Destructive Mining in the Sperrin Mountains


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The Sperrin Mountains - image from Save Our Sperrins Facebook Page

 

Laudato Si’ and the Importance of the Bishops’ Critique of Corporate Environmental Degradation

 

“Crockanboy Hill is a very special place, it seems as if all your cares and worries just drop away, your bad day at work or the car breaking down doesn’t seem as bad up here as you sit staring out towards the mountains breathing in fresh pure air, it makes you realise there is more to life than money. We are so lucky we do not have to travel far to enjoy such beauty and tranquility, and we will do everything in our power to protect this beautiful place so future generations can enjoy what we once took for granted. Dalradian Gold has no place here, they will pollute and destroy, take all the wealth from the ground and then disappear leaving a toxic mess behind that will poison the land, air and water for many generations to come.”

 Greencastle People's Office, 14th May 2019 (Facebook post)

 

To mark Laudato Si’ Day, a conference entitled 'Our Parish, Our Common Home' was held at the SMA - Dromantine Retreat And Conference Centre, Co Down on Friday, 12th April 2019. The event was organised by three offices of the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference: The Northern Ireland Catholic Council on Social Affairs chaired by Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor; The Council for Justice and Peace chaired by Bishop Alan Mc Guckian of Raphoe; And the Laudato Si Working Group of  the Council for Catechetics chaired by Bishop Brendan Leahy. There were close to 200 present; the invitees were largely parish representatives, priests and laity, catechetical advisors, young people from schools across the North etc. The topics covered included the theology and spirituality of Laudato si', climate science, climate justice and practical information for parishes. According to the press release, the idea was that participants would then ‘take back this message and share it with others in their parish community and champion its importance in parish life.’

I learned of the event when I received an email from Fidelma O’Kane telling me she was attending. Fidelma, with her husband Cormac Mc Aleer, are founding members of Save Our Sperrins. The Sperrin Mountains span 40 miles stretching across counties Tyrone and Derry, where there is a push at this moment by corporate interests and the institutions of the State, to explore and mine minerals, particularly gold. A Canadian mining company, Dalradian Gold, has been granted a licence for mineral exploration. The extraction depends on the local use of cyanide to wash out gold from the ore and when the extraction is done the wash water cannot be disposed of and lies forever in large tailing ponds which are highly toxic to soil and water, and so poses a continuous threat to the totality of local landscape and all forms of life.

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Local people have become aware of the dangers of such mining on health and quality of life, particularly in the village of Greencastle, near which lies the site of the proposed mine. The Greencastle People’s Office was established by members of the local community opposed to the mine. It serves as a meeting and information point, and is made up of two caravans parked on land leased by a local farmer to the Canadian mining company. Twice, eviction notices have been served to the Greencastle People’s Office and yet they remain. Their presence continues to challenge the proposed mine.

My first visit was to a Rosary on Crockanboy Hill overlooking Greencastle three years ago. I was invited then to a family home for tea and scones and to hear their story and concerns. My experience with Shell in Ogoni and Erris was drawn upon, and I was to use the term ‘a sense of political abandonment’. This phrase is heard often nowadays but was a bit scary at the time. (Since then, Emmet Mc Aleer, an independent candidate standing on an anti-mining ticket, was elected to the local council on 2nd May 2019; indeed he was the first to reach the quota in Mid Tyrone. He will now observe how the full complement of county councillors protect and defend the environment.)

In 2017, Dalradian submitted a planning application to continue beyond the exploration stage to full mining activity using cyanide. So far more than 15,000 Objection Letters have been submitted. There is a serious gap in law that allows exploration to occur without any prior public consultation. In Laudato Si’, Pope Francis takes a very clear line on the need for meaningful consultation and environmental assessment, saying:

‘An assessment of the environmental impact of business ventures and projects demands transparent political processes involving a free exchange of views […] Environmental impact assessment should not come after the drawing up of a business proposition or the proposal of a particular policy, plan or programme. It should be part of the process from the beginning […] It should be linked to a study of working conditions and possible effects on people’s physical and mental health, on the local economy and on public safety. […] The local population should have a special place at the table; they are concerned about their own future and that of their children, and can consider goals transcending immediate economic interest.’ (Laudato Si’ #182-183)

All of this should be protected by law. However, in the North of Ireland and elsewhere, it is only at the later stage of making a planning application, to progress with full-scale mining, that a public consultation is required: at that stage it is too little too late. If sufficient deposits of gold are found it becomes very difficult to persuade the authorities to refuse planning permission: all civil servants in the political vacuum of an absent executive at Stormont.


