Electricity Minister shows no signs of blocking big electricty project in Laois

Conor Ganly

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Conor Ganly

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news@leinsterexpress.ie

electricity laois

Electricity substation planned for Laois.

The Government Minister with responsibility for electricity is showing no signs of blocking a €110 million project in Laois.

Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment  Denis Naughten spoke in the Dáil recently on the issue of the building of a large substation in Coolnabacca near Ratheniska and Timahoe. It was raised by Laois TDs Sean Fleming and Brian Stanley.

He also pointed to pointed to a review carried out during the process which found that the proposed development is outside of any known groundwater drinking water supply source protection zone.

Minister Naughten has in the past met the Ratheniska Timahoe Spink (RTS) Action Group in Laois. He also took action when Eirgrid began work last year outside planning rules. The RTS group is blocking Eirgrid and ESB Networks from begining work.

"The essential responsibility to ensure that Irish citizens have ongoing secure access to electricity via a world-class electricity infrastructure which rests with EirGrid and ESB Networks.

"They undertake their work in this regard under the auspices of legislation and in the common interest, which is critical. It is clear that most of the development in Ireland now meets with some opposition.

"In this case, some local people believe the development is undesirable and continue to express their views on it through lawful protest," he said.

However Minister Naughten said the project has planning.

"We must also remember that the project was awarded planning permission.  Ireland's planning process is rightly regarded as one of the most comprehensive and participatory in Europe. As part of the planning process for the project, an environmental impact statement was completed in which the potential impacts on the aquifer and water table were fully considered under section 8," he said.

The Minister said the reports are publicly available "will fully address their concerns" of TDs.

"Full planning permission for the project was granted in April 2014. That decision was subject to judicial review proceedings that were dismissed in January 2015. EirGrid and ESB Networks are now carrying out their operational responsibility in attempting to develop the site. I am aware that the RTS group has organised protests at the site.

"As EirGrid and ESB Networks have no desire for confrontation, they have not attempted to access the site in recent days. I am sure both organisations would be happy to brief the Deputies and the wider community on any and all aspects of the project," he said.

He added that only one right of way is required to access the site, which is now owned by ESB Networks and the right of way has now been secured.

The Action group say that the storing of large quantities of oil on site puts the underwground water supply for thousands of Laois people  at risk.

Commenting on the key issue of water supply he said local groups have claimed that the aquifer in the area is being harmed. However, he said water hydrology was fully considered in section 8 of the environmental report submitted with the planning application, which is available on the EirGrid website.

He read this into this into the Dáil record. This stated that clay encountered during the investigations is described as stiff to very stiff at depth, and this stiff clay will impede any vertical groundwater flow.

He also said the aquifer was discussed as part of the oral hearing in 2013. He said that during the examination of the issues raised, the Geological Survey Ireland, GSI, groundwater expert carried out a desktop review of the issue and provided a report. In summary, the GSI confirmed that a locally important sand and gravel aquifer underlies the region around the site of interest and noted that the proposed development is outside of any known groundwater drinking water supply source protection zone.

He also told TDs that the Laois-Kilkenny electricity grid reinforcement project is required to improve the security of electricity supply in the midland region. He said this €110 million investment in the area will ensure the electricity network can meet current and future needs of all users, from homes and farms to small businesses and industrial customers. 

TEXT OF DEBATE BELOW

Deputy Sean Fleming

I welcome the opportunity to raise the issue of the major electricity transmission project at Coolnabacca, Ratheniska, County Laois, which the Minister is aware is built on a very important local aquifer. On Thursday, 21 June Deputy Stanley and I were at a very well attended public meeting in Ratheniska on this matter. A local committee has been in touch with me in the meantime asking that I make the following points when I raise the issue with the Minister in the Dáil. At the meeting, it was proposed that the three local Deputies - the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, Deputy Stanley and I - seek collectively to meet the new CEO of EirGrid, Mr. Mark Foley. The committee asked me to ensure the local group is represented at such a meeting. It would be useful and normal for elected Members to bring a local delegation to such a meeting and I hope when the meeting takes place the group will be involved. We have been asked to ensure that any such meeting will be in the context of EirGrid not proceeding with the project, which has not received public support. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, asked EirGrid to pack up and leave the county and not to come back. I reiterate that statement. Too much damage has been done and trust in EirGrid and the ESB, as the operative for the proposed project, is at an all-time low in the local area. The committee does not see much value in meeting EirGrid and I understand the reason it has taken that view given the number of times it has been let. Nevertheless, I urge its members to attend the meeting. As public representatives, we are standing by this group which has been shabbily treated by EirGrid, not to speak of An Bord Pleanála, which bullied it for costs on the steps of the court and forced it to withdraw from the process at a moment's notice.

