Residents of Monaghan village driven to distraction by prolonged road closure

Residents of Monaghan village driven to distraction by prolonged road closure
From left, local residents Gordan Conlon, Shane Ward, Bernie Collins, Jocelyn McConnon, Geraldine Ward and Tiernan McConnon, with the LP4900 road in the background. Locals from Drumgossatt, Knocknacran, Drummon, Enagh and Clonseady, and Magheracloone, Co Monaghan, are calling for the road to be re-opened permanently

For the past six months, since pillars collapsed at a mine and caused subsidence and created sinkholes, the people of Drumgossatt have had to use a narrow, one-way boreen to go to work, to school, and to shops. They are not convinced their main access road will reopen anytime soon, says Caroline O’Doherty.

A BOREEN in rural Monaghan is not the place to meet oncoming traffic.

The hedges on either side, lush with summer growth, are brushing both wing mirrors and there isn’t space for a bicycle to pass, nevermind another car.

Behind lies a succession of twists and turns, so that it is not possible to see if it is safe to reverse in search of a wider spot.

An oncoming motorist is clearly thinking the same and an amicable stand-off ensues.

To be fair, there are signs declaring the little road part of a one-way system, but the other driver possibly hasn’t seen them, or is tired of them and took a chance, or didn’t believe this ‘temporary’ arrangement could still be in place and assumed the signage simply had not been taken down.

Whatever, the car begins a slow, cautious retreat, until the bushy growth yields to a patch of grassy verge. The car tucks itself in tightly and almost appears to hold its breath.

The cars pass each other with a little complimentary hedge-trimming, the shorn-off leaves scattering like confetti on the windscreen.

There’s nothing new in this for the residents of Drumgossatt village, in south Monaghan.

The crownhole that appeared on December 20 in the area of the old Drumgossatt mines, Magheracloone. It led to the closure of the LP4900 primary road. Picture: Pat Byrne
The crownhole that appeared on December 20 in the area of the old Drumgossatt mines, Magheracloone. It led to the closure of the LP4900 primary road. Picture: Pat Byrne

This week marks six months since their access road was shut and the boreen became their link to the regional road that brings them to work, schools, shops, and essential services in Carrickmacross and Kingscourt.

The closed road, the LP4900, was not great, either, but the ‘p’ in LP4900 designates a local primary road — the best of the worst roads in the country.

The alternative route, the LT49013, a meandering merry-go-round of a road, is two ranks below — the worst of the worst. ‘Boreen’ is not an official designation, but the Department of Transport’s guidelines on speed limits and road signage recognise the term, and this little LT, with its single lane and ribbon of tufted grass down the middle, fits the description perfectly.

LP4900 was first closed in late September of last year, after an incident at the local Gyproc gypsum mines caused subsidence, and dramatic cracks and sinkholes appeared in the nearby Magheracloone GAA grounds and beneath the clubhouse and community centre.

The structure that collapsed was part of the old Drumgossatt mine. Extraction of gypsum ceased there in 1989, when Gyproc moved to adjoining sites. Tunnels from the mine run underneath the regional road, the R179, and the LP4900, and sections of the latter, have sunk in recent years.

Google Maps images of the road, photographed in 2009, vividly illustrate the change. The road then was even with the grass verges that lined it. Now, in places, those verges are more like low embankments, with the road having slipped below them.

LP4900 was reopened five weeks later, after being declared stable and safe for traffic, but, on December 20 last, it was closed again, after a deep crater, nine metres in diameter and seven metres deep, appeared in a field beside it.

If such a crater — or crownhole, as it is termed — appeared in the road, it could be catastrophic for anyone unlucky enough to be on it. Water mains also run along the road and they would be at risk of fracturing.

At least it’s only water. Beneath the R179, a few hundred metres away, lie gas-supply pipes.

The LP4900 has remained closed since December 20 and the latest in a number of scheduled reopening dates is now August. Local people are anything but convinced.

Sixty residents crammed into one of the four classrooms in Drumgossatt national school, one evening last week, to air their concerns.

Since January, a small group of their representatives has faithfully participated in a residents’ forum, belatedly set up by Gyproc and Monaghan County Council to deal with the numerous issues from the mine collapse. Now, the residents fear their patience is a virtue that only benefits the company.

Magheracloone Gaelic Football Club in Co Monaghan which was forced to shut after the collapse of a mine caused sinkholes to appear in its pitch. Picture: PA
Magheracloone Gaelic Football Club in Co Monaghan which was forced to shut after the collapse of a mine caused sinkholes to appear in its pitch. Picture: PA

The latest issue centres on the scale, and the necessity, of works to be carried out in advance of a decision to reopen the road.

SRK, consultants for Gyproc, examined the crater and its causes and the implications for the road. Their report went to the council, to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, and to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in April.

It said the road was safe, with a low to extremely low risk of future subsidence or crownhole development, but the three bodies sought clarification on “a number of issues”, as the council put it. The residents put that number at 49.

