Belfast Telegraph

Massive £240k legal bill over Antrim oil drilling

By Allan Preston

A Co Antrim council has blamed environmental protesters for leaving ratepayers with a legal bill of almost a quarter-of-a-million pounds.

Last June a council-approved search for oil in Woodburn Forest near Carrickfergus ended without success.

The exploratory drilling operation was met with furious resistance from protesters who feared pollution of a nearby reservoir.

A recent High Court challenge against Mid and East Antrim Borough Council's decision to allow the drilling was dismissed, with the judge claiming that as no further developments were due to take place at Woodburn, a judicial review was not in the public interest.

A council spokesman revealed yesterday the legal fees had been £241,000, with "substantial additional cost" for staff working on the queries.

He added: "The level of vitriol directed at individual employees and elected members of the council by some was wholly unacceptable and inappropriate.

"This is a huge spend of public money, which could have been used on other projects."

The council also insisted the decision had been legally sound and environmentally safe.

James Orr, Northern Ireland director of Friends of the Earth, said the council had won its case on "an obscure academic point", and added he remained convinced the drilling operation had not been lawful.

"This happened to be the most significant planning controversy in the history of Northern Ireland, one that wasted millions in taxpayers' money and policing, created lots of community tension and conflict," he said.

"For something like that not to require planning permission is preposterous.

"I think it's a shameful opinion by the council to say that others wasted this money, when in fact they squandered ratepayers' money defending the indefensible."

He added: "It's a bizarre argument for the council to blame others for this money being spent when they hid behind very significant legal costs to protect their reputation rather than protect the environment or the public interests at Woodburn."

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