"Today is not the end of a process but the beginning of a new one," the Minister for Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Dick Roche, said at the launch of the Avoca Mines Pilot Plant Treatment Trials report by Unipure Europe Ltd in the Woodenbridge Hotel, Vale of Avoca, Arklow, Co Wicklow, last Wednesday.
The background to the report is dramatic. For nearly 250 years the Avoca Mines produced a variety of metals, including iron in the 17th century, lead until 1750, sulphur intermittently up to 1949 and copper until closure in 1982. "In their heyday, the mines were major contributors to the local economy," the Minister said.
Unfortunately, the Avoca River happens to run alongside the now-derelict mine, and today the river is the recipient of 35 litres of acid mine drainage per second emanating from the site. Since mining ceased in 1982 the workings have been allowed to flood, resulting in the release of untreated mine water.
The upshot is that as far as 11.5 km of river downstream of the mine site is very seriously polluted and branded by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as Class D with a Q value of 1 (very poor water quality). From these statistics, it is easy to understand why the lower section is regarded as the most polluted river in Ireland and tagged locally as "the poison river".
Despite the problems, and by some "divine miracle", salmon and trout still endeavour to survive. In 2002, an electrofishing survey and baseline water-sampling programme by the fisheries board showed that juvenile salmon and trout parr were distributed at 74 per cent of sites sampled throughout the catchment.
The aforementioned facts undoubtedly spurred the Eastern Regional Fisheries Board (ERFB) to initiate a rehabilitation programme to restore the river to its former glory. First mooted by former ERFB chief executive officer, Alan McGurdy, and now fronted by ERFB inspector, Josie Mahon, the river has its best chance to recover in more than 200 years. Prior to 1850, records indicate the Avoca was an excellent salmon river.
A management group was established of Wicklow County Council, Department of Marine, EPA, ERFB, Geological Survey of Ireland, Irish Farmers Association, Coillte, Vale of Avoca Development Association, Avoca Mining Heritage Trust, Annamoe Trout Fisheries, Mining Heritage Trust of Ireland, Fáilte Ireland, accommodation providers, industry, landowners, angling associations and community groups.
With funding of €51,182 from the Tourism Angling Measure scheme, the University of Newcastle was appointed to carry out a desktop study with the aim of reducing the acid mine drainage. Its findings suggested that restoring the river could create €750,000 per year in fishing-related revenue, together with a significant economic boost to the local community.
The report also recommended that a pilot plant should be undertaken to demonstrate mine water treatability. The group again applied for funding and
received €296,820 under an EU Ireland/Wales Interreg programme for a project known as Celtic Copper Heritage.
To address the impact of pollution from the copper mines, the ERFB and Wicklow County Council commissioned Unipure to establish whether it was possible to treat the acid mine drainage on a small scale and what the parameters of a full-scale treatment would be for the Avoca River.
The findings of the Unipure report show the trials were successful in demonstrating that an active treatment will reduce metal concentration downstream of the mines by between 66 and 72 per cent. This reduction would result in significant improvement in water quality and enable the river to achieve salmonid fishery standard.
The estimated cost of building a full-scale treatment plant is €3.6 million with an annual operational cost of €500,000.
Now that the surveys and studies are complete and the facts laid before us, surely this is a small price to pay in the quest to restore a magnificent salmonid river to its former glory?
© Irish Times