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THE CORRIB GAS TRAIL – THE JURY IS OUT (report from An Bord Pleanála hearings)

By Liamy McNally


The Corrib gas oral hearing is the longest running oral hearing in the history of An Bord Pleanála. It crossed the Rubicon at lunchtime on Monday on its twenty-first day. It was probably the longest oral hearing long before Monday if one just counted the hours it has been sitting since it was reconvened on November 25th after its initial opening for two weeks last February.

The length of the hearing certainly gives credence to the concerns expressed by local people and others over the proposal to build a gas terminal in north Mayo. This makes those local people the real heroes and heroines of this project. Almost thirty people, and sometimes more, from north Mayo attended every day of the hearing. These are the people who have found their own voice as a community, a journey which has not been easy. Rather, that journey has been beset with obstacles every step of the way. Those obstacles were placed there, mainly, by the lack of imagination and commitment of statutory bodies like Mayo County Council, the Health and Safety Authority, the Department of the Marine, Bord Gais Eireann and of course Shell/Enterprise Energy Ireland Limited, the proposers of the project along with partners, Statoil and Marathon. Marathon has its 18.5% share of the project for sale on the market at ?157 million. And that is before any gas is extracted from the seabed. Imagine what the value would be if the gas starts to flow. That value will accrue to the stakeholder’s investors not to local people or the people of Ireland. Perhaps Marathon is attempting a shot across the bow of the Government – ‘Don’t mess with the exploration industry.’ It is time the Government faced up to its responsibility and tackled the terms given to the oil and gas companies over the years. This campaign was relaunched last week by SIPTU in the guise of their Offshore Spokesman, Padhraig Campbell, who claims that successive Irish Governments have sold out its citizens to the exploration industry.


Over the past few weeks there has been some criticism, from the usual quarters, of the appellants or objectors to the proposed gas terminal in Mayo. The usual suspects emerge, including politicians who have their heads buried firmly in the sand. They argue that Mayo and the West needs the gas – yes it does, but at what price? There is still no guarantee that Mayo will get a gas supply. The only price certain bodies like the Council for the West, Ballina Chamber of Commerce and IBEC are willing to entertain is the price of production. There is only one word for this – greed. These suited merchants do not care about any possible health dangers posed to local people by the proposed gas terminal. They cannot argue that they are interested in bettering the West if they choose to ignore the effects on people. It is time they got their principles right – gas is welcome, but not at any price. Where were the voices of these people when the people of north Mayo echoed their initial concerns about the terminal project? Where were the voices of the so called commentators on the project that are now filling the airwaves and column inches? To hear politicians and journalists stoop so low as to dismiss the appellants as ‘outsiders’ or ‘blow-ins’ or ‘a few cranks’ is as much an insult to north Mayo people as it is an _expression of sheer ignorance on behalf of the commentators. There is nothing worse than non-sensical comments from pot-bellied, comfort surrounded Richard Craniums. They cannot hear the people of north Mayo say they want gas but they do not want the terminal as proposed. They cannot hear because if they choose to listen they will be forced to examine issues and take action.


The Inspectors from An Bord Pleanála – Kevin Moore and David Ball – have been men of distinction in this project. On several occasions over the past few weeks they had to face down verbal assaults – often disguised as legal interventions – over the length of the hearing and the minute issues being examined under its four modules – site selection, peat extraction, visual impact and safety. They are to be commended – again – for their professionalism and integrity, and their intimate knowledge of the issues at stake.


1. LETTER OF MAY 18th 2001

When you have heroes you must also have villains. The Department of the Marine must again be challenged over its role in the planning process last year. The Department blatantly interfered in the process. In the famous letter of May 18th 2001 a senior official from the Department writing to the County Manager, Mr Des Mahon, stated that ”The Department is seeking your co-operation and would appreciate if you would inform us in advance of any approval being given for the development.” A note on the letter in the planning file in Mayo County Council, signed by the county manager states, “Please ensure the request is complied with.” The Department claims that this is not interfering in the planning process!


