Campaigners fear undersea mining project could affect environment and marine life
Concerned residents in Islandmagee and green campaigners have launched a legal challenge against the mining of gas caverns in salt layers under Larne Lough.
They fear it will have a detrimental impact on the environment and sea life.
The challenge is being spearheaded by the No Gas Caverns group, which has already collected more than £10,000 through fundraising.
A marine licence was issued last November to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) to facilitate the discharge of hyper saline brine into protected marine areas close to Browns Bay as part of the proposed works.
No Gas Caverns launched legal proceedings against DAERA shortly afterwards, and submitted a pre-action letter in December.
The group’s Lisa Dobbie said the money raised facilitated phase one of the challenge and the issuing of the letter, but further cash was needed to fund a judicial review.
InfraStrata, now Harland & Wolff Group, sought planning permission to carve out seven salt caves for storing gas under the lough in 2012.
More recently, planners approved pre-enabling groundwork on the shore opposite Magheramorne Quarry, a filming site for hit TV show Game Of Thrones.
To complete the project, a marine licence was needed to pipe a brine sludge substance overland and into the North Channel near the Isle of Muck Nature Reserve.
The Northern Ireland Marine Taskforce — a coalition of environmental NGOs, including RSPB NI, Ulster Wildlife, National Trust, WWF, Keep Northern Ireland Beautiful, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group and Friends of the Earth — advised against the granting of the licence and is supportive of the No Gas Caverns campaign.
Despite more that 500 responses to a DAERA consultation, the licence was granted last November.
The pre-action letter submitted to the department lists strong points of legal challenge against the issuing of the marine licence.
Ms Dobbie said the primary concern was the issue of “futureproofing” for the project.
“The decommissioning of the project requires a further lease from the Crown Estates, but there is no means of compelling the developer to carry out the decommissioning works if it is halted or if costs cannot be covered,” she said.
“If you are going to create something, you need to know how to safely decommission it from a financial and an environmental perspective.”
DAERA said that prior to the marine licence being granted, “adequate mitigation” had been identified to minimise the impact of the project.
She refuted this and rejected suggestions enough had been done to protect the environment if an issue should arise.
“When you decommission a cavern, you fill them with sea water, but over time the sea water in the salt layers leaches out more salt and becomes very toxic, dense, hyper saline brine,” she said.
“Also, because gas has been in these caverns, there is the risk of pressure build-up, which is why they have to release the pressure, but these have been known to blow.”
She fears if one blows up next to Larne Lough the hypersaline brine may not disperse easily in the water and become an environmental issue, with the costs being borne by the public.
DAERA said the project would “enhance the existing security of energy supply arrangements in place”.
However, this seems to contradict a document on the DAERA website responding to questions over the initial consultation on the marine licence.
The response states: “The Department for the Economy has advised that all of Northern Ireland’s natural gas requirements are provided via an undersea pipeline from Scotland, and there are established arrangements to ensure gas security of supply, including consideration on a UK/Ireland basis. So, although the project could enhance security of energy supply, it is not essential.”
Additional consents are now required from the Utility Regulator, Crown Estates and the Health and Safety Executive before the project can progress.
The Harland & Wolff Group was contacted for comment.