Northern Ireland road salt resources will only stretch to two more winters, according to the salt mine that supplies the Roads Service.
Salt reserves in the Carrickfergus mine are almost exhausted and will be gone by 2012 unless it gets the go-ahead to start extending tunnels towards Ballycarry, mine owners Irish Salt Mining and Exploration Co Ltd said.
Ireland’s only salt mine centres on Kilroot in Carrickfergus and exploits the eastern edge of what was once a land-locked stretch of sea that eventually evaporated. It produces 500,000 tons of road salt every year which is transported throughout Ireland, across to England and even to New York.
Workers battled round the clock during the recent cold snap to keep salt supplies flowing at a time when district councils in England were running short. But the mine warned that salt supplies in the existing mining operations are running low.
It has applied for planning permission to extend north-west towards Ballycarry and carry out blasting operations below land containing 40 homes. The company employs 54 full-time workers and is one of only three salt mines in the UK.
In an environmental statement submitted as part of the planning application, it warned: “The remaining salt reserves in the existing permitted mine areas will be depleted by 2012. If planning permission was refused for the proposed extension both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would no longer have an indigenous operational rock salt source. Northern Ireland would no longer have a plentiful supply of rock salt for road de-icing during winter months.”
The company has already undertaken tests on lands in the proposed new mine area which have confirmed the presence of large salt deposits.
It added: “Results from the exploratory drilling exercise established that there are significant resources of salt within the proposed mine extension area.”
A mine extension would create 10 additional jobs and would require £20m to be invested over its lifetime, it said.
“Applications for planning permission are a standard part of any mining operation, extending the licensed area as one area becomes worked out,” the company told the Belfast Telegraph.
“The reason for submitting the application now is to ensure that the new area can be developed and operational in time to avoid any disruption to supplies. There have been various consultations with local residents over the past couple of years to answer questions and ensure that any concerns are properly addressed.
“Local residents have also been invited to visit the mine to see the operation for themselves.”
“The Carrickfergus mine is the only road salt mine in either Northern Ireland or Eire. The severity of this winter has emphasised the critical importance of having a local supply. The new permission is a routine step in securing supplies for the future.”
Resident Len McAuley who lives off Bridgend Road above where blasting has been taking place, told the Carrickfergus Advertiser he had some misgivings about extending the tunnels.
“I think they have to stop it somewhere. They need the salt but they can’t just keep taking everything out — it leaves a cavity and it affects the water table,” he said.
But neighbour Tom Wallace said he did not oppose the application, even though he hears explosions from the mine every day.
“Men have to work and you have to salt the roads. People need the salt. I have no objections,” he said.