In an internal Mayo County Council memo dated 12/06/01 and freely accessible on the Corrib Gas planning file, notes from a telephone conversation with Mr Des Page, from ERM, a company employed by the Department of the Marine are recorded. The memo is for a Senior Executive Planner (SEP), Ms Breda Gannon. There are several important issues in this note. It states that Mr Page rang “to inquire if FI is requested or conditions.” Many people will know that planning sections often use FI (further information) when examining planning applications. What is intriguing is the next section “or conditions.” Why would a consultant employed by the Marine Department want to know about any proposed conditions to a planning decision before the decision was made public? Is this not blatant interference in the planning process by a person acting on behalf of the Marine Department? Mr Page then suggests two issues – a project steering group, (which ended up as the Environmental Monitoring Group) “on which the Minister wishes to be on (as discussed with Ray Norton and yourself). Is this possible?” And the Marine Department has stated (including Frank Fahey himself) that this cannot be construed as interfering in the planning process. The second issue raised by Mr Page is also interesting - “Does the Council have a view on the EIS? (Perhaps some conds. Re monitoring programmes + surveys during construction…) They feel that there are some inexplicable gaps in the EIA.” What a question – does the council have a view on the EIS (Environmental Impact Statement)? Of course the council has a view – it has to have, under the law. Mr Page, on behalf of the Marine Department, then goes on to make suggestions or conditions for the planning decision. How anyone can claim that this is not blatant interference in the planning process is beyond belief. This is very serious – here we have a person working for a private company contracted to a Government Department suggesting to Mayo County Council how a planning application should be dealt with. The memo then states “They feel that there are inexplicable gaps in the EIA.” It would have been more in line for the Marine Department to spend their energies ensuring that the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) was what it should be under EU Directive requirements. The EIA is the document prepared before an EIS is drawn up. The EIA should include all those who will be affected in any way by a proposed project. Yet, local fishermen and the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group, among others, were not consulted. The memo ends with “Any comments will be sent from ERM to Dept of Marine and hence they wish to speak to you before reporting to Dept of Marine.” And how is this not interference in the planning process?


On June 26th 2001 a meeting of the heads of various departments was called in Mayo County Council to discuss the planning application. No agenda was issued and no minutes were recorded for the meeting. Also present at the meeting were Michael Daly from the Marine Dept, a representative from the EPA and a representative from ERM, the company retained by the Marine Dept. Both the council and Marine Department have confirmed that there was no agenda and no minutes. Imagine calling a meeting for such an important project and having a government official, private company personnel and officials from statutory bodies all present but the basics of holding a meeting are ignored – no agenda and no minutes. This meeting occurred before the planing decision was made by Mayo County Council on August 3rd and yet Frank Fahey and Marine Department officials would have us believe that there was no interference in the planning process.


Mayo County Council must also examine the quality of its ‘assessment’ in relation to EU sites as required under the EU Habitats Directive. In a letter dated 25th July 2002 the council states that it relied on information contained in the Shell/Enterprise EIS and in Dúchas and Planners reports when assessing these sites. No independent assessments were carried out. For the record, there are no Dúchas or Planners reports on file or available in Mayo County Council. Dúchas did not submit any report.


Mayo County Council will have to give straight answers to the recent letter of complaint from the Environment Directorate General of the European Commission when it asked the Irish Government a series of eleven questions on various aspects of the Corrib Gas development. In a typical ‘civil service speak’ reply to the European Commission on October 25th 2002 the Irish Government states “…in view of the fact national procedures have not been completed, my authorities are not in a position to provide a detailed response to this complaint pending the outcome of the Bord’s consideration of the appeal.”


The errata sheet became part of this oral hearing. Shell handed out a number of errata sheets containing several pages of mistakes on various modules. At one point it was claimed by Shell that one of the errata sheets actually contained ‘more complete information.’ Again last week, the Inspectors allowed people to make submissions across the four modules – site selection, peat removal, visual impact and safety.

The peat module was technical and contained the most detailed and scientific information. Shell had submitted reams of information on this module, always citing ‘independent’ peer review of the submission. The ‘independence’ of the peer review group must be questioned when Shell is paying the ‘independent’ professionals. The scope of the review must also be questioned. How critical was the review? Was it a review of the techniques employed by Shell or a ‘strategic’ review? It turned out to be a strategic review with none of the ‘independent’ peer review group able to offer any ‘new’ information on what they learned. All in all it was less than adequate to any observer. Independent peer review was one issue Shell trumpeted at all stages during the hearing. Shell may claim it, verbally and on paper but in the end, it did not convince many, if any, who attended the oral hearing.


When it comes to peat or bog the experts are the people who work with it. Martin Healy was back with more information on his experience of working with bog, after his initial submission last week. He also called his uncle, Séamus Healy, to speak about his experience. “You cannot be greedy when cutting a bog,” said Séamus. “You can cut two metres in year one and a half metre the following year.” Really, there was nothing more to say. It is the wisdom of those few lines that poses the greatest challenge to Shell and their professional ‘hired guns’ and also to An Bord Pleanála. When Shell complained that their ‘experts’ had offices to run and wondered when the hearing would end, there was no thought for the thirty or so north Mayo people who had to make an 80-mile round trip daily to attend the hearing and pay for their own petrol and food. The Shell ‘experts’ were being royally wined and dined and getting paid for every second they ‘endured’ the oral hearing. One cannot but be amazed at the arrogance of it.