Most of the issues have been clarified, but the council is still awaiting a report from the Department’s consultants, Wardell Armstrong, on their view of the SRK report. It is due imminently.

In the meantime, two of the issues are drainage of land along the road and the installation of extensometers — probes that measure movement in the ground and which provide an early warning system of slippage.

The SRK report recommends the probes be installed and Gyproc has agreed to pay for them, but the company says: “The installation of extensometers does not alter the structure or stability of the road.”

Residents aren’t sure whether to be reassured or worried. Is it purely precautionary or does it mean the road is at risk of further slippage?

Regarding the drainage, SRK said that since water contributed to the development of crownholes, drainage surveys should be carried out to “ensure that surface water cannot pond and seep into the mine workings”.

It stopped short of saying drainage works were needed and Gyproc says it was the council’s decision to proceed with them, although Gyproc have agreed to facilitate and pay for them. Again, residents are unsure whether the work is necessary or an added precaution and what either of those scenarios means for the safety of the road.

Apparently, they are not the only ones with doubts. They are hearing that the council’s insurers, IPB (Irish Public Bodies), have serious reservations about reopening the road. If insurance was to be withheld, the council could not reopen LP4900.

At the meeting, attended by newly elected or re-elected county councillors for the area, as well as local senator, Robbie Gallagher, speaker after speaker voiced his/her frustration.

The heart was being torn out of their community, was the consensus, and they wanted the road problem sorted without further delay.

Cllr Noel Keelan sympathised, but tried to put forward the council’s perspective. “If you had a car and a mechanic told you it wasn’t safe to drive, you wouldn’t drive it, would you?” he asked.

“I’d get it fixed,” replied a woman from the back of the room.

Farmer Thomas Kieran used the LP4900 primary road daily to feed his livestock and tend to his farm. The road has been closed to traffic since December. Picture: Pat Byrne
Farmer Thomas Kieran used the LP4900 primary road daily to feed his livestock and tend to his farm. The road has been closed to traffic since December. Picture: Pat Byrne

“Well, the mechanics are in disagreement over how to fix it,” Cllr Keelan, continued.

“I’d get new mechanics,” the woman retorted, to applause.

Another woman drew a similar response, when she expressed the fear that the issue was going to end up deadlocked, with Gyproc saying the road was safe to reopen, the council insisting on more improvement and safety works first, and the insurers arguing that if the road required so much work and monitoring, to ensure its safety, that would mean it was too risky to reopen.

“This could go on for years and end up in the High Court, with us left on the sidelines looking on, with no say in any of it,” she said. Cllr Colm Carthy admitted he shared her fears.

Another resident suggested giving Gyproc a taste of what the community was enduring. “Why don’t we go up to their gates and sit down and block their road and see how they like it?” Cheers accompanied the applause.

“If this happened to a slip road onto the M50, it’d be fixed in no time, but they don’t care about us,” said another contributor.

“It’s the main vein to the parish and it’s been strangled and we are driving up and down a little fart of a road that’s not for pushbikes,” added another.

Cheers, applause, and knowing nods from the councillors’ table followed.

“Why hadn’t the company’s licence been suspended, pending resolution of all the problems?” someone else wanted to know.

“Because they haven’t done anything illegal,” Bernie Collins, one of the residents’ spokespeople and forum members, explained a little wearily. There aren’t many questions she and the other members haven’t already asked and there aren’t many times she hasn’t been disappointed with the answers.

THE difference, this time, however, is numbers. The meeting took place on a school night, while Ireland’s European Cup qualifier was being televised, when the sun had come out to give a glorious end to a day of torrential rain, and when there were other things to be doing, apart from attending a meeting perched on child-sized chairs or squashed against presses.

While just 13 households are considered directly affected by the subsidence, their homes being closest to the September collapse site, the meeting showed that the impact is now being felt much more widely.

Residents’ spokeswoman, Geraldine Ward, said she was heartened by the turnout.

“We’ve gone to the forum meetings and we’ve kept things low-key, because we believed there was a will to sort things out, but we are no further on than we were when we first met, in January.

If the few of us who sit on the forum can’t get action, maybe the whole community, collectively, can.

Of course, the LP4900, all 1.2 modest kilometres of it, is only one small part of the story in Drumgossatt and its neighbouring townlands of Magheracloone and Knocknacran.

The wider issue, of the dramatic subsidence of last September, the fact that the incident that caused it remains only partially resolved, the ongoing displacement of the GAA club, the loss of the community centre, and the plans by Gyproc to submit an application for a fresh round of opencast mining in the subsidence zone, are all contributing to the unease in the area.

Early calls, by local people, for an independent inquiry, were immediately resisted by the minister responsible for mining, Sean Canney. At the meeting, those calls were renewed. Senator Gallagher pledged to seek a meeting with the minister and get a timeframe for action, but that action looks unlikely to include an inquiry.

A statement from the department said: “In relation to the public inquiry, Minister of State Canney has previously indicated that it could distract from the current investigations into events at Drumgossatt.”

