Suspicion of EirGrid pylon plans is deep and pervasive across country
Locals are angry at what they see as contempt for their concerns
Anti-pylon campaigner Paddy Massey in front of the local information centre in Lismore, Co Waterford. Photograph: David Sleator
It takes only a few minutes listening to opponents of Grid Link to come across to a key aspect, perhaps the key aspect, of what rankles with local people and is galvanising them against the huge pylon project in Ireland’s southeast.
It is the deep and pervasive lack of trust ordinary people have in their government, their elected representatives, people employed by the State on their behalf and those charged with delivering a vital service, in this instance a reliable source of electricity capable of meeting future needs.
No 7 Main Street in Lismore, the pretty town in Co Waterford, is a long-standing retail premises lately fallen into disuse but now reborn as a campaign information centre for a growing local group, Bride and Blackwater Against Pylons (rethinkpylons.org). Today, the entire front of the three-storey terraced building is covered with a giant image – an aerial photograph shows the town, the two rivers, the Bride and Blackwater, and the surrounding countryside, a patchwork of fields and hedgerows.
Superimposed on the image are three lines of pylons, each 50m to 60m tall, corresponding to three possible routes crossing the landscape here, one of which EirGrid, the commercial semi-State company responsible for the grid system on which the country’s electricity is carried, will select in the middle of this year as its preferred route.
The visual impact of the pylons is clear and immediate.
The pylons, assuming they are eventually erected, will transmit 400,000 volt electricity from Knockraha just north of Cork city, east to Great Island near Waterford city, and from there north to Dunstown in Co Kildare. Eirgrid has identified six main corridor routes for the estimated 750 pylons that will be necessary, and 10 mostly minor deviations from those six (eirgridprojects.com/projects/gridlink).
The project, known as Grid Link, will cost an estimated €500 million and is seen by the Government as vital infrastructure linking Munster and Leinster. The third phase of what EirGrid regards as a consultation process ended last week; there will be further consulting after the company announces its preferred route in the middle of this year and eventually An Bord Pleanála will almost certainly hear lengthy arguments for and against the chosen route.
I’m standing inside No 7, known to campaigners as the Blue House. The walls are covered with maps showing three possible pylon routes closest to Lismore. They are named K11, a long line of pylons passing east-west just south of the town, and K21 and K16, two variation routes further to the south crossing the Blackwater close to its confluence with the Bride.
Have you any faith in the consultation process, the planning process? I ask my hosts, Albert Wassenaar, a retired Dutch IT expert with a home near Lismore, and Paddy Massey, who manages an estate nearby on the Blackwater.
“No!” they proclaim in unison and without a nanosecond’s hesitation.
Why? I ask.
“There is a feeling at the moment,” replies Paddy, “that we have been treated so badly by public officials for 20 years, there is a level of cynicism when a project like this is put forward. There is a feeling we are being lied to.”
Wassenaar adds: “Dissent is good for democracy; compliance is bad.” The issue will feature prominently in the upcoming local elections but Wassenaar for one is against running candidates.
Neither he nor Massey come across as particularly radical or Nimby-ish, though without doubt there is an element of “why here?” among opponents of the project.
Teasing out the reasons for their lack of faith in what amounts to Ireland’s system of government in the widest sense, explanations and accusations tumble forth. They, and three other campaigners from south Kilkenny interviewed later
, Kathleen O’Brien, Dominic Russell and another who does not want their name printed for fear, they say, of retribution at work, regard the consultation process and the planning system as a complete sham.
They say they are lied to by EirGrid – by spokespeople and company executives they name – and are treated with contempt by politicians.
Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte is not flavour of the month in these parts.
“EirGrid give different answers to different people or generic answers to specific questions or don’t answer emails,” says Wassenaar who, since 1983 when he first came to Ireland, has noticed what he sees as a marked lack of integrity in Irish public life, and honesty in public discourse, compared to his native Netherlands.
“When you see the text [of an EirGrid response to questions], it’s unbelievable – every answer is the same and not dealing with the essence of the question. Therefore, I think it is almost useless to fight EirGrid with argument. The battle has to be won with politicians.”
Down the road in Mullinavat, Kathleen O’Brien says she feels personally violated by what is proposed. She, her family and home are under attack in her view and her and her community’s concerns are simply not being taken on board. She and her colleagues feel the Aarhus Convention, to which Ireland is a party and which gives people a right of consultation and involvement in environment decisions, is simply not being upheld by the State in any meaningful way.
They cite a meeting in October with Grid Link project manager John Lowry which they found particularly unsatisfactory, and a series of questions to the company which were answered by email on December 23rd.
“Many of [our] questions were not answered, other answers were to questions we had not asked, and some answers were with standard EirGrid leaflet material and not dealing with our points,” says Dominic Russell.
People were not alerted adequately to open-house consultation meetings, there is no EirGrid information centre in Waterford (there are in Midleton, Carrick-On-Suir, Carlow, New Ross and Kilcullen) and local newspapers were not used to alert people to what was going on. They say every home affected by the plans should have been sent information.
The health issue is a major focus for opponents. EirGrid cites a 2007 World Health Organisation review which, the company says, “does not establish that exposure to [electro-magnetic field] of the nature associated with power lines causes or contributes to any disease or illness”, as the company said in a statement last
week to The Irish Times.
Campaigners challenge this, pointing to a statement by the European Commission’s scientific committee on emerging and newly identified health risks, that exposure to electromagnetic fields is “a possible carcinogen”.
“Epidemiology [the study of how and why diseases spread] has shown consistently that there is a risk to human health by high-voltage electricity cables,” says the un-named Mullinavat campaigner. “It is associated with childhood leukaemia and other illness.”
They issued a statement late last week quoting Denis Henshaw, Bristol University emeritus professor of human radiation effects, saying: “The claim by EirGrid that there is no scientific evidence to show power lines cause problems to health either in humans or animals is wrong and unsustainable”.
Similar lack of faith attends campaigners’ response to the integrity of EirGrid’s case against underground cabelling (“if under the sea is okay for inter-connectors, why not under ground”? ask campaigners) and the absence of a cost-benefit analysis on the whole project.
Albert Wassenaar looks across the pastoral Bride Valley, its leafless winter trees and hedgerows filigree-like silhouetted against the clear blue sky and lush green fields.
If the route is here, there will be a line of 25 to 30 60m tall pylons stretching into the horizon.
“Unbelievable!” he says. “The idea of it! The idea of it!”
Rethinkpylons is growing weekly as local concerns over EirGrid’s plans in the southeast, northwest and northeast crystalise into trenchant opposition fuelled by, as opponents see it, arrogance and dishonesty from the company, the State and politicians.
Battle has been joined.