Larne Deputy Mayor, Councillor Mark McKinty, has said he is “enraged” at the Environment Minister’s decision to grant planning approval for a gas storage facility at Islandmagee.
The Larne Lough representative described the announcement as “sudden and unexpected”, claiming it showed Alex Attwood’s “utter contempt for democracy and community engagement”.
And while the Magheramorne man acknowledged the potential benefits of the scheme, he maintains that the Minister’s decision is “premature”.
“There are concerns within the community which need addressed, and the Department of Environment ignoring these concerns is totally disrespectful,” he added.
“One of my grave concerns about this project is that waste brine will be deposited into the lough or the North Channel, severely upsetting the local ecosystem, irreparably damaging the local wildlife and environment. Unfortunately, the local environment has not received the protection of the Environment Minister.
“I would ask Alex Attwood how this project ties in with his decision in July to designate the sea and seabed around the Maidens as one of two new marine Special Areas of Conservation in Northern Ireland.
“As with projects of this scale, there are many on both sides of the debate. However, this project currently lacks the community confidence to proceed.
“The Executive has a duty to consult with local representatives at all levels. I will certainly be making my voice heard to the Department and the Minister on behalf of those local residents who will be directly affected by this announcement and who, to date, have been largely ignored,” Cllr McKinty said.
More than 350 complaints have been made to planners, and Nigel Hamilton from Marine Conservation Northern Ireland is among those who have objected to the project.
As well as concerns about the expulsion of brine into the sea, he has also expressed fears that the roads infrastructure in Islandmagee will not up be to the task of coping with the volume of heavy traffic during the construction phase of the project.
But Islandmagee Gas Storage Ltd (IMSL) director Paddy Larkin has offered assurances that the brine will “pose no risk at all”, stating that it will be discharged 450m off shore from Portmuck and be “quickly dispersed and diluted” by the tide.
He added that IMSL has “consulted extensively” on the scheme with the local community and will continue to meet with residents to discuss issues in relation to the project.
“A further information event will be organised for early 2013, prior to the first borehole drilling, to provide another opportunity for the local community and other key stakeholders to meet the project team, and review the plans for the project including the timing of construction activity,” Mr Larkin concluded.
Despite the company’s assurances that the brine will not harm the local habitat, John Anderson, a member of lobby group Friends of Larne Lough (FOLL), still expressed reservations about the safety of the project.
He said: “What happens if the saturated brine does not diffuse for reasons of, for instance, temperature differential and/or being much denser than the surrounding waters, but in fact forms flumes of high density brine that could potentially damage corridors of water and sea bed and shoreline over considerable distance?”
Mr Anderson also questioned how much Northern Ireland would benefit from the storage facility. “The principle of a need for a strategic storage capacity for gas for NI is easy to establish and has merit but there is clearly a hard commercial reality driving this project. Presumably gas will be bought as cheaply as possible on the spot market and sold for the highest possible price to the highest bidder at peak consumption periods. As a pipe always goes two ways, does it follow that this gas will be exclusively for NI? Of course it does not, unless NI is the highest bidder,” he added.