A company holding public events about plans to mine for gold in Co Tyrone had the rug pulled from under it when a local venue was declared unavailable, the High Court heard today.
Counsel for Canadian firm Dalradian claimed newspaper adverts had been taken out and up to 1,500 leaflets distributed when it was informed the information meeting could not take place at Rouskey community centre.
With the event in 2016 then relocated to the mine site itself, Stewart Beattie QC rejected any suggestions of a lack of independence.
He said: "The bottom line is, without prior notice until the end of September, the rug was pulled from under Dalradian in terms of the public event."
The company is seeking permission to operate a mine in an area of the Sperrin Mountains where up to £3bn worth of gold is said to be deposited.
But residents group Greencastle, Rouskey, Gortin (GRG) Community is challenging the Department for Infrastructure's handling of the pre-application community consultation (PACC).
They claim there were serious flaws at that preliminary stage around such a significant and controversial proposed scheme, involving 144 hectares of surface infrastructure in an area of outstanding natural beauty.
Issues have been raised about information provided at a public event in late 2016, with lawyers representing GRG arguing the plans were not "oven ready" at that stage.
However, Mr Beattie backed submissions on behalf of the Department that the project was flexible enough to reflect consultation responses.
The court heard there had been unprecedented numbers on either side of the plan - around 10,000 objections, but also 3,000 letters of support.
Rejecting claims that it was little more than a box ticking exercise, Mr Beattie insisted it was an "unfair characterisation of the process and the steps taken by Dalradian to comply with the statutory framework".
Five public exhibitions were held at three different locations, with pamphlet drops, newspaper notices and questionnaires also made available for feedback, the court heard.
Environmental and design team experts attended the events.
Mr Beattie claimed GRG sought separate communication as part of the process.
"It started with the proposition that the development was the wrong development in the wrong place, which poses some difficulties (about) where you mine for gold and how you mine for gold," he added.
If approved, the 25-year mining scheme could support 350 jobs, with the company predicting a massive boost to the local economy.
But according to the residents group they were not given enough information before the 10,000 page planning application was submitted.
Further issues were raised about the level of detail provided on the stripping of peat topsoil and the size of a car park which would feature.
Reserving judgment following closing submissions, Mr Justice McCloskey pledged to rule on the case later this month.