Soapbox: If you go down to the woods today… you’re in for a very big surprise

James Orr is director of Friends of the Earth in Northern Ireland. In his account of what’s been happening in an East Antrim wood belonging to Northern Ireland Water, he argues that recent planning reforms have led to a water company getting involved in oil exploration on its own land.

Woodburn, near Carrickfergus. The clue is in the name. In this local haven, there is a wood growing and a burn flowing. Woodburn is designated in the local plan as a public amenity. 

There are numerous rights of way through this community asset, a modest place where children learn about frogs and birds, families walk their dogs and people ride their horses. 

Above and below this forest, water is kept clean by natural processes to feed reservoirs and provide drinking water, from Ballycarry to Belfast.

One hundred years ago Water Commissioners evicted farmers from this land. The idea behind those clearances was the protection of a public water catchment, the source of clean drinking water for the people of Belfast. 

Now in 2016 NI Water is evicting local people from enjoying their rights of way and in the words of a near resident, ‘stealing the silence of the woods’.

One hundred years later and the public water company decides no longer to protect the public interest but the private interests of the drilling company InfraStrata.

According to moviestar Mark Ruffalo, (of the Incredible Hulk fame and Co founder of Water Defense) this is the first time ever in the world that a public water company has given public land for unconventional oil and gas production.

The significant risks to drinking water are due to the insanely close proximity to reservoirs and because of the vast amounts of toxic chemicals being used in the drilling process. Cornell University’s Professor Ingraffea described NI Water’s decision to offer this well so close to public drinking water as “irrational”.

And Woodburn is just the first of dozens of unconventional drills proposed by the company to industrialise these townlands.

But what has really aggrieved local people, the Stop the Drill Campaign and astounded the international community is not just simply the environmental damage and the profound risk to our drinking water but the subversion of democracy.   

One year on since planning powers were transferred to councils the mistakes continue.  Unbelievably, the exploratory drilling platform is being allowed to proceed with :

  • no planning permission (so called ‘permitted development rights’ were granted ‘by default’ because the DoE did not respond in time);
  • no environmental impact assessment;
  • no valid waste management plan
  • no tree feeling licence (they cut down 3 acres of trees)
  • no Strategic Environmental Assessment (of the oil and gas licences where a sizeable chunk of Co Antrim was given to the company for a paltry £1,000)
  • no assessment of alternatives (yes, there are many)
  • no consent to divert a watercourse that flows into a reservoir
  • no public scrutiny of the impact of chemicals (such as Barium Sulphate and Biocide T) on habitats, health or drinking water etc

At the heart of the Woodburn story is this catalogue of multiple institutional failings. In a world shifting to cleaner forms of energy and the absence of these statutory requirements a reasonable conclusion is that the project has no lawful authority and certainly devoid of any moral authority.

Clusters of ‘mistakes’ are being revealed but to describe this as gross incompetence is to miss the point. Try and find at Woodburn even one mistake that supports the public interest.  The mistakes are symptomatic of a systemic failure in environmental regulation and the rights of people to participate in decisions that affect their lives.

What is most disturbing is that Woodburn cannot be explained by incompetence. Woodburn marks a profound shift to a position where the deviant behaviour by government has become normalised. In 1999, Diane Vaughan wrote a paper on the Dark Side of Organisations: Mistake Misconduct and Disaster.

In it, she describes how institutional failures can self-corrupt into deviant behaviour often through a process of denial, disregard, and ultimately deception. The multiplicity of agencies has so many waggons circling that they are often unaware how deviant the mission creep has become.

In this Kafkaesque absurdity, our laws and the agencies of the state that are meant to protect our country are now being used to assault our democratic rights and the environment. 

This normalisation of deviant behaviour provides a way of understanding this omnishambles, this ethical breakdown at Woodburn and perhaps explains why NI Water has given the company the right to re-inject petroleum and other liquids into the drill site for 50 years. Maybe it’s because NI Water is our most prolific and serial polluter that cannot see the conflict of interest in being the landlord to an unconventional fossil fuel company.

