TODAY is the final day for submissions from the public on the controversial proposal by EirGrid to build 750 electricity pylons between Leinster and Munster.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny caused uproar yesterday after he suggested that more young people will have to emigrate unless pylon plans get the go-ahead.
He insisted the plans to erect hundreds of pylons around the country were needed to upgrade the country's power infrastructure so that more jobs could be created and fewer young people would have to emigrate.
Labour backbenchers hit out at his claims, which have also sparked anger among groups representing young people.
The proposed project would see the building of hundreds of kilometres of overhead power lines suspended by pylons stretching from Cork to Wexford.
The 250km high-voltage overhead power line would be built through Cork, Waterford, Wexford and Wicklow, including a network of hundreds of pylons.
Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Kieran Hartley, a spokesperson for the group Rethink Pylons, said it believes the project will destroy the landscape in Co Waterford.
Opponents are concerned about the effects of pylons on human health and the environment.
The group’s submission states that the mountains and surrounding areas are of ‘‘natural and outstanding beauty’’ and that the power line will create a ‘‘scar right across the landscape that will destroy many homes, many lives and many businesses.’’
‘‘Waterford has been decimated with job losses and this is a small industry that is only starting to gain momentum and is faced with oblivion if this line comes right through the Comeragh mountains,’’ he said.
He said underground routing was not a ‘‘get out clause’’ for EirGrid and the government.
‘‘If you underground you’re buying into the idea that this project is needed.
Speaking on the same programme, Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Pat Rabbitte said there was no question about the need to upgrade the power grid.
The Coalition is now bracing itself for a series of angry anti-pylon protests ahead of the local and European elections, with one Fine Gael junior minister acknowledging privately that it would be "potentially the most divisive issue of 2014".
Speaking during his trade mission to Saudi Arabia, Mr Kenny defended the Government's approach to pylons.
However, he sparked a backlash when he linked the €3.2bn upgrade of the power network to youth emigration for the first time, by warning of the consequences of not providing the power infrastructure that was needed.
"Now I don't think it's right for any government to say that they can deny the next generation of young people in our country the right to have a job and to live and work in their own area if that be so," he said.
Mr Kenny went on to say that it was ironic that people were telling him "Well my children have to go away, have to emigrate".
"In many cases they emigrate to countries where these things are matter of course as providing infrastructure for development," he said.
Labour MEP Phil Prendergast described Mr Kenny's remarks as "disingenuous" and "cynical". "The issues of emigration and pylons are simply not married and I believe the Taoiseach's comments are spurious to say the least," she said.
Labour senator John Whelan said Mr Kenny's comments were "deeply offensive" and reminiscent of the type of spin seen during the Seanad referendum campaign.
Labour chairman Jack Wall said he was "at odds" with Mr Kenny in relation to the suggestion that there were no alternatives to the current pylon plans. "This is more than just jobs," he said.
Labour Carlow-Kilkenny TD Ann Phelan warned that communities were in danger of losing their "beautiful landscapes" due to the monster pylons.
Fianna Fail jobs spokesman Dara Calleary, a constituency colleague of Mr Kenny, described his comments as "very unwise" and "completely unfair". "Aligning this debate with concerns on emigration is genuinely really unfair to people," he said.
Speaking on RTE's Morning Ireland, Energy Minister Pat Rabbitte said: "I think the point the Taoiseach was making was that if you want progress you need to have a good system."
He added that the issues had nothing to do with the local elections but the provision of a good services in a bid to optimise Foreign Direct Investment and have an environment in which jobs would be created.
Meanwhile, the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI), which represents the interests of around 50 voluntary youth groups, said it was "unwise" of Mr Kenny to conflate the pylons and emigration issues.
"All citizens have a right to raise concerns about issues. It is unfair to say that people who have concerns about pylons are the reason why people have to emigrate. We all know that is certainly not true," said NYCI assistant director James Dooley.
The controversy arose as the public consultation process closes today for one of the biggest ever pylon projects by state agency EirGrid. The 250km Cork-Waterford-Wexford-Wicklow power line will involve a network of giant pylons extending to 45m (135ft) in height. It represents one of the biggest investments in the Irish power network over the past decade.
EirGrid is also going to re-apply to An Bord Pleanala for planning permission to build a North-South power line between Meath and Tyrone before the end of March. And a preferred route has also been selected for the Grid West pylon project in Mayo.
The Grid Link Action group, which is opposing the planned pylons on the Cork to Wicklow line, said that Mr Kenny's comments were a "red herring". Its chairman Kieran O'Connor said it wanted a cost-benefit analysis to compare the impact of putting cables underground rather than over ground.
Although Fine Gael backbenchers have held back from criticising Mr Kenny, several of them have also made submissions to EirGrid calling for a cost-benefit analysis.
Fine Gael TD Pat Deering said EirGrid had failed to give him any evidence that a re-opened sugar beet factory in Carlow could access power from the new Grid Link project.
However, EirGrid said putting in the pylons was the best solution from a technical and cost perspective. A spokesman said that it had noted the calls for a cost-benefit analysis.
A consultants' report carried out for EirGrid estimated that the upgrade of the electricity network would create almost 3,000 full-time jobs between 2012 and 2025. And it also warned that without the new investment, 14 out of 28 locations for power-dependent multi-national companies here would have less than the required capacity by 2025.
Niall O'Connor, Donal O'Donvan, Michael Brennan and Shane Phelan