Woodburn Forest protest: Stop the Drill protesters warned over blocking InfraStrata site
Anti-drilling protesters will face being banned from an exploratory oil well site in Co Antrim if they block work getting underway, a High Court judge warned.
The company behind the project at Woodburn Forest near Carrickfergus is seeking an injunction to stop alleged trespassing and obstruction.
With contractors due on the site on Thursday morning, lawyers for InfraStrata claimed any disruption will have financial consequences for a project costing £8,000 a day.
But Lord Justice Girvan adjourned the legal action until after the workmen have moved in.
He told counsel for the firm: "If access has been obstructed your argument for an injunction becomes unanswerable."
Proceedings were issued against 10 people named on legal papers after a notice was issued for protesters to vacate the site on Tuesday.
The Stop the Drill campaign group is opposing a controversial borehole to search for oil and gas in the area, saying it is part of the catchment for a reservoir supplying water to homes in Belfast and Carrick.
They claim chemicals used in the drill process could leach into the water table.
But Northern Ireland Water, which leased the site to InfraStrata, insists the project will not compromise the water supply.
Groundwater will also be protected by measures including the drill shaft being encased in steel and concrete, according to the firm.
Earlier this week Mid and East Antrim Council approved a waste management plan - effectively paving the way for four months of work on the site to begin.
In court barrister John Maxwell, for InfraStrata, said a protest camp has been in operation since last month.
He claimed groups of up to 25 people gathered during earlier, preliminary stages in the project.
At one stage cars were used to block off the entrance to the site, he claimed.
Mr Maxwell argued that his client has a right of way on private land and was only taking the minimal step of an injunction at this stage.
But he stressed: "If we are forced we will sue for damages and we will use the criminal law."
Michael Lavery, representing some of the 10 defendants, predicted there could be a legal challenge to the lawfulness of the licensing process around the project.
Denying that his clients had either trespassed or caused obstruction, he insisted: "They are not some lunatic fringe, they are responsible people."
Mr Lavery argued that campers, hikers and other members of the public all have a right to access the forest park.
And he claimed that it was a world-first attempt to drill in a water catchment area.
"There's not only local concern, this has attracted international concern," he told the court.
"There are grave, grave reservations about what is going on here."
According to the barrister questions remain over permission to divert drainage.
He added: "There's concern the drinking water will be polluted.
"This reservoir supplies drinking water to more than 130,000 people."
Following submissions, however, Lord Justice Girvan put the case on hold to see what happens on Thursday morning.
There were angry scenes at a Mid and East Antrim Council meeting on Monday night after more than 100 protesters shouted at councillors who backed the company's waste management plan, which formally paved the way for the borehole to go ahead.
Local residents have picketed the forest with Stop The Drill campaigners concerned over the lack of public scrutiny for plans to carry out exploratory oil and gas drilling close to the reservoir that supplies drinking water to hundreds of homes in Co Antrim.
Planning permission was not required for the drill to proceed.
The campaign has been backed by celebrities human rights advocate Bianca Jagger and Spotlight and Avengers star Mark Ruffalo.