Actions of Eirgrid in Laois 'totally unacceptable' says Minister in Dáil

Eirgrid due to meet with Laois County Council this week

Conor Ganly

Reporter:

Conor Ganly

Actions of Eirgrid in Laois 'totally unacceptable' says Minister

Work was carried out without Laois County Council's goahead.

Unauthorised work carried out by Eirgrid in Laois is 'totally unacceptable' according to the Minister for Communications, Climate Change and Environment.

Minster Denis Naugten was speaking in the Dáil in relation to construction work carried out by the State-owned company in Coolnabacca, Ratheniska where it has permission to build a major electricity substation.

"When this issue was brought to my attention by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, I immediately contact EirGrid pointing out that this was totally unacceptable," he said.

Responding to Laois TDs Sean Fleming and Brian Stanley, Minister Naughten said he was told that no further works will take place until the necessary planning conditions have been agreed in writing with the planning authority, which is Laois County Council. He said a meeting has been scheduled with the local authority for this Friday, 30 June.

The following is the full script of the Dáil Debate held on Tuesday, June 27.

Deputy Sean Fleming:     I spoke briefly to the Minister last Thursday about the unauthorised development by EirGrid of an electricity substation and electricity lines at Coolnabacca, County Laois. It is not just a question of a breach of planning laws. This is a situation where the actions of EirGrid have been contemptuous. It has broken the law, disregarded the local community and been dishonest in its public statements. Some of its public statements and published documents are unworthy of a State organisation. I personally believe that some of the documentation it has submitted to An Bord Pleanála is fraudulent. The issue is far more serious than someone commencing work on a project that had planning permission prior to lodging a commencement notice. It says in the public statement that it commenced work on the site prior to discharging some of its conditions, and that the works are approved by An Bord Pleanála. That is simply untrue. I am not permitted to describe it with the appropriate three-letter word.

This is an area where planning was granted as a result of An Bord Pleanála carrying out an appropriate assessment. That means that if one breaches the planning laws and conditions one cannot go back for retention. There is no option for An Bord Pleanála to ignore this issue. It has ignored the construction management plan that it should have submitted to Laois County Council. It has ignored the condition dealing with the national parks and wildlife and the conditions applicable to the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Above all, it has now submitted a document to An Bord Pleanála seeking minor alterations. That document is a fraudulent document and should be withdrawn because it makes no reference to the fact that this work has already been completed. It is seeking a minor alteration for something that is already history. That is a fraudulent submission to An Bord Pleanála and it must be asked to withdraw it straight away.

Deputy Brian Stanley:     This is the most important issue in the mid-Laois area at the moment. It is a flagrant breach of the planning code by a State company. It has a controversial history. EirGrid started work without having a construction management plan or a commencement notice from the planning authority, which is the local authority, Laois County Council. It started work on it around 17 April. It met the county council on 24 April and was told to cease. It kept working away and bulldozed ahead. It was served with a warning letter from Laois County Council on 30 May, but not the urgent enforcement notice that should have been served on it at the time.

My information is that the environmental impact statement on this project has not been completed. It is sited on a very sensitive aquifer, but An Bord Pleanála, if our information is correct, gave the go-ahead for this project against the advise of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. That has to be clarified. EirGrid cannot go in and recommence this work. Huge work has been carried out already, riding roughshod over the local community.

I met the management of EirGrid last week and put it to them that they had an appalling record on Ratheniska and the valley between Slieve Margy and the Rock of Dunamase and the hills on the other side. It has not been upfront with the local people of Ratheniska and Timahoe. I have requested that it informs us immediately of the full extent of what is planned in that area. It has broken the law and disregarded the planning process. We do not normally raise these things in the Chamber as they are usually left to the planners but the planning process on this project is in tatters. This is a publically owned semi-State company. The Minister is the shareholder. He cannot be a spectator on this and he must hold EirGrid to account. We need accountability from An Bord Pleanála and from EirGrid on this matter.

Deputy Denis Naughten: I thank Deputies Fleming and Stanley for providing me with the opportunity to discuss this significant electricity grid enhancement project. I understand that they have been briefed by both EirGrid and ESB Networks on the matter late last week. I welcome a discussion on the topic, and I believe it to be an example of how important it is for the people of Laois and Kilkenny that their electricity supply is kept up to the expected modern standards, as well as how vigorous our planning system is.

In working towards an ever more efficient, more effective and more economic electricity network, it is necessary to carry out grid refurbishment and enhancement on an ongoing basis. In this, EirGrid and ESB Networks work in close co-operation with the ultimate goal of enhancing the national electricity grid. They work to ensure citizens have ongoing, secure access to electricity via a world class electricity infrastructure that supports Ireland's continued economic development.