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Every community I enter begins by teaching me so much. I knew nothing about gold mining and the countries where mining is destructive. I had read a very large survey carried out by JPIC Roma of USIG/USG in 2012/2013 among missionaries in South America, least expecting to find a similar local issue in Ireland in 2016.  Dalradian came from Canada, and Save our Sperrins had lots of material on the disastrous impact of Canadian mining companies in Latin America. Over several recent months I have tried to catch up.

In particular, I noted actions undertaken by Catholic Episcopal Conferences. The first was a 2016 letter to the Prime Minister of Canada, signed by more than 180 organizations in Latin America, drawing attention to a report on the impact of mining by Canadian companies, and pleading for relief from mining impacts. There are several missionary and local religious institutes among the almost 200 signatories to the letter. The report in question, The Impact of Canadian Mining in Latin America and Canada’s Responsibility: Executive Summary 2014, investigated 22 mining projects in four countries over a three year period as a sample from a heavily mined geographical area, in a study sponsored by German Catholic Bishops’ development agency Miserior. Within two years, these concerns were addressed again in another letter to the Canadian Prime Minister from Bishop Douglas Crosby, the president of the Canadian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, in support of the Bishops of Latin America.

The Church in Canada and its equivalent to Trócaire, The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, Caritas Canada – through its Voice for Justice campaign in 2013 – took on the reported offences of its own Government and its complicity for ill in the mining industry. Canadian environmental protection advocates and human rights groups had lobbied for over ten years for the establishment of an ombudsperson to receive complaints from overseas communities regarding the mining practices of Canadian companies. A role was approved to sighs of great relief in 2018 with the creation of the Canadian Ombudsperson for Responsible Enterprise. The position remained vacant for over a year until Sheri Meyerhoffer was appointed in April 2019. However, critics have remarked that she goes into a role without powers, indicating a continued lack of commitment by the Canadian government.

As I was reading this material, the Irish Episcopal Conference was preparing for its ‘Our Parish, Our Common Home’ event to mark Laudato Si’ Day. There would be one local Tyrone person present at the conference in Dromantine with experience of confronting the intrusion of the Canadian mining company, Dalradian, into the Sperrins. Suddenly Canadian mining became very real and very near. And Laudato Si’ became immediately relevant due to its concerns about global business practice: ‘Global regulatory norms are needed to impose obligations and prevent unacceptable actions, for example, when powerful companies or countries dump contaminated waste or offshore polluting industries in other countries.’ (Laudato Si’ #173)

Indeed Laudato Si’ has relied heavily on the Pastoral Letters of Bishops’ Conferences, nationally and in federations from the 1980s onwards, addressing destructive impacts on different environments. The pope’s encyclical refers to concerns of Catholic churches in Germany and Portugal; Mexico, the United States and Canada; the Philippines and Japan; Australia and New Zealand; Southern Africa; and five states of Latin America. This is remarkable as multinational companies focus on institutions to win social licence from their constituencies, as was the case with Royal Dutch Shell and the Corrib Gas Project in Mayo when Church dignitaries were invited to bless the gas rig out at sea.

There is a growing concern about the impact of global multinationals. Trócaire, overseas development agency of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference chaired by Bishop William Crean of Cloyne, has recently released a publication, Making a Killing: Holding corporations to account for land and human rights violations (2019). The report explains the need for supporting a move to establish a UN Treaty on Business and Human Rights to protect citizens from the ill effects of, and violations by, global business. Voluntary offers of regulation do not achieve the necessary safeguards. Laudato Si’ speaks to many different situations, to Greencastle village in Tyrone and other villages impacted by drilling, fracking, mining... anywhere regulation and redress is weak, and the economy is under threat; not always in developing countries and among so-called indigenous people, but also among the peoples of Europe – and those “indigenous” to the uplands of Co. Tyrone.

I dedicate this paper to El Salvador: the only country in the world to achieve, at this present time, an environment free of metals mining.  A moratorium was declared in 2009, and the national campaign did not give up until the legislature passed a Bill in 2017.The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of this small nation played a very important role even before the publication of Laudato Si’ in 2015. Over three successive administrations, the bishops’ message remained steadfast and focused on the concrete science. It was preached regularly on the steps of the Cathedral in San Salvador, and through media outlets: cyanide from mining in scarce water supplies threatens all life. (see also Rachel Nadelman, Let Us Care for Everyone’s Home: The Catholic Church’s Role in Keeping Gold Mining out of El Salvador, 2015).

The province of Ulster, so beset presently by mining multinationals, should take heart. In size El Salvador is not so much bigger, but the populations do not compare: six million to around a million. We need our bishops to speak to specific Irish situations, always keeping the environmental science in our line of sight. The Laudato Si’ Day in Dromantine was a beginning if it takes on board the burgeoning interest in local mining by multinational companies.

 

Sr Majella Mc Carron OLA
July 2019

 

To read a summary of Laudato Si’ click here: What is Happening to Our Common Home