A mining company has been told it must address the emotional and psychological impact of its Irish operations in what is believed to be the first time a planning application has been directed to consider ecological grief or ‘solastalgia’.
yproc, which owns the gypsum mines in Co Monaghan, is seeking planning permission for a new open cast mine in the county.
The proposal is controversial as it would reopen an old underground mine that partially collapsed in 2018, creating a sinkhole that destroyed a GAA grounds, clubhouse and community centre.
Monaghan County Council has asked Gyproc for more information on a wide range of engineering, safety and environmental points.
But planners have also told the company its response “shall consider the effects of solastalgia”.
In correspondence with Gyproc last week, the council defined solastalgia as “the impact people feel living in a home environment perceived to be the subject of negative environmental change”.
“This impact can result in emotional and psychological displacement, dislocation and avoidance of the landscapes concerned,” it said.
“Given the scale of the development proposed, it is incumbent on the applicant to consider these types of impacts.”
Professor Conor Murphy of Maynooth University who led the only Irish study on solastalgia to date said he had not seen it referenced in a planning case before.
“I think it’s a positive move,” he said. “The key thing about solastalgia is to see people and communities as very much part of the environmental impact.
“It’s moving the assessment beyond traditional direct impacts.”
Solastalgia is a term coined by Dr Glenn Albrecht, an Australian professor of sustainability studies, who first used it 20 years ago.
He described it as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under assault.
“It is manifest in an attack on one’s sense of place, in the erosion of the sense of belonging to a particular place and a feeling of distress about its transformation.”
He summarised it as “the homesickness you feel when you are still at home”.
Dr Albrecht studied communities affected by open cast coal mining in rural New South Wales.
His findings have been influential in some court decisions in Australia and have been applied to studies of communities in areas irrevocably altered by natural disasters, wildfires and severe ecological degradation.
Prof Murphy researched solastalgia in relation to the near total loss of the beach at Courtown, Co Wexford, due to coastal erosion, and the installation of rock armour on the remaining sands.
He found solastalgia was experienced by almost half the residents of the seaside town, especially long-time residents.
Prof Murphy said community wellbeing and mental health were at stake.
“Solastalgia can dramatically reduce sense of wellbeing, outlook on the future, sense of control and input in future decisions,” he said.
“It can create a negative perception of local environment and loss of engagement by community.”
In Co Monaghan, the gypsum mines near Carrickmacross have been heavily excavated for decades.
Occasional tensions over dust, noise, vibrations, subsidence and the buy-out of land and homes escalated in 2018 after a flooding emergency in an underground mine.
The water was pumped into a decommissioned mine where it undermined support pillars.
The ground above it – home to the GAA and community facilities – split and sank while other lands and roads were declared out of bounds.
It is this old mine, now largely dewatered, that Gyproc wants to reopen, this time excavating from the top instead of through tunnels.
A spokeswoman for local residents, Geraldine Ward, has pored over the correspondence from Monaghan County Council and the reference to solastalgia surprised her.
“It’ll be interesting to see how Gyproc respond. It might be the first time it’s been mentioned but how it’s described is how the community has felt for a long time,” she said.
The company said it was working on its responses and would share them with the community when ready.
“With regards to solastalgia, Gyproc welcome progressions in planning application policy to ensure the highest possible standards of environmental protection are enforced,” it said in a statement. “Of primary concern to us throughout this entire process are the views of the community.”
Whether and how solastalgia could become part of the planning codes is unclear, although numerous planning battles show that reducing grievances to terms such as “loss of amenity” doesn’t really cover the depth of impact.
“Arguments can be shut down by labelling them nimbyism but that’s simplistic,” Prof Murphy said.
“If you take the row over the Clontarf flood wall in Dublin, there was a tendency to downplay the response of the community as an over-reaction to losing sea views.
“But the proposal would fundamentally change the character of the place and what it means to be from the area
“That’s a legitimate grievance that needs to be respectfully examined.”
Since 2018, Gyproc has established community liaison structures but Geraldine Ward says local people still feel they are on the outside of decisions.
She references the current planning application and the extensive list of issues the council has raised.
“In one way, we’re pleased that the council are going through it in such detail,” she said.
“But the information they’re looking for – to do with water, mine stability, soil subsidence – should be basic given all that happened there in the past few years so the company should have supplied it all to the council from the start.
“From the outside, it’s hard to know what’s going on.”
Prof Murphy said understanding solastalgia would become more important as climate change impacts and ecosystem loss, and adaptive measures such as sea walls, become more common.
“I would welcome it being standard in an environmental impact assessment,” he said.
“The traditional approach of the planning system can be very limited in terms of depth and time. Addressing solastalgia requires a longer term commitment to people and to the place they value. That can only be a good thing.”