EIRGRID ACCUSED OF BULLYING LOCAL PEOPLE AS INTERCONNECTOR ORAL HEARING ENDS
Closing submissions were made as the oral hearing entered its eleventh week
Michael Fisher NORTHERN STANDARD Thursday 26th May p.14
JAMES MCNALLY, Latnakelly, Anyalla, made his submission on Day 34. He said it would be an absolute travesty for the Board to approve such a poorly prepared planning application. His submission dealt with a section of the proposed route from where it would cross the border at Lemgare, near Clontibret, to Cornamucklagh. He said he had identified a number of discrepancies within the Environmental Impact Statement, but had received no credible answers.
He claimed the route selection process was flawed, by EirGrid choosing the “crooked elbow route”, through vulnerable elderly peoples’ property, adding a further 3km to the route and at least 11 or 12 additional pylons for which no rational or verifiable explanation had been provided. There would be a drastic negative impact over a considerable distance on the main tourist asset and local area of natural beauty, “The Monaghan Way” walk, he said.
Mr McNally claimed there had been avoidance of compliance with national and EU Legislation and habitats directives in relation to protected species such as the marsh fritillary butterfly and their habitat, bats, and badgers on the site of one of pylons. He claimed there was potential for the destruction of a nationally recognised site for rare orchids on the “Tassan grasslands”. He said there were three separate erroneous measurements on the distance of the proposed line from Tassan Lough national heritage area.
Regarding the presence of old mine shafts, Mr McNally claimed EirGrid had given no consideration to the risk for toxic lead, zinc, or arsenic run-off, into the ecologically sensitive Tassan Lough area and the potential for poisonous pollution to the local water table as a result of disused mine shaft collapse underneath two of the proposed pylons and other unidentified mine shafts in Lemgare and Annaglough. There was also the omission from the planning maps of a significant poultry unit in Lisdrumgormly. (EirGrid has already given its response on the mines issue, published last week).
EirGrid could not, and would not be allowed to force or coerce the people of Monaghan to accept an overhead powerline, he said. That was a fact that had been well established and emphasised by the numerous oral submissions at the hearing. No amount of posturing, or belittling, of the public submissions, would diminish the landowners’ resolve to have this powerline undergrounded. The community without access to experts, had spoken with one voice. He said it was now up to the inspectors to reflect that voice to the Board for its deliberations, however unpalatable it might seem to EirGrid.
MARGARET MARRON of the County Monaghan Anti-Pylon Committee said for the last nine years since the project was first announced, the process pursued by EirGrid had been very stressful, annoying, frustrating and contrary to what would be expected of a publicly funded organisation. An organisation which she said had used taxpayers’ money arbitrarily to focus exclusively on their own narrow-minded objective, namely to build this powerline overground on pylons, with absolutely no regard for what the affected communities or their political representatives thought.
From the outset, the observers and public concerned, including the landowners, did not sense that procedural justice was high on the list in the oral hearing. Time limits were imposed on public participation and there were constant reminders that the process being conducted was “a fact-finding mission”, not an oral hearing on the application in front of the Board. The landowners were totally dismayed at the inaction of the inspectors in dealing with the “errata” identified in the EIS and the proposed modifications to route access points, the developer being allowed continually to improvise and amend the planning application throughout the hearing process.
CMAPC in association with NEPPC felt there was no alternative but to withdraw from a process which, in the eyes of the landowners, was flawed and biased in favour of the developer. We witnessed the developer being permitted, without hindrance or comment by the presiding Inspectors, to use the “fact finding mission” and information gleaned from the public submissions to address the deficiencies in the EIS and planning application, she said. The public therefore had a right to ask: where was the right to “access to justice in environmental matters” as stipulated in Article 1 of the Aarhus Convention?
Ms Marron continued: “Public hearings should not facilitate a “single-sided” approach while the opposition is absent, or where the public is unaware of the matters being proposed by the developer for acceptance by the Board. The only conclusion which the public can justifiably arrive at is that natural justice is being denied, and the whole planning process is therefore undermined. It could be easily construed that this whole planning process was just another ‘let some steam off’ or ‘tick the boxes’ exercise, designed to placate the public, while meeting the ever changing and seemingly flexible criteria of planning legislation to the advantage of the developer.”
