TDs switching to idea of underground power lines
THE majority of TDs and senators serving on the Oireachtas Communications Committee want the State's controversial new pylon project to go underground, a survey carried out by the Sunday Independent reveals.
The findings come as Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte comes under mounting pressure on an issue that threatens to dominate some of next year's local elections.
And it comes as incoming EirGrid chairman John O'Connor – who is at the centre of conflict of interest claims over his previous role with An Bord Pleanala – will this week be grilled by members of the same committee who are opposed to the semi-state company's plans to erect giant 45-metre pylons across huge swathes of the countryside.
Eighteen of the 21 committee members responded to queries from the Sunday Independent this weekend.
Eleven said they wanted the project to go underground, while seven said they were "undecided".
Not a single TD or senator on the committee said they backed Mr Rabbitte and EirGrid's preferred option to put the project overground, which has sparked mass protest meetings across the country in recent weeks.
Kerry South Independent TD Tom Fleming said the project should go underground because "health and heritage issues are a big concern for people".
And although he admitted that going underground would be the more expensive option in the short term, he insisted it "would result in long-term savings".
That view was shared by Sinn Fein's Michael Colreavy, the TD for Sligo/North Leitrim. Mr Colreavy said there was "conflicting information on the issue" but argued "undergrounding would be cheaper over a 35-40-year life cycle". Tipperary South/West Waterford TD Mattie McGrath said he would take the matter to the European courts if pylons were forced upon constituents.
Fianna Fail's Michael Moynihan, TD for Cork North West, and senator Paschal Mooney (Sligo/North Leitrim) were both in favour of underground systems and hit out at EirGrid's failure to address the concerns of people living in affected areas.
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"EirGrid is falling short of the necessary public consultation and aren't taking into consideration public concerns," Mr Moynihan told the Sunday Independent.
Despite mounting opposition, the prospect of the project going underground looks increasingly unlikely.
EirGrid's communications manager Michael Kelly this weekend said that an underground solution for the €500m Grid Link project "is not feasible" because it would produce less energy and cost three times as much.
This is despite comments made by senior EirGrid executives in an interview with the Sunday Independent last week that the company was "not anti-underground" and would look at alternatives to the garish metal structures.
"Nowhere in the world are lines at this voltage (400kv) placed underground on an alternating current system, which is the main national grid system," Mr Kelly said.
"Undergrounding a line of this voltage or of this distance or of this type is not feasible."
This view was echoed by Mr Rabbitte, who yesterday claimed the increased cost would have to be passed on to consumers.
Speaking at the Labour Party's annual conference in Killarney, the minister said: "It will put up the cost of energy if a more expensive system of implementation is chosen and that is something the public and the consumers have to consider."
Mr Rabbitte is set to face a stormy showdown on Wednesday when incoming EirGrid chairman John O'Connor will be grilled about the project – and his previous role as chairman of An Bord Pleanala – by members of the Communications Committee.
The committee cannot block Mr O'Connor's appointment, but it could prove to be highly embarrassing for Mr Rabbitte if it emerges the incoming chairman does not have their backing.
Labour Senator John Whelan, who is also in favour of the underground option, believes that support for Mr O'Connor is ''finely balanced''.
Mr Whelan told the Sunday Independent: ''Next week I will be opposing his appointment and asking him to consider not taking it up.
"I am casting no aspersions on Mr O'Connor, but there were perceptions of a conflict of interest given his previous role in An Bord Pleanala."
The position of Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein means that should two of the Government's representatives oppose the appointment of Mr O'Connor, then the Government will struggle to secure the support of the committee.
Despite a previous private meeting between Mr Rabbitte and Labour TDs and senators on the pylon issue, Mr Whelan warned that ''suspicions continue to grow that this grid is being erected solely to facilitate a proliferation of wind-farms that will only benefit private developers''.
The extent of the escalating revolt against overground pylons was revealed at a packed private meeting of Labour TDs, senators and councillors at this weekend's conference in Killarney.
More than 100 party members attended the meeting which sources claimed was the "most passionate debate" in the entire conference.
Mr Rabbitte told delegates the issue had the potential to damage the prospects of Labour candidates in the local elections. He said he would "do everything in his power" to avoid this.
Mr Rabbitte told the Sunday Independent he was getting "a vast amount of advice on what not to do on the pylons issue but no one is telling me what I should do".
The Sunday Independent has also learnt Fianna Fail intend to table a private members' motion next week, which will request that an independent analysis be carried out into the possibility of putting the power lines underground.
Bord Failte has also weighed into the escalating row. In response to a parliamentary question from Fianna Fail's Dara Calleary, the semi-state tourism body warned the landscape and cultural heritage of certain sites in the vicinity of proposed pylons "could potentially be at risk".
Meanwhile, residents who joined community groups that have sprung up across the country in opposition to the pylon plan said they would continue to fight the project.
Mother-of-two Simone Webb, who runs a stud farm in Kilcoole near Rathoe in Co Carlow with her husband Liam, told the Sunday Independent: "Businesses like ours bring a lot of tourism and finance to this area and people from as far away as Italy, India, Hong Kong and all over the world come to buy and train horses in Ireland.
"Of course my concern is for my children first because they have linked these pylons to things like leukaemia and dementia and Alzheimer's in older people.
"The studies are not conclusive proof, but I just wonder are we the guinea pigs here in all of this?"
Mrs Webb's neighbour Ethna Quirke added: "My house is on the two central routes that are proposed to go through Carlow, but I've no idea how close it will actually come."