Northern Ireland

Carrickfergus salt mine ready for another busy winter

Barra Best (far right) in salt mine
Image caption Barra Best (far right) visits Carrickfergus salt mine

As the big freeze began to thaw last winter thousands of people were left without water as mains and pipes burst across Northern Ireland.

Homes were ruined and the clean-up cost a fortune.

Northern Ireland Water suffered its worst ever crisis as more than a million calls were made to its helpline and people tried to use its website - but it wasn't prepared.

As a result it bore the brunt of public anger and frustration, and it led to the resignation of its chief executive.

"We have very painful memories in NI Water of what happened, especially when we consider the experience of our customers during that time," said Sarah Venning from Northern Ireland Water.

"We have doubled the amount of call handlers we have available. We've taken a website which had a capacity of 20,000 visits per day to a capacity of 200,000 visits per hour and we've almost tripled the stock of bottled water that we're holding now" she added.

Motorists too were badly affected as snow and ice built up on the roads. The roads service battled against the snow to keep the roads open. Thousands of tonnes of salt were spread.

That salt comes from deep underground just outside Carrickfergus in County Antrim.

Huge machines chop away at the walls of the salt mine to give us the grit we need to help keep life in Northern Ireland as normal as possible during the winter months.

Workers travel so deep underground it's like scaling down the length of the Empire State Building in New York.

The roads below, laid out straight, would stretch from Belfast to Newry.

Ironically the road network in the mine will never need salted as it is warm underground all year round.

Giant crushers

Inside the salt is crushed by giant machines until the grains are about the width of a pen.

And when it's ready, up to 4,000 tonnes every day are brought to the surface.

"It was extremely busy for us, it was our busiest year on record," David Lee, from the Irish Salt Mining Company, said.

"We supplied more than 100,000 tonnes of salt to the local road service.

"Unfortunately our own production here couldn't meet the increased demand that we had, so we brought some salt in from Egypt."

Stormont will give out cold weather payments of £25 again this year when temperatures are recorded or forecast to be zero or below for seven days in a row.

However, people over the age of 60 will see a cut in their winter fuel allowance, some by as much as £100.

It will mean that six in ten pensioners will struggle to heat their homes this winter, so if the big freeze hits again it will be even more challenging.

In fact it could be difficult for all of us, especially if the preparations made by the authorities aren't enough.

You can see more of Barra Best's reports on how NI is preparing for winter weather on Tuesday and Wednesday on BBC Newsline on BBC One at 18:30 GMT.