IT could take years for the marine ecosystem to completely recover from the proposed creation of gas storage caverns deep beneath Larne Lough, an expert has predicted.
The £400 million natural gas storage facility, which will be the first of its kind anywhere on the island of Ireland, was granted planning permission by Environment Minister Alex Attwood in October.
The project will see the creation of seven huge underground caverns carved from prehistoric salt deposits a mile under the lough. A method known as leaching will be used to dissolve the salt and form large egg-shaped cavities. The waste salt solution, or brine, will then be deposited out at sea.
This process will only take place during the construction phase, but there are fears that the brine will damage marine life in the area.
And Richard Coey, from the NI Environment Agency’s water management unit, has told local councillors that the issue of brine discharge and its impact on marine ecology is the Department of Environment’s main concern.
At a meeting of the public services committee on Monday, Mr Coey told elected representatives that the hypersaline discharge, which will be pumped into the sea 450m off the Islandmagee coast, will be 10 times more concentrated than the surrounding sea water.
He added: “There is likely to be a zone of impact around the discharge point. Mobile species such as lobsters and scallops will move out of the zone, while sediment-based invertebrates will not have time to move and may be impacted.”
Councillor Brian Dunn sought clarification on what Mr Coey meant by “impacted”, stating: “You mean these species could be killed?” The NIEA representative answered: “Yes.”
Mr Coey also told members that a marine ecologist had predicted that most species would return to the area within three-four years after the discharge process had been completed. It was also predicted that the sea bed ecosystem would “completely regenerate” within 10 years.
IMSL believes the area that could be affected by the brine could cover an area of 300 square metres around the vicinity of the proposed discharge point. The company also predicts that the majority of mixing will take place five to 10 metres from the outfall, after which the salinity levels should almost return to normal.
Mr Coey said NIEA will be meeting with those behind a similar gas storage project that has been undertaken in Aldburgh, East Yorkshire, later this month. “This will help determine how best practice can be applied to the Islandmagee operation”, Mr Coey added.
While planning consent has been given for the Islandmagee project, IMSL are still awaiting approval for a marine construction licence, abstraction licence and discharge consent. The advertisement was placed in the local press on November 15, and objectors have 42 days from that date to make written representations to NIEA.
The Department has four months from the date of receipt of a complete application to make a determination.
Meanwhile, IMSL met with representatives of the local fishing community in Islandmagee recently to discuss concerns relating to the brine discharge, and East Antrim MLA Oliver McMullan said “good progress was made in moving the project forward”.
The Sinn Fein representative added: “It is important if this project is to move forward that we have agreement between all parties and the meeting held recently went some way in doing that.
“Islandmagee Storage Company have agreed to compensate any fisherman who has to remove pots during the construction stage and have set up a £1 million trust fund to support environment projects. It was also agreed that a representative of the fishing community would sit on the management of the Trust.
“I am confident that agreement will be made in the weeks ahead on a monitoring system so that all parties will be happy that the environment is protected and traditional industries like fishing are not threatened in any way,” Mr McMullan concluded.