The foxes are now effectively in charge of the hen run and regulation is turned on its head. Who could argue with the New Economics Foundation  

“The whole point of government regulation is to intervene in the conflict of interest that companies and individuals have between their own financial benefit and the public interest.” 

The upshot of all this is that trust, confidence and the landscape at Woodburn are now, at least partially, shattered.  Bulldozers and chainsaws have wounded not just nature and the landscape but bulldozed a wound onto the very fabric of society with scars that may take years to heal.

Occupying this vacuum, and often for the first time, many are using Freedom of Information requests, bearing witness, writing letters, carrying out research and offering beautiful secret gestures that all give a profound strength to the Stop the Drill campaign.

Real democratic engagement is emerging. Many perplexed insiders, often angry by the institutional deviancy, now quietly support the campaign.

Decisions are being challenged in the courts and in the court of public opinion with thousands of community conversations – many are saying we cannot trust NI Water with our water; we cannot trust the Department of the Environment with the Environment, or the Mid and east Antrim Council with Mid and East Antrim. 

So if you go down to the woods today, you will get a few surprises.

You could be lucky enough to meet some of the dozens of Woodburn defenders, who, by exercising their democratic rights, who should awaken in us all the importance of defending our own patch against economic and environmental vandals. 

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  • and Sammy is once again making an ass of himself, with his strong support for Fracking etc. A position held by many DUP councillors and Assembly men.

  • ted hagan

    I know this area well. Lovely peaceful spot with fine views over the lough. Scandalous.
    Sammy Wilson is a dangerous clown.

  • ideas whittler

    I’m with you. Doesn’t even make any economic sense. At a time when fossil fuels are flooding the market, trillions are being sunk into innovating the demand for them out of existence and climate change is accelerating drastically, this sort of policy is just so far out of the realm of good strategy that there ought to be jailings.

  • NileyB

    What’s happening at Woodburn should be the wake-up call we’ve needed for decades. Without revolutionary overhaul of our regulatory system we will be poisoned in our homes.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Look, I’m a bit of a closet tree-hugger despite my environmentally dubious CV BUT one thing that really let’s the environmental lobby down is the partisan nature of some of its ‘facts’, in this case ” because of the vast amounts of toxic chemicals being used in the drilling process”.

    This very much depends on the formation, the depth of the well and indeed what the company can de arsed with for example some wells can be drilled with bentonite. In Germany they dispose of bentonite by selling it to farmers to use as fertiliser.

    In Australia a project that the company I worked for worked on was the subject of an environmental investigation as some bentonite-based drilling-fluid escaped into a mangrove.

    The case was thrown out on account of the patch where the spillage occurred actually had a greater growth of plantlife the following year than the unaffected areas.
    On the opposite side of the scale they sometimes use diesel as a drilling lubricant in places like Venezuela.

    The point is that little things like this will serve to undermine the campaign, let the oil and gas companies be the ones that are suspect when it comes to matters like these, not the defenders of the local environment.

    Sorry for the teacher-esque tone but I’m only trying to help.

    And yes, the rest of the post makes for alarming reading.

  • Fidellum

    Bentonite would be the least of our worries and is not what is being highlighted as a toxic chemical by the campaign. It’s about chemicals like Biocide T (Tetrakis (hydroxymethyl) Phosphonium Sulphate 55566-30-8 which is defined as hazardous under the Grounwater Regulations (NI) 2009 , Halad-300L NS (1250 gals), Barium Sulphate 7727-43-7 -24,000kg.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    This fella?

    http://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/sis/search/a?dbs+hsdb:@term+@DOCNO+4215

    https://cameochemicals.noaa.gov/chemical/25000

    Is that what the drilling company intend to use?

    Does anyone know why they feel the need for it?
    If it is the case then yes, this is a bad idea and the chemicals should be highlighted when putting forward the argument of drilling fluids being harmful (as not all of them are harmful).

