"This is one of the most important stories of it's kind in Europe."
Three or four years ago I first put my name on the list for a tour of the Shell site at Bellanaboy. Nothing. I requested a site visit again and again nothing. I put my name on yet another list a year ago and the visit I was to go on was cancelled at short notice – no reason given. Early this year I went into the Shell offices in Belmullet and demanded my name be put on a list for a tour complaining that this was my fourth attempt and that as a local resident I was demanding my right to be brought in on a site tour.
This week I got a phone call from Mary Carolan of Shell telling me to be at Bellanaboy at 10.30am sharp and that I would be on Bus 2.
I arrived outside the refinery at 10.30 and was given an A4 sheet to put in the front of my car so that I could get through gate security. All the way Shell employees were standing waving me through to the car park in the centre of the site. I noticed that every employee had a large smile on their faces and they waved and gestured in a strange OTT manner as they ushered in the visiting vehicles.
I parked my car and a Shell employee rushed over and told me all cars had to face outwards and I had driven the wrong way into my allotted parking space. I had to pull out and drive backwards into my space (“for safety reasons”, he explained apologetically). The entire area was totally littered with safety signs of all shapes, wording and sizes filling every available space. (some kind of brain washing exercise I wondered?)
I got out of my car and saw two buses. Mary Carolan approached me and told me to get on whichever bus I fancied. Both buses seemed to be full of people so I got onto Corduff’s bus. Shell staff were running around apparently overwhelmed with having their “biggest tour ever”. A quick calculation of numbers was approx 70 people, many of them children with their mothers and the majority of the rest being single males, mostly on the wrong side of 50.
We sat for ages on the buses while shell staff went down the buses checking all passengers and getting us to sign our names on a sheet.
We were all told to fasten our seat belts (for safety reasons) for our journey. In less than 200 metres we reached our destination – a series of portacabins and scaffolding which we were told was the canteen. We left the bus and were herded in to several tables with two rows of chairs packed into the space for one row. Packed along like sardines we surveyed the scene. There were a few plates of mostly cheese sandwiches with a couple of salad type ones and wrapped chocolate bars. Each setting had a white cup with a plastic stirrer in it. There were ketchup sachets and mayonnaise sachets and sugar sachets. It was about 11.20 am. A pot of soup appeared at the far end of the table. The soup was dished out into small bowls which had to be passed person to person along the length of the table. Several people got none and there was shouting about how many more bowls were required. It was chaotic but finally most people had their soup bowl. As there appeared to be no salt, many people accidentally poured the sugar sachets into their soup bowls and stirred it up. It gave us a laugh and allowed me to enquire where those around me had come from and why they had come. The few salad type sandwiches disappeared fast. People pocketed the wrapped chocolate bars for later! Tea came to the end of the table. Chaos again. You had to take your cup up and rely on the line of people down the table to pass your cup along from hand to hand to get it filled up and then passed back again through all those people’s hands to get your cup back. Luckily for me I enjoyed the “weak as dishwater” tea but those around me were less appreciative.
I listened to the talk around the tables – it was all about money, loads of money here, no shortage of money here, the boys that are working here are raking it in, money, money, money, money, oh the boom in Belmullet, wasn’t it the 8th wonder of the world!! The drool was practically running down their chins talking about the money that was here and the excitement of it all!
The people around me at my table were an elderly man from Castlebar who had read all about the Corrib Gas issues in the newspapers and he had decided to come to Bellanaboy to discover the truth for himself!! (he was going to learn it here all right! LOL) and an elderly couple from Geesala who didn’t seem to know what to think – they were also seeking the “truth”. The ones to my left were far too busy drooling over the money that could be got from here that they became misty eyed from their greed and saw nothing outside of themselves and the money that could be got from working here.
After we had managed to slurp up our soup from shallow dessert spoons, it was time for the powerpoint presentation in the canteen area. Tony Doyle introduced himself as the construction manager and Vanessa McGrath introduced herself as an engineer on the project. Both had clown-like semi-circular smiles plastered on their faces from ear to ear and “jolly hockeysticks” personalities.
Tony Doyle told the assembled crowd that the staff canteen we were in was the most wonderful thing since sliced bread. It was truly magnificent, nothing like it was ever seen in this area before and better still, now that the construction phase is finished, its going to be all taken up and ploughed back into the ground along with the car parks and the roads and the land is going to be returned back to nature just as God intended. The peat would be brought back and it would be put back into place and the natural (!!) ‘conifer’ forestry would be planted back on top of it and it would become the natural landscape again and nobody would be any the wiser. As for the sheds which Shell had brought into the area, the local farmers were killing each other to try and get these sheds for themselves but Shell hasn’t yet decided what its going to do with these sheds so the vying farmers will just have to wait and see who the lucky few are going to be who will become the proud owners of Shell’s old site sheds!!
