Thursday, 19 November 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Wind Energy Generation
As the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan, knows, this last week has seen a devastating bog slide at Meenbog, near Ballybofey. Thousands of tonnes of peat have slid down into the river on the mountain. This peat will make its way to the Derg river. It has probably killed thousands of salmon at this stage, ultimately compromising the Mourne and the Foyle river systems.
This is the culmination of a long planning history at this site where the development has been pushed on against the wishes of the community. This site was part of a planning application that was initially submitted to An Bord Pleanála in 2015 and was refused due to the work of the community highlighting that it was environmentally suspect.
There is a serious issue regarding how applications are foisted on communities, and this is what we get. During the planning phase of this wind farm, the local community told the developer that the ground conditions would make this site liable to slippage and it was ignored.
The development was taken out of the initial application and applied for again to the board, when it was granted. It has always been believed that this was just a first step in achieving the whole development. It has inevitably led to the developer contacting the local community this week to say that he intends to submit an application in the coming months for the rest of the site, which was the original application. This is blatant project splitting and was not called out by any official organisation.
I am raising the issue of Meenbog, but the like has unfortunately been seen at other sites around the country, for example, Derrybrien in County Galway and Drumkeeran in County Leitrim. At how many other sites will this happen? Sadly, this is about the Government turning a blind eye to big, wealthy developers. Local communities cannot rely on the Government to support them and their interests over the interests of developers in such cases. They know that the Government will use An Bord Pleanála to ensure that applications are granted. To add insult to injury, there is little or no control of developments after they have been given permission. Developers can do as they please. Even if planning permission promises to do X, Y and Z to protect the environment, there is no effective control to ensure that they do. That is the end of the process and no one examines it from there on. That is wrong.
At the wind farm construction site in the Finn Valley in Ballybofey, County Donegal, there was a large-scale bog slide recently that, as Deputy Pringle mentioned, polluted a salmon and trout river and a fish farm. This happened because of the disturbance of lands during the wind farm's construction. In south Galway, the State has incurred fines of €10.5 million, and rising, because of a massive landslide during a wind farm's construction. The European Court of Justice found that Ireland had failed to assess properly the development's environmental effects on the locality.
In the Delvin, Raharney and Ballivor areas of my constituency of Meath West, Bord na Móna and Gaeltec Utilities are in the process of applying for planning permission to erect 35 wind turbines ranging in height from 180 m to 200 m, some of the tallest in Europe, with a setback distance from many homes of only four times the height of the turbine and little regard for noise, flicker, the value of people's homes or the environmental effects. Located beside one of the proposed wind farms is one of Ireland's leading bloodstock farms. We talk about climate change and climate action, but what happened in Donegal and Galway did more in terms of damaging the climate than those wind farms could ever do to help it.
If wind farms must be 600 ft to 650 ft tall to get the desired wind speeds, are these areas suitable for such developments? Will the Minister of State put a hold on wind farm planning applications until there has been a full investigation into what happened in Donegal and Galway so that we avoid another environmental disaster in our areas or elsewhere?
I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. We have all been taken aback by it and the scenes we have witnessed are shocking. My Department and I are aware of last weekend's peat slide near the Meenbog wind farm, which is currently under construction close to Barnesmore Gap south of Ballybofey, County Donegal. The matter is being actively investigated by a number of statutory agencies led by Donegal County Council, including the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, Irish Water, the Loughs Agency, the National Parks and Wildlife Service and, having regard to the fact that the development is a transboundary project, Derry City and Strabane District Council and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.
At this early stage, the precise cause of the peat slide is yet to be determined, be it the construction works on the wind farm, weather impacts, other factors or a combination of various elements. I note Deputy Pringle's mention of the Shass Mountain peat slide, a report on which I have. Initial investigations into the Meenbog incident by the agencies involved noted that, in addition to road construction works on the wind farm site where the peat slide occurred, there was heavy and persistent rainfall and build-up of water within the peat over the recent period, which may have contributed to the peat slippage.
Investigations into the cause are ongoing, but the immediate focus of the agencies has been to ensure the putting in place of hardcore berms to prevent further peat slippage, stabilise the peat slippage in the form of dewatering to maintain the peat on site, and minimise impacts on local watercourses. Once these measures are in place, the agencies will endeavour to determine the precise cause of the peat slide and then deal with breaches, if any, of planning and environmental requirements.
I should also mention that the developers of the wind farm were requested by Donegal County Council to submit an action plan by yesterday detailing the engineering measures necessary to eliminate or limit the release of further polluting matter from the area where the peat slide occurred, prevent the release of material built up behind the improvised impoundment structure on site, and mitigate against the further dispersal of peat and sediment beyond the confines of the site.
