THE developer behind controversial plans for a £400m natural gas storage facility at Islandmagee has pledged to hold two public information events this year.
Last month, over 100 local people and stakeholders turned out at Larne Golf Club to hear officials from the Department of Environment spell out the current situation regarding the project.
However, no representatives from developer Islandmagee Storage Ltd (IMSL) were present, leading to calls for the company to host their own event and allow local people to voice their objections.
And the company has told the Times it will organise two information events for local people to attend; one in the spring and another in the autumn.
The proposed natural gas storage facility would see the creation of seven huge underground caverns carved from prehistoric salt deposits a mile under the lough, using a method known as leaching to dissolve the salt and form large egg-shaped cavities. The waste salt solution, or brine, will then be deposited out at sea.
It is this highly-concentrated discharge which is causing huge concern for residents and environmental campaigners, who fear it could damage the local marine ecosystem. The proposal has already received planning permission from Environment Minister Alex Attwood, but IMSL require a number of other licences before the project can proceed.
Paddy Larkin, director of IMSL said: “After a recent, useful and constructive meeting with local residents and other key stakeholders, including members of the marine community, we have decided to organise two public information events this year, prior to the drilling of an appraisal borehole.
“These stakeholder and public engagement events are being organised completely independently from any consultation process which is currently ongoing by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency in relation to the marine licences which are required for the offshore elements of the project.”
Speaking about the various permissions required to enable the project and the communication of information, Mr Larkin added: “When the project was granted planning permission and a gas storage licence last October, we explained that further consents and confirmation of the regulatory framework would be required for the project to proceed.
“Since then, the project has been granted a mineral licence from the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, which is a requirement to drill the initial appraisal well, and a number of marine licence applications have been submitted to the NIEA. These licences are just some of the further consents needed before the project can proceed to full construction and operation.”
Mr Larkin said IMSL had originally planned to hold a single information event to coincide with commencement of drilling the initial appraisal well. However, drilling is now not expected to take place until the end of the year.
“To avoid an extended period between communications – and to augment the previous public information events and distribution across Islandmagee of our project booklet – we feel it would be beneficial to present again some of the fundamental details relating to the scheme,” Mr Larkin added.
“Islandmagee Storage Ltd is fully committed to working with all interested parties in an open and transparent fashion throughout the project’s development and is pleased to hold these information events to give interested parties the opportunity to put any questions or concerns they may have directly to the company in either a public or private forum.”
But chairman of the Marine Conservation Society, Nigel Hamilton has described IMSL’s announcement as a “snub” to residents and stakeholders.
Expressing frustration with the decision, Mr Hamilton accused the company of “shying away” from an open forum public meeting.
“I believe this is an inept and ill-thought-out decision which only drives a wedge between the company and those who live, work and invest in our peninsula at Islandmagee,” he added.
“I feel that the decision only demonstrates an unwillingness to hear the public’s concerns while giving them a very sanitised perspective. Surely, communication is a two-way shop. Maybe IMSL feel that they don’t want to hear the views of the wider public because they fear the response.
“The only practical way forward must be to allow themselves to be involved in a properly organised and managed public meeting. I realise that they had a bad experience on their previous open meeting held a number of years ago; this is unrepresentative of what the objectors are trying to achieve. It only makes the need all the greater.”
IMSL also said it plans to set up a dedicated stakeholder liaison group for the project, which stakeholder groups and representatives from the local community will be invited to join.
“The main objective for the group will be to ensure that during construction and subsequent operation of the facility, the company and the community work together to minimise the impact of the facility on its neighbours. Islandmagee Storage Ltd is fully committed to promoting open communication between all parties and the group will provide a forum for the company to share information about the construction activities and marine monitoring programme,” Mr Larkin added.
However, Mr Hamilton said the concept must not be used as an opportunity by IMSL to “neutralise the silent majority”.
“I am willing to take part in this group and will ensure that it is representative of stakeholders and residents from Larne foreshore to Islandmagee. This in no way negates the need for a public meeting and I really make this personal request IMSL to give the process a chance, come and hear the views of the public and participate in a properly managed, open and fair meeting and give the public the opportunity to express their concerns and curiosity. This can only be achieved by all interested parties participating,” Mr Hamilton concluded.