Coal mining has played a central role in the history of North Kilkenny, and it now has the potential to provide jobs for the future too.
A group of people is working to form a company that will extract coal from lands at Loon, two or three miles beyond Castlecomer, and potentially employ 15 to 20 people in the process – in addition to the knock-on economic boost to the area.
“There are a number of people who are prepared to invest a substantial amount of money in Loon,” said Jim Fleming, one of those involved in working to set up the company.
They are currently preparing a business plan, applying for planning permission and working to negotiate a purchase of the land from Coillte.
One of those involved, Peter Kealy, has the mining rights for the land in Loon, Mr Fleming noted, and they also have a geologist and an engineer on board, plus financial support. “The group of people have done a good bit of research and background done on this,” he said.
They have found that the coal is close to the surface – around 20 feet below ground, he said – which means that it can be opencast mining instead of underground.
This means a lower health risk than underground mining, he said. “It’s far less of a problem. We would have no more of a problem than the people working in a coal yard bagging coal,” he said.
“There is a good bit of coal that is accessible; it’s good-quality anthracite,” he added. “The hope is that, if we can get this going, we could employ maybe 15 to 20 people. And if we get this up and running, I think it will go for a good few years.”
Their biggest obstacle at the moment, aside from securing planning permission to open the mine, will be the development charges that will be due to Kilkenny County Council – and which are typically due when work on a development commences.
The hope is that they could negotiate a staggered payment of the charges over time, as the business gets up and running, rather than having to pay a large sum up front. “We would probably be looking for a staggered development charge; we could probably cope with that, because we will be developing this over a period of four, five, six, seven, eight years,” he said.
It is a factor that Cllr Maurice Shortall (Lab) says should be considered nationally as the guidelines for development charges are reviewed. “In the revised development contribution national guidelines, we have to take recognisance of the fact that, where employment is being created, development charges would not hinder that potential job creation,” he said.
He also said he would facilitate a meeting between the council and those setting up the mining company to address any issues that needed to be worked out.
“As the son of a former blacksmith who worked in the Deerpark mines and in Ballingarry, I will do my utmost to ensure that all practical assistance will be forthcoming from Kilkenny County Council,” Cllr Shortall said. “The possibility of five, 10 or 15 jobs would be enormous to an area that is suffering from an unemployment rate of almost 20%.”
It’s a sentiment shared by those involved in setting up the company, who also have mining backgrounds in their families.
Mr Fleming, whose family was involved in mining for over 100 years, said it didn’t make sense to see “people in the area collecting the dole and bringing home bags of Polish coal when we are sitting on it in our locality.”