Limerick environmental group halts expansion of Aughinish ‘red mud’ area

The red mud settling pond at the Aughinish Alumina plant.

AN BORD Pleanála this week conceded the case against Aughinish Alumina’s expansion of its bauxite residue disposal area, better known as the “red mud” settlement pond.

Limerick-based environmental organisation, Environmental Trust Ireland, also brought a case against the expansion of Aughinish’s quarry blasting area, and obtained leave of the High Court in November 2022 to bring judicial review proceedings against the Rusal-owned facility in Askeaton.

“Although Environmental Trust Ireland obtained leave six months ago, An Bord Pleanála failed to comply with two High Court Directions to provide a Statement of Opposition within the time allowed,” Limerick-based solicitor Michelle Hayes, President of Environmental Trust Ireland, told the Limerick Post.

“It was clear from an early stage that An Bord Pleanála had difficulty preparing a defence. No defence was ever received from Aughinish Alumina Ltd,” she added.

Ms Hayes this week welcomed the decision of An Bord Pleanála to concede the case.

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“Environmental Trust Ireland was the only Limerick-based challenge to the massive 548 acre (222 hectares) expansion area which would, if unchallenged, have involved raising the red mud area by 12 metres, and the hazardous salt cake cell area, which has a very high concentration of sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), by 2.25 metres,” she explained.

The red mud is a waste product from the alumina production process in the refinery. The newly permitted quarry blasting, since September 2021, is also to expand considerably by an additional 9.6 acres to form a quarry area of 20.75 acres.

The entire Rusal-owned facility at Aughinish extends to 601 hectares (1,485 acres).

“The quarry blasting area is beside the bauxite residue disposal area and there is a real risk that quarry blasting with explosives will destabilise the radioactive red mud area and cause it to flow into the Shannon Estuary, resulting in potentially devastating environmental and human health consequences,” Ms Hayes claimed.

“There is already seepage from under the red mud area and heavy metal contamination is present in groundwater, surface water, and sediments. There is a major aquifer of regional importance under the red mud area and the quarry and the groundwater vulnerability is extreme. Groundwater is a major source of water for domestic consumption in County Limerick.

According to Ms Hayes, past flooding events on Aughinish Island have already occurred and climate change resulting in tidal surges up the estuary could result in flooding of the red mud area, causing it to flow into the Shannon.

Futureproof Clare (FPC) also challenged An Bord Pleanála’s decision to grant permission to expand the waste disposal area of the Russian-owned facility near the banks of the Shannon Estuary.

Sinead Sheahan of FPC described this week’s decision by An Bord Pleanála as “a hugely important result”.

“It’s the first time that the operations of Rusal at Aughinish Alumina have ever been struck down in the courts” she said.

“However, while Rusal are still operating, we cannot rest. We believe that there are more serious environmental issues around the operation of the refinery that need to be challenged and we intend to hold Rusal, and those responsible for overseeing and consenting their continued operations, to account.”

Emma Karran of FPC also hit out that Aughinish Alumina has been in operation for around 40 years and during this time has produced millions of tonnes of environmental waste and laid them on the banks of the River Shannon in close proximity to a Special Area of Conservation.

“At this time of environmental crisis, with the awareness of the increasing problem of river pollution in Ireland, we cannot stand back and silently witness the continued build up of bauxite waste within metres of the Shannon Estuary. If the refinery resubmits the application to expand its waste disposal area, we will continue to resist it.

“The proper course of action now for Rusal and the various competent authorities is to wind down operations at the facility and begin the proper remediation of the massive waste stockpile and the contaminated land on Aughinish Island,” Ms Karran concluded.

The case has been adjourned for two weeks while the parties discuss remittal of the application to An Bord Pleanála.