I made a commitment to table a parliamentary question seeking the details of the officials who met EirGrid to discuss this matter some time ago. The Minister kindly gave us an information note on that meeting last week. We want to know who authored the note. I have sought information on the tender document for the construction work, which should be a public contract. We want to see precisely what work is to be carried out. I will believe what I read in a tender document and given that people have difficulty believing what EirGrid might say, I want to see a copy of that document as soon as possible.
Deputy Brian Stanley
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I welcome the opportunity to raise this issue. Like Deputy Fleming I attended a meeting in Ratheniska a week ago last Thursday. It is a small community but there was a large attendance at the meeting as people are very concerned.

The approach taken by EirGrid provides a good template for how not to proceed successfully with an infrastructural project. It has lost the confidence and trust of the community. People do not believe what they are being told about the project. The request by the local community to meet EirGrid to discuss the project has been refused. EirGrid's management of the planning process has been fast and loose. Last year, the company acted outside the terms of the planning process and had to be reined in.

No clarity has been available on the necessity for the Laois-Kilkenny reinforcement project. The Minister received a letter from the Oireachtas committee seeking information on what assessments were carried out on the need for the project, which will cost more than €100 million. There has been no transparency from EirGrid. This is a dreadful situation. There are major concerns about the aquifer and the issue must be addressed. What assessments have been carried out in regard to it?

The issue goes beyond the townland of Ratheniska and nearby Timahoe or Coolnabacca, it concerns the centre of Laois. The aquifer serves between 8,000 and 10,000 people and we have major concerns about it. The EirGrid station is on top of the aquifer. A person who attended a pre-planning meeting to discuss building a small house in an adjacent area was told by the local authority not to bother applying because the application would probably be refused. That is the position, rightly or wrongly, yet EirGrid plans to build directly on top of the aquifer. The project is expected to cost €110 million. Where is the cost-benefit analysis?
Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment (Deputy Denis Naughten)
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I thank colleagues for their flexibility in having the debate today rather than last Thursday when I was not available. I welcome the opportunity provided to me by the Deputies to discuss what is an essential electricity grid enhancement project for the midlands. To ensure the national electricity grid is fit for purpose in modern times, 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 in order that it can support Ireland's continued economic development.

I am informed that the Laois-Kilkenny electricity grid reinforcement project is required to improve the security of electricity supply in the midland region. This €110 million investment in the area will ensure the electricity network can meet current and future needs of all users, from homes and farms to small businesses and industrial customers. The Coolnabacca electricity station in County Laois is part of the project, which was granted planning permission in 2014 by An Bord Pleanála. As part of the planning process for the project, an environmental impact statement was completed.

The previous debate on this development in June of last year was triggered by a regrettable and unacceptable breach of planning, when works started at the site in April 2017 without the planning conditions being discharged. The site was restored to its original state by September 2017 and EirGrid and ESB Networks have since reviewed their processes internally to ensure such an oversight does not occur in the future. Following a commitment I made during the debate, my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, and I attended a meeting with members of the community on 18 January 2018. At the meeting, the Ratheniska, Timahoe, Spink and surrounding areas substation action group outlined aspects of the project with which it was dissatisfied. These aspects covered issues of concern from the origins of the project in 2009 to the present day. I listened carefully to the many views expressed and I undertook to further consider the issues raised. After the meeting, my officials set about examining these issues and to that end they have engaged with EirGrid, the Commission for Regulation of Utilities and other parties. In response to Deputy Fleming, I asked that those issues be addressed. My officials followed them up with EirGrid and the other agencies. I gave a copy of the report to Deputy Fleming when it was presented to me.

I will relay the Deputies' request for a meeting and associated comments directly to EirGrid. I do not have the requested information in regard to the tender documentation. As much documentation as possible should be put into the public domain and I will also relay that request to EirGrid.

I will follow up the point raised by Deputy Stanley in regard to the correspondence from the committee with my office and ensure it is responded to.

Local groups have claimed that the aquifer in the area is being harmed. Water hydrology was fully considered in section 8 of the environmental report submitted with the planning application, which is available on the EirGrid website. It states:

Although for the wider groundwater body hydraulic continuity exists between the Sand and Gravel deposits and the bedrock aquifer, within the localised site area any groundwater in the sand and gravel deposits is not expected to be in hydraulic continuity with the bedrock aquifer underlying the site. This is due to the presence of a proved significant thickness of low permeability Clay deposits, with between 2.7m to 6.8m of clay proved beneath the Sand and Gravel deposits. The clay encountered during the investigations is described as stiff to very stiff at depth, and this stiff clay will impede any vertical groundwater flow.

The aquifer was discussed as part of the oral hearing in 2013. During the examination of the issues raised, the Geological Survey Ireland, GSI, groundwater expert carried out a desktop review of the issue and provided a report. In summary, the GSI confirmed that a locally important sand and gravel aquifer underlies the region around the site of interest and noted that the proposed development is outside of any known groundwater drinking water supply source protection zone. I hope that clarifies the issue on the aquifer.