Tony Doyle told us that every Shell worker gets two good hot, wholesome meals every day prepared from them by this canteen, a fine cooked breakfast and..... added exhuberantly “and all FOR FREE”. I glanced around at the assembled audience. Many heads were nodding benevolently at Shell’s generosity and some were whispering to their friends how wonderfully kind and wonderful these people are to the people of Erris!! More drooling at the lips! Do-gooders personified! (I had to do a check on my sensibilities as I briefly thought I had taken a trip through a time tunnel back to the 1840’s and had landed into Erris during the Irish Famine.)
The powerpoint presentation explained how Shell would be using gas to power their own turbines to generate their own electricity so that they would not be a burden on the local people’s supply of electricity. We were told how they would take the flow of natural gas from the sea and then compress it up to 85 bars pressure to meet the Bord Gais requirements for 85 bars of pressure is the rate it flows through the gas pipelines throughout Ireland!!! Everything was so good, so much benefit for the local community, there was no danger whatsoever, this is so natural and good.
The slug catcher will treat the gas dividing it into water and condensates. The condensates are not waste – it will be sent away to Whitegate Refinery in Cork where it will be made into useful products. The water will be treated in the Axionics plant here on site.
There’s an emergency flare. It will never be used but had to be there to satisfy requirements and is there for an emergency situation only. But this site is so safe that such a situation will never occur here. (Later on the bus, Vanessa McGrath repeatedly cooed “We will only have to use it occasionally hopefully, hopefully as little as possible, hopefully, hopefully..........)
The fire water pond – full fire fighting team can hook into hydrants all over the site in the case of an emergency situation.
There are magnificent medical facilities here – we have our own ambulance here – we would never want to take the ambulance service away from the native people who inhabit the areas around here – it would never do if they could not get ambulance services if they required it. Therefore, we are completely self contained. We have nurses trained to deal with every medical emergency and to help everybody with their personal problems too. We teach our people how to eat healthily and tell them how to make sure they have a good diet. We help them if they need to lose weight. We help them if they want to stop smoking or if they have other personal problems. We really look after every aspect of our employees health. Any little problems – our team will work with the people to solve them.
Safety is our prime concern. We work only to the highest quality standards. When the gas flows everything will work according to the highest standards and requirements. We are highly sophisticated. We have two full-time environmental lab people on site. We have constant monitoring for ground water, we have a full-time ecologist employed to make sure everything is perfect in that regard, we have a full-time archaeologist in attendance at all times on the site when work is being carried out. Everything about this site is perfect.
The local community is represented by the project Monitoring Committee who hold regular meetings to express any community concerns with Mayo County Council and this has been very successful. There have been no problems. Everything works perfectly.
Every result of every test is reported on the website.
Everything we do is 100% transparent
Over 2,000 local people have been here on tours of this site (was this pressure why I had to wait four years for my golden opportunity I pondered?)
We operate an open door policy
We are totally transparent
We test everything on site using nitrogen and helium flaring.
Everything is perfect on this site
In August, September and October of this year we plan to take in backfeed gas
In the final stage forward feed gas will flow – that’s the gas from 83 kms off the Mayo coast).
When the planning permission is granted (muttering in the assemblage confirms that that will be after the Bord Pleanala date of end of May 2010) the forward feed gas will flow through the tunnel under Sruth Fada Conn bay.
Pages and pages of powerpoint presentation giving lists of “local” firms, scaffolding, contractors, materials, employees etc etc....
Everyone benefits, loads of benefits to everybody, contractors, quarries, workers, community. We are offering unrivalled experience for putting on your CV’s. To have worked for Shell puts workers in a wonderful situation to find employment. Shell is so good for the local community. We currently have 890 workers on site. They are all local people. There are 67 people from Kilcommon parish. There are a further 160 people from Erris. Half of all employees are from Co. Mayo.
We bring very high economic benefits to this community.
We have a drive to keep as many local workers as possible.
The only people we bring into the area are skilled specialists.
We are massively beneficial to the local community. We ARE the local economy.
Vanessa McGrath takes over:-
We ARE the local economy. We are hugely successful. The summer internship programme is very successful for local 3rd level students – it is the most wonderful experience they will ever have the fortune to receive. We had 11 students the year before last, we had 15 last year and this year we will be bringing through 6 or 7.
Our scholarship programme is an outstanding success. We give local students €4,000 for each and every year of their studies through University. Its irreplaceable. Its valuable beyond all expectations. Its absolutely wonderful!! (Drool, drool)
Social Investment Grants. We give grants of €10,000 to lots of community projects, to benefit the community.
Erris Development Fund. We have funded everything. Belmullet GAA, Ballyglass Lifeboat, Fisheries............. (sorry, couldn’t write fast enough here..)
