ISLANDMAGEE residents have been assured that controversial plans for a massive natural gas storage facility under Larne Lough are “not a done deal”.
Over 100 concerned local people packed out a public meeting at Larne Golf Club on Monday, February 11, where officials from the Department of Environment spelled out the current situation regarding the £400m project.
The proposed facility, which would see the creation of seven huge underground storage caverns carved from prehistoric salt deposits a mile under the lough, has already received planning permission from Environment Minister Alex Attwood.
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.
But DOE officials told those present at the meeting that there was still a long way to go before the project becomes a reality, with developers Islandmagee Gas Storage Ltd (IMSL) requiring a number of other licences before they can proceed.
And there has been a flood of objections regarding the planned development from local people and environmentalists, which mainly centre around concerns that the highly concentrated brine discharge could potentially damage the local marine ecosystem.
Kerri Whiteside, a representative for the Ulster Wildlife Trust, gave a presentation at the meeting detailing the variety of marine life present in the waters around Islandmagee.
When asked by a concerned resident what effect the brine would have on local species, she responded: “Not much experimental research has been carried out on the affects of brine on marine species. There would be an increase in salinity and temperature, and the species we would be most worried about are those that have to travel with the current, such as plankton.”
Also present at the meeting was chairman of the Marine Conservation Society, Nigel Hamilton, who urged the DOE officials to allay some of the fears held by residents and other stakeholders.
Clare Vincent from the DOE’s marine division said the perception that the project was already a done deal was “unfortunate”, adding: “Planning permission has been granted by the Department, but this is just one part of the process and a number of other consents are required before the project can go ahead.”
IMSL are still awaiting approval for a marine construction licence, abstraction licence and discharge consent.
Chris Burns, project manager, outlined the process the Department must follow when considering granting these licences. “The applications for these licences were received in October, and this was followed by a consultation process and advertisements being placed in the local press. We received numerous concerns from a number of organisations, and we are now at the stage of working through these responses. No determination has yet been made,” he added.
Richard Coey of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) said he was ultimately responsible for deciding whether or not to grant discharge consent.
He added that IMSL has carried out theoretical modelling predicting the extent of the brine discharge, which will be independantly reviewed by a third party.
Islandmagee resident Michael Steele asked who would be paying for this third party assessment, and Mr Coey replied: “Islandmagee Storage will be paying for it. The Department doesn’t have the budget to pay for it. We have pointed them in the direction of a well-known modelling expert, HR Wallingford, who we have used before.”
Some objectors felt that the process would be more acceptable if the assessment was paid for by the Department.
Mr Coey assured the meeting that if discharge consent is granted, a monitoring group will ensure that the impact of the brine stays within predicted levels. He added that if the impact extends beyond the predicted zone, IMSL could be orderd to cease the discharge.
One resident questioned why IMSL were intent on dumping the brine at sea, rather than drilling on land and then selling the salt as a commodity. Another said the DOE should be looking into this to see if it is a viable alternative.
Meanwhile, East Antrim MLA Stewart Dickson said it was a “fundamental flaw” that IMSL has the right to appeal the Department’s decision if the applications are refused, while objectors have no right of appeal if the applications are granted.
One resident asked what benefits the project would bring for local people, and chairman of the meeting David Craig (a member of the North Islandmagee Action Group) responded: “This is a gas storage company who are only interested in benefits for themselves.”
Nigel Hamilton added: “This project will bring nothing but turmoil for an island community whose only link to the mainland is a small bridge. The worst case scenario is that we will be left with an industrial wasteland.”
Another Islandmagee resident, Stan Adams told the DOE officials: “You are from Northern Ireland and you could be helping to ruin this part of the world.”
He added: “The biggest lie of all regarding this project is that it will able to store enough gas to satisfy Northern Ireland’s peak demand for up to 60 days, when in fact the gas will be sold to the highest bidder.”
Bringing the meeting to a close, chairman David Craig – a member of the North Islandmagee Action Group – told those present that representatives from Islandmagee Storage had declined an invitation to attend.