The Laois-Kilkenny electricity grid reinforcement project is required to improve the security of electricity supply in the region. This €110 million investment in the area will ensure the electricity network can meet the present and future needs of all users, from homes to farms, and small businesses to industrial customers.

The Coolnabacca electricity station in County Laois is part of this project which was granted planning permission in 2014 by An Bord Pleanála. In April 2017, works started at the Coolnabacca electricity station site. It came to light that the works were proceeding without the planning conditions being discharged by Laois County Council, including the erection of a temporary pylon.

When this issue was brought to my attention by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, I immediately contact EirGrid pointing out that this was totally unacceptable. Immediately this oversight was identified I am told that all works ceased on site. No further works will take place until the necessary planning conditions have been agreed in writing with the planning authority, which is Laois County Council. A meeting has been scheduled with the local authority for this Friday, 30 June.

The temporary pylon is required during the construction works to ensure the safety of workers on site and to maintain security of electricity supply as an existing overhead line runs close to the perimeter of the new station. Once the station is built, this temporary pylon and line diversion will be removed. I understand the pylon is on ESB land.

An application has been lodged with An Bord Pleanála for an alteration to the planning permission for this temporary pylon and both EirGrid and ESB Networks are reviewing their processes internally to ensure this does not occur in the future. Since the issue came to light, EirGrid and ESB Networks have been engaging with elected and public representatives locally to keep them informed and up to date with developments.

Deputy Sean Fleming: I publicly invite the Minister to visit the site. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, may have already invited him personally. The most upsetting point is that EirGrid has made a massive mistake. It knows this mistake cannot be rectified. A construction management plan cannot be submitted in an area covered by an appropriate assessment after work has commenced.

It has been dishonest in its dealings with what it submitted to An Bord Pleanála. It has been dishonest with Laois County Council. I am very concerned that EirGrid has shown a lack of candour in briefing the Minister today with what I would call the harmless response it drafted. We all know it is a big project and that is all the more reason for it to get it right. In its dealings with An Bord Pleanála it is calling this "minor alterations" because it knows that if it asks for retention, which is the reality, there is no provision in law to give retention for works covered by an area that required an appropriate assessment as carried out by An Bord Pleanála. It is telling An Bord Pleanála that works have not even commenced. It is looking for permission to do these proposed works. Everything about its submission is dishonest and fraudulent. It must withdraw from site unilaterally, completely and forever.

Deputy Brian Stanley: The Minister's reply would indicate that EirGrid is telling him that the works being carried out are minor and that there is one temporary pylon. I have photographs that show something completely different. It shows two pylons, a road being constructed and other works being carried out on site. This is a flagrant breach of the planning legislation and shows total disregard for the people of Timahoe and the Ratheniska area.

The question about the environmental impact statement, EIS, needs to be answered. Maybe it has been completed but our information is that it has not been and that planning permission was given despite the concerns of the National Parks and Wildlife Service. The whole project needs to go back to the start because EirGrid has started work and it cannot now simply continue under the present permission. We need answers. We are not dealing with a rogue developer. These are two semi-State companies, owned by us, which are accountable to the Minister, to this House and to the people. I want the Minister to contact An Bord Pleanála.

I welcome the fact the Minister has been in contact with EirGrid but I want him to make close contact with it again on this project to clarify the issue around the aquifer. Like Deputy Fleming, I invite the Minister to meet us on the site. Deputy Fleming, the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and I met local residents at a packed public meeting a few nights ago in Ratheniska. We may be divided on many things but on this issue I do not sense any difference between the three of us, Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil or Sinn Féin, on this issue in the constituency.

Deputy Denis Naughten: I have contacted EirGrid and have spoken to the chief executive of the ESB about this. I will not contact An Bord Pleanála. I cannot and will not do so. The planning process has to go on and I will not interfere with that in any way whatsoever. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, has spoken very frankly to me about this. There is quite a bit of anger here in the House about it, and I can understand that. It is nothing compared with what I received from the Minister, Deputy Flanagan.

There was a breach of the planning code by a State company and I would expect State companies to comply with the law of the land. Just over 12 months ago, I had an opportunity to address all the energy companies in this country, including the State companies, at an Energy Ireland conference in Croke Park. I made it a point at that conference to say that community had to be at the core of everything that was done, and that there had to be real and genuine engagement with communities throughout the country, with none of the lip service we have seen in the past. I expect the semi-State companies, particularly those under my authority, to have ensured that happened. I will get an opportunity to have a further discussion with them on foot of this and will relay the issues that have been raised in the House. Deputy Fleming is correct. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, has invited me to visit the site in question, and at the first opportunity I get I will take up his offer.

Deputy Brian Stanley: Will the Minister invite me and Deputy Fleming to the site visit as well?

Deputy Sean Fleming: He will inform us all.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Eugene Murphy): That can be arranged. Everyone will be informed.