19 April 2001 Edition

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The downside of the Corrib gas find

Mayo people's pollution fears

When the British struck oil in the North Sea, they hit the holy grail. It brought revenue, jobs, economic growth and the end of boom/bust economic policy.

When gas was found off the coast of Ireland, first at Kinsale and then on the Corrib field, a bonanza, for a part of Ireland at least, was on the horizon. The finds promised cheap and homegrown energy, industrial growth, jobs and power and development to western seaboard counties. With gas would come infrastructure. Roads, power and telecommunications were just around the corner. Except that Ray Burke sold off the rights, the royalties, for nothing. The corporation tax rate was cut from 35% to 25%, with development costs written off, and the state company, Bord Gáis, would buy all the gas and pay 50/50 for the pipeline that would take the gas away from the West. This amounts to a £50 million marketing subsidy to Enterprise Energy Ireland (EEI), which already has a guaranteed market. In effect, it means no economic benefit whatever to the state.

Nevertheless, the campaign goes on to get the Corrib field to yield benefits to the West. Campaigners are actively pursuing interconnectors into Mayo and on up to Sligo and even Donegal. A pipeline, they argue, could transform the economic potential of the whole Northwestern seaboard.

Corrib gas is to be brought ashore and cleaned in the far northwest of County Mayo, on the Erris peninsula. Things look a little different from there. Questions are being asked as to whether gas from the Corrib field offers local people or even the people of Ireland any substantial benefits at all. Gas from the Corrib, given present proposals, comes at a huge cost to the local environment. Local people in Northwest Mayo are wondering whether these costs are worth paying when the benefits appear so slim.

The Corrib field was discovered off the Mayo coast in 1996. The size of the gas field has not been clarified by Enterprise, though test results achieved 64 million cubic feet of gas per day. EEI, the operating company, is a subsidiary of Enterprise Oil plc and owns 45% of the partnership in the Corrib Field, with Statoil, a Norwegian company, holding 55% and Marathon Oil 18%.

The plan is to bring the gas in its crude state direct from the field by a pipeline, across a greenfield site at Rossport, to an onshore terminal and cleaning station at Ballinaboy Bridge in the townland of Bellagelly South. Where the Kinsale Gas field had two fixed terminal platforms at sea, at Corrib EEI proposes an onshore cleaning station and remote operation of the subsea well. Once cleaned, the gas would then be piped directly to Craughwell in County Galway and connect to the national gas grid.

EEI suggests the remote operation of the well is high tech, but locals think EEI is cutting costs because the small isolated communities in Northwest Mayo might not have sufficient clout to challenge a dirty operation, which at Kinsale was done 50 km out to sea. And research indicates it is a very dirty process indeed.

The 'cleaning terminal' burns off the dirty liquid gas and its impurities and cleans the gas of other impurities, including heavy metals, by washing these wastes, along with a corrosion inhibitor, back out to sea. The pipeline will run out into the semi-enclosed Broadhaven Bay, creating serious pollution problems.

The cleaning terminal, a large combustion plant, is a huge project. It will require in excess of 120 MW power to operate, four times the capacity of the Ballacorick turf powered power station. The power will come from burning off the uncleaned gas condensate, full of chemical nasties, such as oxides of carbon and nitrogen, sulphur dioxide, methane and ozone.

There are nine chimneys, four of them approximately 140 feet high. They will release carbon dioxide and methane equivalent to the global warming potential of 27,000 dairy cows. The Environmental Impact Study (EIS) from Enterprise Energy Ireland (EEI) notes two houses within a 2 km radius of the station. In fact, there are 16 houses.

The waste water problem is twofold. There is a pipe to take waste impurities to sea and a perforated perimeter ditch which will surround the drainage from the site. The waste water storage sump is designed to withstand one hour continuous rainfall, though Crossmolina had 106 days consecutive rainfall last autumn. The overflow will flow into Carrowmore Lake, which feeds the water supply of Erris.

This untreated waste water will contain many lethal substances, including lead, nickel, magnesium, phosphorus, chromium, arsenic, mercury and the radioactive gas radon.

Broadhaven Bay is semi-enclosed with respect to tidal movements. The toxins will accumulate and destroy the salmon and crab fishing upon which the village of Portlurin and other villages depend.

The Erris Inshore Fisherman's Association has pointed out the damage these discharges to marine life and argues that EEI has selected the pipeline route on strictly economic grounds (shorter and cheaper) with no regard to fishing grounds or traditional livelihoods.

Then there is the problem of clearing the site for the terminal station. The proposal is to redistribute 60 acres of peat, 10 to 15 foot deep to the rock below. Local couple Gerard and Monica Muller believe EEI has no conception of the logistics of moving this peat, which is largely water. They calculate it will take 27,000 lorry loads.

Then there are objections from the farmers who farm the smallholdings along the side of Sruwaddacon Bay at Rossport. EEI has treated with utter contempt, they say, their request to consider taking the pipeline through the commonage above and behind their farms rather than to run it straight across their small green fields.

There is a lot of ill feeling amongst the Rossport community over EEI's attitude to their request for information and consultation. ``No one wants this gas to come onshore here. If we cannot protect our natural resources upon which we rely for survival as a vibrant community,'' says An t-Athair Deaglán Mac Conghamhna, himself a remarkable man who spent some months with the Innuit in Alaska as a missionary priest. ``We cannot allow this to be destroyed if we want to survive as a vibrant community.''

Will the pipeline bring substantial economic benefits to the west? Some people say that the benefits of a spur gas pipeline north through Sligo to Letterkenny, must surely bring economic development to the Northwest. There are plans to bring a broadband connectivity back down the same pipeline. This holds out the potential of e-commerce and online software distribution centres to come to the Northwest, given sufficiently reliable, 220 kV transmission of power. At present, only 3 of the 22 Internet data centres in the state are located outside Dublin, where power lines are heavily overloaded.

Many in the West believe that this type of e-commerce investment is peculiarly suited to the West and offers the potential of many jobs, almost the cottage industry for the 21st century. Others believe the pipeline brings little of this infrastructure but risks destroying the environmental advantages of peace and tranquility enjoyed at present, and which people from the cities will pay highly to experience.

``These are the questions which face the people of North West Mayo. They have a democratic right to be a part of the decision-making process,'' says Vincent Wood, local Sinn Féin activist. ``It would be disgraceful if their interests were ignored simply because their numbers are small. Their knowledge is great.''

Will Mayo County Council, or An Bord Pleanála listen to their fears and objections?

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