There is a lifebuoy next to the lake quarried out at the Ballyneety quarry in Limerick.
The buoy is attached to a stand which states: “Area closed. No swimming in quarry.”
Quite obviously, the warning is ignored, hence somebody thought it best to put a buoy there as a last resort. Another sign notes “Danger deep water” and another “Beware underwater obstructions”.
What is entirely missing from the lake is any effort to make it inaccessible.
There is sheer rock around most of it, and preventing entry would not be too difficult.
Over the years people have commented online on the attraction of the lake.
On the Reddit message board, one poster mentioned swimming in it and another asked whether there was any fish there.
“Nope, just a lone scubadiver, who I initially thought was the Lockness (sic) monster when I saw the moving bubbles.”
Another wrote: “Great spot for a swim, apparently.”
The reply: “The blue colour of quarries in Ireland is usually caused by copper leached from the stones and is not indicative of water quality and can hide hazards. Quarries are amongst the most dangerous places to swim.”
Ballyneety quarry is about 11km from Limerick City. Operations at the facility ceased in September 2010. A condition of planning permission at the Roadstone-owned quarry was that the area be restored once operations ceased.
Yet the whole place has the eerie quality of having been abandoned overnight in a hurry. To that extent, it has the appearance of a set in a dystopian movie.
The quarry is about 2km from the village of Ballyneety. It sits among rolling hills and has a lot in common with at least dozens of similarly abandoned quarries around the country.
The main building is slowly falling apart. Local environmentalist John McInerney, who has worked as an industrial engineer, says the building is full of asbestos. Windows are broken, an office chair upturned.
Outside, gorse bushes push up through the concrete. Stacks of blocks are laid out on a tarmacked platform.
Beyond that, mounts of stone are piled high here and there, again giving the impression that one day a whistle blew and everybody ran off.
A bunker, where the workers sheltered when explosives were blasting out new rock, is intact. There is a sign saying CCTV cameras in operation, but the cameras certainly don’t appear to be in use.
Then there is a rope tied to a tree that grows halfway down the slope at the boundary of the quarry grounds. Young people who come here use the rope to lower themselves down and seek out adventure.
Some of that adventure is found at the lake, which is accessible down one side, next to a sheer face of rock, from which stones, some as big as pumpkins, frequently fall. Swimming and diving in quarry lakes are common and highly dangerous in a country where abandoned quarries sit.
“People come here for the adrenalin rush,” John McInerney says. “The last time I was down here, there was a plastic barrel which looked like it was used by kids for having fun on the lake.
“They see the water, it looks great, like it’s the Med, but it’s highly dangerous.
In July last year, two brothers drowned in a quarry in Tipperary. In 2018 two 15 year-olds drowned in another quarry in Co Clare.
One reason the local authority may have done nothing about such a dangerous place is that, officially, the council doesn’t even know that work stopped here 10-and-a-half years ago.
“The council has not been informed that the quarry is worked out and therefore we have not followed up with remediation,” a statement from the council read.
Officially, the abandoned quarry is not abandoned.
This is also the position of Roadstone.
“While production activity at Ballyneety was suspended in 2010 following a decline in construction activity, it remains a long-term source of essential materials for future construction and infrastructure projects,” according to a statement from the company.
The licence to operate Ballyneety expired in 2013. It is difficult to envisage the quarry complex being renovated, particularly as the disposal of the asbestos would be a considerable job.
The planning permission also stipulated that the landscape must be restored. But if, officially, the quarry isn’t worked out, then the restoration must wait until the official position changes.
The quarry opened in 1969 and was operational for the following 41 years. In 2006 a further planning application was made to extend the mine and for retention planning permission on some work already completed.
This was granted by Limerick County Council, but appealed by a number of parties, including Limerick TD Willie O’Dea.
An Bord Pleanála commissioned an inspector’s report. The inspector determined there was potential environmental damage at issue so an Environmental Impact Study was required.
Ultimately the inspector recommended planning, pointing out as well that “the quarry in question is run by a highly reputable and experienced company" (Roadstone).
In its ruling in 2007, An Bord Pleanála stated: “This permission is for a period of six years from the date of this order. No further extraction shall be permitted without a prior grant of planning permission and the restoration of the site shall be completed to the satisfaction of the planning authority within one year of the cessation of the extraction works.”
The ruling included a provision for funds to be made available to Limerick County Council to ensure that restoration works be completed.
“Prior to the commencement of development, the developer shall lodge with the planning authority a cash deposit, a bond of an insurance company, or other security to secure the provision and satisfactory completion of works including landscaping.
“The form and amount of the security shall be as agreed between the planning authority and the developer or, in default of agreement, shall be referred to the board for determination.
“Reason: To ensure the satisfaction completion of works, including landscaping.”
As observed above, no restoration works have been carried out. The quarry is as it was 10-and-a-half years ago when work ceased, or officially “was suspended”.
Companies, even reputable ones, sometimes don’t comply with the law.
This outcome was provided for in the planning ruling through the lodgement of a bond with the local authority, which could be used in the event of Roadstone failing to comply.
Except no bond was paid to Limerick council. This was confirmed by a spokesperson. In fact, the council didn’t even know that the quarry had been worked out.
“The responsibility to restore the landscape lays with the company who operated the quarry” according to Limerick City and County Council.
Asked whether the council had pursued the company about restoration of the site, the reply was that “the onus is on the company to ensure the regulations are followed".
Limerick City and County Council also confirmed that it had not received any complaint about the quarry.
This raises the question as to whether the authority only acts on potential planning and safety issues when it receives a complaint.
The abandoned quarry also gives rise to environmental issues, both in terms of the hazardous material and restoration of the landscape.
The Environmental Protection Agency says these matters are not within its remit.
A statement issued to thefrom the EPA said that any environmental concerns in relation to a quarry should be reported to the relevant council.
"At this point the complainer should contact the EPA, whose role will be to determine if the council has met its statutory responsibilities in addressing the issue.
As far as Roadstone is concerned, there is no problem and everything has been done responsibly and in accordance with the law. “Roadstone complies with all relevant planning, environmental, health and safety, and other regulatory conditions at its quarries,” the statement from the company reads.
It also notes: “Roadstone has continued to actively manage the quarry since 2010 and 24-hour monitored CCTV and other safety and security measures remain in place.”
CCTV cameras were seen on a recent visit to the site but appeared to be in disuse. Despite a presence on the site for over two hours on that occasion, there was no response from any security agency. The main gate is boarded up, but access to the complex is extremely easy and local farmers even use one corner for storage of silage.
John McInerney has been examining the background to the quarry and the state in which it has been left in recent years.
Kieran Cummins, who set up the environmental group, Eco Advocacy, is not surprised at the state of Ballyneety both in terms of breaching planning conditions and the abandonment. He has, over the last five years, examined planning and regulatory matters around quarries across the country.
“There does seem to be something in the way that local authorities deal with planning when it comes to these quarries,” he says.
“I know of two instances in Co Meath near me where people built houses without planning permission and the council threw the kitchen sink at them, and that’s like a pea in a place the size of a front yard.
"Yet quarries, whether it’s planning issues or unauthorised developments, seem to be treated differently.”