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San Fransisco Chronicle: Tale of rural Irishman who blocked oil giant

Tale of rural Irishman who blocked oil giant
Farmer rallied town and nation to halt Shell's gas pipeline
Veronique Mistiaen, Chronicle Foreign Service
Sunday, April 22, 2007

(04-22) 04:00 PDT Rossport, Ireland -- Willie Corduff is a quiet man who hates arguments. But when Shell E&P Ireland said it would build a $1.1 billion pipeline and refinery near his front yard in this small Irish village in County Mayo, the father of six fought back.
The 52-year-old farmer rallied his neighbors, spent three months in jail for denying the oil company access to his land and eventually halted the largest energy project in Irish history while raising the question on a national scale about economic development versus community consent and environmental concerns.
"I am not trying to cause problems or get publicity. In fact it is the opposite," said Corduff, who has been awarded the 2007 Goldman Environmental Prize for Europe for leading the anti-pipeline battle. "All I want is to stay where I am. ... My heart and soul are in this place."
When Corduff's parents arrived in Rossport in 1947, the region's wetlands -- known as bogs -- had to be reclaimed painstakingly by hand. Today, there are just a few farms dotting the vast, landscape of barren bogs and no industries or pollution. An estuary in front of Corduff's farm leads into Broadhaven Bay, a breeding ground of whales and dolphins.
But the discovery in 1996 of a huge gas field 50 miles off the Mullet Peninsula on the Atlantic coast threatens to change the rural landscape. Shell E&P Ireland, in partnership with Statoil Exploration (Norway's state energy company) and Ireland's Marathon International Petroleum, plans to develop the field to supply 60 percent of Ireland's natural gas.
The Corrib consortium, as the partnership is known, wanted to start production in 2003, bringing untreated gas ashore at Broadhaven Bay through a pipeline stretching 6 miles across Rossport, the small farming community where the Corduffs and some 150 others reside, to a nearby refinery in Bellanaboy.
To attract further investment, the government turned over all rights to the Corrib gas field to Shell and its partners, agreeing to receive no tax dollars in return.
While the gas field could earn Shell and its partners in excess of $60 billion in the project's estimated 20-year lifetime, Rossport would receive no royalties and its residents would have to pay full market price for gas. According to Shell Oil's Web site, the project would have generated employment for 700 during construction phase, but only 50 long-term jobs.
The Corduffs also discovered the pipeline the consortium planned to run through their village wasn't the typical low-pressure line that traverses other communities. Instead, it would carry raw, untreated gas at rates of pressure five times the standard measure, unprecedented levels in a populated area -- and just 230 feet from their home.
"How can we go to bed at night knowing that there is a pipeline full of raw gas down the road?" asked Mary Corduff. "We know it isn't meant to rupture, but accidents do happen. We'd worry at the slightest noise."
The Corduffs were also concerned about the proposed refinery being built on top of 30 feet of delicate bog ecosystem with a history of landslides, and whether emissions of radon gas, lead, nickel, mercury and other refinery toxins would affect nearby Carrowmore Lake, the primary source of water for the region's 10,000 residents.
But the consortium argued that the project was safe and that an offshore terminal would be too expensive and dangerous because of rough winter seas. The government backed that position, allowing Corrib to lay pipeline across the property of more than two-dozen Rossport farmers and landowners.
The deal violated European Union environmental laws requiring local participation and review, according to Shell to Sea, the grassroots campaign begun by the Corduffs and others. It represented the first time in Irish history that a government had compelled the sale of property to a private company in an arrangement called Compulsory Acquisition Order, which allows the use of land on private property when the public interest is at stake and suitable land cannot be acquired by agreement.
"Our government sold us out. We felt isolated and desperate. No one was paying attention to our demands," Willie Corduff recalled.
He and four neighbors then refused to allow consortium workers access to their lands. In June 2005, Shell obtained a court injunction against them. All were imprisoned in Dublin for 94 days for contempt of court.
"We had always respected the law ... until this," said Willie Corduff. "I had always felt that there was somebody out there to protect us, that if you did the right thing, you would get justice, but no. This was a terrible blow."
But their incarceration marked a turning point. Previously, the plight of Mayo families defending their land was given little publicity, but suddenly the faces of the five men were everywhere on the news as the Rossport Five. Soon there were rallies of support across the country and protesters picketed Shell gas stations.
In Rossport, "Shell Out" signs sprouted along roads, and opponents of the project set up round-the-clock blockades at the refinery site and built a campsite dubbed the "Rossport Solidarity Camp." Most important, Shell to Sea has grown from a local environmental campaign to a national movement focused on the rights of local communities.
Owens Wiwa, brother of Nigerian writer Ken Saro-Wiwa -- a past Goldman Prize winner who was executed in 1995 by the Nigerian government for opposing Shell's operations in that African nation -- visited the five activists in jail, calling their plight "a classic David and Goliath story."
In August, the consortium suspended groundwork at the terminal site, agreeing to find an alternative route for the pipeline "within the vicinity of Rossport" and limit pipeline pressure to just twice the standard measure. In October, 150 police officers were sent to allow the company to resume work on the terminal.
And on Wednesday, a High Court in Dublin ruled that the Compulsory Acquisition Orders against the five landowners have to be dropped -- effectively making it impossible for the consortium to continue with its original pipeline route.
Now a government hearing board is studying the environmental impact of the Bellanaboy refinery with a decision expected in a few weeks. Louise McMahon, a Shell spokeswoman in Dublin, said the hearing is a chance for the consortium to correct what it describes as "misrepresentations" of facts. "It is an opportunity for people to express their views and concerns in an open and transparent forum and the Corrib Gas Partners welcome it."
The Corduffs' seven-year crusade has been most difficult on their children, especially on the youngest daughter.
"Shell has taken my parents away from us. They go to meetings at night and protest every morning," said Marie Corduff, who was just 11 when the gas project was launched. "But there is too much at stake, so they'll continue."

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This article appeared on page E - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Posted Date: 
23 April 2007 - 8:17pm