The recent withdrawal of a planning appeal for a controversial project to mine gold in the Southern Highlands will be followed shortly by a renewed planning application, the company involved tells UKH.
The Cononish mine near the foot of Ben Lui (Beinn Laoigh) in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park has existed for many years, but hitherto activity has been exploratory. A rise in world gold prices has now made extraction viable on a commercial scale, believe the mine's Australian owners Scotgold Resources Ltd.
The site is directly adjacent to the Ben Lui National Nature Reserve, important for its mountain plants and bird life. A planning application to commence full operation was made in 2010, but rejected by National Park planners. Possible concerns that silt pollution from mining might affect aquatic life in the River Cononish were felt by planners to have been resolved, but the scale of the proposal was deemed inappropriate to its unspoilt setting.
'The National Park has four key aims' explains Gordon Watson, Director of Rural Development and Planning at the National Park. 'These are: conserving the area's natural and cultural heritage; promoting sustainable use of resources; promoting enjoyment and recreation; and promoting economic and social development.'
In making any decision planners seek to balance these aims, but where they conflict the first is considered primary.
'We found that the 2010 application was contrary to the first aim' says Watson. 'In particular we were concerned that the scale of the proposed Tailings Management Facility [TMF - which would hold 820,000 tonnes of excavated waste] at ground level would have had too great an impact on the landscape quality of the Cononish glen. We also felt that at the end of the mine's life inadequate restitution measures were planned.'
Scotgold contested this decision, and the case was scheduled to be raised at a public enquiry in June this year, but the company has now withdrawn its appeal.
'We have withdrawn the appeal and [...] are intending to resubmit a revised application with [a] reduced scale TMF' Scotgold's CEO/Managing Director Chris Sangster tells us.
In a recent letter to interested parties the company goes on:
'Subsequent to the narrow refusal of our original application by the Parks Board in August 2010, we have met on a number of occasions with senior representatives of the Parks Authority to discuss specifically the reasons for refusal (principally landscape, visual impact and restoration) and other possible areas of concern.'
'As a result of these ongoing discussions, in the proposed re-application to be presented at the meeting, we have made significant revisions in light of these concerns; notably, we have made considerable effort to further minimise the visual impact of the Tailings Management Facility. The revised facility is considerably smaller than that previously proposed (approximately half) and we have engaged independent specialists to guide us specifically in the areas of landscape and restoration in order to ensure that all opportunities for mitigation of the impacts of the development are fully incorporated.'
'We believe that the project has the potential to significantly enhance the cultural heritage of the Park through the presence of Scotland's only gold mine and as a result of the mitigation proposed in the revised application, will not impact on the natural heritage of the area and is thus not at odds with the primary aim of the Park.'
Wild land conservation charity the John Muir Trust (JMT) lodged a conditional objection to last year's planning application:
'The Trust acknowledges that there have been previous mining developments in the area and that remnants of these activities still remain on the landscape. Nonetheless, this does not detract from the feeling of remoteness and wildness experienced by visitors to the areas, particularly those using it for access to or egress from neighbouring wild land, and thus the location site can be best described as a wild place.'
'[...]We believe that the level of visual intrusion caused by construction, operation and restoration of this site is under-valued by the developer, particularly given the relative remoteness and sensitivity of the location.
However last week the organisation appeared to soften its position, issuing a 'cautious welcome' for the revised plan.
Steven Turnbull, JMT policy officer, said:
'We will have to look closely at the new application but it seems that Scotgold Resources has taken the right decision in acknowledging the permanent impact its original proposal would have had on the surrounding landscape. If the revised application fully addresses our concerns it is likely that we will remove our objection.'
It is unclear at this stage how activity at Cononish might affect ease of access to Eas Anie, the popular ice climb on the flank of Beinn Chuirn directly above the mine site.