She said it was incredible for the Board to allow a developer and its richly rewarded advisors blatantly to deny in public that there would be any health or life-changing impacts on vulnerable elderly people and mothers with autistic family members. She felt it was heart rending and shocking to watch private people who felt forced to outline their own personal family circumstances in a public arena. No attempt had been made to hold any of the public hearing “in camera” or in private, which was normal practice to accommodate people when issues of a sensitive nature were being considered.
She pointed out that throughout the oral hearing the developer had been seen to request the Board to ignore the established planning standards, regulations and laws, which had been strictly adhered to and implemented by planning authorities both at local and national level, and to allow the developer to carry out pre-construction verification surveys as a solution to their failure to carry out onsite surveys. This was not a solution which could be applied in drumlin topography and it had the added danger of setting a new precedent i.e. that established planning regulations could be totally ignored in future major development proposals.
The failings of desktop studies, aerial photography and LiDAR orthophotography were emphasised throughout the oral hearing process and were shown to be totally ineffective in identifying features on the ground. Some of the proposals provided by the developer to gain access over hedgerows and drains were farcical, totally inappropriate and bordering on the ridiculous.
The suggestions for transport of vast volumes of concrete and washing down of dumpers were equally absurd. The use of mini-diggers to gain access underneath enclosed hedgerows and rock surrounded entrances was impractical, yet the authenticity of such proposals was not questioned by the inspectors in most instances. Were members of the public present at the hearing expected to believe that what was being proposed by the developer was actually feasible, she asked.
In the opinion of the CMAPC, the EIS and planning application did not provide a neutral observer with objective, concise, and adequate detailed evidence to justify the destruction of a scenic unspoilt part of the Monaghan landscape. The developer had other options such as the use of more modern HVDC (High Voltage Direct Current) technology which could be put underground along existing infrastructural road networks which are owned by the state. The cumulative costs in terms of destruction of the unique drumlin landscape, the environmental and ecological destruction of protected species and habitats, the negative visual impact from a visitor and tourist perspective, the obtrusive overshadowing of national heritage assets, the increased risk to health and safety and possible fatalities underneath the proposed line, the decimation of house and land values along the alignment were some of the factors which in their view substantially outweighed the likely benefits of the proposed overhead 400kV power line.
The incompatible visual intrusion of industrial scale large steel pylon structures up to 52 metres high with the drumlin countryside would detract from the attractive rural character, appearance, amenity and setting of the landscape. It would be contrary to the proper planning and sustainable development of County Monaghan.
CMAPC were requesting the Board to consider the recovery of costs incurred by the public in this second planning application process and asking for a mechanism to be drawn up by the Board whereby the public and their advisors were reimbursed the fees incurred in participating in the “fact finding process” which had lasted over a number of weeks and months. People had endured considerable stress and emotional torment over an extended period during this entire planning process and were entitled at least to reimbursement of the direct costs associated with the hearing.
In conclusion Ms Marron said the anti-pylon committee had absolutely no doubt about the importance of Co. Monaghan to its residents and the devastating impact EirGrid’s proposal would have on their little bit of heaven. “We believe we do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we merely borrow it from our children and we want to ensure that future generations can inherit and enjoy the unique, unspoiled drumlin landscape, flora and fauna that we are fortunate enough to enjoy. We attended this hearing in good faith; we hope justice will prevail in the end and the Board will reject this planning application”, she said.
NIGEL HILLIS of the CMAPC referred to the government white paper on ‘Ireland’s Transition to a Low Carbon Energy Future 2015 – 2030’ launched in December 2015, which mentioned the need for the interconnector no less than six times. In para. 241 it stated: “The proposed North-South transmission line, which is currently in the planning process, will improve security of supply and reduce electricity transmission costs across the island”. Mr Hillis said it was implicit therein that the line would get planning permission. In his opinion this statement was tantamount to political interference and an attempt to finesse the planning process. It should be seen in that light by you and the Board, he told the presiding inspector.
The developer had stated over and over again that this project was needed for the economic development of the island of Ireland. As we have seen, it is of far greater economic importance to Northern Ireland than to us as they will supposedly run out of power in a few years’ time. So in the sense of economic development it was very much the case of the tail wagging the dog, he said.
