I move amendment No. 2:
In page 2, subsection (1), line 18, after "acquire" to insert ", after full and final planning permission has been obtained for a partly open-cast lead/zinc mine at Nevinstown, Navan, County Meath, by the Company".
The purpose of this amendment is to make the purchase of these shares conditional on full and final planning permission being obtained. The purpose of trying to ensure there is planning permission—in the financial context of this whole operation viable planning permission not subject to conditions which are onerous or expensive—is because, without knowing what the conditions are, and obviously there will be conditions, one cannot know the cost of establishing or the cost of running the mine because there are matters entirely dependent on the conditions of the permission. We have been informed that an application was made last August to the Meath County Council. It is disturbing to find that it was only in August, 1976, that application was made because the Government have apparently owned this property since some time in 1971 and it has taken over five years to make application for planning permission. The Minister came to his agreement regarding the purchase of shares and the obtaining of other shares free in June, 1974, although the agreement was not formally signed until December, 1975.
Planning permission, the most necessary single step in the whole process of trying to put this mine into production and create employment, was only put in train 2 ¼ years after the Minister became involved in the shareholding of the company. We are, of course, fortunate enough to have minerals like this in the country. This is the first time a rich orebody has been found but to my mind there has been a quite extraordinary delay on the part of the company in seeking planning permission. The application was put in in August, 1976, and one learned it was not making much progress and the most important single environmental factor that should have been in the planning application was not in it at all. I refer to the diversion of the River Blackwater which is pretty well essential for economic development. One can assume that Meath County Council would hardly have looked very favourably on a planning application that omitted the most significant aspect of the whole operation. Since then we have learned in more detail what the attitude of the Meath County Council is in relation to this planning application. Unfortunately, from the point of view of the public, if this Bill goes through, as presumably it will by virtue of numbers, if nothing else, we have since discovered that the situation is in fact a great deal more serious than we might have thought. I will quote now from an article in last Sunday'sIndependent written by Mr. Vincent Browne. I might add that there has been no denial from Meath County Council of anything in this article so I assume it is accurate. The article states:
Serious difficulties have also emerged this weekend about planning permission for the development of the mine. An official of Meath County Council said that on the basis of the present planning application there was "no chance" that planning permission would be given.
Later on, the writer says:
On the issue of the planning application, Bula Ltd. first submitted an application last August, but this was returned to the company in October because information accompanying it was inadequate.
The county council "in returning the application asked 32 question mainly related to noise, dust, environmental and health aspects, but most of these questions were unanswered when the planning application was re-submitted on December 21, last".
The article goes on:
This weekend the planning application has again been returned to Bula, without even formal consideration of it by the Meath County Council. Bula would certainly appeal to the Planning Appeals Tribunal recently established, if Meath County Council ultimately rejects its application. Since the setting up of the tribunal, there is considerably less scope for political interference with planning permissions. It cannot be taken for granted, therefore, that even ultimately Bula will get the planning permission.
It also emerges that Bula has made no application for the diversion of the river Blackwater, under which much of the ore in the area is situated. Lack of information on this, and on other critical aspects of the project, is one of the reasons why there is such disappointment in the Meath County Council with the Bula application.
That appears to me to be a vital statement of the current position in relation to the planning application from the point of view of bringing this orebody to the point where the mine might be able to go into production. Planning permission was not sought for more than five years after the company purchased the property and for more that two years after the Minister became involve through the medium of the agreement he came to in June, 1974. These delays are very distressing and the likelihood of early planning permission seems far from hopeful.
Thirty-two specific queries were apparently raised by the county council and after an interval of some months a lot of those were not even answered when the planning application was re-submitted to the local authority. The position as of last weekend was that there was not even formal consideration given to the latest re-submission because it was apparently so incomplete and the queries not dealt with and it was sent back to the company. So we are in every sense back at square one and no more advanced in regard to the planning application than we were in August, 1976, when it was first submitted or indeed in June, 1974, when the Minister first became involved.
One aspect of this application is that it seeks permission for the mining of the Bula part of the ore in this orebody partly by open-cast mining. Roughly speaking, the percentages or ratios are that they want to get out about 50 per cent by open-cast mining and 50 per cent approximately by ordinary conventional underground mining. It is necessary to consider for a few minutes the nature of open-cast mining because we have not had it in this country on a big scale. We have had it on a limited scale. In recent years the Gortdrum mine was partly, to a limited extent, an opencast mine; but the Gortdrum mine was situate quite some distance from any town. The nearest town to it of any size would have been Tipperary town. I cannot say exactly how far away it was but it was certainly several miles and there was no great accumulation of houses in the vicinity of that mine. Any other opencast or partly open-cast mine that we have had in this country would have been in the fairly distant past or just a sort of quarrying operation where minerals were not really involved, but just stone, and these have tended to be away from centres of population. On the world scene opencast lead and zinc mines are not unknown but they tend because of environmental factors to be confined to more remote parts of the world.
