20 October 2005 Edition

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ESB in Basque power station controversy

International news - In a case reminiscent of the Corrib pipeline row an Irish state company is facing local opposition to one of its projects in the Basque Country

A power station built by Irish state company the ESB is to start operations next week in the Basque Country despite opposition from local residents.

In a case reminiscent of the Corrib pipeline controversy in Mayo, the inhabitants of Zornotza, Bizkaia, are protesting against the combined cycle power plant, so called because it uses a combination of natural gas and steam to produce electricity.

In October 1999 the ESB presented the outline of the project. By November that year, residents presented 800 objections and in 2000 established the Zornotza Bizirik (Zornotza Alive) forum to organise against the station. It includes ecology and social groups, and members of political parties Batasuna, EA and EB. Its aims are to oppose the plant and inform citizens about the possible consequences for the area. The group has mounted numerous protests and obtained 15,000 signatures for a petition against the project.

Zornotza Town Council had moved to call a local referendum for September 2001 but this was cancelled after the mayor and seven town councillors were pressurised by their party the PNV, to prevent it going ahead. Zornotza Bizirik decided to organise its own referendum on 14 April 2002. The results were 53 votes in favour of building of the station and 5,352 votes against.

This €520 million power plant is the largest investment in the Basque Autonomous Community by a company from outside the Spanish State.

In October 2004, ESB decided to sell 50% of the combined cycle facility to the Japanese corporation Osaka Gas, one of the largest gas corporations in its home country with a workforce of more than 15,000. However, the ESB is still fully responsible for the running of the plant.

As a benefit for the residents of the mainly rural area, ESB promised jobs, as Shell does in Mayo: "The construction of the new plant will provide jobs for 500 people and, when finished, the management and operation involved will be in the hands of a staff of 50 skilled technicians. Besides this, the plant's maintenance needs will give rise to further employment. The benefits of an investment of this kind can also be measured in terms of employment and quality of life for all. Not only for Amorebieta-Etxano (Zornotza) and its surroundings, but also for Biscay (Bizkaia) and, in the final analysis, for the whole of the Basque Country," says ESB's Bizkaia Energia website.

However, the company largely ignored the impact of their presence in a rural area, where villages will become satellite neighbourhoods to the development. There is also the issue of Co2 emissions, nearly three million tonnes per year, and nitrogen oxides, the main ingredient in the formation of ground-level ozone. This contributes to global warming and can trigger serious respiratory problems. Another issue is the presence of NOx, which contributes to the formation of acid rain and deteriorates water quality.

Neither the environmental impact or the residents' opposition have deterred the ESB, which is now studying the possibility of building a similar plant in the neighbouring Basque province of Gipuzkoa.

An Phoblacht
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