What's the Sperrins Judicial Review and how's it opposing extraction?

Lawyer Acland Bryant explains our legal intervention against mineral prospecting on the grounds of environmental damage and transparency.
  Published:  31 Jan 2024    |      2 minute read

In 2019, Northern Ireland’s Department for the Economy granted three mineral prospecting licenses (MPL) – one to Flintridge Resources Ltd and two to Dalradian Gold Ltd.

The licences granted cover an area of approximately 742km2. A large portion of the land that the licences cover falls within Derry City and Strabane District Council’s catchment and some falls upon land owned by the council.

The licensed areas also cover Special Areas of Conservation, which are protected under the Habitats Directive and the Conservation (Natural Habitats) Regulations (Northern Ireland).

Derry City and Strabane District Council applied for a judicial review to challenge the decision to grant these licenses. Friends of the Earth were given permission to intervene in the case and provide written submissions in support of the council’s case. As well as written submissions, we also presented affidavit evidence and research we conducted in-house.

The council’s case

The council’s application for a judicial review raises several grounds of challenge to the Department for the Economy’s decision to grant the licenses, including:

  • The licenses are unlawful as the Department for the Economy made errors of law when deciding to grant them;
  • The consultation process was procedurally unfair and/or a breach of statutory duty;
  • The Department for the Economy failed to comply with a number of statutory duties when granting the MPL’s;
  • The Department for the Economy failed to give lawfully adequate reasons for granting the mineral prospecting licences;
  • The Department for the Economy breached the Habitats Directive and Regulations in granting the mineral prospecting licences; and 
  • The Department for the Economy has acted “ultra vires” (in other words, the Department for the Economy are alleged to have acted beyond their legal powers).

Friends of the Earth’s intervention

Our intervention has focussed on two key issues:

Firstly, Friends of the Earth believes that the failure to consider mineral prospecting activities in combination with other plans and projects (whether recorded or unrecorded) is not in the public interest. This is because wider environmental issues are not considered. Further, it should be noted that multiple small-scale changes to landscapes (as can be the case with mineral exploration and prospecting) can lead to alteration and degradation of the landscape.

A beautiful scenic landscape, with pockets of blue water. Mountains in the back, among a cloudy grey sky.
Cavina caw mine

Our initial research uncovered unrecorded extractive operations within the Sperrins Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and within the area covered by the licenses granted by the Department for the Economy.

We believe that the unrecorded extractive operations represent a concerning and significant gap in the baseline knowledge as to the extent of extractive operations and the potential for unassessed environmental damage.

Granting further licenses would likely only compound the environmental damage which is already occurring because of the other extractive operations. Consequently, the precautionary principle must be applied, and the licences quashed.

A common version of the precautionary principle (not the legal definition) is: 

Where there's a threat to human health or environmental protection, a lack of full scientific certainty shouldn't be used as a reason to postpone measures that would prevent or minimise such a threat.

Its core elements are: 

a) The need for environmental protection; 

b) the presence of threat or risk of serious damage; 

and c) the fact that a lack of scientific certainty shouldn't be used to avoid taking action to prevent that damage.

Further information is needed to make a proper assessment as to the environmental impact of the miner prospecting licences.

Our concern is that the number of extractive activities already underway (both recorded and unrecorded), coupled with decades of mineral prospecting, will turn these Special Areas of Conservation and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty into Swiss cheese.

A photo of a scenic landscape which looks still and undisturbed. Gorgeous well kempt fields, and streams of water. In the distance, there's mountains amongst a peaceful blue sky.
The Sperrin mountains.
Credit: Gordon Dunn

Secondly, we have also argued that the consultation process failed to provide adequate information to the public, which is needed to enable them to make informed representations on the mineral prospecting licence applications submitted by Flintridge Resources Ltd and Dalradian Gold Ltd. We believe that the lack of transparency in the process, the secrecy surrounding the licences, the redacting of work programmes, the lack of adequate environmental assessment is unacceptable.

What is next for the Sperrins judicial review?

The Department for the Economy and the two companies who were granted licenses resist the judicial review brought by Derry City and Strabane District Council and, by extension, the intervention made by Friends of the Earth.
The case will be heard in early April.