Thursday, 24 January 2019

Questions (8)

Timmy Dooley

Question:

8. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment the position regarding the identification of further unidentified sinkholes in view of the identification of a further sinkhole on a site (details supplied); and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3367/19]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Communications)

The Minister is familiar with the sinkholes that have developed in parts of County Monaghan as a result of difficulties around a disused site. Could he update the House on where the Department is at in dealing with other such potential difficulties around the country?

I am familiar with the site and the area. Gyproc, part of the Saint Gobain construction materials provider, operates a gypsum mine in Drummond, County Monaghan, and has a factory in Kingscourt, County Cavan. The company employs more than 160 people in the Cavan-Monaghan area. Mining operations have been taking place in the area since 1936.

On 19 December 2018, a crown hole, often referred to as a sinkhole, developed in the area of the Drumgossatt mine. My Department, Monaghan County Council and the Environmental Protection Agency are working together to ensure that Gyproc carries out the necessary investigations to understand the development of the recent sinkhole in Magheracloone. A programme of works has been agreed between the parties, including site investigations. The results of investigations will be submitted by the company to the statutory authorities for monitoring and verification. Timelines have been set for these works, which will be adjusted and revised depending on results. The three statutory authorities continue to work closely to ensure that the situation is managed and resolved by the company as promptly as possible. As a precautionary measure, Monaghan County Council closed a section of the L4900 road to facilitate the investigative drilling which is ongoing at the location. I attended a meeting on 15 January in Carrickmacross which was held to allow representatives from the three statutory authorities, independent technical consultants and Gyproc to address concerns and questions from local residents affected by recent events.

The Minister well knows that the grounds at the GAA club and village community centre in Magheracloone were damaged by the opening of that sinkhole. Land collapsed at the community centre in the immediate aftermath of the emergence of that sinkhole. Part of a road also collapsed with a significant impact on people getting around.

My concerns are centred around the safety of the roads, five homes and a national school in the area. Gyproc sent information leaflets to households explaining what was happening, which was fine to a point. Inspection holes were bored around the collapsed ground and instruments lowered in to confirm the state of the structures below. The holes were caused by pillars collapsing after water was pumped into a disused gypsum mine.

The subsidence in September affected a radius of about 120 m and another hole has since opened up in a nearby area. I accept it is a matter for the private company to deal with, but is it the Department's view that this is isolated to this particular mine structure, or is there a potential for similar events to happen at other disused mines or mine areas throughout the country? That is what concerns me. To what extent is the Department monitoring those disused mines and what kind of structure is in place to deal with that?

To clarify, the first collapse in the ground was as a result of pillars that collapsed. The second was the result of what they technically call a roof collapse, where the surface went down in a circle. Both of these are being investigated, and that includes independent auditors looking at the results. Gyproc has undertaken to produce all maps to the residents. It will also produce all of the mining licences maps for that area.

As the Deputy touched on, one of the big things was the communication. I told Gyproc at the meeting in Carrickmacross, in no uncertain terms, that its level of communication left a lot to be desired. Gyproc has taken that on board and will set up a stakeholders committee where the county council, my Department, the EPA, the residents and the company will meet regularly, probably every fortnight, for updates on what is happening. It is a serious issue, especially because of the type of mining that is being done there and the type of material involved. There are other mines around the country which are being looked at.

The Minister may not have all the information today but I am trying to get at the reviews that take place. I understand that, from the time that the water was pumped into the caverns, a three-month period elapsed before the collapse at Drumgossatt. I understand that Gyproc indicated that it only monitors every six months, as required by the Department. It appears in this case, based on the preliminary investigation, that the entire event happened within a three-month period. The time between the flooding taking place and the actual collapse was three months. The current directions of the Department make no requirement for Gyproc to do any reviews within that time. It might be worthwhile for the Department to look again at its recommendations for necessary checks that need to be put in place and monitoring that to ensure that we do not have a similar situation in some other location. The Department might also look at or review other mines throughout the country to ensure a similar situation does not arise.

The Deputy correctly points out that water was pumped into the mines and that changed the whole dynamic. That is something my Department will be looking at.

Ireland has a mining heritage that extends back to the Bronze Age. It has occurred at hundreds of sites, the majority of which are not the legal responsibility of the State. The Department maintains an inventory of sites at which historical mining is known to have occurred, in compliance with Article 20 of extractive industries waste directive. There Department continues to monitor other major sites around the country. The site in Monaghan has a particular reason the collapse happened and it was because of the pumping in of water at a particular time which destabilised the ground. I agree with Deputy Dooley that we have to look at the monitoring regime in places like that where there are specific issues or if there is a material change to the activity that is going on.