Councillors have voted to hold an independent assessment into the impact of Gaelectric’s proposed brine outlet pipe on Islandmagee’s marine life.
At a meeting of the council’s planning committee on Thursday March 10, elected members discussed the council’s response to the proposed £300 million Compressed Air Energy Storage facility (CAES).
‘There is a big concern in Islandmagee, and I would ask that in our response we would ask the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) have an independent marine biologist look at this outlet’Councillor Paul Reid
The project entails the creation of underground salt caverns to store energy in the form of compressed air, which would then be released to generate electricity when demand is high.
Environmentalists have raised concerns over the proposed impact of pumping brine, the plant’s waste by-product, on marine life.
DUP Cllr Paul Reid told fellow committee members: “I have had numerous emails or people speaking to me, there is a big concern in Islandmagee, and I would ask that in our response we would ask the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) have an independent marine biologist look at this outlet.
“There is no doubt that at this outlet pipe there will be a kill zone.
“It’s important that the people of Islandmagee understand this is of regional significance and we will not make a decision on the planning application.”
Cllr Reid also called for an independent public enquiry to be held amid some Islandmagee residents’ concerns that Gaelectric had failed to consult adequately on the planning application.
“The people of Islandmagee would at least be consulted and they would know what is happening,” he continued.
“There is a theory out there that things are being hidden from them and if it is a public enquiry it is open, if it is a marine biologist they may agree with what’s been said and that’s fine, but at least it will be someone independent looking at it.”
Committee Chair Councillor Robert Logan said that there was “considerable alarm in the Islandmagee Community” over the project and that a protest was “being gathered up at the moment.”
However, he added that some of the protestors very often get the “wrong end of the stick and don’t have very accurate information.”
Cllr Logan said that the committee could ask for a public enquiry to be held, and that he had been in contact with Professor Mike Elliott from Hull University over the issue.
He said that Prof Elliott’s analysis of “identical” salt caves in England confirmed Gaelectric’s analysis that fish which could move away from the brine outlet would do so, while non-moving species near the discharge pipe would be killed.
A council officer told elected members that the main recommendation was that council make no corporate response on the planning application, and that it allow individual elected members the freedom to express their support or opposition for the development.
“One of the biggest issues is brine discharge,” said the officer.
“Mid and East Antrim’s Environmental Health Department is consulting separately and will provide a detailed response on environmental health grounds.”
A council officer suggested that rather than proceeding with the public enquiry immediately, council should wait until a notice of opinion was served by the department on the council, and at that stage seek a public enquiry when it is better informed.
Cllr Reid proposed that an independent assessment on marine issues be carried out.
He was seconded by Alderman Stephen Nicholl, who said that the independent consultant’s views should inform their opinion of whether or not to request a public enquiry rather than asking for a public enquiry “in the first instance.”
The vote must go before a full council meeting for ratification.
The move was welcomed by the Chair of the newly-formed Stop Gaelectric campaign group Lisa Dobbie.
“If the assessment is done by someone who is completely independent then I would be happy with it,” said Lisa.
“I also welcome the fact that council is not forming a group opinion and is allowing councillors to move forward and express their individual opinions, which is more democratic.”
Meanwhile, a letter on Stop Gaelectric’s Facebook page is urging Environment Minister Mark H Durkan to reconsider classifying Islandmagee as one of a new network of proposed Marine Protection Zones (MPZs) in order to protect the marine environment, tourism industry and local economy.
A Gaelectric spokesperson commented: “The planning application and environmental statement for the Project are currently with DOE Planning Services, accordingly we do not wish to comment.”