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Planning laws as toxic to democracy as oil well is to us


Stormont Environment minister Mark H Durkan

Stormont Environment minister Mark H Durkan

Stormont Environment minister Mark H Durkan

How do you like your water? With ice and a slice of lemon? Or how about a little Biocide T and barium sulphate in there? Just for flavour, you know.

Both hazardous chemicals will be used during the drilling phase at the exploratory oil well at Woodburn Forest and reservoir near Carrickfergus. Biocide T is carcinogenic, toxic if inhaled, and may cause harm to unborn children. Barium sulphate is pretty noxious, too, yet 24,000kg of the stuff is going to be injected into the drinking water catchment area at Woodburn.

The drill, by oil company InfraStrata, will happen just 380 metres uphill from the reservoir, which supplies water to 1,800-plus streets in Belfast, Carrickfergus, Newtownabbey and beyond.

A leading global expert in the field, Professor Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University, has described the move as "irrational". The actor Mark Ruffalo, founder of non-profit organisation Water Defense, has written an open letter to Environment Minister Mark H Durkan - you know, the guy responsible for keeping our water safe - pointing out that "the small amount of oil and gas that can be extracted from that site pales in comparison to the nightmare that contaminating the water supply for over 131,000 residents in your community would cause".

Well, exactly. But what's almost as frightening is the noxious tangle of official bureaucracy and obfuscation that meant the public only heard the drill was going ahead when it was already a done deal.

Only in Northern Ireland can exploratory drilling, including the use of toxic chemicals, be undertaken without planning permission. If it was anywhere else in the UK such a development would have required permission and people would have had the opportunity to object. Not here. There is no requirement to consult with the public.

Apparently, in the case of Woodburn the drilling was given the go-ahead under Part 16 of the Planning (General Development) Order (Northern Ireland) 1993, which goes by the catchy shorthand of GDO. No, I hadn't heard of it either until last week. Enabled by an obscure mechanism called permitted development rights, it turns out that not only is there no requirement to enter into any public consultation process, there is no need to notify the public of an oil company's proposals to drill at all.

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This field is required

This means that decisions are often taken in negotiation with the developer behind firmly closed doors, with local people entirely oblivious and only becoming fully aware of what's going on when a large chunk of their forest gets chopped down and the heavy machinery begins rolling in.

The objectors to the Woodburn drill point out that the GDO forbids a member of the public to build a front porch on their house if it exceeds two square metres, yet under the same regulations an oil company can drill a deep well less than 400 metres from a public water supply and inject whopping amounts of toxic chemicals into the ground.

I say again, it could only happen here, where bureaucracy is deep, sludgy and immovable at the individual level, yet miraculously melts into thin air when big money comes to town.

What's more, as Ruffalo claims in his letter to Mr Durkan, the drill may actually be unlawful, given that a mining waste management plan was required before permitted development was granted, and that environmental considerations have not been properly assessed.

Acronym fatigue quickly sets in when you try to disentangle the mass of rules, protocols and regulations which, in certain magic combinations, seemingly allow companies like InfraStrata to do what they like.

But one thing is certain: in the interests of fairness, openness and democracy, Northern Ireland must be brought into line with the rest of the UK, where exploratory drilling proposals require planning permission and where the public has a right to be consulted.

I should say that Northern Ireland Water, which has leased the drill site to InfraStrata, insists that the project will not compromise the water supply.

The Department of the Environment - despite its failures over unauthorised sand extraction at Lough Neagh, or over the Mobuoy Road 'super dump' in Derry, which was exposed as the biggest illegal landfill site in Europe - is clearly happy to let events take their course.

Who knows what will happen? But if this reckless drill goes ahead, and if I lived in one of the many hundreds of streets where the water comes from Woodburn, I'd be thinking twice about turning on the tap.

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