Bord Gais Eireann (BGE) was supposed to have a representative there last week to answer questions on the pipeline route from the terminal to the Mayo/Galway pipeline on to Craughwell in Galway. S/he never turned up but the authority was ‘delegated’ to one of Shell’s ‘hired guns.’ The question is how can a state-sponsored company like BGE allow a person from a private company to stand up and answer important questions on their behalf at an oral hearing? Are these people on BGE’s payroll? Or is this an exercise in charity from the ‘hired guns’? This is more nonsense from the likes of BGE who must be called to give details of the working width required over a pipeline and if the pipeline route from the terminal is the same as the route they have declared in their own EIS on the Mayo/Galway pipeline. If it is different then a new EIS will be required for the Mayo/Galway pipeline. This cavalier attitude cannot be tolerated.


The cavalier attitude also permeated the submission and responses from the Health and Safety Authority (HSA). Again it showed a statutory body acting in a way that defied belief. This is the authority which accepted their baseline information from Shell. This is the authority which last February described the project as a ‘major development’ yet this time around, after consultation with Shell, can define the project as ‘lower tier.’ The report outlining the HSA's reasons for choosing ‘lower tier’ was not included in their submission to An Bord Pleanála. Lower tier designation means the project neither requires an internal safety report from Shell nor an external emergency plan by Mayo County Council. This is farcical and would surely raise many a laugh were it not so serious an issue. The HSA is the authority which last February declared unambiguously that the safety distance zone from the terminal to the nearest house is 1300 metres. Last week they stated that less than 1000 metres is safe. This is the authority, in devising the new safety distance, accepted a map from Shell which was inaccurate. Houses in the vicinity had been placed too far away from the terminal with one house not appearing on the map at all. This is the authority that used the distance between structures within the terminal and the nearest houses as a safety measurement instead of using the perimeter of the site and the nearest house. In the HSA's safety zone ‘measurement’ of Ringaskiddy they used the perimeter of the site, according to Mr John Connolly, a retired fire officer, who asked pertinent questions of the HSA at the hearing but did not receive detailed answers. One observer at the hearing stated; “We are surely living in Bongo Bongo land.” He has a point. This is the authority which never examined if the employees at the terminal had an escape route in the case of fire. They also never examined the effects of a vapour explosion on the peat repositories (where up to 600,000 cubic metres of peat will be stored.) They never examined the effects of a fire on surrounding boglands. They were more concerned about trees close to the terminal catching fire than the effects of a fire or escaping gas moving outwards from the terminal towards nearby homes. They never examined that. They never examined the need for a register of major hazard chemicals. At the same time they did admit that the terminal will store a higher than recommended safety level of methanol. They did not examine whether the Corrib gas is ‘wet’ or ‘dry.’ A Department of the Marine report claimed it was wet while a Shell report claimed it was dry. Both reports were submitted to the oral hearing. The wetter the gas the more condensate it will contain, therefore the more it will have to be cleaned. Cleaning means that an anti-corrosion mix will have to be used. More detailed risk assessments are then required of HSA. The HSA officials visited a Shell terminal in Bacton outside Norwich. During their visit the gas flow had stopped because of a problem with one of the gas pipelines. It was a clear opportunity to examine safety and emergency procedures except that ‘our boys’ did not know the gas was not flowing. The HSA summary about the proposed Corrib terminal risks to nearby residents was short and sweet – “It’s very low.”


The Erris Inshore Fishermen’s Association has left the Environmental Monitoring Group. They say it is nothing more than a talking shop. Spokesman Eddie Diver said as much when he claimed the fishermen had lost all faith in the process. He said they had attempted dialogue with Shell on several occasions but to no avail. “All our concerns were ignored,” he said. “ We are now completely opposed to the proposed terminal and will only reconsider our position if plans for an off-shore terminal are forthcoming.”


Even Dúchas has serious concerns over the proposal. Jim Moore had been firm in expressing his concerns. If only his superiors felt the same way. They have acted most unprofessionally as a notifiable body. They can argue that Mayo County Council did not allot them sufficient time to make a submission last year in the run up to the planning decision date. That is over a year ago and it has been left to Jim Moore to plough a lone furrow for Dúchas and to give them any credibility on the issue. It is claimed that there are major differences in the upper echelons of Dúchas over the project. In his submission Jim Moore stated, as he did in February last, that the project “may have significant adverse effects on the three EU designated sites in the area.”


An Bord Pleanála is expected to have its report completed in January or so. It will then be sent to its Board of Directors with a recommendation to retain or overturn Mayo County Council’s planning permission for gas terminal in Bellanaboy. We may not know the final answer until March – just when the ‘window of opportunity’ opens up again for exploration companies to plan their ‘outside’ work for the year. The oral hearing exercise is an ideal example of democracy in action. The acceptance of the Inspectors’ report will be another example, hopefully. Several of the sequences at the oral hearing would give scriptwriters plenty of material for a Simpsons series.

Posted Date: 
10 April 2005 - 1:11pm