In this instance of this orebody a small part of it at the Bula end comes up to or very close to the surface before it starts to go down at an angle under the river and continue downwards or in a roughly downward direction for quite a distance on the other side of the river. It is unfortunate that that part of it is at or near the surface and that that circumstance is combined with its extreme proximity to the town of Navan. If this mine were situate at a more remote place it would be an enormous advantage to have it in this way with one end of the seam or orebody coming up to or close to the surface. It is unfortunate that an orebody such as this should have turned up in the place that it did, so close to a fairly large town. It appears that in the last five or ten years a lot of new houses have been built in the general vicinity of this orebody and in general the orebody is within half a mile of the town of Navan which is only a short distance in environmental terms when one takes into account the nature of an open-cast mine.
An application to have the Bula ore mined partly by open-cast and partly by underground methods is based on the provisional mining plan prepared by the Canadian subsidiary of Bechtel on behalf of Bula and submitted to the arbitrators and to the local authority. Bechtel apparently take the view that the more open-cast mining that can be done on this orebody the better because it will make the mine or the Bula part of it more profitable. The difference in cost of extraction and concentration of the two methods of mining is estimated at various sums. The best advice I can get in respect of that is that it would appear to be a difference of £4 a ton in production and concentration of the ore; that of course is a significant difference if one accepts the output of the Bula part of the orebody as being approximately a million tons of ore a year. That will mean a difference in running costs of £4 million a year approximately if one were forced into an underground situation rather than an open-cast mine. It is obvious, therefore, that Bula and their advisers would, very properly in the interests of the company, presumably be supported in this by the Minister in seeking to have as much as possible mined by open-cast methods.
An open-cast mine has to be opened by machinery and explosives. The quicker it is opened the more commercially advantageous it is. Therefore, having got your permission, you could open it by working 24 hours a day, seven days a week and so you would cut your costs and bring your mine into production much more rapidly. In doing that you would keep down your capital expenditure.
There will obviously be enormous, perfectly understandable, objections in the locality to work going on there on the opening of an open-cast mine and subsequently on the mining of the ore from it on a 24-hour-day basis or anything even remotely like that. It will presumably be the wish of the local residents, if open-cast mining is to be used there at all, to have it confined to ordinary eight to five or eight to six working hours when people, particularly children, would not be expected to be asleep normally. The county council will be very strongly pressed by objectors and local residents that, if they are going to give permission at all for open-cast mining, they confine the hours of the operation, and presumably also the mode of the operation of opening the pit and mining from it; and that the machinery and explosives appropriate to the opening of an open-cast mine in the middle of the Australian desert or some such place would not be at all appropriate to the edge of the town of Navan and that less efficient but environmentally more acceptable methods would have to be used.
If the local authority listen to these views and accede to them—and one can scarcely envisage how they could refuse to do so—the costings of this proposed mine will be considerably higher than have been envisaged by those who made valuation bets on the Bechtel report. Of course those who made valuations based on the Bechtel report were not confined by any means to Bula's economists or Bula's financial advisers. The Minister did not have any detailed examination of the production plan of the mine carried out on his behalf and he simply used the Bechtel report and the other documents submitted by Bula to the arbitrators, copies of which were sent to him and these documents in turn were submitted by him to his various advisers, such as the Geological Survey, Lazard Brothers and Company Ltd., Mergers Ltd., and the other people who advised the Department from time to time in regard to the valuation, the feasibility and the likely cost of this project.
It would appear from what we now know that Lazard Brothers were very concerned, and very properly so, about the planning and environmental aspects of the proposed operation. Although they had only six weeks to do a job which obviously would need many times that to do it as thoroughly as they would wish, in that period of six weeks they commissioned one of the leading firms of town planning consultants in Ireland, the name of which I understand is Delaney, McVeigh and Pike to advise them on the planning and environmental considerations involved.
One understands that Mr. Delaney of that firm, one of the principal partners, in advising Lazard, who in turn passed on the advice to the Department, expressed grave reservations about the planning aspects generally, and expressed great fear about delays, and set out what he felt was likely to be a timetable. He felt there would be considerable delay. By virtue of the lack of progress of the application to Meath County Council for the reasons I mentioned earlier, it would appear that Mr. Delaney's timetable has been set back perhaps another four, five or six months, and that it could be late in 1978 before one would finally be in a position to know where one stood in regard to planning.
All this presupposes that planning permission in some form will be given eventually. I do not think one is entitled to presuppose that. Many people take the view that it is unrealistic to talk about the possibility of planning permission not being granted because there is a Minister involved. While that may be a popular way of looking at it, I do not think it is fair to the local authority concerned, who will look at the matter objectively whether or not a Minister is involved. Although I do not know anything about them. I hope the new planning board, with some experienced officials and some other members who I understand on the admission of their patron have no experience whatever in this field, will be equally objective, and one trusts they will, in their consideration of this matter.
