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Trouble in the pipeline

The Irish Times
22nd Sep. 07
Lorna Siggins, Marine Correspondent
With a key ruling on the Corrib gas project due, opinion is still divided, and tensions are still high, writes Lorna Siggins in Erris, Co Mayo.
Betty Schult was setting the tables for breakfast when she caught the flash of headlights outside. The hostel proprietor in Pollathomas, north Mayo was up early as she had a house full of subsea divers for a bank holiday weekend. Was this a late arrival? She moved up to the window to check, and caught a full view. It was a Garda patrol car on her premises, which is set well back from the road. Its occupants were filming several of the guest vehicles.
"By the time I got out to the carpark, it had moved out on to the road, and was continuing to film from there," she recalled this week. "The visiting cars were loaded with diving equipment - oxygen cylinders and suchlike. A call had gone out the previous week for another day of action at Bellanaboy just seven minutes away. So maybe the officers thought the diving gear was something else."
Schult, who has attended many of the early morning protests outside the site of the Corrib gas refinery at Bellanaboy, has become accustomed to such activity. Her village, overlooking the sweeping tidal sands of Sruwaddacon Bay, is best remembered as the location of a devastating landslide which destroyed part of its shoreline graveyard four years ago.
Three months ago, Shell contractors, accompanied by the Garda, tried to erect a portacabin on a pier owned by Paddy McGrath. The portacabin was to have been used by consultants carrying out marine survey work on the bay. Sruwaddacon is a special area of conservation (SAC) which was originally ruled out by the project developers as a possible pipeline route on environmental grounds. It is now on a shortlist for a modified pipeline route. That evening, dozens of local people who had limited or no involvement in Shell to Sea activities before came out in support of McGrath.
THERE WERE A number of injuries. Solicitors for the landowner issued Shell with a notice to quit; the structure was quietly removed, with no formal apology from either Shell or Mayo County Council, who had approved the location of the temporary structure. It didn't end there. The surveyors began their work after a delay over certification of their vessel, with the support of the Garda Water Unit. The highly stressed McGrath was taken to hospital with a stroke. He was only released from hospital 10 days ago. On his first day home, Shell consultants - described as archaeologists - turned up on the shoreline again.
Where Belmullet in Erris used to be synonymous with "punishment postings", it has now replaced the north/south border as a training ground for young Garda officers, and for members of the Garda Public Order Unit. The cost to the State of this special security operation is running at almost €1 million a month, based on figures supplied last April by the then-Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, for the first six months since last October.
Supporters of the gas project - the "majority of people in Erris", according to Shell - argue that the Shell to Sea campaign is responsible for this heavy tab, and for the impact that up to 200 gardaí have been having on an area which formerly enjoyed the lowest crime rate in the State. After all, unlike the Corrib gas pipeline, the refinery has planning permission.
HOWEVER, IT WAS described as "the wrong site" from strategic planning, regional and sustainable development and environmental perspectives in the report by appeals board inspector Kevin Moore refusing the first planning application in April 2003. Therefore, even though it has authorisation, and is awaiting another key decision from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), due this month, the refinery has become the focus for a series of bitter protests.
There have been injuries on both sides, arrests, and Belmullet district court has rarely been so busy. Complaints against gardaí have been under investigation by both the Garda Ombudsman Commission and the Garda Complaints Board. Last Friday, five protestors were reported to have been arrested by gardaí during an incursion into the refinery site. The protest had been billed beforehand as a sit-down demonstration.
"It's been seven years, and my kids have grown up with this," says Jacinta Healy, a Bellanaboy resident and health care worker. Living on the border of the 400-acre refinery site, which was acquired under a confidential deal involving the State forestry company, Coillte, she has been spokeswoman for the Bellanaboy residents association.
Representing 16 houses in Bellanaboy, it opposed planning permission for the terminal. "After the second decision by An Bórd Pleanála to approve it, we felt we couldn't afford to go to the High Court. It was clear from the ruling that this project was Government policy," she says.
"It was a very difficult decision for us, but all 16 houses had promised that we would stay as a group and we would not fall out."