Sustainable development in latter years had been very much driven by and embraced by climate change, he said. There had to be a compelling argument that undergrounding the project, which EirGrid’s CEO Fintan Slye had admitted was not only possible, but was also acceptable, was even more worthy of the title sustainable. It integrated and satisfied the three pillars of sustainable development: economic development, social equity and environmental protection. Undergrounding was in fact the most sustainable solution as it totally satisfied this triple bottom line of sustainability.
EirGrid had argued it would cost more to deliver the project underground and he accepted that the ‘nuts and bolts’ capital expenditure would be greater. But Mr Hillis said the affordability of undergrounding had never been examined because a full cost-benefit analysis had never been carried out.
Regarding access to lands along the route, it had been revealed that only 25% had been accessed and they did not even know where or what they are. There was no breakdown as to how much of the land accessed actually would have pylons, how much would have only the wires crossing and how much would be within 50 metres of the line, having neither pylons nor wires. Mr Hillis said in his view this was not proper planning. Indeed the withholding of such details was the antithesis of proper planning because properly informed comment could not be made by the public in the absence of this vital information.
This was now a project of common interest and the very highest standards must apply in both jurisdictions. If NIE or SONI walked into the Northern Ireland planning authorities with their application and said: we have only had access to 25% of the land for environmental surveys, I have no doubt they would be told to take the application away with them and shown the door, said Mr Hillis. In fact a “Consolidated Environmental Statement Addendum” was published in June 2015, the purpose of which was to provide the planning authorities with additional environmental information based on full access to 97% of the land in Armagh and Tyrone.
Mr Hillis noted that An Bord Pleanála had specifically requested that the NI planning documents and in particular the consolidated ES would be appended to EirGrid’s planning application. He requested that the inspectors and the Board took careful note of the huge difference in the quality of the environmental information, due mainly to the fact that 97% of land was accessed not once, but twice, in the N. Ireland section.
He then turned to his own area of expertise, namely construction, and a section in the Environmental Impact Statement regarding the requirement for temporary access tracks. It stated: “for the purposes of this appraisal, all temporary access routes have been assessed based on very wet weather conditions, expansive construction techniques with heavy machinery or equipment”.
Mr Hillis pointed out that only nineteen access points in Monaghan and Cavan and six in Meath were deemed to require temporary access tracks. This was totally ludicrous and nonsensical and was complete and utter guesswork and not evidence based on actual walk-over surveys in very wet weather, he said. He wondered what other areas of the EIS were totally deficient owing to the lack of proper on-site surveys at appropriate times of the year.
With regard to the so called mapping anomalies and incorrect capturing of roadside entrances, Mr Hillis claimed these were semantics in order to cover the fact that the roads had not been not driven on. He claimed the assessment was all done from out-of-date blurry large scale aerial maps on a computer, sitting in an office.
Again as more and more anomalies were brought to light by the landowners the machinery got smaller and smaller: mini diggers and mini piling rigs and concrete unloaded into dumpers ranging from 6 tonnes right down to 3.5 tonnes, the removal and double handling of spoil from sites, but yet the logistics for these operations had not been properly appraised at all. Mr Hillis said during the course of the hearing he had asked for a method statement to be prepared in order to understand better exactly what was entailed in this ever-changing construction methodology. But EirGrid’s barrister had immediately jumped to say that this would be going into excessive and inappropriate detail.
Mr Hillis continued: the Bob the Builder approach constantly taken by the developer (Can we fix it? Yes, we can) had no place at an oral hearing, in particular when the developer was a semi-state body which should have its planning application developed to the highest standards in all respects. The construction methodology had been totally revised in the course of the oral hearing and that section of the EIS was now, in his opinion, totally deficient and not fit for purpose.
He pointed out to the inspectors that in March 2016 an independent review group had published its organisational review of An Bord Pleanála. The review group was chaired by Gregory Jones QC who wrote in his foreword: “Planning is all about shaping the places in which we live. Planning decisions are not always easy. They involve judgements based upon balancing competing interests upon which people may have strongly held and divergent views. The issues are often complex and controversial.”
