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Why is Shell’s experimental pipeline in Mayo so dangerous?
When the inland gas refinery near Rossport was proposed in the late 1990s, many local people welcomed the project. But when they did some research, they quickly became extremely concerned. They discovered this was an experimental project; nothing like it had been tried anywhere in the world.
Raw, unprocessed gas would be carried at extremely high pressure, directly from under the sea-bed, through a pipeline in an unstable bog where landslides are common. The proposed pipeline for Rossport is nothing like the gas pipelines people live close to in other parts of Ireland:
• the pressure would be 144 bar, and possibly higher, compared to a maximum 5 bar in a domestic pipeline;
• the gas would still contain chemical impurities that corrode pipes and are highly explosive – these are removed at the refinery;
• it would not contain the odour that alerts residents to a leak – this is added at the refinery.
At the Bord Pleanála hearing in June 2009 into this onshore pipeline route, Shell consultants admitted that, in the event of a leak, “houses within 230 metres of the pipeline could burn spontaneously from heat radiation” and that “houses within 171m would be at risk if the gas pressure was at 144 bar” (Irish Times, 04/06/09), the reduced pressure level Shell was forced to retreat to by earlier protests. There are about 33 houses within this “kill zone”. Also, the pipeline would pass just 1.4 metres below fields and roads.
Waste water from the refinery would flow into Carrowmore Lake, the source of drinking water for 10,000 people in Erris.
Since 2000, local people have been demanding that the gas is processed at sea, before it reaches residential areas, as is standard practice worldwide. They have never objected to gas being piped ashore in the normal way.
The Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Noel Dempsey, commissioned a company to produce what was called an "Independent Safety Review" of the pipeline. After the company produced its report, it emerged that it was jointly owned by Shell and British Petroleum. Dempsey denied the report was compromised but agreed to commission another. The second review was strongly criticised by those opposed to the project for failing to consider alternatives to refining the gas onshore. Another company, Accufacts Inc., also produced a report on the pipeline for the Centre for Public Inquiry, it was highly critical of the current plans for the pipeline, and skeptical of the assurances given. It said:
"It should be fairly obvious by now that past information on this project has been less than complete. Much of this information appears to be of a propaganda nature intended to spin public relations to an ill informed or misinformed public or government. In today’s information age this is a tactic fraught with risks as the deceptions are uncovered. Regarding the proposed onshore pipeline route, serious challenges should be raised as to any risk analysis that fails to adequately address the issues raised by the production pipeline, as the thermal impact zones for this very unique high pressure pipeline are quite large with a high probability of mortality..."
"If the Gas Processing Plant site location were to remain as proposed, we advise a reroute of the proposed pipeline incorporating safety buffer zones of 200 metres for dwellings and at least 400 metres for unsheltered individuals."
"Placement of a Gas Process Plant on a shallow offshore platform would substantially reduce production pipeline rupture impact zones associated with specific pipeline design modifications. A transmission pipeline from such an offshore facility could be operated at lower pressures, move much higher quality gas, and permit appropriate cleaning and smart pigging programs that would reduce the potential impact zone associated with a gas transmission pipeline failure."
Other experts have also cast doubt on Advantica's claims. Some contend that the safety zone around the pipeline should be at least 500 metres (the norm in the United States) from any dwellings. With the midified route houses are 140m from the pipeline. In Scotland, which has a long history of regulating refineries, it is unheard of that a refinery should be built within the catchment area of a drinking water supply, as Shell intends for Bellanabo.
The Irish Times reported on 4th June 2009 that the An Bord Pleanála hearing had been told that
"SHELL EP Ireland consultants have conceded that safe shelter in the event of a rupture and explosion has not yet been identified for residents living close to the proposed Corrib gas onshore pipeline.
The consultants also told the An Bord Pleanála oral hearing in north Mayo yesterday that houses within 230 metres of the pipeline could “burn spontaneously” from heat radiation if gas in the pipe was at full pressure.
Residents would have just 30 seconds to escape from thermal radiation if gas within the pipe was at full pressure, the team acknowledged in response to Mr Wright’s examination.
Houses within 171m would be at risk if the gas pressure was at 144 bar – the pressure level agreed by the developers after a State-commissioned safety review – the Shell team admitted when it was put to them in questions.
Both 171m and 230m are greater than the minimum separation distance of 140m from houses allowed for in the pipeline route, Mr Wright observed."