Niall Bakewell from Young Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland tells us about a local struggle in County Antrim, Ireland against oil and gas prospector, Infrastrata who are intending to start drilling in the local drinking water catchment area.
The fight for safe drinking water for tens of thousands of people has stepped up a gear in a quiet forest a few miles to the northeast of Belfast, Northern Ireland. The nationalised water company, NI Water, has leased part of its land to an oil and gas prospector, Infrastrata, which now intends to conduct test drilling in the water catchment area of reservoirs that serve 1800 streets in the Greater Belfast and surrounding area. This would be deep and long directional drilling, incorporating chemicals known to cause serious human health impacts.
The company is enjoying a peculiar privilege of permission to set up a drill rig without going through any formal planning application process, and so avoiding having to submit an Environmental Impact Assessment. It is alleged by those opposed to the development that both the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment, and Mid and East Antrim Council have made major mistakes in initially granting and upholding these permitted development rights, but because responsibility for the development was handed from the former to the latter in a devolution of planning powers just under a year ago, both claim that the authority to review the case lies with the other.
On the week beginning Monday 15 February the company began preparatory works on the site, with the eager assistance of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), as you can see in the video below from Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland.
The community fightback began at the start of that week, as a round-the-clock vigil was kept, using vehicles to block the main access to the site. This turned into a stand-off on Thursday 18 February, as PSNI officers began the protracted process of clearing the access of parked and abandoned vehicles, resulting in one arrest. By 5pm that day the police had managed to clear the access of obstacles, and helped the company’s subcontractors to lay concrete blocks at the roadside to prevent protestors from parking at the entrance again.
A protest camp has now been set up at the site entrance.
On Monday 22 February tree surgeons working for Infrastrata accessed the site on foot, and began felling 3 acres of trees, again with the questionable assistance of a large number of PSNI officers.
Objectors are now exploring the possibility of an injunction against the company, but for the moment it is only the courage and tenacity of protestors on the ground that is bearing witness to what could become a major environmental health scandal in Northern Ireland’s most populated region. It could be the case that this is the only example anywhere in the world of a competent regulatory authority granting permission for an oil and gas company to drill next to a major city’s drinking water supply. Such a singular achievement would not be something in which Northern Ireland should take any pride.