How Gold Diggers in Northern Ireland Are Threatening Natural Beauty
If you are interested in exploiting somebody else’s land, you can find convenient ratings tables that tell you the current favorites, ranked by competitive taxes, efficient permitting procedures and certainty around environmental regulations. In other words, if a country has low taxes for the rich, a no-questions-asked permit policy and a generous disregard for the environment, you are good to go.
Northern Ireland ranks in the top six most favorable countries in the world for global mining firms to invest in, according to a 2017 survey by the Fraser Institute. Here, the only part of the UK without climate targets and an independent environmental protection agency, a Canadian company called Dalradian Resources, Inc. has been scoping out an area of over 120,000 hectares around County Tyrone and County Londonderry, and hopes to start digging for gold as soon as possible. Luckily, the people of Curraghinalt and Greencastle (where the main mine is proposed) know what’s going on.
At the time of writing, Dalradian has already started underground mining operations to test the quality of the ore at Curraghinalt in the Sperrin Mountains. The main site of the mine is planned to be a few miles away at Greencastle.
The proposed site is not just some barren wasteland. It is in the Sperrin Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, between the Owenkillew and Owenreagh Rivers. These rivers are within the River Foyle and Tributaries Special Area of Conservation and contain important populations of salmon, otters and pearl mussels. The mountains also contain special types of peat bog, which are recognized as priority habitats within Northern Ireland and the European Union.
Dalradian expects to be around for about 20 years and plans to extract around 1.4 million ounces (about 40 tonnes) of gold over that time period. What they don’t say in their literature is the environmental damage they will need to inflict to get those 40 tonnes of gold and in what state the ecosystem will be in when they have packed up and left.
Dalradian is proposing to use traditional underground mines instead of open-cast mining, the latter of which is more economically viable but more difficult to get permission. Digging a labyrinth of tunnels underneath a mountain and leaving the surface relatively untouched might seem less harmful than blowing apart half the mountain, but a lot of damage still needs to be done to get the gold out. Once the rock containing the gold has been removed, it is crushed into dust and then mixed with large quantities of a separating agent, typically cyanide or mercury (Dalradian announced in August they have dropped plans to use cyanide in the County Tyrone mine). The separating process can also release arsenic that was previously locked up in the solid rock. Even small quantities of those poisons are highly destructive to the ecosystem.
Then, what do they do with the waste containing all those toxic chemicals? Obviously, the easiest thing the mining company can do is just leave it there. After all, they’re not going to be around for long, so who cares? Usually, the waste is simply put into a large nearby dump called a “tailings management facility.” The facility is supposed to be perfectly sealed so that the chemicals can never get out. But of course, they do get out and sterilize the soil and poison the water. Dalradian proudly announced that they are using a special method called “dry stack tailings,” which, they say, is “… the most stable, sustainable method for managing mine tailings.” In other words, it still has the potential to completely destroy the ecosystem, but not quite as much as other methods.
The most recent planning application by Dalradian includes a mercury-smelting furnace and toxic-waste storage facilities comprised of contaminated water ponds and mercury slag. There will also be approximately two explosions a day, every day, for 20 years.
Originally the company’s plans included a cyanide processing plant, which would accept rock from not just this mine but possibly from mines across the UK and Ireland and further afield. This was obviously met with intense opposition and, in an attempt to get their project over the line, in August 2019 Dalradian announced that the partially refined ore would be sent overseas where the cyanide processing would occur. Local communities have responded by reiterating that it is the entire gold mining process that is toxic (and unnecessary), not just the use of cyanide, and they also will not be compliant with the toxic contamination of communities in other parts of the globe.
But why is gold so valuable that people will go to such extraordinary lengths to get it? What is it used for?
According to current figures, just over half of the 190,000 tonnes of gold that exists above the ground is used for jewelry; another third or more is used for holdings and investments and about a tenth is used for technical things, like electrical contacts for mobile phones and other devices.
In other words, most of the gold in existence is used for rich people to show how rich they are; a large proportion is just being hoarded by rich people; and only about a tenth is used for anything that could be considered remotely useful. And even that is questionable: As we all know, a new smartphone every three months isn’t making us any happier, so the truly “useful” amount of gold is probably a lot less than a tenth.
Of course, gold extraction operations are successful because rich people buy shares in companies like Dalradian. Then, when the gold is sold for more money than it cost to get it out, the share prices go up and the shareholders get even richer. In the end, gold serves to keep the rich richer, and, consequently, in our deeply unequal economy, the poor poorer–or, in the words of Michael Moore: to maintain the stratification of society.
Luckily, a large number of the local population around Curraghinalt and Greencastle (where the main mine is proposed) know what’s going on. They understand that it is never a good idea in the long run to let a group of greedy businesspeople from the other side of the world come and destroy their environment in order to dig up a mineral and sell it for profit. Many of the folks who live in that area are genuinely bewildered at why such a monstrosity should be necessary. Their ancestors—going back hundreds of generations—have lived perfectly well without a gold mine, so why should they need one now?
Fidelma O’Kane was born and raised in the Sperrin Mountains and has lived in the area almost all her life:
“We are a peace-loving people,” she says. “We don’t want any trouble, and we are just trying to protect our land, our home and our children’s future from poison. I feel that it is incumbent upon each of us to do what we can in the short time that we are on this Earth—to protect it and to try and maintain it for the future generations.”
Friends of the Earth and the communities they work with have formulated a series of demands that they are directing at the Northern Ireland Department for the Economy and Department for Infrastructure, whose CEOs can now make important decisions in the absence of ministers. The groups are asking for an immediate ban on new petroleum and mineral licenses; an immediate revocation of any current licenses (without any strategic environmental assessment, these licenses are illegal); and an urgent inquiry into unauthorized mining in Northern Ireland. Inviting new extraction projects when the extent of the damage from previous ones has not yet been assessed is ludicrous.
They are also working at the local government level on a Rights of Communities, Rights of Nature campaign. Communities are calling on councils to use all legal avenues possible to enshrine the Rights of Nature into local law, thus officially banning destructive activities such as mining, fracking and other fossil fuel extractions. In the end, the extractive industry does not have a place in a world where communities have the right to decide what happens to their home, and nature has the right to thrive and to evolve.
Eventually, if enough local and international pressure can be applied, potential investors and shareholders will be scared off. They will start to think that this operation might not bring them the profits they had hoped for, and then, hopefully, they will decide to put their money somewhere else. This will create a knock-on effect where more and more investors get scared, and finally, Dalradian will have no choice but to abandon the project.
That pragmatic solution is probably the best we can hope for—just get them to worry about what they always worry about: money. Forget about trying to convince them that water to drink, air to breathe and food to eat for everyone, including their own children and grandchildren, is more valuable than a yellow metal whose usefulness is limited to electrical contacts for gadgets that none of us really need.
Stop mining exploration
Northern Ireland is being targeted for large-scale extractive projects which would damage the environment and devastate communities.
Join us in calling for Northern Ireland’s Department for the Economy to carry out Strategic Environmental and Human Rights checks on all license applications.