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The Irish Times: Going to work in Mayo with a Garda convoy

October 19, 2006] 

The Workers: The alarm clocks sound early and the Corrib gas terminal workers rise in the dark, knowing there will be no “good morning” in Bellanaboy, north Mayo. As they congregate near the chapel in Bangor, several reinforced Garda vehicles and a bus full of gardaI are waiting for them on a bend several miles north of Carrowmore lake.

Travelling in a convoy of jeeps, some of them shield their faces, others wear fixed grey expressions of determination as they pass the group of more than 100 men and women picketing the terminal site in protest.

Many of the picketers are of their parents’ generation – neighbours, friends, even relatives of about 15 workers from the immediate locality.

Few of the Shell contract workers are willing to talk on the record about their experiences since work resumed at the Bellanaboy terminal almost three weeks ago. “The situation is too tense, and I want to be able to take a drink at night,” says one young man working for a local contractor.

“In fact, it is hard to take a drink now,” another says. “But the money is good, I’m here for family reasons, and this is going to be the biggest job around here for generations. We didn’t get much from Government decentralisation, they seem to want to close down fishing and jobs aren’t falling off trees – if we had any trees.”

The contract to build the gas terminal is worth 28 million to Roadbridge Ltd, one of Ireland’s largest civil engineering contractors. Jim Mulcair, a director of Roadbridge who is on site in north Mayo three times a week, says that 84 per cent of a core staff of 135 Roadbridge contract workers and security staff on site are drawn from five parishes within 10 miles of the terminal.

Another 16 drivers and staff with PJ Barrett and Lennon quarries and other suppliers are also on the project full-time.

“We began the job on December 13th, 2004, there were 144 staff on site, and it was going like a dream until late June 2005,” Mr Mulcair says. “We had 35 houses rented out in the area, and people were happy. Then five men were sent to jail over their concerns about the upstream pipeline and it all went wrong.”

Shell suspended work at the terminal and said there would be “lay-offs” of construction staff.

In fact, Mr Mulcair says most of his staff were redeployed to the Bord Gais Eireann Mayo-Galway transmission pipeline – setting 149km through 650 farms and 10 Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) – and to another public project in Castlebar.

Critics such as former BGE engineer Leo Corcoran say the 9km onshore pipeline to the Shell gas terminal is unprecedented, in that it will operate at a pressure that doesn’t meet existing Irish design codes.

“Just because it hasn’t been done before in Ireland doesn’t mean it’s not safe,” Mr Mulcair responds. “This is the safest 9km of pipeline that we as a company have ever laid – and our company has laid over 500km to date. Shell is culpable in that communication breakdown, but society puts its trust in engineers. The largest rock-breaker we operate couldn’t put a hole in this pipe due to its wall thickness and inherent strength.”

He adds: “I respect the objectors – they are up at 5am and 6am, and some of them do have genuine fears. But I only wish there could be some way to talk.”

Corrib gas: story so far

Oct 1996: Corrib field discovery declared 70km off Mayo coast.

Nov 2000: Main developer Enterprise Energy Ireland (EEI) seeks planning permission for an onshore gas processing terminal on a 400-acre site acquired from Coillte at Bellanaboy, Co Mayo.

Feb 2002: An Bord Pleanala oral hearing over onshore terminal April/May 2002. Minister for the Marine Frank Fahey approves plan of development for Corrib gas field, signs foreshore licence and compulsory acquisition orders for onshore pipeline.

April 2003: Bord Pleanala inspector Kevin Moore’s report rejects planning for Corrib gas terminal, stating that it is “the wrong site”.

April 2003: Bord Pleanala rejects permission for terminal because of high risk posed by peat storage at Bellanaboy, but overrules two of its inspector’s three objections.

Sept 2003: new Corrib gas owner Royal Dutch Shell submits new terminal planning application.

Oct 2004: Bord Pleanala approves the terminal project with conditions.

June 2005: five Mayo men opposed to the onshore pipeline jailed for contempt of court, and work suspended at Bellanaboy terminal. Local supporters of the men form Shell to Sea campaign.

Sept 2005: the Rossport Five released after Shell drops injunction.

Nov 2005: Minister for the Marine appoints Peter Cassells as mediator.

May 2006: Safety review of pipeline by Advantica consultants recommends pressure be limited to 144 bar.

July 2006: Cassells recommends pipeline route be modified to take it away from houses at Rossport.

Sept 2006: Shell says pipeline route modification could take up to a year to plan and announces immediate return to work at Bellanaboy terminal.

Oct 3, 2006: Shell staff and contractors return to work at site. Some 170 gardaI remove protesters.

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