ISLANDMAGEE residents have been urged to stand up and make their voices heard over controversial plans to construct a natural gas storage facility deep beneath Larne Lough.
The £400 million project, which is to be the first of its kind anywhere on the island of Ireland, 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.
While planning consent for the project was approved by Environment Minister Alex Attwood in October, developers Islandmagee Gas Storage Ltd (IMSL) are still awaiting approval for a marine construction licence, abstraction licence and discharge consent.
And at a public meeting held at Larne Golf Club on Monday, local people were encouraged to make representations to the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) in a bid to prevent the remaining licences being granted.
About 30 concerned residents turned up at the meeting, which was chaired by David Craig of the North Islandmagee Action Group, a lobby group which is opposed to the project.
Representatives from NIEA and the Ulster Wildlife Trust were also due to speak at the meeting, but Mr Craig said they were unable to attend.
He added that local politicians and representatives from IMSL had been invited to attend, but none were present at the meeting.
A number of residents aired their fears regarding the gas storage project, which mainly centred around concerns that the brine discharge could potentially damage the local marine ecosystem.
Mr Craig highlighted that there are a number of areas of special scientific interest in and around Larne Lough, including Ireland’s only nesting site for puffins near Portmuck.
Another resident added: “If there is a split in the pipeline, brine could go straight into Larne Lough and kill everything in the area.”
One man also pointed out that while the caverns would have the capacity to store up to 500 million cubic metres of natural gas – enough to satisfy the province’s peak demand for about 60 days – the gas could be sold to other countries and would not necessarily benefit the people of Northern Ireland.
Whitehead resident Joanna Braniff, a member of the Green Party in Northern Ireland, accused those behind the project of “not caring” about the effect it would have on the local community.
She added: “As a local resident this project concerns me greatly. The bottom line is that all these companies want is to make money. We are fighting against multi-billion pound businesses, and if we want to be stop them we have to come together and start putting out coherent statements.”
However, some felt there was no way to prevent the project from going ahead and believed it was already “a done deal”.
One person added: “Even if we cannot stop this from happening, we can try and get enough safeguards put in place so that it is not dangerous to the local ecosystem.”
Mr Craig closed the meeting by urging those present to lodge their objections with NIEA as soon as possible.
He told the Times that a further meeting would be held on Monday, February 11 at 7.30pm to give the representatives from NIEA and the Ulster Wildlife Trust another chance to come and speak to residents.