“The way in which planning decisions are taken also involves striking a balance between many factors. Some of these factors pull in different directions. We want planning decisions to be taken by people of integrity. We want decisions-takers to have fully considered the evidence and for their decisions to be soundly and carefully reasoned. We want everyone to have had a fair say.”
“Many challenges, such as, providing sufficient housing, securing sustainable economic growth, environment protection and addressing climate change, are shared by us all. In meeting these challenges countries can learn from one another. On the other hand, successful planning systems must also be fine-tuned to reflect the culture and values of the country and people they serve. One size does not fit all.”
The foreword by Mr Jones ends: “An Bord Pleanála enjoys a well-deserved high reputation for its integrity and professionalism. It is an internationally unique body playing a vital role in the planning system of Ireland. I consider it an honour and great responsibility to have been appointed to chair this Review.”
Mr Hillis addressed his closing remarks to the presiding inspector: “I don’t know, Madam Inspector, if you consider it an honour or not to have been appointed to this case or indeed if you simply just picked the short straw. But you do have a great responsibility, which cannot be abdicated, and I would ask you to dwell on those words of Gregory Jones QC. In particular, has everyone had a fair say at every stage of the process and does this application reflect the culture and values of the people that EirGrid are mandated to serve?”
“I ask you to give very careful and serious consideration if this strategic infrastructure application is indeed in accordance with proper planning and sustainable development in the linear area through which it is proposed to be sited. Whether that be the royal county of Meath, the intangible cultural areas of Loughanleagh and Muff in Cavan or the unique drumlins and scenic small lakes of Monaghan and indeed on the land of each and every landowner (big and small) on which it is proposed to be sited. I would respectfully submit to you that on the basis of the information gathered at this oral hearing it very definitely is not in accordance with proper planning and sustainable development.”
COLETTE MCELROY, Ballintra, again expressed concern about the proposed construction 475m from her house of a pylon with 400kV wires. She repeated her worries about the noise that would emanate from the lines, especially in wet weather and the impact the development would have on health.
EIRGRID have previously responded that during standard conditions there would be no significant noise emission from the overhead lines, but during wet conditions, corona noise might occur. The company said (using international standard methodologies) this noise was not predicted to cause significant impact at sensitive receptors. But for people with noise sensitivity, there was a need to consider this on a case-by-case basis.
CAOIMGHÍN Ó CAOLÁIN TD, Sinn Féin deputy for Cavan-Monaghan, said the lives, hopes, plans and ambitions of people had been suspended in midair for the past nine years as a result of the application. If EirGrid thought the repeated statements that had been made favouring an underground route were a bluff, then let them call their bluff and they would see how strong the support was for undergrounding the interconnector.
He said the health risks from the proposed interconnector were real, as were the fears of local people. Over the past nine years the plans had caused stress on individuals, families and communities. He again raised concerns about the impact on the environment, on agriculture, on property and land valuation, as well as the effects it would have on tourism in the five coubnties affected.
He said his party was just one of the many political voices that had unanimously opposed the overhead lines. The EirGrid plan was also collectively challenged by the three County Councils in Monaghan, Cavan and Meath. An Bord must take note of their written and oral presentations on the project, he said. In 31 years as an elected representative he had rarely seen such a crass example of corporate bullying than had been demonstrated by EirGrid.
CLLR SEAN GILLILAND said the EirGrid application was “upside down” and it was the local community who had turned it upside down by showing its flaws especially regarding access routes and plans to build pylons on ground that EirGrid had not been able to access. He asked the inspectors and Bord Pleanála to let the people of Monaghan Cavan and Meath back to their normal lifestyle by rejecting the plan. The nature of the application was an insult to the people, to the inspectors and to the Board, he said.
Cllr Gilliland again claimed that photomontages produced by EirGrid at a number of locations were selective, using narow angle lenses so that in some cases the proposed pylons were hidden behind hedgerows, gateposts or road signs. On other occasions a wide angle lens had been used when it suited.
JOERG SCHULZE, the lanscape architect consultant for EirGrid previously pointed out in response to Cllr Gilliland and others that the photomontages had been taken at designated viewpoints on the public road. All had been produced in accordance with the relevant Landscape Institute guidelines for landscape and visual impact assessment.