  • Fidellum

    Those areexactly the chemicals the campaign highlights. You should see the MSDS sheet for Biocide T (got from DoE under Foi). It would make your toes curl. A biocide an “An additive that kills bacteria. Bactericides are commonly used in water muds containing natural starches and gums that are especially vulnerable to bacterial attack. ” [Schlumberger. Here’s an opinion on Barium Sulphate from Professor Declan Gilheany (UCD) “Significant issues here. First: this is a lot of barium to be holding as a contingency. Its most common use is as part of oil well drilling fluid (increases the density) so the likelihood here is that it is part of a fracking fluid. Second: Ba is highly toxic upon acute and chronic exposure. It binds and thereby blocks certain potassium channels. It affects many types of organisms. Barium sulfate is PLONOR because it is
    extremely insoluble (hence Ba meal). But most other barium salts are sufficiently soluble to be toxic, even the carbonate. Therefore if there is the chance of ion exchange away from sulfate, it becomes certainly not PLONOR.” We’re not saying it is part of a fracking fluid but that was the opinion he gave.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    My understanding is that one of them (if not both of them) are used to prevent ‘kick’s ( like when you see oil shooting out of the ground in an old John Wayne movie or ‘There will be blood’) in which case it wouldn’t be employed from the word go but rather when they’re several formations down and there’s next to no chance of communication with the groundwater formation.

    That being said if it is for fracking then I’ll put myself in the Ian Paisley Snr camp of ‘NO!’ as I’m still not convinced about it and would rather wait 30 – 40 years so we can see the damage of its impact there.

    I just am not overly comfortable with this sort of thing in NI because I believe our administration is sometimes next to a banana republic in its behaviour and I simply don’t have the faith that it would intervene when need be.

  • Fidellum

    We are worried about spills just as much as communication with groundwater during drilling. The weekend before last Infrastrata spilled oil into a drain that runs in the Woodburn river. It was spotted by walkers and reported to NIEA. It wasn’t a big spill but we’ve been fed the line of a ‘zero discharge’ site which is imo unachievable – so that was knocked on the head at just two weeks into the job. Problem is they’ve got an option to lease the site for another 50 years so there’s a long way to go and our regulators are quite frankly crap.

  • Actually, there is a bigger problem with what comes up with the water and gas than what goes down – typically radioactive elements from the rock strata. There are plenty of places where bunds to store the water that comes up leak into the land and contaminate surface water supplies.

  • Why the assumption that all the permissions came from incompetence? Shouldn’t we assume corruption until disproven?

  • Fidellum

    We definitely don’t think all permissions come from incompetence – when it comes to DETI and NI Water in particular. Take DETI who granted a new 5 year term to a 1p company who failed miserably to fulfil the requirements of the first term. Note also the ex-directors of GSNI who are employed by oil companies or have very close associations. Then, look at the NI Water lease. That can only have been born out of corruption.

  • Fidellum

    Totally agree.

  • Annie Breensson

    Drilling for oil in DUPland? Yer ‘avin’ a laff.

    Sure everybody knows it’s only 6000 years old – it won’t have had sufficient time to develop into a usable product.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    To give them their due the waterboard compliance taem are under staffed. I’d warned them about very heavy pesticide use (against reeds) almost into a drainoff ditch on boggy land. When teh team arrived seven weeks later they were most appolgetic, fully realising that the haevy rain in the succeeding weeks had ensured taht their samples were worse than useless. They were frustrated thmeselvse, but mentioned justt how few people had to cover a very heavy workload.

    But of course our rulers have much more important “cultural” things to spend our money on.

  • Well, if Mark Ruffalo says it is, it must be true.

  • Redbrae

    It is time for the people to take a stand when our Government won’t. Bureaucracy seems to have replaced Common Sense and procedural rules have removed the ability for Councillors to use the brains and voice they were given.
    – There is no economic reason to do this
    – There is no environmental reason to do this
    – There is no political reason to do this
    – There is no legal reason to do this…this is not permitted development.