A legal bid is being made on Friday to scupper plans for oil exploration in a Co Antrim forest, with one protestor saying it is likely to be just the first of many challenges.
Belfast’s High Court will hear a bid by a nearby resident opposed to the project, who is calling for a judge to rule on whether the work should indeed go ahead as planned.
The firm InfraStrata has leased the land in Woodburn Forest near Carrickfergus from NI Water.
It is planning to drill as part of a search for oil at present, not to actually extract it.
However, the site is close to major drinking water reservoirs, and campaigners have raised fears about possible knock-on effects of chemicals used in the drilling process, as well as how the authorities have handled the case.
The plans for the project itself date back to 2013.
Go-ahead for the project was not granted via a planning application; instead it has proceeded on the basis that it was a “permitted development”.
Unlike a full planning application, developments of this kind are not advertised or consulted upon.
According to the Department of the Environment (DoE), permitted development rights typically apply to “minor” and “non-contentious” projects.
However, by August 2015, the department had received over 160 objections to the proposed drilling.
The judicial review bid is being taken by Richard Irwin, director of property firm Redbrae.
He said that “InfraStrata should be asked to go through a full planning application”.
He added: “It is just a shame that I have to take this action, rather than NI Water and our council being the protector.”
James Orr, head of Friends Earth in Northern Ireland, said it is “the beginning of probably a series of legal challenges in relation to this”.
“This is probably one of the most controversial planning applications ever in Northern Ireland, but it was awarded ‘permitted development’,” he said. “This just stinks really, to be honest with you.”
He added: “We’ve won the moral argument in the court of public opinion. You go any day, there’s 24-hour protests at the camp site.
“People were astounded this was allowed to happen without planning permission in their water catchment area. But we’re very optimistic that legally, the protests will be justified as well.
Presently, planning powers in Northern Ireland rest with local councils – and Mid and East Antrim Borough Council is listed as being the respondent in the case.
But at the time the saga began in 2013, planning powers still lay with the Department of the Environment (DoE).
An internal briefing document – prepared by DoE officials last year and later released under the Freedom of Information Act – shows that after the department received a notification that drilling work was planned, it was supposed to advise the applicant within 21 days “whether or not permitted development rights apply”.
The DoE then failed to meet this deadline, and also missed another deadline for deciding whether the project required an Environmental Impact Assessment or not.
By the time it got around to responding, the document states that “permitted development rights had been granted by default”.
This could have been changed if the DoE then decided that an Environmental Impact Assessment really was required, but it did not.
Both NI Water and InfraStrata have tried to allay fears over the use of chemicals.
NI Water said that the drill site “doesn’t drain naturally” into the reservoirs, and that the portion of the Woodburn North River which falls in the catchment area of the drilling site is not currently flowing into any reservoir.
It said that a detailed risk assessment shows the project “represents no threat to the water supply”, adding it has also increased the monitoring of the water in the reservoirs.
InfraStrata, on its website, likewise stated that the project “poses no threat to local drinking water supplies”. It said the well site will be lined and surrounded by bunds, while the well itself will be surrounded by steel casing and cement.
When the council itself was asked about ongoing public concerns around the project, it said it could not comment due to the pending case.
THE NEWS LETTER HAS ASKED WHERE THE FIVE MAIN PARTIES STAND:
DUP: In March, the DUP MP Sammy Wilson issued a tough-talking denouncement of the protestors, dubbing many of them “professional green agitators” who were “hypocrites” because they owned motor vehicles, adding that they were “economic vandals trying to hurt a legitimate business” and calling on the police to take action against them.
Asked its official stance on the project more recently, the DUP press office issued a more diplomatic-sounding statement.
It said: “We believe that it is important to explore different energy sources to help provide a wider and more sustainable energy mix, and to potentially reduce prices for consumers.
“Any potential source should only be exploited however if it can be proven that it can be done so safely and without an adverse impact upon the environment.”
Councillor John Stewart, who is an Ulster Unionist Assembly candidate in East Antrim, said: “I am fundamentally opposed to the drill at Woodburn and have been since it was first mooted. I have lobbied against the development and have been a strong voice of opposition both at council and in public.
“I believe it is outrageous that Woodburn is the only part of the world where drilling is allowed in a water catchment area. The risk versus reward is far too great.”
He dismissed Mr Wilson’s earlier comments about the protestors, saying they had “real and genuine concerns about the associated risks”.
East Antrim candidate Danny Donnelly: “Alliance has long supported all lawful action to stop the drilling and restore confidence in our water system.
“My colleague Stewart Dickson signed an Assembly petition earlier this year which sought a review of the extension granted to the drilling and we have continued to question the Department of the Environment over its granting permission for the drilling by default.”
“The SDLP has always been committed to protecting our environment from dangerous extraction.
“That’s why the Environment Minister Mark H Durkan introduced a moratorium on Fracking. We have instructed the Environment Agency to maintain stringent environmental protection at the Woodburn site.”
Oliver McMullan, MLA for the area until the Assembly was recently dissolved, said; “The local community around Woodburn Forest near Carrickfergus have serious concerns about the impact of exploratory drilling in the area.
“In particular they are concerned about the potential impact on the water table. I have met with local residents, campaigners and also with the company behind the drilling, Infrastrata, to discuss these concerns.
“The Department of Education [sic] also have serious questions to answer over how this application was authorised.
“We are opposed to fracking being carried out anywhere on the island of Ireland. “Sinn Fein will continue to highlight the concerns of local residents and campaigners.”