By Carmel Hayes
PROTESTORS against a planned electricity substation in Laois have been accused of “hijacking” the local area for years.
Timahoe councillor Paschal McEvoy (FF) made the claim at a council meeting, during a debate on the €100m power station planned for Coolnabacky.
Members of the RTS (Ratheniska-Timahoe-Spink) Substation Action Group have protested for almost 800 days at the site of the controversial EirGrid-ESB project.
Cllr McEvoy told the meeting: “There is a family living on the lane where this development is taking place. Their house and their lane has been hijacked for the past four or five years. I think it is an absolute disgrace.”
He added: “I would be absolutely disgusted with the carry on of protestors standing there with their placards. Why don’t they protest at the ESB offices and not be hijacking a family?”
The issue arose at a Graiguecullen-Portarlington Municipal District meeting this week, when councillors were asked to nominate a representative to the EirGrid Laois Kilkenny Reinforcement Project Community Forum.
Cllr Aisling Moran (FG) said she understood that the municipal district chairperson should represent the public on the forum. However, current chair cllr Pádraig Fleming (FF) from The Swan declined the position. Cllr McEvoy volunteered, saying that as a native and resident of Timahoe he wanted to be on the board.
During a lengthy debate, cllr Fleming said the protesters were “respectful” and were not “inhibiting or upsetting” anyone. However, cllr McEvoy told his FF colleague to ask the family affected how they felt about the long-running protest at the site.
Cllr Fleming said the community wanted EirGrid and the ESB to abide by a verbal agreement made with residents, which would see a study carried out on the potential risks to the water supply. Instead, EirGrid commissioned a desktop study, whose outcome was similar to research carried out a decade ago.
Cllr Fleming referred to a High Court case in the UK, which he claimed led to a ruling that a verbal agreement was as good as a signed agreement. He claimed that holes dug by contractors at the site led to water coming up from the ground. He felt a lack of confidence in the community was the reason the issue was going on so long and insisted that deep testing must be done.
Cllr McEvoy said that Ireland has its own laws and stressed the importance of a reliable electricity supply.
He said: “We need power in this country. One of our biggest selling points when it comes to attracting international business is that we are always able to supply the electricity grid.”
Cllr Moran wanted to know what stance cllr McEvoy was expected to take on the forum, as she asked: “Is he to be neutral or on one side or the other? Is he for the people of Ratheniska, for EirGrid, or in between?”
Cllr Fleming said the community forum is a funding-related entity, which would see €500,000 from the electricity companies given to community projects.
Describing the money involved as “miniscule”, cllr Moran focused on the potential impact of the substation on the water supply. She said: “Where they want to build this station is directly over an aquifer which serves 25,000 people.”
Cllr Moran recalled that, when she raised the water supply issue with EirGrid, the company denied that the supply would be polluted by oil that has to be stored on site. She challenged this view, commenting: “The Twin Towers and the Titanic were not supposed to happen and they did.”
Cllr Moran challenged cllr McEvoy to use his position on the forum to ask EirGrid about the possible risk to the water supply and whether they could provide an alternative, if the underground supply were contaminated. She also wanted him to ask EirGrid if they would assess the cost of fixing any contamination.
Cllr McEvoy replied that the forum was involved with spending €500,000 in communities on the Laois-Kilkenny reinforcement supply line and had nothing to do with the substation development.
Cllr Moran repeated her request, saying that as a resident of Timahoe cllr McEvoy would also be affected if the water supply was contaminated.
However, cllr Fleming agreed with cllr McEvoy that the aquifer issue did not arise in the context of the community forum. On the other hand, he agreed with cllr Moran that EirGrid had not answered her question about the water supply and had no back up plan if the water supply was contaminated.
Cllr Moran again asked cllr McEvoy to pose questions to EirGrid, saying that elected councillors represent 25,000 people dependent on a clean water supply and throwing money at them was not the solution.
Cllr McEvoy replied that he was not “a populist” and repeated that the forum was concerned with community funding, not the issues raised by cllr Moran. He said: “I won’t ask the question. I am happy that Laois County Council gave planning and An Bórd Pleanála in turn gave the planning and all the consultants involved have their work done and are happy that this go ahead.”
The long-running exchange finally ended, with cllr McEvoy’s formal selection as the municipal council’s representative on the forum.
Following the meeting, the RTS Substation Action Group said: “The protest is and always has been at the developers and authorities who have facilitated it. The protest takes place at the wide entrance on the main road and does not in any way, shape or form encumber anyone. The family, farm machinery, delivery vans all come and go without any form of interference.”