For eight years now, the residents of the tiny communities of the parish of Kilcommon in County Mayo on Ireland’s west coast have been campaigning against a Shell project to lay a pipeline through their region to carry gas from the Atlantic to an inland refinery. Their protest made little impact in the national media until 2005, when five local men from the village of Rossport were jailed for refusing to allow Shell access to their lands. In the ensuing years hundreds more have been arrested, with several months jail time accumulated, as the campaign has taken on a national and also international dimension.

While Shell cites the economic benefits of the project, opponents of the scheme likeShell to Sea believe that the health, safety and environmental impact of the onshore aspects of the project have been given short shrift. With the pipeline from the Corrib Gas Field now making landfall, Shell has applied for the 9 km land section of the pipeline, from Glengad to the refinery at Ballinaboy. A summer hearing of An Bord Pleanala (The Irish Planning Board) pitted the accumulated expert knowledge of local campaigners against Shell’s scientific certainties. Beginning in May, the six-week session involved 120 documents and 80 submissions.

Intimidation of local activists

Local people believe the Board will succumb to the inevitability of a project 80% complete and widely touted as a matter of national security. Their submissions focused on the unique nature of the pipeline, the high gas pressure involved and the lack of consultation regarding the project. Lengthy discussions on complex technical issues were handled with ease. Consultants hired by Shell to sell the project in the area, had not anticipated such rigorous examination and frequently had difficulty answering questions.

Events outside the hearing affected the mood within. Tensions between the community and Shell consortium deepened following the mid-June sinking of the boat, by persons unknown, of Pat O’Donnell, a fisherman / activist opposed to the project in its current guise. Local people temporarily withdrew from the hearing in solidarity. This followed an April attack on farmer Willie Corduff by masked men. Corduff, subsequently hospitalised, had been protesting at what he and others saw as Shell’s illegal attempt to fence off the area where the pipeline makes landfall.

Chopping and changing safety codes

The Corrib high pressure gas flow will meet an onshore Land Valve Installation (LVI) at Glengad Beach, using a mechanism shrouded in mystery. "It's just a pipeline like any other", claimed Shell for three days, until, under rigorous examination, they caved in. Was it unique? "Yes", came the simple response. Phil Crossthwaite, a Quantitative Risk Assessment (QRA) consultant for Shell, criticised his clients for "chopping and changing" between safety codes, something considered "not particularly good practice".

Meanwhile An Bord Pleanala's pipeline consultant Nigel Wright expressed concern that the developer dismissed substantial risk factors such as internal corrosion, methane hydrate, construction faults and pipe instability in peat bog. Wright challenged it on the issue of what he called "ultra high pressure" of 144 bar gas, almost twice the rate of normal gas transmission in Ireland and the UK. He wondered aloud whether the corporation was running "a research and development project" rather than a highly complex gas field requiring the highest level of health and safety guarantees. This question left observers stunned.

Escaping the death zone

The absence of a comprehensive framework and management plan for safety and monitoring of the project led to a Shell proposal of a 30-second safety plan which requires local people of aIl ages to walk at a pace of 2.5 metres per second to avoid immolation in the event of pipeline rupture. Shell’s experts had obviously not walked over the peat bog, a tricky surface to navigate at any speed, and assumed that shelter would be found within 30 seconds of an accident occurring. Anyone who knows the area will be aware that minding sheep or cutting turf along the proposed pipeline route leaves you far from shelter.

Shell's landfall valve installation (LVI), will reduce gas pressure from 345 bar to 144 at the point where it comes ashore. However the LVI is located on land above the beach at Glengad, leaving locals with a risk of 345 bar pressure gas coming onshore at substantially less than the standard 500m from their homes. In addition, the thick pipeline, sustained by 3.79 tonnes of steel, will increase subsidence in the unstable peat bog. In one obvious oversight, Shell counted 49 dwellings in the path of the pipeline in its 2008 Environmental Impact Statement. One year later its revised EIS now includes 82 dwellings, with 79 within the 500m death zone. One, owned by a local retired couple, is just 40m from the pipeline route.

Shell's senior counsel cited EU Priority Habitats legislation which states that a development project may proceed, regardless of the “negative implications” and the “absence of alternative solutions” when “imperative reasons of overriding public interest, including those of a social and economic nature” are at stake.” However the preferred route may face insurmountable legal difficulties as EU priority habitats may trump energy security concerns. The Department of the Environment, in its final submission, said of the building of a stone road and laying of the pipeline “that a reasonable scientific doubt exists as to the absence of adverse affect on the integrity of the site". If the Board is unable to conclude that the proposed development will not adversely affect the integrity of the site, "it cannot grant permission".

Shell overlooked safer options

“Overriding” economic and social interests apply only when there is no alternative solution. The people of Erris have long identified the remote Glinsk site as a possible alternative. An expert describes Glinsk as " ... a vastly superior location option concerning health, safety, and environmental issues". When pressed on the matter, Shell retreated to a briefing document by the same company which had previously recommended a pipeline route traversing Dooncarton… scene of a disastrous 2003 landslide.

In one final submission to the hearing, a local resident noted that the community had tried, for over eight years, "to help this applicant (Shell) in making the Corrib “Titanic” a safer project – but all offers of help have been rejected" This, and other submissions, confirm what the mainstream media has resolutely refused to acknowledge; that the vast majority of local people want the gas to come ashore but consider the project doomed in its current form. Shell acknowledged during the hearings that its approach to the project followed "the line of least resistance" rather than the precautionary principle, an admission which has left the Erris community in fear of their lives.