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The Guardian: Pipe dreams and distrust

With daily clashes between police and protesters, the five-year row over a gas pipeline route in Ireland shows no sign of subsiding

Owen Bowcott
Wednesday March 7, 2007

The north-west tip of County Mayo is blanketed with rain-sodden and wind-blasted bogland. In winter, the desolate Irish landscape resembles Iceland, as low Atlantic clouds press down on the Nephin Beg mountains.

There are few job opportunities around here. But for the last five years, local fishermen, farmers and residents have waged an epic campaign to prevent Shell, the Anglo-Dutch oil conglomerate, building a gas pipeline close to Rossport village to an inland refinery in a remote pine forest.

Landowners have been imprisoned for defying the courts, the company has been forced to abandon its preferred route, and there are now daily confrontations between Garda officers and protesters.

On the picket line, those jeering at workers being bussed in to the site talk of brother opposing brother and a bitterness not experienced since the Irish civil war. Opposite the refinery site, nine white crosses stand in the heather. They commemorate Ken Saro-Wiwa and his Ogoni kinsmen, executed in 1995 by the Nigerian government because of their opposition to Shell’s operations in the Niger delta.

The dispute over how to bring ashore the output of the Corrib gas field has spiralled out of environmental and safety concerns. It has been exacerbated by the fact that the Irish energy minister who negotiated the deal with the original exploration company was Ray Burke, a politician since jailed, in an unrelated case, for receiving corrupt payments from building contractors.

Burke’s involvement, as well as the fact that Irish oil companies were made exempt from paying royalties and the Irish government renounced its stakeholding, have intensified anger. If the Corrib field ever becomes operational, it will be only the second Irish gas find to produce energy. The other, Kinsale Head in County Cork, has been pumping since 1978.

There is no communication between the two opposing sides in Mayo, only a legacy of distrust. A solidarity camp has been set up for visiting eco-activists.

Vincent McGrath, a musician and retired teacher, was one of five men jailed for 94 days in 2005 for disobeying a court injunction preventing him interfering with Shell’s engineering works. He objected to the firm burying a high-pressure gas pipeline 70 metres from his front door. “We are not against the gas being brought to market,” he explains. “We are against the way the project is configured. How can Shell say it has community consent when it has to push it through with Garda officers?

“There are environmental, health and safety issues. It says it will not be flaring [gas impurities] but ‘cold venting’. That’s a fire danger. The same trench will carry gas and electrics: if there’s an explosion they will sever their controls,” he claims.

“We are taking a case to the European Court of Justice, alleging breaches of the EU habitats directive. Broadhaven Bay [on which Rossport sits] is a special conservation area. It’s a breeding ground for whales and cetaceans. The [company] just thinks we are a few bogmen from north Mayo. Our [objections] were not factored in.”

The original planned gas route from the Corrib field, 50 miles out in the Atlantic, made landfall at Rossport, snaked along the edge of the estuary below McGrath’s home, and ran 9.3km inland to the gas treatment terminal at Bellanaboy Bridge.

Shell has publicly apologised for the jailing of the five Rossport protesters and conceded that it must find an alternative route ashore to the refinery. The pipe could eventually run along the bed of the tidal estuary.

John Monaghan, a blacksmith from Rossport, whose father was one of those jailed, is worried about pollutants leeching out of the refinery into Carrowmore Lake, the source of the community’s drinking water. “They have disturbed clays on the site that are high in aluminium and it’s running into the lake,” he claims. “Aluminium is not being filtered out by the water treatment systems.

“The government is prepared to put the lives of citizens at risk for the profits of a foreign company. There is no direct precedent for this project. There are 750 welds or joints from landfall to the refinery, and each one is a potential weak spot. We are not jumping at shadows; we know exactly what they are doing. That’s why we are worried.” Landslips on a nearby coast road have demonstrated how unstable the earth can be in torrential rain.

Violence between Gardai and protesters has sharpened resentments. Demonstrators claim they have been beaten and shoved into open ditches. Officers also say they have sustained injuries. Last month, 50 activists broke into the Bellanaboy site.

Not all locals are opposed. “We don’t mind a bit,” says one Rossport woman, who declined to be identified. “It will bring jobs and keep families together. Otherwise, people have to go away to look for work in Dublin, Cork or England.”

Shell is eager to demonstrate local backing, pointing to the likes of Sean Hannick, chairman of the Council for the West, an economic development body in Mayo. “There’s a lack of jobs in the area and this will bring power for industry,” Hannick says. “Support for the protests has dwindled. Initially, protesters objected to the pipeline, then they switched their attention to the refinery.”

Terry Nolan, deputy managing director of Shell E&P Ireland, says an independent report by UK firm Advantica found the pipeline to be safe. “Cold-venting gases will release only the same amount of methane produced by 700 cows a year,” he insists. “It’s far safer to have an onshore refinery, less environmentally dangerous. There are no suitable islands or coastal sites. We don’t want to ruin the landscape.

“We have installed water treatment systems at the site, and we take samples of water leaving the site. We have had a small number of excedences for [excess] suspended solids. It is almost drinking quality.

“The government is reviewing the licence terms, but profits will be subject to 25% corporation tax – double the normal level.”

He adds: “We have 200 people employed here, 85% of them local. Contractors have been threatened and received intimidating phone calls.”

McGrath admits that construction has been “exceptionally slow”, given that the Corrib field was discovered in 1996. “We have said that we regret the role Shell played in the jailing of the five men,” he says. “We have tried to open a dialogue with the objectors, but at no stage did they want to enter into discussions.”,,2027681,00.html

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