Healy and her husband have suffered for their stance now. "This has brought out the best and worst in people, and there are things I have seen, on both sides, that I wouldn't have believed. We have to move on, try and live around it. This has been a curse, it has been handled very badly, and there'll never be any contentment from it. It may or may not bring benefits to the State, but we'll never have any comfort," she says.
Others, like Healy, who had genuine health and safety fears for the project, have similar reservations about the protests and the perceived influence of non-Mayo-based members of the loosely-grouped Shell to Sea campaign. The voices of reason are perceived to have been sidelined, while Independent TD Dr Jerry Cowley, who was very close to the campaign, lost his seat in the last election in a Mayo Fine Gael sweep which also dented the Fianna Fáil vote.
"I don't like being filmed by the Garda, which is happening regularly here now, but scraps with the gardaí turn this into a law-and-order issue, which suits Shell," one resident, who did not wish to be named, told The Irish Times . "Because we live so far away from the Dublin cognoscenti, we can all be dismissed as a bunch of lunatics for the actions of a few."
Last week, Shell announced an unspecified long-term development fund, and has been grant-aiding community projects; it donated €150,000 to Belmullet GAA. The Erris Inshore Fishermen's Association, which has described it as "public relations", says the company should be addressing real issues, rather than trying to "buy support". Shell's consultants, RPS, have also identified a shortlist of three pipeline "corridors".
ONCE A FINAL onshore route is selected, the entire route from wellhead to terminal will be submitted to planning for the first time, they state. This may avoid accusations of "project splitting", according to the consultants, but An Bórd Pleanála only has remit onshore.
An Taisce consultant, and former Bord Gais engineer, Leo Corcoran believes the approach is being taken to address weaknesses identified in original consents.
"Last April, High Court judge Mary Laffoy ruled that Shell's onshore consents to land are unenforceable," says Corcoran. "Separately, both the offshore and onshore sections of the pipeline have no specified code of practice or standard, as is required internationally."
Fr Sean Noone, parish priest of Pollathomas, fears for the future. "The opponents, portrayed as baddies by Shell, are the prophets when it comes to our environment," he says. "Some people have been attracted by money, and the divisions this has caused will take more than a generation to heal."
Corrib gas partners spokesman Colin Joyce says: "Our own assessment of the mood in the area is that we have broad support among the communities. Three-quarters of the staff on our site are from the region. We do understand that there were greater divisions in the past, but it has moved on and there's broad support amongst local communities and within the Erris region."
Chris Tallott, a member of the Pro-Erris Gas Group (Pegg), says the positive aspects, such as the creation of jobs during construction work on the terminal, have been lost in negative publicity. "There will be 50 jobs when the terminal is built, equivalent to 500 on the east coast for an isolated area like this. The protestors are to be credited for securing increased safety. But we have to have law and order, and we have to depend on the Garda, warts and all."
The Corrib pipeline: the twists and turns
What's the row ? Concerns over health, safety and the environmental impact of the project; fears of expansion if more discoveries are made offshore; and the original licensing terms. The refinery has planning permission, but the pipeline was exempt from planning.
What's next ? A shortlist of three pipeline routes on land, and via Sruwaddacon Bay, a Special Area of Conservation, was published this week by Shell consultants RPS. A decision is expected next week on an integrated pollution prevention control licence for the refinery from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Developers are submitting the pipeline for planning approval for the first time - if Bord Pleanála accepts it under the Strategic Infrastructure Act. Separate consents for the pipeline are required from the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Eamon Ryan, who was a critic of the project when in opposition.
Legal aspects Counterclaims against Shell and the State are being pursued by landowners Brid McGarry and Brendan Philbin. An Taisce is monitoring the EPA decision, pending appeal to Europe on grounds of breaches of EU directives. The EU Parliament's Petitions Committee is pursuing a submission lodged by former Shell to Sea spokesman Dr Mark Garavan.
Progress Work on the refinery, suspended during the jailing of the Rossport Five in 2005, resumed last October. The first phase is reported complete. 700 jobs are promised during construction, and 50 on completion.
© 2007 The Irish Times

Posted Date: 
24 September 2007 - 1:19am