This section dealt with human beings: land use
The inspectors heard from the Meath IFA Chairman Diarmuid Lally (also representing the IFA in Monaghan and Cavan), Kingscourt IFA (Eugene Lambe a dairy farmer from Cordoagh) and the ICMSA President John Comer and local representative Lorcan McCabe from Bailieborough. Lorcan Mc Cabe who is Chairperson of the ICMSA Farm Business Committee and is a Cavan man who is here today with me to represent the views of our members in the North-East.
Diarmuid Lally claimed there had been inadequate consultation with farmers by EirGrid. There had been an inadequate consideration of alternatives such as undergrounding. The cost of undergrounding had started off at 25 times the cost of an overhead line, but now the cost was almost equal, he said.
Mr Lally claimed there was no need for the interconnector. It was about sending electricity to Northern Ireland and had absolutely nothing to do with the North East. He said the NI Assembly had not yet clarified its plans for the power stations at Coolkeeragh and Ballylumford and there might be no need for transferring the extra electricity produced in the Republic to Northern Ireland. He wondered why a coastal route had not been chosen along the eastern seaboard, at the time the machinery had been in place to lay the underground cable connecting Rush in Co. Dublin to Prestatyn in Wales (the East-West interconnector).
The IFA Meath Chairman said the approach of EirGrid to the farming community had been arrogant. There was no engagement with the community. Mr Lally raised questions about the effect of the line on the health and wellbeing of farm families and workers. He also wondered what the effect would be on the single farm payments received by farmers for working their land, if EirGrid constructed one or more pylons on their property. Who would be compensating the farmer?, he asked.
He also made a number of points regarding health and safety on farms and asked what studies the company had done about potential crop disease or soil problems arising from the construction work. He wondered how farmers would do their business because of disruption during the eight to twelve weeks it took to construct a pylon on their land. He also asked EirGrid about the effect the power lines might have on the use of GPS equipment in machines such as combine harvesters.
The ICMSA President John Comer said the interconnector plan was of major concern to their members in the North-East and they opposed it. He said the identified route mainly traversed open countryside, having been designed to avoid towns and villages and clusters of rural housing. The proposed route would have the vast majority of the pylons erected in existing farmland and the power lines would overhang farm land. Mr Comer said there was deep frustration in rural communities on this issue and how it had been managed to date.
He said the ICMSA believed that the importance of the agri-food sector to export driven growth in the economy could not be underestimated with the total value of food and drink exports from Ireland in 2014 reaching a record of €10.5 billion. There had been considerable investment and energy expended over many years on promoting the very successful “Clean and Green” Irish brand abroad. The Association believed there was potential for considerable damage to Ireland’s reputation by the erection of large pylons through some of the most productive farmland in the country.
One of the main contentions was the reluctance by EirGrid to examine alternatives to the construction of the pylons, which would dominate the landscape and tower above homes and landscape features. The ICMSA was acutely aware of the importance of a properly functioning electricity network in terms of promoting foreign direct investment and jobs for the region, but it believed this must not be at an unnecessary cost to farm and rural families and their livelihoods. In this context, the ICMSA supported the undergrounding of cables to ensure minimum impact on the rural environment.
Mr Comer said the people who depend on it for a living believed a detailed independent cost-benefit analysis should be carried out and published on undergrounding before any final decision was made. In addition, the ICMSA believed a comprehensive independent Environmental Impact Study must be carried out which specifically addressed the impact from a farming, agri-economic and rural perspective.
ICMSA believes that all major farming enterprises including dairying, beef, sheep, equine, horticulture, forestry, tillage and poultry would be impacted by the proposed scheme and has concerns regarding the fact that not one single study of farming activities has been carried out and no alternative measures have been proposed. In addition, this proposal was likely significantly to devalue agricultural holdings. The construction of the transmission lines and associated large structures would significantly disrupt farming operations on an ongoing basis. Agricultural land would be rendered sterile along the 1km wide corridor which would traverse the countryside, Mr Comer said.
He called for further research to be done on the impact of electromagnetic fields (EMF) on living organisms. EMF was a particular concern for dairy farmers and the possible impact on somatic cell count and the associated costs. The ICMSA President pointed out that there were health and safety issues that needed to be addressed.
He continued: “It is a widely held view that that these high voltage power lines and pylons are the most objectionable form of public utility infrastructure on land. In addition to farming related issues they impose significant negative effects in relation to visual and environmental impact, land and property devaluation, and health and safety concerns. The ICMSA, on behalf of its farming members, supports the North East Pylon Pressure Campaign and their legitimate objective of demanding that these lines be placed underground.”
Responding to the points raised by the IFA and ICMSA representatives a property consultant for EirGrid Tom Corr repeated his view that the development of overhead lines was not expected to have any effect on farmland prices. There was no evidence of farm prices being impacted by the more than 400km of 400kV lines and 1800km of 220kV power lines already in existence in the Republic. He said international research showed that the impact of overhead lines diminished with time.
Mr Corr said that coming as he did from County Monaghan, it was his own experience over more than 30 years that he best customers were not out off by a property for sale that had an overhead power line.
Aidan Geoghegan, project manager for the EirGrid interconnector, told the hearing he could say with confidence that overhead lines did not interfere with GPS systems and the conductors would not affect the system signals.
Agricultural consultant Con Curtin for EirGrid said the concerns over electromagnetic fields around the lines had already been dealt with. The farmer would continue to have use of the land under the 400kV lines without any significant change. He said safety at sites could be managed and that farmers already had to operate machinery under overhead lines such as telephone wires.
Regarding the possible spread of animal disease such as TB from badgers, Mr Curtin said the risk was imperceptible. Vehicles used by contractors at a farm would be disinfected where required. Livestock would not be allowed to stray between holdings, he added. Regarding claims that Ireland’s green image for food could be affected, Mr Curtin said there was no reason for it to be affected. EirGrid pointed out that there were agri-food ventures in other counties such as Clare that had overhead high voltage lines.
Finally, another mapping error was revealed. Mr Curtin corrected a land use evaluation in the application by EirGrid surrounding a proposed tower no. 125 near Annagh in Co. Monaghan. The pylon would be located in a 1ha field and it was assumed that it was part of a particular holding, but the wrong one was outlined on the map originally provided. The impact of the tower on the corrected holding is now said to be slight adverse and in the adjoining land parcel it is now described as imperceptible.