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David versus Goliath in a Mayo bog

Marilyn Horan - Irish Echo

October 21, 2009 A controversy in Ireland nine years in the making is poised to reach its climax this week. The planning commission, An Bord Pleanála, delivers its decision to approve or deny Shell permission to lay a final stretch of pipeline across the five miles of boggy terrain that separate the Atlantic pipeline and the processing plant.


With the fifty-mile ocean pipeline laid and the processing plant 80 percent finished, this decision, which almost everyone expects to be in Shell's favor, will mark the completion of the Corrib Gas Pipeline project.

Although the Corrib gas field, discovered in 1996 by Enterprise Energy Ireland Ltd, was not acquired by Shell Exploration & Production Ireland Limited until 2002, opposition began in December of 2000, when local resident and retired schoolteacher, Micheál Ó Seighin, made a submission to Mayo County Council opposing development on environmental grounds.

When Mayo County Council went ahead and granted planning permission for the processing plant in 2001, Rossport residents immediately appealed the decision to An Bord Pleanála.

After holding public hearings, An Bord Pleanála overturned Mayo County Council's decision, citing the instability of peat on the site.

Objections to the plant's future toxic emissions were inadmissible at this time. They would have to wait until after the processing plant was built and when the Environmental Protection Agency was asked to grant a license.)

Meanwhile, following some behind-the-scenes machinations, Shell was encouraged to resubmit its application, and, in a telling indication of things to come, was duly granted permission second time around.

And so began the campaign of Rossport citizens opposed to the pipeline that continues to this day, despite almost no support from elected officials and precious little coverage in Ireland's media. In the process, gaeltacht residents have educated themselves on all aspects of pipeline technology, from "PIGs" to "bar pressures" to "catchment areas" and have staged peaceful protests. Their arrests and court cases will not be counted among the finer moments in Irish jurisprudence.

"Have you got a family car, have you got a home? I can take all that off you and I can fine you hundreds and hundreds of thousands and I'll find a way that you will pay for it. And I'll jail every farmer in Mayo if I have to."

Though Mr. Justice Joseph Finnegan was addressing Micheál Ó Seighin, his words were directed toward all five Rossport men appearing before him in June, 2005, charged with flouting a Shell injunction against peacefully protesting the presence of Shell employees on their land, a crime (for the protesters, not the trespassers) since 2001, when Minister Frank Fahey introduced Statutory Instrument 517, giving the minister for marine and natural resources the power to grant compulsory acquisition orders for land along the pipeline route.

When the "Rossport 5" refused to knuckle under, they were jailed for contempt for 94 days until September 30, when Shell, after insisting all summer its hands were tied and that it couldn't lift the injunction - lifted the injunction.

That incident occurred on the Circuit Court level, as opposed to the local District Court level where Judge Mary Devins sits. Devins, who has presided over the preponderance of cases involving Shell protesters, remains steadfast in her convictions despite being frequently overruled, including an astonishing eight times in eight days earlier this year.

The police, on the other hand, are subject to no such unflattering second-guessing. Complaints of police misconduct to the gardai and to the Ombudsman go unanswered.

One of those unanswered complaints was filed by fisherman Pat O'Donnell, whose pleas to elected officials to safeguard his constitutional right to fish in the waters of Broadhaven Bay also fell on deaf ears.

Instead, he has had two boats confiscated by the government, all his nets and traps ($100,000 worth of gear) "removed to a safe place" by Shell, and a third boat sunk underneath him this past June, he says by four masked men.

Those who say O'Donnell did it himself can't explain why he would sink his own ship knowing he would never collect a penny on the insurance.

Though one might imagine that even the most cursory scrutiny would uncover an injustice or two somewhere in there, neither press nor politician has taken up his cause.

On the contrary, when divers located O'Donnell's boat off Erris Head at the end of August, presumably with its evidence of any criminal activity intact, the gardai termed it "unlikely" the vessel would be raised.

Even so, outsiders could be forgiven for dismissing those opposed to the pipeline as a bunch of shrill Chicken Littles with shadowy ties to Sinn Féin running around all hopped up over nothing. Because that's precisely the image instilled by the national media, with the sole exception of the Irish Times. There's been virtually no examination of the legitimacy, or lack thereof, of residents' objections to the pipeline.

During the May/June An Bord Pleanála hearings on Shell's proposed overland pipeline, only the Times carried retired army bomb disposal expert Patrick Boyle's warning that an onshore gas pipeline rupture would have "horrific" consequences for civilians in and around Rossport.

And no one reported on ABP's pipeline consultant Nigel Wright's testimony that Shell has dismissed substantial risk factors including internal corrosion, methane hydrate, construction faults, and pipe instability in peat bog, not to mention his criticism of Shell's "ultra high pressure" of 144 bar gas, almost twice the rate of normal gas transmission in Ireland. (A car tire is 2 bar.)

Then there's Shell's proposed 30-second safety plan in the event of pipeline rupture, which requires local people of all ages to walk at a pace of 2.5 meters per second over uneven peat bog to the "shelter" that Shell says is waiting at the end of their 30-second jog and that will save them from being blown to bits.

This escape plan may prove moot, however, as some people speculate that Shell's August 18 application for a Foreshore License may indicate it plans to reroute the pipe up Sruwaddacon Bay, a scenario with its own set of problems.

When I was in Rossport this summer, longtime resident Mary Moran said to me: "Every night I pray that someone, somewhere, will hear us and pay attention to what we're saying."

It appears her prayers will go unanswered.

Marilyn Horan lives in New York City and is a human rights activist.



This story appeared in the issue of October 28-November 3, 2009