My first time on this trail was in 2010. The trail was in good condition passing by some beautiful viewpoints and a picturesque mountain village. The starting point, near the old train station in Thoiras, (now a restaurant), is fairly easy to find. Go around the station, cross the tracks and walk along a local road for a few hundred meters before tackling, on the left, a rocky rough climb. Presumably this was the starting point for the ‘draille’ a livestock trail used to move animals to pastures on higher ground during the summer months.
In 2022, this part of the trail is in rather poor condition, strewn with loose stones, broken rocks and scrub trees.
A few kilometers up the trail, near the high point, things begin to look more ominous. There are signs warning not to pick plants. The site is polluted with heavy metals! Here we are near the abandoned Grande Pallieres mine (Vieille Montagne), a serious source of pollution. The mining concession concerned 4 towns including Thoiras, starting point of this circuit, and Saint-Félix de Pallières.
The mine is located on the western slope of the Grande Pallières ridge. (There is an important prehistoric site – cromlech, dolmens etc- on the eastern slope).
Lead, zinc and silver were extracted here until 1971. After closure, the place was abandoned with no rehabilitation work. For years, nothing happened while the children of the nearby village of St-Félix played in the slag heaps. Then progressively, the dangers of this site began to get noticed. In 2008 a report commissioned by the Ministry of the Environment confirmed significant levels of soil pollution in heavy metals. In 2010, an association (ADAMVM) took up the issue.
Since then there have been many twists and turns that I will not recount in detail. The mining company Umicore, owner of the site, was obliged to install a retention wall to limit the slag heap runoff into the Paleyrolle stream. But the Cévennes region is well-known for episodes of torrential rain creating sudden high volume runoff and retention walls don’t help much. If you walk this trail, take a close look at the water with its strange iridescent tones of orange, red, and rust.
In 2016 a complaint was filed for the endangerment of life and poisoning of water. In 2020 after long deliberations, the courts dismissed the case. This despite the fact that the French government had already confirmed the presence of significant pollution, and had and forced Umicore to build the retaining wall . Also despite the fact that residents living nearby, when tested, showed significant contamination of urine with heavy metals (cadmium, arsenic and lead).
And don’t remind the locals that they can’t sell their houses (no value) or grow vegetables in the back garden…
The saddest part? The former mine site is used as a camp by nomadic families. In 2010, I saw a lot of children. There were fewer in 2022, but people still live there and, it seems, have rave parties from time to time.
Hiking in the Cevennes: it’s almost always beautiful. Not this time.