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Fear returns to idyllic bay where earth moved

Locals say September landslide shows risks of gas pipeline plan in west of Ireland
Angelique Chrisafis, Ireland correspondentSaturday May 29, 2004The Guardian
The white arc of Broad Haven bay in north-west Mayo is a weary traveller's dream of the west of Ireland - Gaelic-speaking, and breathtakingly beautiful. Dolphins and whales breed in the pristine waters off a beach so white it is almost blinding when the sun shines. But this slice of paradise has been the scene of an environmental catastrophe, and locals fear a second, even greater, disaster.
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Last September a deluge of almost biblical proportions brought the mountain down on the people of Pollatomish. One night, in the space of two hours, thousands of tonnes of mud and debris swept down the hillside, demolishing roads and bridges,sweeping hundreds of sheep to their deaths and forcing families to flee.

Not even the dead were spared. The ancient graveyard that looks out on the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = 'urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags' />Atlantic was partly swept into the ocean.

'The dead are walking,' said a villager in Paddy McGuire's pub. 'We are a very traditional people. We are deeply disturbed by this. It goes beyond the edge of reason.'

Local people blame the disaster on the building of a radar station on the top of Dooncarton hill, which they say destabilised its delicate geology and acted as a lightning conductor during a freak storm.

But soon, if Shell and the Irish government have their way, Pollatomish and a large swath of the wild Bog of Erris will be home to a high-pressure pipeline that will land gas on the beach at Broad Haven and carry it five miles inland, passing near the area of the landslide, to a new terminal.

Those who count themselves lucky at having survived one disaster fear what might happen if engineers blast a track 45 miles out to sea and then cut a long channel inland through a wall of peat as 'wobbly as a blancmange'.

Gas was found off the coast of Mayo eight years ago, the first big find off Ireland for more than 30 years, and the government has been keen to get it ashore as quickly as possible. But the first attempt to build the €800m (£535m) gas-field project was refused after planners questioned how the bogland would cope. Shell redrew its plans, and this month got permission to go ahead.

However, a local campaign group which has frustrated the project for four years this week appealed against the decision. It says it has the potential to create a chain reaction of landslides, water pollution and poisonous gas leaks.

Dubbed the 'Bogoni', after the Ogoni people who battled Shell in Nigeria, the group says bringing the gas so far inland would be unprecedented, and it should instead be processed offshore.

Padhraig Campbell, the offshore gas spokesman for Ireland's biggest trade union, Siptu, called the current plan 'lunacy' given the recent landslide.

Campaigners say that a state-owned pine forest will be dug up to make way for the processing plant, and 450,000 cubic metres of peat will excavated from the site. There are plans for 800 lorry journeys a day to carry this huge quantity of soaking peat seven miles to a huge pit for dumping.

A local engineer, Brian Coyle, warned that the dumped peat could destroy the region's only drinking water supply by discharging up to 400,000 cubic metres of acidic water into the nearby Carrowmore lake.

Bríd McGarry, a chemistry graduate looking after her family's farm in the area, said: 'We are afraid they are going to poison us. This is untreated gas with no odour - if there is a leak, how would we know?'

A third of the proposed pipeline will run under her family's land, and the nearest house to the pipeline is 65 metres away. Locals had also been concerned that the proposed gas terminal was next to a veterinary research laboratory, but the laboratory's president has said that he supports the Shell plan.

However, even TK Whitaker, the politician and economist credited with being the architect of Ireland's economic boom (and a keen evangelist of 'progress') has complained to Shell that the dumped peat could silt up rivers and destroy wild salmon habitats.

Michéal Ó Seighin, a local geography teacher, said: 'The vibrations from building under the hill will inevitably cause another landslide.

'It's like the story of Chicken Licken. We are waiting for the sky to fall down on our heads. Why is the political establishment pushing this project when there is no financial advantage to the Irish state?'

Not all of the people of this beautiful but barren corner of Mayo, which has been ravaged by generations of emigration, are against the pipeline.

With almost no jobs and young people still leaving as soon as they finish school, the business community in the nearby towns of Belmullet and Bangor hopes the pipeline might be the answer to their economic woes. When the first attempt to build it was blocked, many attended a protest meeting, calling for objections to be dropped. Shell has promised 50 permanent jobs once the gas terminal is completed.

Such has the desperation for development in Mayo been over the years that in the 1970s a local priest campaigned to have a nuclear power station built on the Bog of Erris, believing it would bring health and prosperity.

Shell said that the majority of local people were in favour of the gas project and the company had conducted a widespread national and local consultation process. It said that the plan had been approved by Mayo county council, which was satisfied that there was no risk of a landslide, and measures had been taken to assess and prevent the risk of gas leaks or water contamination.

The company also announced yesterday that it would appeal against 14 of the 75 conditions that have been imposed on it by Mayo county council over environmental concerns.

Posted Date: 
9 March 2005 - 9:54pm