Seanad Éireann - Volume 174 - 06 November, 2003
Adjournment Matters. - Derrybrien Wind Farm.
Mr. U. Burke Mr. U. Burke
Mr. U. Burke: I wish to share my time with Senator Kitt.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach An Leas-Chathaoirleach
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: Is that agreed? Agreed.
Mr. U. Burke Mr. U. Burke
 Mr. U. Burke: I thank the Cathaoirleach for choosing this item. I ask the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Ahern, to intervene with ESB International and Hibernian Wind Energy, which are developing the wind farm at Derrybrien in County Galway, to allay the fears of the local residents that no further danger will occur as a result of development works on site. I also ask the Minister to satisfy the residents that these companies have complied with their statutory duties and have not violated conditions of planning associated with the development.
This issue is having very serious consequences for the residents of Derrybrien as well as for the future development of wind energy in the country. I hope the Minister will take responsibility for co-ordinating matters and reassuring local residents that no further danger will result from any development until full investigations are carried out on site. I congratulate the residents of Derrybrien on their co-operation with all the agencies during the past three weeks. From the outset, the engineering staff and management of Galway County Council have been on site and have been very professional in the way they have dealt with the difficulties facing them.
Neither ESB International nor Hibernian Wind Energy has taken on board their full responsibilities and this is regrettable. One end to another of the Slieve Aughty mountains have been mounded, drained and quarried by Coillte and other State bodies over the years and not one occurrence of this nature happened anywhere. Insufficient investigation of the site was carried out before this development started. Local people repeatedly said that they feared this development. They are not against wind energy in itself, or the construction of wind turbines, but they feared that danger was involved and this has been borne out by what has happened. They were aware of the terrain and the difficulties any development of this type would have on site. However, their expressed fears and opinions were ignored and there is now a catastrophe.
Prior to the major landslide, another landslide was already recorded and noticed on site, but nobody remarked on it. The idea that the developers on site thought whatever might happen could be ignored was, as I said, extreme recklessness. There were many reasons why they should have reported it and immediately taken action for the future. The Health and Safety Authority should have been notified. Nobody in those companies took the responsibility to respond in that way. The greatest fear now is that the further development planned for this site will take place in an area which will cause far greater concern because of its location relative to the residents of Derrybrien. The first part of the development took place in an area that fortunately could not affect the residents. The remaining part of it will cause very serious concern because of the terrain and the way it is inclined towards the residential part of that community.
 In that particular instance quarrying and blasting took place which was literally playing with dynamite, if the Minister of State can pardon the pun, in regard to the consequences. The development company was remiss and careless in the extreme not to make the necessary preparations to ensure it knew the impact of such activity on the area. Were it not for the seriousness of the landslide everything would have been covered up, which is regrettable. There has been a failure to take responsibility. The minute the landslide happened the site was closed and the people walked away until they were drawn back by the county council. During the fine weather very valuable time was lost on site to prevent the catastrophe. The landslide could only go down into the valley to follow the water streams in the area, as happened, and when the rain came it was accelerated, resulting in a natural disaster.
This has had a major environmental impact. It has wiped out the unique fish life of 100,000 wild brown trout in a tributary river of Lough Cutra and in Lough Cutra itself, which is a source for the water supply in Gort. These are environmental issues and I am sure the Minister of State's colleague in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government will have to take action in respect of the funding that must be made available. Both Departments must take action in co-operation with the agencies.
The ESB and the county councils came to public meetings with their cards up but the ESB has not played those cards. It must take responsibility for what has happened. We cannot wait for reports that might give the ESB the idea that it can slip out and say it is not fully responsible and therefore does not have to rectify the problem. That cannot be allowed to happen. It is too serious, not alone for the local community but for national development. It is important that we have wind energy but the question arises again as to where and how the development will take place. Many of the sites now designated under planning law in several counties have to be reassessed for their suitability.
Dúchas is remiss too. If in certain sensitive areas two stones fell off a wall on land owned by a farmer making a REPS application Dúchas would penalise the farmer, but in this case it is conspicuous by its absence. I do not know why it is so. As a matter of urgency the Minister of State and some of the personnel in his Department should put a hands-on programme into effect, with the co-operation of the ESB and Galway County Council, to ensure that whatever happens in future in this area, no danger will be tolerated. Even the slightest risk of danger cannot be tolerated. Whatever action is necessary to eliminate it must be taken to avoid further disaster. I leave that open to interpretation. I do not know what will be necessary by way of compensation or money for the environment. The residents of Derrybrien have made it clear they are not interested in compensation on that basis. They are interested in living safely in their environment and that has to be guaranteed. There should be no activity by any agency or any further development on that site until safety can be guaranteed.
It is most regrettable that an agency would suggest dangling a financial carrot in front of residents at a time when they are under stress and suffering trauma. That is the bottom of the barrel. The origin of that decision has to be tracked down, identified and rejected as a method of resolving this serious problem.
