The red mud ponds at Aughinish Alumina
THE PLANNING application process is underway for Aughinish Alumina to build a borrow pit in Aughinish island to extract rock for use in the plant’s operations.
But some locals fear that such disturbance to the ground near the highly alkaline red mud ponds could increase the chances of a toxic spill.
Plans to blast rock on the Aughinish site are being put forward due to the dwindling stockpile of rock, which is due to be used before the end of 2017.
The proposed borrow pit area is around 4.5 hectares, and the overall depth of the pit would be around eight metres.
“Blasting with an overall depth of eight metres is totally unacceptable to us as it is adjacent to existing mud ponds,” said Pat Geoghegan of the Cappagh Farmers Support Group.
“It has the potential to disturb the foundations and side walls of these mud ponds.
“If parts of these structures, especially a section of the embankment is breached, the potential of one of the biggest environmental disasters to the Shannon Estuary as a whole would be devastating for decades to come,” he added, citing the 2010 Ajka alumina plant accident - a Hungarian disaster in which a red mud reservoir wall burst and freed one million cubic metres of alkaline waste, killing 10 people and wiping out all life in the nearby river.
According to Aughinish, the depth of eight metres is needed to ensure that the works do not interfere with the water table level.
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.
The extracted rock will be used within the confines of the site, and would eliminate the need to import rock from commercial quarries.
But Mr Geoghegan is not confident that the gravity of the situation will be accounted for by Limerick City and County Council in the planning process.
According to a 2006 EPA report that was written by Dr Jonathan Derham, the oldest part of the first mud pond remains “unlined” except for low-permeability clay and silts.
“If the company cut one corner, then it’s possible others were cut,” said Mr Geoghegan.
A planning consultant has been hired by the alumina plant, and an Environmental Impact Statement is currently being prepared to accompany a planning application to the local authorities.
A public consultation period has already passed, and some residents close to the plant received letters outlining details of the project.
But Mr Geoghegan said that the plans and their possible ramifications would affect everybody living in the region and near the Estuary, particularly in Foynes.