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. 

This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.