Woodburn drill legal costs leave MLA ‘in shock’

PACEMAKER BELFAST  17/05/2016
Campaigners pictured during the oil drilling operation at Woodburn Forest outside Carrickfergus.
PACEMAKER BELFAST 17/05/2016 Campaigners pictured during the oil drilling operation at Woodburn Forest outside Carrickfergus.

MLA Roy Beggs says he is “shocked” that NI Water paid almost £21,000 in legal costs over the controversial Woodburn Forest exploration drill.

The figure emerged when Mr Beggs questioned Infrastructure Minister Chris Hazzard on the costs of the drill to NI Water, and followed the disclosure that a total of £25,585.86 was spent by NI Water on the Woodburn project.

East Antrim MLA Roy Beggs. INCT 17-704-CON

East Antrim MLA Roy Beggs. INCT 17-704-CON

A breakdown of the expenditure revealed legal costs of £20,986.50, staff costs of £1,937.84, contractor costs of £815.76 and analytical costs of £1,845.76.

InfraStrata, the independent petroleum exploration and gas storage company, completed drilling at the site on the outskirts of Carrick in June after failing to find oil there.

The exploratory drill attracted high-profile protests from campaigners at Stop the Drill, who feared the operation could impact the water supply to over 1,000 streets in the Carrickfergus, Larne, Newtownabbey and north Belfast areas.

The protest even attracted superstar support in the form of Hollywood actor Mark Ruffalo, who wrote to Environment Minister Mark H Durkan to express his concerns.

However, NI Water maintained there was no threat to the water.

While NI Water received £29,096.77 through its pro rata licence agreement with Infrastrata to offset the costs, a breakdown of the expenditure revealed that when all other costs were considered the company made just £3,510.91 through the contentious operation.

Describing NI Water’s decision to lease the land for the drill as a “folly,” Mr Beggs questioned whether the scheme had been “truly worth the risk to the local environment” for the amount involved.

“You would have to ask the question whether for a few thousand pounds, was it truly worth the risk to the local environment to allow the exploratory borehole to go ahead as a ‘permitted development’ within the water catchment area?,” he asked.

“The decision to lease land within the Woodburn Dam catchment area for an exploratory oil drill site introduced huge risks to the public water supply.

“In the end NI Water, recognising the risk to the water supply even had to prevent all water from the drill catchment area from entering the dams. “When you consider the risks, the listed costs and the addition efforts of staff members diverted from their normal duties it is clear to me that the decision by the NI Board was problematic.

“I would hope that NI Water will recognise the folly of their decision to lease the land for drilling and that our water supply will not be exposed to such risks in the future.”

Last week, charges were dropped against four protesters arrested at the controversial exploration drill.

The charges included trespass and obstruction of police in relation to the protest at Woodburn Forest.

A fifth individual who was charged with obstructing police, resisting police, and two counts of assault is due to appear at Laganside Magistrates’ Court on October 6.

Meanwhile, Mid and East Antrim Council is facing a legal challenge around some of the permissions granted to InfraStrata.

A spokesperson for the council said: “The hearing was listed for 22 and 23 September, but this did not suit the judge and has therefore been postponed.

“No alternative date has been set.”