Stormont officials 'did not intend to mislead' Dalradian mine inquiry says minister

DAERA minister, Alliance Party MLA Andrew Muir
DAERA minister, Alliance Party MLA Andrew Muir -Credit:Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Stormont officials "did not intend to mislead" a pre-public inquiry meeting about Dalradian Gold's application to mine in the Sperrin Mountains, says Stormont's environment minister.

The global firm has applied for planning permission to extract gold, silver and copper from the area of outstanding natural beauty.

But after their plans sparked 50,000 objections - a public inquiry was called to examine all parts related to the application, including eight permissions they will need to mine including links to the electricity grid, water abstraction and impound licences and the abandonment of a historic road.

Read more: Doubts cast on DAERA authority in Dalradian Gold inquiry over water licences

The Water Appeals Commission wrote to DAERA almost two weeks ago raising concerns about information received during the pre-inquiry meeting which cast doubt on DAERA's authority to call a public inquiry over water licenses they "deemed refused" and said "it appears to us that the Department’s representative may not have given entirely accurate information.”

An April 25 update to the Planning Appeals Commission website page for the application stated "the public inquiries in relation to the abstraction and impound licence applications (AIL 2020/0105 and AIL 2020/0106) can no longer form part of the current conjoined public inquiry which is expected to open on 10th September 2024".

And now DAERA Minister, Andrew Muir, has written to MLAs almost two weeks after the issue was first raised to outline 'regret' from his officials.

He said in the letter: "My Department agrees with the WAC's assessment [that]... the two applications for abstraction and impoundment licences submitted by Dalradian Gold Ltd to DAERA... have been deemed refused.

"Therefore my Department did not have the power to direct the WAC to hold a public local inquiry in respect of these applications on the 5th November 2021."

In relation to "the provision of incorrect information at a pre inquiry meeting, on 20 March 2024" the latter added: "DAERA officials regret that they inadvertently gave incorrect information to the Commission on this matter at the meeting.

"Officials are mindful of adhering to the Civil Service Code and did not intend to mislead the Inquiry. This mistake has now been rectified by the information provided and officials have offered sincere apologies to the Commission.

"DAERA officials recognise the fundamental importance of the Commission being able to rely on the factual accuracy of answers.

"A formal response has now been issued to the WAC along with the sincere apologies for the provision of incorrect information. My officials will engage, as appropriate, with the WAC on next steps."

The SDLP's Daniel McCrossan says he has now written to Minister Muir to ask what the implications are for the public inquiry. He added: "Minister Muir is right to apologise for his officers misleading the pre-inquiry, even if it was inadvertently.

"I’ve written to the Minister today to ask what the implications are for the Public Inquiry. Remember, there was is 43 months delay between the inquiry being announced and it starting. The local community don’t want to see further delays, if at all possible."

We asked DAERA what the implications are for the department in terms of the public inquiry. A spokesperson said: "Departmental officials are currently considering the implications for the public local Inquiry of the Abstraction and Impoundment applications no longer being considered."

In relation to applications for water discharge consents by the mining firm to DAERA, they added: "The discharge consent applications remain before the Commission for consideration. A judicial review was taken in 2018/19 into an amended discharge consent issued for the Gold Mine exploration site.

"The JR resulted in that consent being quashed and reverting to the previous consent, issued in 2014. The application TC 80/20, currently being considered, will supersede the exploration consent, if granted."

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