The wind farm development in question was granted permission through the strategic infrastructure development process operated by An Bord Pleanála. Under planning legislation, the decision on whether to grant permission for a strategic infrastructure development, with or without conditions, is a matter for An Bord Pleanála. In making decisions on strategic infrastructure development applications, the board is required to have regard to the proper planning and sustainable development of the area, the provisions of the development plan, any submission or observation received and relevant ministerial or Government policies, including guidelines issued by my Department. The consideration of such applications also involves consideration of the requirements of the EU environmental impact assessment directive and the habitats directive.
There is a mandatory requirement to undertake an environmental impact assessment in respect of wind farm development projects of a certain scale, that is, if they consist of five or more turbines or have a power output greater than 5 MW. This ensures that all environmental impacts, including potential hydrological impacts, of a proposed development are fully considered and assessed prior to the making of determinations on individual planning applications.
A detailed environmental impact assessment, incorporating a peat and soil management plan and an assessment of the potential for a peat slide, was submitted as part of the planning application for the Meenbog wind farm to the board. Arising from the peat slide and in accordance with the peat and soil management plan submitted as part of the planning application, all works on the wind farm have been temporarily ceased with the exception of those that relate to mitigating the impact of the peat slide and reducing the risk of further slides. Furthermore, I am informed that Donegal County Council, in co-ordination with the Roads Service in Northern Ireland, put in place some temporary road closures in the area on precautionary grounds. The multi-agency group is scheduled to reconvene today to review matters and further co-ordinate the response.
I will point out that, as the Deputies are aware, under section 30 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, I am specifically precluded from exercising any power or control in respect of a particular case that a planning authority or the board may be concerned with except in specific and extreme circumstances, which do not apply in this instance.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. Unfortunately, it was the response we expected. Interestingly, he outlined a long list of agencies and acronyms that are getting involved now. Where were they during the planning stage? I would be interested in knowing that. I would also be interested in knowing what communications Donegal County Council had with the developer prior to what happened.
There is a simple thing that we can do. He who pays the piper calls the tune. The developer got all of the surveys done. He paid for them to be done. I have yet to see an environmental impact statement that said the development should not proceed or should only proceed if significant safety procedures were put in place. If I was paying for it, no one would tell me that I had to do that. What we can do is decide that a developer should pay a local council to conduct environmental studies. Perhaps then we will see real change.
We did not hear much from the Minister of State about other wind farms. I listened to the Taoiseach yesterday when he stated that the future of wind energy was offshore. I agree with him.
If turbines need to be 180 m to 200 m tall, which is twice the height of the Spire in Dublin, to get the requisite wind speeds because of the low-lying nature of the lands in question, surely these areas are not right for such developments. The turbines in the Delvin, Raharney and Ballivor areas will be up to 150 ft taller than the ones in Donegal. I would like to see the agencies mentioned getting involved in our planning process before it is too late, just as it was in Donegal. Will the Minister of State address my points, please?
I chaired the interagency group in the wake of the Drumkeeran landslide.
We have met on a number of occasions. We have an excellent report, which I have read. It has some very good recommendations that we can learn from. There is no doubt that weather-related events seem to have had an impact, in particular a very dry spring followed by heavy rain falls in respect of Drumkeeran.
As I indicated earlier, the matter is under investigation by a cross-Border multi-agency group. It is important that we allow it to do its work, as we did with Drumkeeran. Its investigations are at a very early stage and the initial focus will deal with the immediate steps needed to remediate the site and minimise the environmental impacts in a similar manner to Drumkeeran. It will endeavour to determine the cause of the peat slide and deal with the technical breaches in planning and environmental requirements after that.
All works on the wind farm have ceased temporarily arising from the peat slide, with the exception of those that relate to mitigating the impact of the bog slide and reducing the risk of further slides. I share the view of the Deputies that we need to give serious consideration to the location of wind farms, in particular where they could have a detrimental impact. Perhaps in some cases we are offsetting the carbon saved with a large release of carbon through huge events such as bog and peat slides. We need to stabilise and reconstruct our peatlands and boglands because they are, in their own right, probably the most important carbon sinks we have.
I take on board the points raised by the Deputies and reassure them that we will continue this investigation and, it is to be hoped, come to a conclusion. As we said, the report is useful in informing other events but we need to take a very serious look at land use management and its impact in this country. That is something we are committed to doing in government.