Obviously this is one of the most involved planning applications made to any local authority since our new form of planning came into operation in 1964 under the 1963 Act. The appeal, if there is one, and there almost certainly will be either by Bula if they are turned down by the local authority or by the objectors if permission is given, will be a very lengthy process. One would expect An Taisce to become involved as well as the local residents. There will probably be an enormous amount of evidence given and technical evidence from various parts of the world will be called and 300 or 400 individual householders or house owners may wish to come along to voice their objections.
Therefore, it is very likely to be up to two years from now before what I describe in this amendment as full and final planning permission is granted. An enormous number of things could well happen in that very long period, whether it is nearly two years, as has been suggested, or whether it is a shorter period of one year, or a year and a quarter. Certainly it will be a very long period by any normal standards. An enormous number of things can happen in the meantime. An enormous number of factors which are imponderables at present may clarify themselves in one way or another.
If some of these imponderables and, in particular, if the planning imponderables clarify themselves in a way which is seriously detrimental to the company, is not the position of the taxpayer, who is ultimately carrying the can for the Minister in regard to this whole affair, seriously jeopardised? Should not the Minister wait until he knows where he stands in relation to planning before he commits himself and the taxpayer to the money mentioned here and to the potential further payments which may have to be made, and probably will have to be made, as a result of the undercapitalisation of the company and the necessity for giving guarantees, and so on?
Would not any prudent businessman make perfectly sure that he would not expend a £5 note on a project of this kind which was obviously going to be the subject of enormous objection at the two levels of the planning process? Would not a man of even the most moderate prudence decline to become involved until the planning situation had clarified itself? It might be—although I think it unlikely— that Bula will get a fairly straightforward planning permission with some slight or what would be from their point of view very reasonable restrictions on their mode of working and the amount of work they could do in opening an open-cast mine and mining from it.
On the other hand, it is very likely that planning permission could be granted subject to conditions which Bula or anyone else who owned an orebody they wanted to mine on the edge of a town by open cast mining would find very onerous in the financial sense to comply with? Is it not perfectly conceivable in this instance that the conditions might be such, because of the nature of open cast lead and zinc mining, that the company in their commercial financial wisdom might decide it was too expensive to go ahead and that to comply with all those conditions would add millions of pounds and perhaps even tens of millions of pounds to the capital and running costs of the company? Therefore they would decide as a matter of prudence not to go ahead with opencast mining and to think again about opening an underground mine to which one would assume there would be no significant or serious objection.
The whole costing situation is then thrown into the melting pot if that happens. I have been talking only about the things which might happen on the positive side. I have been assuming all along that permission will actually be given. Are we entitled blandly to make that assumption? The public are making it because a Minister is involved but, as I said, that is not sufficient reason for making it. We are not entitled to assume that, even subject to onerous conditions, permission will be given. It is quite conceivable that it will be refused.
I understand that in the past few weeks An Taisce have issued a public statement to the effect that this part of the orebody could be mined underground and, if that were done, there would be very little environmental or other harm caused in the locality. There would be no noise, or very little noise. The noise would be quite negligible. There would be no dust because everything would be underground. There would be no muck or dirt because all the work would be going on underground. There would be no danger to health from lead concentrate or zinc concentrate which I think is less dangerous but, nonetheless, contains some danger to health if inhaled in large quantities.
All these problems would be avoided by underground mining but the cost to the company would be significantly more. It might be that the local authority and/or the appeals tribunal to whom the inevitable appeal would be brought in this case by one side or the other would say: "O.K. We accept the company's case that it would cost them a great deal more, millions and millions of pounds more, to operate an underground mine. It appears to be technically feasible, at any rate, and even though it will cost millions and millions of pounds more, the harm to the environment caused by an opencast mine in this place would be so great that we cannot see our way to give permission for it." That is on the cards. I do not say it will happen but it is certainly a possibility to which one would have to give very serious consideration.
The House should look at this question, not from the point of view of the Minister who is committing and has committed himself with his eyes closed —this was long ago in June, 1974— but from the point of view of a prudent and successful businessman, a man like yourself, Mr. Chairman. Would any prudent and successful businessman commit more than £9.5 million into a venture such as this where the planning and environmental difficulties are enormous, probably greater than in the case of any other single planning application since 1964? There is only one possible answer and that is that no prudent businessman would do it. If a prudent businessman would not commit himself to spending this money whether he got planning permission or not—which is what this amounts to— why should a Minister in charge of public moneys commit those moneys to a purpose to which no businessman would commit his own money or his bank's or his shareholders' money? We all know that no businessman would do it but still we are asked here where we represent the Irish people to givecarte blanche to the Minister for Industry and Commerce to do this with our money. I think that is wrong and I would be very surprised if the chairman thought it was anything other than wrong.