Monday 14 October 2019

Final submissions made in long-running saga of Apple's abandoned data centre

An artist’s impression of the ambitious €850m Apple data centre that had been planned for Athenry, Co Galway
An artist’s impression of the ambitious €850m Apple data centre that had been planned for Athenry, Co Galway

Paul Neilan

Final submissions have been made at the Supreme Court appeal in the long-running saga of Apple's abandoned data centre in Athenry.

The five-judge Supreme Court, sitting in NUI Galway on Wednesday, heard of the reasons behind the granting of planning permission and subsequent appeals of the proposed €850m project.

An Bord Pleanala had granted permission in August 2016 for Apple's go-ahead of the first phase only of an eight-hall "masterplan" but two local residents, Allan Daly and Sinead Fitzpatrick, were allowed grounds to appeal a previous High Court decision backing ABP.

The appellants' barrister Michael McDowell SC told the court that an Environmental Impact Assessment on the full masterplan for eight halls was not done and that there had been no attempt at dealing with the heat that the centre would generate.

He told the court that there would be no reason to believe that Apple did not want to develop the Derrydonnell Forest site "fully", as the granting of permission for a 20-acre 240MV transformer station was "wholly excessive" for just one hall on a 500-acre site.

Mr McDowell said ABP erred when considering the first hall as a "standalone" development, when the EIA should have been done on the whole project.

"The ABP inspector's report stated clearly and unequivocally that for it to consist solely of one data hall and a 20-acre transformer station that the site couldn't be justified," he said, "it was only on the basis of the entirety planned to be built that justified”.

Energy concerns and climate warming were also raised when the court heard that just one of the halls was the "equivalent of six to eight per cent of Ireland's energy output, by itself".

"The obligation on the board and the planning authorities of Ireland is to view the whole plan as one and to carry out the EIA at the outset," he said, stressing the heat waste caused by the development being sited in forest ground and that environmental concerns should not be "traded off" for 200 jobs.

On the EIA for the masterplan, Nuala Butler SC for ABP, said that there were "too many variables" at play on such a project that would not have a completion date until '2030-2035'.

"An Bord Pleanala did exactly what should be done and in detail," she said, adding that the masterplan was taken into account but that the EIA carried out was only for the development applying for permission - the first hall and the transformer station.

The site was "justified", environmentally, due to data security, was part of a strategic economic corridor, agreed with by local authorities and local ecological concerns had been addressed, she said.

Energy issues, however, could not be adequately addressed at "phase one" when "phase eight" might have been in 2030, due to the variables in technology, grid capacity, energy users and energy suppliers "in 15-odd years time, you simply can't know, now is just a snapshot".

"There were too many imponderables," she said, in carrying out a projected EIA.

Mr McDowell said that, "as far as practicable", environmental concerns over the future masterplan should have been included into the EIA.

Mr McDowell put it to the court how each of the "uncertainties" mentioned could be thought to be resolved in permission being granted and were seen to all be "somehow in favour" of permission.

"Is it sustainable? Is it defensible on environmental grounds?" he asked.

"It's deeply illogical," he said.

In May of last year, Apple announced it would not be proceeding with the project, citing planning delays as their main reason for pulling out.

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