Environmental Article by Harold Hough

How do you keep the green in the Emerald Island? That’s the question for the Galantas Gold Corporation, a company that owns and operates a producing open pit gold mine near Omagh, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland - the first gold mine in Ireland in 2,000 years. For them, it includes doing something that may seem like something out of the Addams Family TV Show – planting carnivorous plants.

For an island as naturally green as Ireland, it would seem that reclamation would be easy. However, it’s not as simple as that. Much of the island is covered in peat bogs, which make both exploration and reclamation difficult. Bogs are a unique type of wetland usually found in colder climates. They have acidic water and a low amount of nutrients, which limits the type of plants that grow there. Their waters are also low in oxygen content, which prevents plant decomposition.

That didn’t stop gold mining thousands of years ago. Irish gold has a history spanning over two thousand years, back to the ancient Celtic Kings, with gold artifacts in the Irish National Museum covering the period 2,000 BC to 400 BC. Although amateur gold panning has continued in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England, it was difficult to professionally mine because a 500 year old law gave all gold and silver bearing deposits to the monarchy, not the land owner. That has changed in Northern Ireland thanks to home rule.

The bogs, which can be over 8 feet deep, made exploration harder for Irish geologists. In fact, it was American metal detection technology that gave them a clue about what was under the Irish peat bogs and made it practical to conduct mineral surveys.

The Galantas Gold Mine isn’t world class by any stretch of the imagination and produces less in a year than some pits in Nevada do in a month (about 30,000 ounces). In fact, it only has title to over 220 acres of land on which the open pit mine, processing plant, tailings facility and water clarification ponds are situated.

The operation is low impact by American environmental standards. There is no blasting and all the rock is ripped up by excavators and bulldozers. The ore is taken to the processing plant, which is close to the open pit, by dump truck. It is crushed by a three stage crushing system (two stages for the smaller pieces) and ground with water in a ball mill to fine sand (approximately 50% of which is less than 75 micron in size). Some of the ground material is treated by gravity methods but the majority of the material is concentrated by floatation. The chemicals used are non-toxic and remove the gold, silver, lead, iron, and sulfur. This leaves clean tailings, which are used in local construction.

Reconstructing Peat Bogs – Addams Family Style

Restoration is taking place on a continuing basis. Over 27,000 trees have been planted on the boundaries in order to keep visual pollution to a minimum.

However, the biggest challenge is recreating the peat bogs – many of which were destroyed in the last few centuries to enlarge farms and heat Irish homes. The Galantas Mine carefully strips and saves the peat bog la yer before it starts mining. But, simply replacing the peat bog layer during reclamation isn’t enough. The Sphagnum Mosses which are responsible for building bogs do not naturally regenerate on the bare peat. Revitalizing the peat bog moss plant community is necessary to make the bogs recover within a reasonable time.

The first step is raising the water table by blocking water drainage and establishing a living layer of moss over the dry peat surface of the material that was stripped from the land before mining. The surface of hard peat must be broken up so that newly transplanted plants can sink their roots into the peat substrate.

Then Sphagnum Moss is harvested from a donor site and straw mulch is spread over the new plants. Producing a living bog also requires a little something that seems more natural in a campy horror movie – the introduction of carnivorous plants. Anyone who has walked over a bog knows that they are home to a multitude of insects. Fortunately, for those who live near the bogs, they are also home to insect eating plants. Amongst the moss are predator plants like Sundews, Butterworts and Bladderworts. They rely not on strength to catch their prey, but on the lure of beauty and desire. These are carnivorous plants, which are adapted to growing in the nutrient poor environment of a bog. After securing their prey with the strongest glues and fastest vacuums in the natural world, they obtain nutrients from a diet of insect flesh and juices. Ten native species grow wild in Ireland, along with the introduced pitcher plant. These plants are critical for the ecological balance in a bog. The carnivorous plants not only control the insect populations found in the watery environment, they provide many of the nutrients for plant growth.

These aren’t the only plant life. There is also beauty amongst the insect eating plants. The reclaimed land includes a variety of orchids. Many orchid species are very tolerant of mining activities and co-exist alongside the Galantas Mine.

Wildlife include a colony of 50 pairs of sand martins who established themselves adjacent to an exploration drilling site and are making use of a recently cut sandy bank. There are also nesting swallows in the processing plant and workshop, hares, deer, foxes and a nesting pair of peregrine falcons. The mine management ensures that the nest sites are protected.

The Galantas Mine is not just unique in its bog reclamation. It is also unique in how it sells its gold. Unlike many mines that merely add their gold to the international stream of the yellow metal, Galantas markets its gold as “Irish Gold.” Mine owners point out that more than 40 million people in North America consider themselves of Irish extraction -- 40 million people that might feel that jewelry made of rare Irish gold would strengthen their Irish connection. Consequently, about 10% of its gold is sold as “boutique” gold at a higher price.

Wonder if anyone who wears that Irish gold knows it has been protected over the eons by flesh eating plants? Call Hollywood, I have an idea for a great movie.