Northern Ireland

Planning Service advised to pay Omagh gold mine compensation

The gold mine is at Cavanacaw outside Omagh
Image caption The gold mine is at Cavanacaw outside Omagh

The NI Ombudsman has told the Planning Service it should pay a total of £30,000 compensation to three residents because it failed to enforce planning regulations at a Tyrone gold mine.

An investigation found major failures by planners reacting to complaints over an apparent breach of planning permission at the mine outside Omagh.

In 2008 and 2009 Omagh Minerals allowed hundreds of thousands of tonnes of rock from the mine to be removed by truck along a narrow road network without the necessary planning consent.

In spite of several objections, it took the Planning Service more than a year to issue an enforcement notice telling the company to stop the unauthorised removal of the rock.

Three residents brought a complaint to the Ombudsman over the delay and he has found in their favour.

According to Ombudsman Tom Frawley, the planners' failure to act represented maladministration in what he said was a "major system failure" at the Planning Service.

He has recommended that the planners should pay the three residents £10,000 each in compensation.

The owners of the mine said they have never knowingly breached any planning conditions.

The mine at Cavanacaw outside Omagh produces gold, silver and lead.

In a hard-hitting report, the ombudsman described the Planning Service's failure to monitor the gold mine as "maladminisration."

"My investigation has highlighted the failures of Planning Service to effectively monitor and enforce planning control/conditions at the precious metal mine," he said.

One of the three residents awarded the compensation, retired photographer Ed Winters, said that when the rock was being removed, the roads in the area were totally unsafe because of the volume of heavy traffic.

"The people living around here were imprisoned in their homes," he said.

"Parents could not walk their children and others had problems getting to work. The residents were failed by the Planning Service. "

At its peak, more than 145 lorries per day were leaving the site.

Residents first complained about the apparent breach of planning conditions in June 2008, but it took the Planning Service more than a year to issue an enforcement notice requiring the goldmine to stop removing the waste rock.

It wasn't until June 2009 that an enforcement letter was issued to Omagh Minerals to "cease removal of rock within 24 hours of this notice."

The Ombudsman's investigation into the planners' inaction said: "I find it wholly unacceptable that the Planning Service failed to take appropriate timely enforcement action commensurate with the breach of planning control given the very significant impact this had on local residents including the complainants."

"I believe the Planning Service clearly should have taken more effective robust and timely enforcement action following the initial complaints from residents in June 2008."

Image caption NI Ombudsman Tom Frawley has advised the Planning Service to pay compensation to three residents

In response to an additional complaint about the redesign of the mine, the report said: "Planning Service permitted the company to remove in excess of 8,000 truck loads of rock, by the operator's own admission, without any assurance that there remained sufficient rock to restore the site of its original condition."

In October 2008 , the then general manager of the mine, Nick Hardie, took part in a BBC televised public debate about the removal of the waste rock.

When challenged that the company did not have the appropriate planning permission to remove the rock, he replied: "We believe we do. We believe we do. (It's) in black and white in our planning document."

In response to the conclusions contained in the leaked Ombudsman's report, Roland Phelps, chief executive of the Galantas Gold Corporation which owns the mine said: "I can't comment on the report without having seen the contents.

"However, the company did not knowingly breach any planning condition as regards the export of the rock from the site or indeed on any other matter."

Resident Mr Winter added: "I have lost a pristine environment around my home. That is not a worthy legacy for a few pence.

"It was never about the money or the compensation. In fact this money will probably go towards our legal advisers to help maintain our fight and ensure our environment is protected."

The decision by the ombudsman to recommend that the Planning Service should compensate the three residents who complained could have far reaching implications.

Others who feel they have they have also suffered because of lack of enforcement by planners will be studying this judgment closely, wondering if they too could mount a similar challenge.

In February 2012, in response to a recent planning application, the mining company was granted permission by the Planning Service to remove other surplus rock from the mine, but conditions have been attached limiting the number of truckloads involved.

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