TWO large Bauxite Residue Disposal Areas (BRDA) totalling an estimated 450 acres are akin to a “ticking time bomb” on the site of the largest European alumina facility located near the Shannon Estuary, a Dáil deputy has claimed.
In a hard-hitting statement issued in the Dáil this week, Deputy Paul Murphy of People Before Profit claimed “there is a toxic time bomb ticking at Rusal Aughinish Alumina Limited (AAL) near Askeaton”.
“I remember visiting it when it was Aughinish Alumina, almost ten years ago, and meeting local campaigner Pat Geoghegan, who I believe the Taoiseach met when he was Minister for Health. I saw a massive, red mud storage area, which is now so big it can be seen from space.
“It comprises 50 million tonnes of toxic waste. Uranium, lead, mercury and hazardous salt cake are contained within it.
“It seeps into the estuary, it kills wildlife and it threatens public health. It is a result of bauxite refining but RUSAL now wants to extend that refining even further. The question is whether the Government will simply stand by and let it happen. At the very least, will the Taoiseach order an investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and ensure no rock blasting prior to inspection?
“The question is whether the Government will stand by and let it happen. At the very least, will the Taoiseach order an investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and ensure no rock blasting prior to inspection?”
An Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the Environmental Protection Agency is there to protect the environment and to ensure adherence to strict laws governing industrial projects of this kind.
Deputy Martin pledged to refer Deputy Murphy’s comments to the EPA for a response.
The farmed bauxite residue is classified as a solid non-hazardous material by the EU, according to planning documents submitted on behalf of the company to An Bord Pleanála.
EPA inspector Dr Jonathan Derham stated in a report dated December 30, 2006 the non-hazardous classification conforms with entries in the EU waste catalogue and hazardous waste list.
In a submission to the EPA, the company stated the bauxite residue undergoes partial neutralisation by atmospheric carbonation through mud farming, which produces a residue of pH-cl1.5 that is non-hazardous and is suitable for remediation and revegetation.
The company has submitted a Strategic Infrastructure planning application to An Bord Pleanála, seeking a major expansion of the BRDA, which has prompted concerns from Futureproof Clare among other local environmental campaigners.
The site is close to two designated conservation sites, the Lower River Shannon special area of conservation and River Shannon and River Fergus Estuaries special protection area.
Documents submitted to An Bord Pleanála by Town Planning Consultants Tom Phillips and Associates outlined the plant would cease operations in 2030 “based on current production levels” of 1.9 million tonnes of alumina a year, if the proposed development isn’t approved.
The proposed BRDA Raise Development will provide an additional estimated 8.04 million m3 of void for bauxite residue disposal, which represents an additional c. 13.1 million tonnes of bauxite residue disposal.
About two tonnes of red mud and sand waste is produced for every three tonnes of aluminium. The estimated total remaining void for bauxite residue disposal is proposed to increase to 17.16 million m3, which would mean an additional c. 28 million tonnes of bauxite residue capacity.
The rock fill for the proposed BRDA Raise Development is expected to be sourced from the permitted Borrow Pit, the proposed Borrow Pit Extension and an estimated volume of 380,000m3 is required to construct the BRDA to Stage 16.
Once six extra stages are completed, it will increase the height of the BRDA by 12 metres to 44 metres OD. There are also plans to increase the capacity of the existing Salt Cake Disposal Cell (SCDC) that is set within the Phase 1 BRDA by raising the height of its rock bund wall by 2.25 metres.
In a submission to the EPA, the company stated its operational activities and those of its supply chain generate €130 million in value for the Irish economy.
“The plant is one of the most efficient alumina refineries in the world, and the state-of-the-art facilities provide c. 482 jobs directly plus 385 maintenance and installation contractor employees, and considerable further employment for local service industries,” planning documents stated.
“The Aughinish facility operates in compliance with stringent environmental regulations and continued monitoring by the EPA. It represents the highest standards in excellence in alumina production.
“This is demonstrated by the findings of the Commodity Research Unit (CRU) which ranks the AAL facility within the top 10% of alumina refineries globally with respect to minimising carbon emissions.”
Responding to Clare Champion queries, the EPA stated Aughinish Alumina are licensed by the Agency since 1998.
“The licence has undergone reviews in the interim period to update the requirements for the operation of the installation to relevant Best Available Technologies (BAT) for the sector as well as all applicable environmental national and european environmental legislation.
“On 28 January 2022, Aughinish Alumina applied for a further review of their licence to facilitate raising the Bauxite Residual Storage Area (BRDA) and saltcake disposal cell as well as an extension of the rock extraction area.
“The Office of Environmental Enforcement (OEE) continues to enforce the requirements in the current licence. The agency is accessing the detail of the licence review application and members of the public can make submissions relevant to the review application via the link provided on the EPA webpage.”
Rusal Aughinish Alumina was contacted for a comment on Deputy Murphy’s claims, but has not responded.
By Dan Danaher