PADRAIG O’REILLY of the North East Pylon Pressure Campaign told the inspectors the EirGrid planning application remained invalid and should be rejected. Dr O’Reilly said multiple changes to the application that had been made during the eleven weeks oral hearing were an unacceptable waste of public monies. He said An Bord Pleanála had a duty not only to reject the application outright, but to direct that an appropriate alternative be considered for the future.
Dr O’Reilly said the application had been in the public domain for almost a year since it was submitted to An Bord Pleanála last June. In the past ten weeks the plan had been laid bare at the hearing. NEPPC which represented around 200 landowners mainly in Meath said its position in June 2015 was that this was an application so inadequate and deficient in so many aspects that it should never have been accepted as a valid application by the competent authority of An Bord Pleanála.
Now that the hearing was ending, the group’s position was that the application was even more inadequate, deficient and by default invalid than had originally been realised. The significant changes, errata, omissions and admissions made during the oral hearing were a testament to this invalidity and to the fatally flawed contents of the application. The legitimacy of the application and indeed of the applicant was therefore tarnished beyond redemption.
Dr O’Reilly said EirGrid to this day had refused to carry out the relevant analysis and costing of a site-specific underground high voltage DC cable solution along public roads. It followed from this fact that the planning application had failed to include an objective consideration of alternatives, and this fact alone should render the entire application invalid.
EirGrid was unaware of the latest publication from the European underground cable manufacturers representative body – Europacable – highlighting and proving their argument that an appropriate HVDC cable could easily be accommodated along the roads of the North-East. This publication had to be handed to EirGrid by the NEPPC.
According to the NEPPC, EirGrid’s blatant disregard for the whole process of consultation was on display at the hearing for the last ten weeks. Over fifty access route changes onto farmers’ lands were made during the hearing. No landowner notification, let alone consultation, occurred prior to any of these announcements. In fact the landowners affected by the first five announcements on Day One were never even informed until three weeks later.
There was a refusal by the company to make any attempt, such as public notices or other forms of media, to inform affected landowners promptly. There was also a refusal to put any of these changes on its website, until reluctantly consenting to do so at the very end of the hearing.
Significant changes had been made to the planning application during the course of the hearing. The Board had refused to clarify if these proposed changes were being accepted. This raised critical questions such as: why are significant changes to the planning application being entertained at this late stage? And why was there a refusal to date to clarify if the changes would be accepted?
NEPPC claimed EirGrid had taken an ‘a la carte’ approach to the planning application. For example there were now a series of options regarding access routes, guarding construction methods, concrete delivery methods, off-loading concrete, traffic movements and traffic management options, and a choice of forestry clearfelling, namely manual versus mechanical. This approach accoding to the group was contrary to all normal planning guidelines and instructions for the rest of the country.
The oral hearing process shone the spotlight on the glaring deficiencies in the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The only rational conclusion that could be drawn was that the EIS was so deficient as to render it impossible to arrive at an adequate Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
The NEPPC pointed out that EirGrid was unable to access at least 75% of the lands for which it intends to construct over 300 massive pylons. The Environmenal Impact Statement was thus 75% deficient in detailed site-specific information on such critical aspects as flora and fauna and soil geology. Finally, EirGrid had interviewed only 5% of the landowners on whose lands it required access and co-operation. For these reasons, Dr O’Reilly said, the Board had a duty not only to reject the application outright, but to direct that an appropriate alternative be considered for the future.
AIMÉE TREACY, Chairperson of the NEPPC, spoke on behalf of concerned residents groups in Co. Meath. She said EirGrid had given no prior notice nor had they been in consultation with landowners before they made more than fifty changes to the original planning application, most of them alternative access routes for construction. She described the application as deeply flawed and claimed it was invalid. It would never be accepted by the public, she said. Her contribution was applauded by the large crowd of observers.
Dr COLIN ANDREW of the NEPPC said the EirGrid application had been catastrophically flawed from the outset. EirGrid representatives had prevaricated and filibustered and refused to give straight ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answers to questions raised by observers. He said the application had not shown that there would be any benefit to the electricity consumer by building the interconnector.
