A group of Independent Senators have expressed concern that decommissioning the windfarm at Derrybrien could trigger another major environmental disaster for the area.
The group of five, which includes former minister for justice, Senator Michael McDowell, visited the south Galway facility on Friday.
Enough concrete to fill 12 Olympic sized swimming pools will have to be removed from unstable bogland around the windfarm if the facility is to be decommissioned, as is currently planned.
The controversial windfarm was taken off-line by the ESB in February, when An Bord Pleanála refused a “substitute consent” planning request for the facility. The Government has already paid out around €20 million in European Commission fines in relation to the project. The legal issues arose out of a peat-slide which took place at Derrybrien in 2003.
A €5 million lump sum was paid January 2020 with daily fines of €15,000 incurred since the previous November.
Each of the 70 wind turbines at the site is currently sitting on a poured concrete foundation which is anchored into the bog itself. Taken together, these foundations total more than 28,000 cubic metres of concrete.
Concerns have also been raised about potential damage to the wind turbines themselves if they remain inactive through the winter months. The ESB is currently heating each turbine to prevent the build-up of moisture, but the metal structures will eventually seize-up if they are not either decommissioned or returned to active use.
Senator McDowell said that decommissioning the windfarm would amount to “an act of vandalism” and was “almost criminal”.
“I am very concerned about the situation. The peat-slide which took place 19 years ago is toothpaste that cannot be put back into the tube. To remove the foundations, the roads and the turbines now would have very substantial environmental impacts,” he said.
“The damage that has been done already is irreversible. It seems incredible that anyone would suggest further destruction of the environment here in pursuit of some theoretical resolution of the situation.
“It is also extremely worrying that these turbines are being left inactive. This is a valuable piece of infrastructure, with a value of between one and two hundred million euro; to imagine that they would allow this to corrode and become non-operational would almost be an act of vandalism.
“That equipment needs to be operated to keep it in a useable condition. We are in an energy crisis; to talk of allowing this infrastructure to disintegrate is almost criminal.”
Senator McDowell was joined by fellow Independent Senators Rónán Mullen, Sharon Keogan, Gerard Croughwell, Victor Boyhan as well as Galway county councillor, Geraldine Donohue, for Friday’s site visit.
The European Court of Justice has previously ruled that planning permission for the Derrybrien windfarm was insufficient because the developers failed to undertake the required environmental assessments. This judgement did not state that the facility should be decommissioned.
Senator McDowell believes that a State run trust or similar organisation could step in and take over the facility, without any legal impediment.
“We are mindful of what the European Court of Justice have said. They have said that only in very exceptional circumstances should substitute consent be granted to people who carried out developments which do not comply with European environmental law.
“If part of the solution [at Derrybrien] is depriving the developers of the benefits of their error, then the simple solution is bring the wind farm into public ownership and apply the benefits of this electricity into environmental service,” he said.
“The idea that people might have benefited from this mistake is avoided completely. One possible solution would be to amend the statutory basis of either a local authority or the Western Development Commission to have it act as trustees for the development, and manage the proceeds for environmental and peat conservation purposes.”