aughinish operates a dry stacking system on the BRDA for disposal of the bauxite residue from the Bayer process.”