[ This article was first published in Village Magazine on Friday, July 1st, 2005 ]
Fears about the high pressure of gas in Shell’s disputed North Mayo pipeline were behind the willingness of five local men to go to jail. Some of them spoke to William Hederman before going to prison.
Hundreds of people are expected to converge on the remote village of Rossport in North Mayo over the coming days in response to a call issued from Clover Hill prison by the five Mayo men imprisoned in the Shell pipeline affair. The High Court jailed the men on Wednesday (29 June) at the request of Shell for refusing to comply with the injunction forbidding them from obstructing the oil multinational from accessing farmers’ land to build a controversial gas pipeline.
They have been obstructing work on the pipeline because they say they fear for their and their families’ safety, because of the unprecedented, high-pressure nature of the proposed pipeline and the fact that it runs through a bog.
A statement, written in prison by one of the five men, Micheál Ó Seighin, urges people to travel to Rossport to join a solidarity camp where Shell proposes to lay the high-pressure, “offshore” pipeline through a residential community; to picket and boycott Shell and Statoil (Statoil hold a minority stake in the project); to write to Minister Noel Dempsey and their local TDs about the issue and to write letters of support to the five “prisoners of conscience” in prison.
Environmental and other community campaign groups around the country have told Village they are hearing of plans by many activists and others to travel to Rossport over the coming days to support the protest. Postings on the Indymedia website have been urging people planning to protest at the G8 summit to forgo their trip to Scotland and to go instead to Mayo for the week. “Now that the Shell five have been jailed, solidarity and practical help is needed in Rossport more than ever,” said a message posted by the Shell to Sea campaign group.
The five will remain in prison until they have “purged their contempt”. Three of the five are among the seven small landowners who have refused to allow Shell onto their land: between them the seven own 50 per cent of the land through which the pipeline is due to be laid. Their imprisonment is the latest in an ongoing battle in the High Court to prevent Shell from digging up their land.
They stress that they are not holding out for more money and are not opposed to a gas pipe in principle. “If they refined it at sea and there was a Bord Gais pipeline passing my door, I wouldn’t oppose it,” Willie Corduff, one of the landowners now in prison, told Village.
Ó Seighin, a retired schoolteacher, noted local historian and sean-nós singer, spoke to Village from Mayo several days before his imprisonment and explained the locals’ grounds for concern over safety and why they were prepared to go to jail. He has spent months researching pipeline safety and describes the project as “a time-bomb”.
“The most immediately scary thing here is that the term ‘High Consequence Area’ or HCA has never once appeared in any literature purveyed by the developer. That’s an area at a distance from a pipeline at the limit of which timber buildings will burn: it’s colloquially called the ‘killer zone’, for good reason. It’s a Federal measurement in the US, so it’s not exactly nurse maids to tree huggers.”
Ó Seighin and the other objectors were horrified to find that no figures existed for a high-pressure, “upstream” pipeline, as such a pipe never passes in the vicinity of houses. Normally, for example at Kinsale, the upstream pipeline brings the untreated gas at high pressure from the field to a refinery just offshore. It seems the Mayo pipeline will be the first of its type anywhere in the world.
“The figures we got only apply to pressures up to 100 bar and even at that pressure a HCA would extend 196 metres from this pipeline,” Ó Seighin says. The pipeline will pass 70 metres from homes in Rossport.
According to the Environmental Impact Survey supplied by Shell, the proposed pipeline has a normal operating pressure of 150 bar and is designed to take a pressure of 344 bar, and will in its initial stages be more than 300 bar. This compares to a maximum in Bord Gais pipelines of 70 bar.
A gas pipeline explosion in Carlsbad, New Mexico in 2000 incinerated 12 people who were camping more than 200 metres away. That pipeline operated at a lower pressure than the Mayo pipeline would.
Yet the minimum distance from residences that the Mayo pipeline is permitted to run is 70 metres: several homes are just outside this limit. However, many of them will have to pass much closer to it – or even directly over it – in order to simply come in and out of their homes. Willie Corduff, his wife and six children will have to walk or drive over the pipeline (which would be buried about one metre under the bog) to get to and from their home.
Trinity College physics professor Werner Blau, who has been researching gas pipeline safety, told Village he had calculated that if the proposed pipeline in Mayo exploded while in use, the flame would travel 600 metres. He said between 1986 and 2004, pipeline explosions worldwide had caused 200 deaths and 600 injuries.
Minister for the Marine Noel Dempsey has conceded in the Dáil that the proposed pipeline is “unprecedented”. The objectors call it “experimental” and describe themselves as “Shell’s guinea pigs”. Their argument is that if such a pipeline is unprecedented, how can Shell or the Government or anyone else guarantee its safety? They also question the wisdom of trying out such an experimental pipeline in an area of deep bogland.
In fact, Dempsey has never given Ministerial consent to the project, a fact alluded to by Ó Seighin when he spoke in court minutes before being imprisoned. “I am baffled by the result of the April hearing [when the High Court granted Shell the injunctions against the landowners], as Minister Dempsey has said again and again ‘No, the consent to install is not there.'”
When Village put these concerns to Shell, the company said the project had been designed to “very high international standards” and had been “subject to detailed assessment by the relevant Irish authorities.” It cited worker safety and cost as reasons why it chose not to locate the refinery offshore.
But Shell do not command much respect with the objectors. “There’s no way we’re putting our trust in Shell with the reputation they have,” Willie Corduff said, a reference to the company’s legacy of environmental and social devastation in Nigeria. Their grounds for mistrust were strengthened when it was revealed recently that a company commissioned by Minister Dempsey to carry out an “independent” evaluation of the project was part-owned by Shell.
Their mistrust is backed up by Sr Majella McCarron, a veteran of the campaign against Shell’s infamous operation in the Niger Delta in Nigeria, a saga which ended with the environmental and social devastation of the Ogoni region and the 1995 execution of Nobel Peace nominee Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other anti-Shell activists. “Shell should not be trusted,” she insists. (Saro-Wiwa’s brother, Owens Wiwa, came to Mayo last year to lend support to the Rossport objectors).
Shell’s cost argument for not locating offshore doesn’t impress these people much either: they mention the company’s $9 billion profits for 2004.
Financial concerns will be to the fore for the five men in jail, and others also facing imprisonment. On the day they were imprisoned, the objectors were warned by the President of the High Court that he had the power to impose financial penalties, possibly on a daily basis, if they continued to refuse to comply with the injunction. This could even involve seizing their houses and farms, he told them. “Do you have a home? A car?,” he said to Micheál Ó Seighin. “You’d better think about your family.”