PEADAR TÓIBÍN TD Sinn Féin deputy for Meath West said the Board now had an opportunity to put the rights of citizens and of the community at the centre of the planning process. He claimed EirGrid were stealing equity away from families by attempting to put pylons on their property.
REGINA DOHERTY TD, government Chief Whip and Fine Gael deputy for Meath East called on An Bord Pleanála when making their decision to take into account the impact the plan would have on real lives, which she said could not be underestimated. She said that EirGrid had behaved with what could only be described as arrogance, and with very little respect for the public, the affected communities and landowners.
She told the inspectors it was almost exactly ten years since she first attended a public meeting in Trim, organised by the NEPPC, for the initial proposal for the North-South interconnector. “I find it incredibly difficult to fathom, exactly how EirGrid, ten years later, have made so many last minute, but substantial, changes to their planning application, despite having had six years since their initial application to An Bord Pleanála”, she said.
Ms Doherty continued: “For the second time, we have seen a planning application from EirGrid which is inherently flawed, in the form of what one can only assume to be carefully choreographed changes to fifty access routes, which have left both members of the public, and affected landowners, completely in the dark. As a result, we have been left unable to engage with these changes. I am reliably informed that some affected landowners have not even been notified by EirGrid as to these changes, despite EirGrid stating otherwise.”
“EirGrid, has essentially robbed Meath landowners and communities from being able to partake in what should have been a thoroughly democratic and transparent public consultation. I also share the confusion which was voiced in the room as to whether the Board will be adjudicating upon this planning application either with, or without, the extensive amendments to access routes presented by EirGrid.”
Ms Doherty said in conclusion: “I again echoed the striking absence of a fully costed alternative undergrounding, or partial undergrounding, of the interconnector, which, in and of itself, most are in agreement is a much needed upgrade to our critical national infrastructure. We cannot, and will not, take EirGrid on its word, that undergrounding is not feasible for long-term viability and sustainability reasons.”
GOVERNMENT WHITE PAPER
KEVIN BRADY, Principal Officer in charge of Strategic Energy Policy at the former Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, said a white paper on energy (Ireland’s Transition to a Low carbon Energy Future) was published in December last year, setting out a vision and framework for energy policy from 2015-2030. He said Ireland valued its relationship with Northern Ireland including energy matters and they were part of an all-island electricity market. Mr Brady said the need for an appropriate energy infrastructure including interconnectors underpinned all energy policy. But the government was not seeking to determine specific details of the interconnector scheme or to direct EirGrid about particular sites, routes or technology.
A second interconnector would fulfil the three core energy policy requirements of competitiveness, security of supply and sustainability. The proposal had been designated as an EU project of common interest. They needed to ensure there was access to wider markets and both Ireland and Northern Ireland would benefit from security of supply by having a single system across the island, Mr Brady said.
EIRGRID CLOSING SUBMISSION
BRIAN MURRAY SC for EirGrid set out the reasons why a second North-South overhead interconnector was required. It was necessary to overcome the risk of system separation and to increase transfer capacity between the two electricity transmission systems on the island. It would help achieve the objectives of improving market competition in the context of the Single Electricity Market, to support the development of renewable power generation and to improve security of supply. “These are absolutely critical objectives”, he said.
Mr Murray re-stated the support for the proposal which had been voiced by government in its white paper on energy and other key stakeholders who had made presentations at the hearing. “Garrett Blayney of the Commission for Energy Regulation said that there was a ‘clear and pressing need for the construction of the interconnector as quickly as possible and in a cost efficient manner’. Mr Owen Wilson of the Electricity Supply Association said that ‘failure or delayed delivery of the North- South Interconnector risks significant damage to Ireland’s national interest’.”
“Mr Neil Walker of IBEC gave evidence that IBEC wished to see the interconnector proceed as proposed, as it will be of real benefit for all electricity users and the wider economy. Mr Iain Hoy of the Northern Ireland CBI said that successful construction was ‘vital to protect security of existing supply, facilitate competition of SEM and reduce costs’. Similar evidence was given by Mark O’Mahoney of Chambers Ireland.”
