The Corib Gas pipeline project by the Western Irish fishing village of Rossport, County Mayo, has always been a source of controversy. It was established amid arrests and police batons, against the wishes of locals and environmental protesters. The project is supposed to start pumping gas this summer, and those activists remain convinced that extracting fossil fuels from an area famed for its natural beauty is a bad idea.
Just over a week ago, an 800 metre pipe that was supposed to be fixed to the sea-bed floated to the surface. Feeling that their fears may have been justified, local activists are demanding that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) looks into it. I contacted the EPA who had previously said they would be investigating the issue. When I asked whether members of the EPA would visit the site, I was told they "don't consider it necessary at this time".
I spoke to Phillip Robinson from Shell about the incident and asked him what was in the dislodged pipes. "Last Friday 800 metres of plastic ducting that brings treated waste water 12 kilometres out to the Atlantic rose to the surface – previously it was on the sea bed. The 20 inch diameter offshore gas pipeline, which is made of high strength steel, has not been impacted," he said.
Despite Philip's assertions that the pipe did not carry pollutants, locals in the area are angry that the EPA has not visited the site. Local fisherman Pat "the chief" O'Donnell says the Irish authorities are ignoring problems facing the gas project. "The pipes dislodge and where's the EPA? Where are the Gardai for that matter, or the media? It's clear they're all just arms for the state and in this state, whatever Shell says is gospel," he said.
Maura Harrington who has been involved in the Shell to Sea Campaign for 15 years says the EPA's refusal to visit the site is "madness".
"The EPA are supposed to be a scientific body, but how the hell can they know what's going on if they don't send someone to check out the situation? It's absolute madness to 'investigate' without sending someone to the site that needs to be investigated," she said.
The gas project is already mired in scandal. Private security companies hired by Shell were accused of intimidating locals and activists while footage of Gardai beating protesters caused outraged throughout the country. The controversy reached its zenith when one un-vetted private security company worker, Michael Dwyer, was murdered by Bolivian special forces, after allegedly being part of a planned presidential assassination with people he met while working at Rossport.
Pat O'Donnell, who went to prison for breach of the peace during protests against the project says the community is lucky Shell have not already started to transport raw gas inland. "We're blessed they hadn't started production or the whole fishing industry and my livelihood would be ruined. This is why I went to jail, so things like this wouldn't happen," he said.
Shell expect to go on stream this year and Ireland's hugely unpopular Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny – who is from Mayo – is rumoured to be attending the opening of the Corrib pipe this summer. When I contacted the Taoiseach's office to get confirmation of this I was told they cannot give details of the Taoiseach diary out in advance because of security risks. I suppose if you were one of Ireland's most hated men you'd probably want to keep your calendar pretty private too.
Pat O'Donnell says if the project goes on steam this summer, Rossport will face an uncertain future. "When I was in jail, BP blew up off the Gulf of Mexico. That was my worst fear playing itself out in real life," he said. "We're dealing with raw gas here. When you have raw gas coming in, you have loads of heavy metals like mercury coming with it. Shell keep saying they use the best available technology but judging by last week – well you can make your own conclusions."
Shell insists that the loose pipe has no impact on the gas pipeline, but the EPA's decision not even to investigate the incident will do nothing to quell the fears of the locals.