A 250-acre red mud waste pond at the alumina refinery — which has been likened to the facility which created the Hungarian toxic mud spill 15 months ago — has just been extended by nearly 50%.
Positioned just beside the Shannon Estuary, the storage ponds now cover an area of 450 acres and contain at least 20 million tonnes of waste. The former Irish Steel/ISPAT toxic waste dump at Haulbowline is just 22 acres in size, yet is costing the taxpayer €40m to clean up.
Since 2004, the EPA has received 36 complaints from locals that dust from the red mud residue is blowing on to their land leading to alleged animal and human health problems.
In 2010, a former employee of the plant warned that Ireland could suffer a toxic sludge disaster worse than that which devastated Hungary if the waste leaked from the pond into the tidal Shannon Estuary after sustained rainfall.
Chairman of the Cappagh Farmers Support Group, Pat Geoghegan, has warned that Askeaton could end up as one of the “biggest toxic dumps in Europe”.
“What will happen when these ponds are full? What happens when production finishes? The Aughinish Alumina plant will be one of the biggest toxic dumps in Europe.
“Look at what’s happened at Haulbowline. Industry, in this case Irish Steel and ISPAT, walked away and the taxpayer is left footing the bill.
“We are shocked that another waste facility of this size has been licensed by the EPA after we see the damage that was done in Hungary and the mess that was left at Haulbowline.”
The EPA said yesterday the extension of the waste storage facility was licensed in 2008 as part of its bauxite residue disposal area extension and the waste contained at the site was not categorised as hazardous.
The new waste storage pond was developed so the company, the largest alumina refinery in Europe, could increase and prolong production due to soaring global demand, particularly from China .
However, Rusal, thet owners of Aughinish, which could not be contacted yesterday, have said the west Limerick plant does not use “wet ponding” like Hungary but a more modern best practice system called “dry stacking”, which means the residue deposited is not classified as hazardous. It has admitted that there was a “percentage of hazardous material” but said it was “a small percentage of the overall residue”.
Aughinish Alumina is Europe’s largest alumina refinery, producing more than 1.6m tonnes of alumina annually.
In 2001 it was fined by the Environmental Protection Agency when 500,000 litres of a toxic solution leaked from the plant.