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Corrib and the art of bog building

James Laffey - Editior's Chair - Western People - 09/12/2009

EVENTS in Ireland in recent weeks would remind one of the final scenes of Shakespeare‘s King Lear. Even the gods of nature have turned against us as we are made to learn the bitter lessons of our imprudent past. Not only have we discovered that the homes and apartments we bought were over-priced but now it appears many of them were built on swamplands that are susceptible to flooding.

RTE’s Frontline last Monday night made for upsetting viewing. Indeed, all of the television coverage of the recent floods in the West and Midlands has been distressing, especially when one sees footage of people returning to their flooded homes. But last week’s Frontline was more than distressing; it was downright infuriating.

Firstly, we had a Green Party Minister slumped in a chair, shrugging his shoulders and muttering ‘I told you so’when the discussion came around to bad planning. Then there was a college professor nattering about global warming while ordinary farmers attempted to make legitimate and sensible points about the failure of the state to maintain waterways during the past half century. Now, I’m not saying global warming isn’t an issue in all of this, and I’m not suggesting that clearing out waterways would avoid all flooding, but I do think that the voices of ordinary people need to be heard when it comes to infrastructural projects. They are the people on the ground, with years and years of local knowledge, and while they may not be correct all of the time they are usually able to steer so-called experts in the right direction. Which brings me to my central point.

On several occasions during the course of last Monday’s show, Pat Kenny expressed astonishment at the fact that shops, hotels, houses and apartments had been built on flood plains. A councillor from Co Monaghan was wheeled out and made to look a prize fool for attempting to put a housing estate in the middle of a turlough. Residents of the flooded ‘Waterways’ complex in Co Kildare were reminded that the name of their new home should have been a giveaway clue when they were making their over-priced purchases. And the question everyone kept returning to during the course of the evening was how could planning permission have been granted for commercial and residential developments in flood plains?

I have to admit I smiled ironically at the naivety of those, including Pat Kenny, who posed that question because once upon a long time ago I was as naïve as them when it came to planning matters. That was back in the early part of this decade when I was reporting on the early stages of the Corrib Gas project.

The original plan for the terminal at Bellanaboy in North Mayo was so ridiculous it defied parody. The largest piece of infrastructure in the history of the State was to be constructed on an unstable bog, within close proximity of private residences and in an area that was utterly cut off from basic emergency services. Even more astounding was the plan to dig 500,000 tonnes of peat from the 400-acre site and dump it on a hill, overlooking a main road.

I sat through those early public hearings into the Corrib project with my mouth agape. I had gone there with pre-conceived prejudices: I believed the local residents, who were against the project, were essentially harebrained idealists with no concept of the real world, and were holding up badly-needed development in the West. But after hearing the plans for the terminal and pipeline I went away wondering who were the harebrained idealists and who were the realists. By the end of the second day I had made up my mind.

Almost a decade later I can still recall my utter astonishment when officials from the Health and Safety Authority told the hearing that dumping 500,000 tonnes of peat on the side of a hill in an area with a history of landslides was not a risk to public safety. It was one of those moments when you began to wonder if logic could be bad for your health. I had convinced myself - with all the naïvety of the uninitiated - that the civil servants responsible for health and safety would put an end to the charade that was unfolding before my eyes. Surely they would not put their imprimatur on a proposal that was clearly prejudicial to public safety?

But the officials didn’t even stop to blink. They tipped their forelocks to the oil executives, gave a two-finger salute (metaphorically speaking, of course) to the local residents and told the hearing they were entirely satisfied with the project. The rest, as they say, is history.

Of course, the man-made mountain of peat at Bellanaboy never materialised because An Bord Pleanála shot it down, but the terminal went ahead and is now nearing completion. It’s built on a bog - a notoriously volatile bog - but the Health and Safety Authority reckons it’s okay so who am I to question their professional judgment. Government ministers also say it meets appropriate planning standards and I would not deign to question the opinion of these men and women of infinite wisdom who have managed the country so admirably in recent years.

Several of those protesters who lodged the early objections to Corrib now possess criminal records. They were right about one thing: Corrib was bad for their health and safety. It has to be said that some protesters have been lost in the fog of war and have done things that no law-abiding citizen could condone, but it should equally be acknowledged that they were treated with utter disdain from the first moment they lodged objections that were rooted in commonsense.

No-one in authority has accepted that were it not for these protesters 500,000 tonnes of peat would have been dumped on the side of a main road. It would have been in place by September 2003 when landslides devastated nearby Pullathomas. The UK geologist employed by An Bord Pleanála was certainly unimpressed with what was been proposed. The floods of the past month have given a previously uninformed public an insight into the shocking planning decisions that were made during the Celtic Tiger years. The emotions expressed on the Frontline last week were not dissimilar to those I experienced a decade ago in the Downhill Hotel in Ballina when I saw public servants - no doubt under pressure from senior government figures - acquiesce to a ludicrous scheme that was simply designed to save money for an avaricious exploration company.

I only hope the sins of bad planning in Bellanaboy do not come back to haunt us as they have done in other parts of the country. Such a scenario is just too awful to contemplate.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009