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High pressure battle (CBC Canada)

Clare Byrne is a journalist living in Dublin who contributes features to national newspapers and news magazines, including the Irish Times and the Irish Independent. She is also a part-time French teacher. Clare moved back to Ireland late last year after some ten years overseas – in France, Belgium and, most recently, Canada. She spent two years in Montreal from 2002 to 2004 where she worked as a reporter and newswriter with Radio-Canada International and was also a regular contributor to the Montreal Gazette.

The first Willie and Mary Corduff heard of the pipeline going through their farm in County Mayo in western Ireland was when a man with a Scottish accent came to the door in August 2000 and told them he wanted to dig trial holes.
Willie and Mary CorduffThe Corduffs had heard about the discovery of a major gas field off the Irish coast near their home in the village of Rossport four years earlier – the first major gas find off Irish shores in over 30 years. After that, there had been talk of a pipeline to bring the raw gas ashore for processing at an onshore terminal. But it wasn't going near their home, or so they thought. "We might be putting the pipeline here," the employee from Enterprise Energy Ireland, later Shell E & P Ireland, told them. "He didn't ask, he told," Willie emphasized, still taken aback at the manner in which they learned their home was on the proposed route of a high-pressure pipeline. If their first encounter with the oil industry that day was unpleasant, there was a lot worse to come. The ensuing six-year battle over what is known as the Corrib gas project would drive a wedge through a once close-knit rural community and see five men jailed for 94 days for protesting its implementation. The men say their main concern is for the safety of their families. The proposed pipeline that would run within 70 metres of their doors is designed to withstand pressure levels of up to 345 bar – levels unprecedented in a populated area. By way of comparison, the pipelines used by the national gas distributor Bord Gais to supply gas to Irish towns operate at a maximum 88 bar. No two pipelines are the same, so there is no international consensus on how far away you would have to be to stay safe in the event of an explosion. But supporters of the Rossport Five, as the five men are now known, say they only have to look to New Mexico, where a 45-bar pressure pipeline exploded in the desert six years ago, killing 12 people within a distance of 230 metres, or to the Belgian town of Ghislenghien, where in September 2004 a gas explosion cremated everything with a 400-metre radius to know that 70 metres in the event of a disaster is too close for comfort. Willie Corduff, father of six, was one of the jailed men. The others are Micheal O Seighin, a retired schoolteacher, Vincent McGrath, also a teacher, and Brendan Philbin and Philip McGrath, both farmers. Willie had never run afoul of the law before. "Not even a speeding ticket?" He shakes his head. The Corduffs led a quiet life in Rossport, bordered by the sea on one side and an ocean of bogland on the other, before the Scottish man came knocking. "We didn't see the harm in anyone," Mary says of the community. They had reared six children – ranging in age from mid-teens to mid-twenties – on 20 acres of land that had been painstakingly reclaimed from the bog, each sod dug and turned by hand with a spade. They had also built a comfortable home around the farmyard, with a fine view of the surf as it passes through an estuary on its way from Broadhaven Bay a few kilometres away. Then, Shell arrived, promising 1,000 jobs and millions of euros in local investment. In an area where some still struggle to make ends meet, the Corrib gas project was manna from heaven. In Dublin, the government threw its weight behind the project arguing that it would reduce Ireland's inordinate dependence on gas imports (85 per cent of supply). Dozens of the Rossport residents were also won over and signed forms allowing Shell access to their land, for which they were compensated. In fact, the signatures were little more than a formality, as the government minister responsible for energy had already given Shell authorization for the pipeline plan. A compulsory acquisition order on the owners' lands had been issued – the first time the government had given a private company access to private lands. But then Shell made what many consider a monumental public relations error. They sought an injunction against those landowners who refused to allow the engineers into their fields. In June 2005, Willie Corduff and the four others were sent to jail for refusing to comply with the court directive and told they would remain behind bars until they backed down. But the men held their ground and it was the oil company that was the first to blink. By the time Shell applied to have the injunction against the men lifted, paving the way for their release 94 days later, the Rossport Five had become a symbol for many of the global struggle against powerful vested interests. "When Shell jailed the men, that was the biggest mistake they made," said Mary. Seeing her husband imprisoned was "terrible," she says, recalling how Willie was absent when their son Liam graduated from high school. Six months later, despite the government's appointment of a mediator and Shell's decision to temporarily suspend work on the project to allow for dialogue, a resolution appears to be as elusive as ever. The Rossport Five are demanding that the gas be processed at an offshore terminal, thereby eliminating the need for the pipeline – an option Shell refuses to entertain. "It is uneconomical to process the gas at sea and this is not an option," a Shell spokesperson said, citing increased safety risks for offshore workers. Shell also points out that the pipeline has been cleared in several safety reviews and that it has invested almost 1.3 million euros in a fund for the community. But despite these assurances, the Corduffs remain skeptical. "There's no pipeline designed to explode," says Mary. It's meant to work, but, you know, it doesn't always."

Posted Date: 
29 March 2006 - 4:53am