Farmers expressed shock today at a decision which will lead to a massive rise in the amount of toxic waste deposited near their lands in Co Limerick.
The Aughinish Alumina plant in Askeaton, which extracts material used to create aluminium, is to increase production by 250,000 tons annually.
This will create more waste products (toxic salt cake and red mud) to add to the existing 100 hectare red mud stack.
Locals were outraged that the 62 million euro (£41 million) contract was awarded by the Aughinish owners, Glencore International, to the Worley Group in Australia, without any consultation.
Dust has blown from the stack in the past and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, ground water pollution from caustic contamination is a continuous problem on the site.
The Cappagh Farmers’ Support Group, which represents farmers in the Askeaton area, said the announcement was a total shock.
“We have heard nothing about this,” said chairman Pat Geoghan.
The group has been attempting unsuccessfully for the last three months to get a Dail committee to investigate the red mud stack beside the Aughinish plant.
“The Government should not allow this expansion before they deal with the problems that are already there,” said Mr Geoghan.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which monitors dust, air and surface water emissions from the mud stack, was not informed by Aughinish Alumina of its decision to expand production, although a spokeswoman said the company was permitted to increase production under its licence.
“They wouldn’t have had to let us know. There is no requirement for public notification,” she said.
Sinn Féin TD Arthur Morgan said the silence surrounding the decision was very worrying.
“Normally we would expect politicians to make a grand announcement, but in this case it seems to have been hushed up. It raises the concerns among local people and I fully share those concerns,” he said.
The Sinn Féin Environment spokesman said he would continue to press for the issue to be investigated by the Dail Environmental Committee.
Aughinish Alumina is required to rehabilitate the mud stack under the licence granted by the EPA. However, attempts to grow vegetation on the surface have not succeeded so far. A system of water sprinklers is used to keep the red dust down.
The EPA said emissions from the mud stack were monitored each month by its inspectors and by Aughinish Alumina, and that the inspections showed compliance with the factory’s integrated pollution control licence.
Aughinish Alumina was unable to be contacted.