EirGrid’s closing statement outlined the requirement for an overhead, 400 kV Alternating Current (AC) interconnector. Mr Murray said the use of Direct Current (DC) as opposed to AC current had been considered. A DC option would not provide the same level of reliability and security of supply as an AC solution. A DC solution would be suboptimal. The complexity of the system required to accommodate a DC link introduced a big risk that things could go wrong, as Project Manager Aidan Geoghegan had explained. There was no example of a comparable HVDC scheme embedded in an AC system.”
EirGrid’s view was that the proposed 1500MW capacity was required in order to provide adequate contingency in the event of a failure of the existing interconnector. It was also necessary to provide sufficient additional capacity to allow the longer term sustainable development of the network as demand for electricity grew both in the region and on the island of Ireland.
Mr Murray continued: “Cost is certainly a relevant and important consideration. EirGrid is mandated by statute to develop the national grid in a manner that is safe, secure and cost effective. A DC underground cable would cost €670m more than the proposed AC overhead line”. However, contrary to what had been said repeatedly at the hearing, cost was not the only consideration.
“It is not technically feasible to underground the entire interconnector using AC cable. This is because the distance is simply too great for an AC underground cable of the size and power carrying capacity required for this project to operate safely”, the lawyer for EirGrid explained.
Mr Murray also spoke of the environmental considerations in the proposal. “The potential for impacts on designated European sites (River Boyne and River Blackwater) have been comprehensively assessed in the Natura Impact Statement. It has been clearly established that no structures or works will be located within these or any designated European sites. Mitigation by avoidance at the design stage, in addition to effective and proven robust mitigation measures, must lead to the conclusion that there will be no impacts on the integrity of any designated Natura 2000 site.”
Regarding the level of public consultation carried out as part of the project, Mr Murray said “this project has been the subject of exhaustive consultation. It is not and never was a ‘box ticking’ exercise. It is something viewed by EirGrid as central to the future of the project.”
Mr Murray addressed the issue of temporary access routes, which had been raised on several occasions during the hearing. “The access routes do not form part of the development. Therefore, no part of the development has changed in any way in the course of the hearing. The access routes are included as part of the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). For that reason, EirGrid has quite properly taken account of information gathered in the course of that process.”
“It is in this context that EirGrid brought a number of access routes to the attention of the attendees at the hearing in order to enable the Board to assess the modifications proposed to those access routes. These have been advised to affected landowners.”
EirGrid said it had considered all potential deviations or mapping discrepancies, whether those issues arose from the EIS access route mapping or the larger-scale landowner mapping. The review process had revisited aerial imagery, landowner access mapping and EIS figures with follow-up vantage surveys, as necessary, according to Mr Murray.
He concluded: “EirGrid submits that the second North-South interconnector is a project which is critically necessary. It is a project which we believe can only be sustainably developed in the manner proposed, and it is a project which minimises adverse impacts to the greatest extent possible.”
Referring to the court case brought by the NEPPC seeking to halt the oral hearing, Brian Murray SC said the inspectors would recall that on the eve of the hearing, some observers sought to halt it, and repeated that application before the hearing. Thus on Thursday May 12th, just as the submissions were concluding, the High Court delivered its judgement on the application for leave to seek judicial review.
The High Court determined, effectively, that the various grounds which had been raised before it were (save for PCI) in the first instance matters properly for An Bord Pleanála to determine rather than for the High Court. Mr Murray said that did not preclude a judicial review on those grounds following a decision of the Board if the application was granted. But it did mean that it was the Board which must decide those issues first, on the basis of the facts and evidence it has before it.
The application to build a 400kV overhead line with almost 300 pylons stretching 135km from Meath to Tyrone was made to the Board in June last year. It has been examined in detail at the oral hearing that began in March and lasted 35 days. It was one of the biggest ever such enquiries into what is said to be the largest single infrastructure development in the state in recent years. The inspectors will now prepare a report for the Board, which is expected to announce its decision towards the end of this year.
A preliminary hearing under the auspices of the Planning Appeals Commission in Northern Ireland will take place in Armagh next month. This first stage will discuss legal and procedural issues surrounding the SONI application for the 34km section of the interconnector with 102 pylons from Crossreagh, Co. Armagh (near Clontibret) to Turleenan near the Moy in Co. Tyrone, where a substation is due to be built.