It’s the same line the residents have heard since January. “He says it’ll only slow things down if there has to be an inquiry — well, they couldn’t get any slower,” said Bernie Collins.

In the meantime, the council says it is satisfied that the one-way alternative route to LP4900 is “adequate and safe”, but Edgar Morgenroth, chairman of the local roads action group, said he was “flabbergasted” with that description.

“I’m driving it all the time,” said the economics professor, who commutes to Dublin each day from the area.

There are agricultural vehicles on it, there are 40-tonne trucks on it [they serve the local mushroom growing business], the surface is breaking up, there are blind bends, and GPS doesn’t take account of the changes [which may explain the drivers flouting the one-way system].

"A farmer who needs to move his animals along has to indemnify the council, in case of accident. I completely dispute and reject the idea that that road is adequate or safe.”

The council says it is still aiming for the LP400 to be reopened in August, after drainage works, extensometer installation, and resurfacing.

But it added: “Upon receipt of verification of the SRK report, from consultants engaged by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and the Environment, Monaghan County Council will consult with its insurers, IPB, and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, before making a determination on the reopening of the road.”

HTV trucks who have to do local deliveries in the area around Drumgossatt, Magheracloone, on a daily b asis are forced to use roads that are not fit for this purpose. Picture: Pat Byrne
HTV trucks who have to do local deliveries in the area around Drumgossatt, Magheracloone, on a daily b asis are forced to use roads that are not fit for this purpose. Picture: Pat Byrne

It seems a lot of talking has yet to take place, and that, as local people fear, expecting a positive outcome in August is optimistic.

Pillars undermined

The subsidence that destroyed Magheracloone GAA Club’s playing fields and clubhouse and the community centre last September was the result of an incident in the Drummond mine the previous June.

Mine workers broke through rock into a previously undetected water source and millions of litres of water began gushing into the mine tunnels.

For weeks, up to 11 million litres of water a day poured in and Gyproc began a frantic pumping operation to stop the mine being completely flooded.

Magheracloone Gaelic Football Club.
Magheracloone Gaelic Football Club.

It has a licence to discharge water into the local Bursk river but the dry summer meant river levels were too low to dilute the sulphates in the mine water so only limited amounts could be released to the river.

Most of the flood waters were diverted instead to the old adjoining Drumgossatt mine where gypsum extraction ceased in 1989. The mine had not been closed off because it was still used to store and release water from Drummond and the opencast mining operations at different times and had itself become so flooded that no underground inspection of its supports and stability had taken place since 2005.

The only inspections were six-monthly surface monitoring checks — as agreed with the Department — despite the fact that subjecting old gypsum mines to flows of water is acknowledged as risky because of the solubility of gypsum. The six monthly frequency was not increased last June despite the vast volumes of extra water being diverted to it.

The extra water undermined support pillars holding up the roof of the Drumgossatt mine and they gave way, causing the collapse of ground above it.

The Irish Examiner reported in February that some 2.4m litres of water was still pouring into Drummond daily, eight months after the original incident, and water is still coming in today although Gyproc said in a statement that “the water ingress to Drummond mine has slowed significantly.”

It said it had submitted a water management plan to the EPA. Local residents have been told they will be able to view the plan in the coming weeks.

The subsidence that destroyed Magheracloone GAA Club’s playing fields and clubhouse and the community centre last September was the result of an incident in the Drummond mine the previous June.

More on this topic

Monaghan subsidence: Safety reports provide a mine of informationMonaghan subsidence: Safety reports provide a mine of information

Monaghan hold on for impressive win as All-Ireland champions beaten in ClonesMonaghan hold on for impressive win as All-Ireland champions beaten in Clones

Man and woman killed in car crash in MonaghanMan and woman killed in car crash in Monaghan

Road closed after sinkhole discovered in Monaghan Road closed after sinkhole discovered in Monaghan

More in this Section

We can’t reduce extreme poverty until we tackle inequalityWe can’t reduce extreme poverty until we tackle inequality

Trump’s hypocrisy and racism vie for supremacyTrump’s hypocrisy and racism vie for supremacy

North is taking a dangerous road as no-deal Brexit disaster loomsNorth is taking a dangerous road as no-deal Brexit disaster looms

Dangerous overcrowding in jails: More prison places neededDangerous overcrowding in jails: More prison places needed


Lifestyle

This year heralds the return of a much-maligned shade, pulled from the design doldrums and now paired with some unexpected complementary colours, materials and tone-on-tone activity, writes Carol O’Callaghan.Fifty shades of beige

Their romance took Laura Roset and Ken Mohally from Mallow to Moldova and back again.Wedding of the Week: Love spreads from Mallow to Moldova

Every day, I take my wife a cup of tea in bed. However, we sometimes make love in the mornings and she pauses to finish her cup before it goes cold.Sexual healing: Her long tea breaks cools the moment

As the Caped Crusader hits 80 years of protecting Gotham City, Chris Wasser looks at the history of the world’s darkest superhero.80 years on, Batman still packs a punch

More From The Irish Examiner