Marine Task Force says ‘no’ to Islandmagee gas caverns project

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Environmental organisations have united in opposition to a controversial plan to store gas in underground caverns at Islandmagee, Co Antrim.

The health of the marine environment, its protected habitats and species found off Islandmagee are under considerable threat if a marine licence application for the project is granted by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), the Northern Ireland Marine Task Force has claimed.

Harbour porpoise. Photo by Niki Clear.

Harbour porpoise. Photo by Niki Clear.

In a statement issued ahead of consultation closing later today (Friday) on the Islandmagee Energy Ltd application, the task force - a coalition of environmental NGOs, including RSPB NI, Ulster Wildlife, National Trust and Friends of the Earth - says development would see significant underwater construction and associated noise disturbance, the discharge of brine waste product and the permanent loss of sea floor habitat – affecting harbour porpoises, seals, puffins, guillemots, terns and reefs.

It also considers that much of the justification for the project is considerably outdated.

Ellen MacMahon, from the NI Marine Task Force, said: “We are in the midst of a climate and biodiversity crisis. The NI Assembly recently declared a climate emergency, and as a result we recommend caution in the approval of future gas infrastructure projects.

“The Northern Ireland Marine Plan, the Environment and Energy Strategies are all either under consultation or remain to be implemented, therefore a decision on this project must be made in respect of these crucial policies.”

The at-risk coastline, the statement continued, and surrounding waters have multiple designations as an internationally important conservation area, notably the North Channel Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and the proposed East Coast Special Protection Area (pSPA) and functionally linked to the adjoined Larne Lough SPA, Ramsar and the Area of Special Scientific Interest (ASSI), Portmuck ASSI, the Gobbins ASSI and the Maidens SAC.

Dr Kenneth Bodles, Marine Policy officer at RSPB NI, said: “We are concerned that the activities proposed by this development pose a threat to this highly protected area. We do not think it is acceptable to ignore the needs of nature and grant permission for a project that has not fully considered the impacts of the brine waste product and noise on the foraging ground that the seabirds and other wildlife depend upon.

“The evidence provided by the applicant is not sufficient to rule out impacts on important seabirds such as puffins, Sandwich terns and the last remaining breeding roseate terns in Northern Ireland.”

Rebecca Hunter, Living Seas manager at Ulster Wildlife, said: “The waters around Islandmagee have been protected as they are one of the best areas in the UK for harbour porpoise. We are seriously concerned about the potential for this project to cause hearing loss to harbour porpoise and reduce feeding opportunities within the protected area.

“Porpoises need to forage nearly continuously throughout the day and night, therefore, the drilling noise and loss of habitat associated with this project are likely to have severe consequences for local populations.”

In December, the company behind the project, InfraStrata PLC, said it is of the firm belief there should be no reason why the existing draft marine licence will not be converted to a full marine licence after following due process.

The firm added that a full set of current and up-to-date documents has now been provided to and been adopted by DAERA.

The proposed facility to store 450 million cubic metres of natural gas, which would be fed into the grid at times of increased demand, is expected to employ 400 people during construction and 40 once its fully functional. It has been strongly opposed by campaigners who allege it has the potential “to change our whole coastline”.

DAERA’s consultation will close at 5.00pm today (February 7). InfraStrata’s application can be viewed at https://www.daera-ni.gov.uk/consultations/islandmagee-gas-storage-project-december-2019-consultation-ml-2812