We’ve paid for everything that has been done – We refurbished Ballyglass Pier. We employed 1100 people earlier this year. Last summer we employed 1500 people. We’ve spent over €15 million on local road upgrades. Mayo County Council does the work and we pay the bill.
There will be 130 full-time positions for local people when the project is completed (“Ooh”, cooed the appreciative audience, “isn’t that wonderful”. A voice down from me said – “That’s all jobs in total I think” “Oh no”, said the mob “that’s the jobs for the locals”. Yeah, yeah, yeah! “A Northern Ireland/Donegal male voice said, “My application is in for those jobs”.
Vanessa continued, the gummy smile never fading
“Everything is perfect on this site”
Now, has anybody got any questions or have we done such a wonderful job that we have already answered any possible questions that you could possibly have? Aren’t we brilliant? (Canned laughter time but as there wasn’t any, a few sniggers sufficed and the presentation got a short clap from (most of) the assembled mob!)
Someone asked how many local jobs would there be? – 130
I bravely put up my hand and asked “What contingencies have you in place to deal with forest fires?”. Tony Doyle answered;-
“We have our fire break around our site. We have water hydrants in place more than adequate to deal with any fire which may occur on site. Outside of our site, the responsibility lies with Mayo County Council and is nothing to do with us”
I said “but forest fires are getting more common and they take a week or more to extinguish in this area”. “Nothing to do with us” Tony Doyle replied.
“No more questions then?”
“Eh”, I interjected, “What is the current status of your integrated pollution licence from the EPA?” The entire assemblage of the room now turned to stare at me. How dare I ask such a question and disrupt the party atmosphere!
Tony Doyle replied “Its applied for”.
I got a poke from my left hand side, a small man in his late 50’s who had ignored me up until now. “Who the.... are you?” he enquired, “Are you some sort of journalist or something?”
Many of the tour participants were children brought out for a free party. Shell staff “jizzed” them up telling them there were presents for them and that everyone in the audience would get a really special surprise too.
The arrival of the goodie bags for the children was loudly announced (reminiscent of a Maytime Santa!) and the children were all encouraged to run up to the Shell staff to get their presents!
While that was going on, more staff, all with inane grins plastered across their faces started waving piles of sealed envelopes above their heads (stirring the assembled mob into a frenzy of excitement!!) and saying that not to be fighting over them now – assuring the mob that there was one for everybody and warning people they must take one and one only. The envelopes were passed down the tables. What could this be? The excitement could hardly be contained. Some opened their envelopes and rushed to queue at the side of the canteen. The rest of us decided we had better open ours too. Inside mine there was a sheet of A4 paper printed with “Congratulations, You have won a cap”. I glanced at my neighbour’s sheets. Most of them said “Congratulations, You have won a magnet”. One ‘lucky’ man had won a bag.
A disorderly queue formed to claim our gifts from Shell, all emblazoned with Corrib Natural Gas logos. The man who had won the bag was in front of me. When he reached the top of the queue we noticed there were two types of bags – cheap sports bags and children’s school bags. The man asked for a sports bag. He was told condescendingly that there were’nt enough of them and he was given a children’s school bag. I collected my peaked cap. When I looked at it I noticed that the strap to hold it on was not stitched together and it was not capable of being worn unless I got busy with needle and thread first to correct its faulty manufacture. As for the magnets – postage stamp sized flexible fridge magnets with a 2010 calendar printed on them! Whoop di doo! What a surprise!!
The assemblage got up and headed for the buses outside.
The two buses, led by a small blue van went around the site at a speed of about 2 miles per hour where various bits were pointed out. When I took out the mobile phone to take a couple of pictures the other people on the bus glared at me as if I was invading their dirty little secret and they might accidentally get into my photos or even that I might dare to take photographs of them. Some rowdy men who battered the bus windows when they spotted their mate who was standing along the site route as security, tried to get into the way of me taking a photo declaring that they thought I might like to take the picture with their face in it to bed with me.
When we got to the bottom of the site, the buses turned around and drove back slowly by the same route so that “the people who were looking out their windows could now see the site the other way round”.
The Shell staff constantly referred to the fabulous technology they had on site; that had all the lighting on the site low level and pointed only towards the ground so that the site would be invisible at night. As anybody who lives locally knows, this site sticks out like a sore thumb each and every night for at least a distance of 20 kms all around.
The buses finally took us back to the car park.
I asked where they were going to get the peat to replace it back on site seeing how as they had removed it all to Shramore. I asked if they were going to go and get it all back again. The Shell employee I asked simply shrugged his shoulders and said he hadn’t got a clue.
Mary Carolan still with the smile pastered tight on her face, asked me if I had enjoyed my trip. Enjoyed wasn’t the word I would have chosen. I told her it was “interesting, thank you”.
I headed for my car aware that small groups of the assembled mob were watching me and discussing how dare I try to destroy their little party by asking questions which were beyond the scope of their understanding.