24 June 2011 No Comments by The Northern Standard

It is deeply ironic that a major public infrastructural development that has as one of its dimensions the intent of improving the environment for electronic communications in this country should, in its prolonged and troubled genesis, be distinguished by a signal failure of its advocates to engage meaningfully and reassuringly with the huge public concerns that have arisen with regard to it.
The development by EirGrid of a 400kv north-south electricity interconnector using high-voltage overhead powerlines has proven an issue of widespread public unease in the communities in which the infrastructure is due to be erected.
The opposition to the development in Co Monaghan has been forceful, highly vocal and appears to be escalating rather than abating in its impetus as EirGrid engages in a re-evaluation and renewed consultation process preparatory to submitting a renewed planning application in relation to the proposal before the end of this year.
Monday’s meeting of Monaghan Co Council offered what seemed an ideal ‘clear-the-air’ opportunity for EirGrid, whose representatives were invited to discuss their re-evaluation report and respond to local public concerns as articulated by elected councillors.
Sadly, the air clouded rather than cleared, growing thick with expressions of recrimination and frustration as the elected men complained that their straight questions were not being met with what they regarded as sufficiently straight answers from the half-dozen officials who had gathered to answer them.
An exercise that offered EirGrid an opportunity to ameliorate local concerns and perhaps moderate some of the opposition to their plans instead seemed only to serve to reinforce the anti-pylon sentiment that has gripped the affected communities of our county and animated the opposition of local and national politicians in the area across the entire spectrum of opinion.
This was an important opportunity missed, one of many squandered by EirGrid as it has gone about the public consultation dimension of its project in adherence more to its letter than its spirit.
The State body’s representatives might protest that they are in a ‘damned if they do, damned if they don’t’ situation, being condemned at local level for not engaging with people’s concerns, and then being equally pilloried for their answers when they do respond to them.
Yet it is difficult not to sympathise with the people of Co Monaghan who are opposing this development, and to feel that EirGrid has thus far in the pylons saga failed to fundamentally appreciate that local communities are fighting to preserve what they perceive to be the very stuff of their existence.
They fear the loss of things that go way beyond the price of property or the toll of inconvenience.
For many of the Co Monaghan anti-pylon people, the essence of their community life is at stake. The integrity of their rural environment, the identity of their home place, and perhaps also the health and welfare of themselves and their children are the stakes on the table in a very serious game in which the odds are very much weighted in favour of the project’s proponents.
It is perhaps not immediately understood by those not directly affected by the interconnector plan that the majority of those opposed to it do not wish to see the proposal abandoned. This is not a clear-cut ‘not in my back yard’ example of obdurate and self-interested resistance to development.
The alternative of undergrounding the cabling necessitated by the development, thus obviating the pylons across a swathe of the mid and southern section of our county, is, say the protestors, one that has not been sufficiently examined.
On this point, however, whatever their obfuscation might be on other elements of the project, EirGrid could not be clearer.
According to EirGrid’s Andrew Cook, this proposal is not technically possible, and would also be “prohibitively costly” – to the extent of an additional €500 million according to a study cited by EirGrid at Monday’s meeting.
As Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin pointed out, there seems an inherent and irreconcilable contradiction in an assessment of something as both technically impossible AND costly. Surely if something can have a monetary value attached to its implementation, it is not impossible to implement.
Beyond this consideration, however, it is clear that a currently unbridgeable gulf exists between EirGrid and its opponents on the undergrounding alternative. EirGrid suggested on Monday that the only way to span the chasm, and reduce the debate to one of “feasible actions rather than unfeasible actions”, would be by way of a Government review – the implicit expectation being that such a review would put this issue to bed once and for all in EirGrid’s favour.
Strangely enough, a review that might fit the bill is on the cards – though its promised nature is not necessarily one that would vouchsafe the outcome EirGrid are confident of.
Fine Gael TD Sean Conlan and several of the Co Council contributors in Monday’s debate referred to the commitment in the Programme for Government for an independent commission to be established to examine future electricity provision in this country, a brief that would inevitably encompass the interconnector proposal and the feasibility of the undergrounding argument.
As was pointed out in the debate, certain commitments were given prior to the last General Election in constituencies affected by the proposal that the work of the commission would result in the EirGrid project being ‘parked’ while it was carried out. This has not happened and EirGrid on Monday were of the opinion that they could carry on regardless of its workings, adding that they had received no ministerial direction of any kind in relation to proceeding or not proceeding with their work!
Surely, however, the planned commission provides the perfect opportunity for a time-out in this protracted and increasingly intractable saga.
It would allow for an independent, and hopefully objective and authoritative, pronouncement on whether it is possible to accommodate local opposition to the project through the use of undergrounding technology.
This is a key point of argument and, such is the diversity of opinion existing on it, some outside assessment and conclusions are urgently required.
It would also provide a period of grace in which separate independent evaluation could be commissioned of another point of escalating concern and importance – the possible adverse health implications of prolonged exposure to high-voltage powerlines.
While it is surely possible to reach an objective conclusion on the question of undergrounding, it is unlikely if any definitive resolution could be reached on the issue of electro-magnetic fields and public health, given the incomplete body of knowledge that has been assembled in this regard and the often dramatically conflicting conclusions of the studies that have so far been conducted.
Nonetheless, serious consideration must be accorded the concerns of the Co Monaghan public in this regard. Surely the Dept of Health, given the implications of this subject for a range of public infrastructure provisions, could be instructed to initiate a study, perhaps in tandem with one or more of our leading research universities, that would be relevant to the situation that pertains in this country with regard to emissions from telecommunications masts and electricity pylons.
We would strongly urge EirGrid to consider the wisdom of voluntarily halting the progress of the interconnector project for a time to allow the independent commission to do its work and for a greater and more objective clarity to be lent to the important health issues that this development has generated concern upon.
If compulsion proves necessary for this step to be taken, we would equally strongly exhort our Oireachtas representatives to petition at Ministerial level for such a suspension to be directed.
Listening is an important part of communication, and unless the concerns of the Co Monaghan public opposed to this development are listened to and taken more meaningfully account of by EirGrid thanhas been the case to date, the road ahead for this project will be a long and extremely difficult one.

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