Mr. Kitt Mr. Kitt
Mr. Kitt: I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House. I have great sympathy for the people of Derrybrien as I said at a public meeting last Monday. This is an environmental disaster. A river has been wiped out and Senator Ulick Burke tells us that 100,000 fish have been killed. The river flows into Lough Cutra which is the basis for the water supply in Gort so it is an issue not only for Derrybrien but for south Galway that this pollution has taken place. It is a major setback for the development of wind energy. I fully support wind energy but it has been difficult to convince people about it, particularly on the west coast. These problems in Derrybrien do not help the project.
I would like the Minister of State to take up some of the points made by Senator Ulick Burke, in particular about the planning permission that was granted. Did it include quarrying and blasting? One part of this development was refused by Galway County Council and was granted by An Bord Pleanála, which has to answer questions about why this part of the development went ahead. I would like to pay tribute to the local action group, chaired by Martin Collins who has followed the question of these planning matters for several years. He makes the point that we never get independent views on this. Everyone has a consultant, whether the developer or the contractor, and the best source of independent advice on this now is Galway County Council. I pay tribute to it for the work it has done. It had to get in very quickly when the landslide occurred, to close the roads and monitor the situation around the clock.
There are many questions now to which people want answers and I hope the Minister of State can give them answers, for example, on what surveying was carried out. We know about the helicopters flying over Derrybrien and about the speed and power of the wind. Like the people there, I am worried whether any ground surveys were carried out because this concerns them. It was interesting to hear people at the public meeting say they were in favour of wind energy, but they said windmills should be put at ground level or off shore, not on a mountain. Indeed, many said the area in question is not a mountain but a bog. That is how they described Sliabh Aughty and it is difficult to see a location there for these turbines. The Minister of State should be aware of the concerns of the families involved that this might happen again. People talk about the fear and uncertainty and the fact they cannot sleep at night because they, like the people in Pollathomas in County Mayo, do not know what will happen next. The next few weeks will be very important. During that time further surveys and reports will be carried out. I hope that when we get those back in a few weeks time, we will be able to provide answers. The Minister of State in particular has a responsibility to provide those answers, having looked at the surveys and reports, and to give answers to the questions the people are raising in Derrybrien.
Mr. J. Browne Mr. J. Browne
Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. J. Browne): I thank Senator Ulick Burke and Senator Kitt for raising this issue. The development of a windfarm at Derrybrien by a subsidiary company of the ESB is a day to day operational matter for the company and not one in which the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, has a function.
However, as regards the question of compliance with planning permission, this is a matter for Galway County Council. I know that it has arranged to have an expert examination carried out immediately into the likely cause of the landslide.
I understand that Hibernian Wind Power, the ESB subsidiary, met with the Derrybrien residents, as the two Senators have outlined, on Monday, 3 November, to discuss the recent landslide. The ESB is also co-operating with the regional fisheries authorities. I would emphasise that work has halted at the site, pending the outcome of the investigation into the issue. Work commenced in July this year on the 60 megawatt windfarm which comprises 71 proposed wind turbines, and associated access roads. Construction of some 90% of the site roads and 50% of the bases for the wind turbines had been completed when a land or bog slide occurred on the afternoon of Thursday, 16 October 2003, immediately south of the proposed location for turbine T68. The bog slide initially stopped some 2.45 kms downstream at an elevation of about 195 m on 19 October. This is immediately up slope of a minor rural road. The majority of the failed material is located on Coillte forestry lands, down slope of the windfarm site. However, the “toe”, or bottom of the bog slide, has encompassed an unoccupied house on private land. Galway County Council took action and constructed a small dam.
On 29 October, following heavy rain, the bog slide became active again. It crossed the minor road, covering a distance of some 1,500m following the flow of the river valley, as outlined by the Senators. Immediate remedial work involved the construction of three dams, the largest of these some 10m in height.
Work was immediately suspended on site following the incident and has not since resumed. All staff and contractors working on the site were fully accounted for and there was no injury to any member of the public. It is too early to determine the implications for the construction and commissioning programme or to determine whether any modifications will be required to the windfarm specifications. Decisions on these items must await the completion of the various investigations now under way.
Mr. U. Burke Mr. U. Burke
Mr. U. Burke: Was the Minister of State not aware of the fact that the major landslide was the second on the site? He seems to have been unaware of the first one. Is he aware or will he investigate whether incentives or inducements were offered to certain residents to suppress adverse publicity? It is important that those particular investigations be carried out.
Mr. J. Browne Mr. J. Browne
Mr. J. Browne: I am aware that the company has admitted that the first landslide was not reported. I am not aware of any inducements, other than what I hear or read about in the media and I am not aware of any official inducements being offered. I am sure that can be looked into, given all the investigations that are being carried out at the moment.
The Seanad adjourned at 1.35 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 11 November 2003.
Seanad Éireann 174 Adjournment Matters. Derrybrien Wind Farm.