EIRGRID has said it will consider putting the controversial national pylon project underground, as Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte comes under intense political pressure over the escalating crisis.
In an interview with the Sunday Independent, senior company executives said the final decision would be down to the planning authorities, but insisted it had no objection to the project going underground.
EirGrid, which has been rocked by mounting public anger over plans to erect giant 45-metre pylons across huge swathes of the countryside, also admitted it had not attended any of the growing number of mass meetings taking place across the country in opposition to the project, despite requests to do so.
Meanwhile, Mr Rabbitte is coming under intense political pressure to broker a solution to the deepening pylon crisis.
Last week saw the highly unusual spectre of FG and Sinn Fein TDs uniting in attacking Mr Rabbitte as they themselves feel the brunt of a backlash in their constituencies.
In one incident, the Co Roscommon home of Senator John Kelly was pelted with eggs thrown by anti-pylon activists.
As opposition groups spring up across the country, senior EirGrid executives insisted the company was not opposed to the project going underground.
However, they claim the plans to erect the giant pylons as part of a massive €3.2bn overhaul of the country’s electricity infrastructure is the most cost-effective option.
EirGrid transmission project manager Deborah Meghan told the Sunday Independent: “We are not anti-underground. As part of the assessment of the project we will look at it. We look at cabling, we look at undergrounding – we must consider alternatives.”
Ms Meghan said EirGrid would recommend to the planning authorities to push ahead with its favoured option of erecting the giant pylons overground, despite rising public opposition to the project.
It also warned the cost of laying electricity cables underground would be up to three times higher than going overground, which would have to be passed on to customers. However, anti-pylon groups said EirGrid was unable to provide exact figures to back this up.
The company said the final decision on the matter would be down to An Bord Pleanala, whose former chairman John O’Connor is also EirGrid’s incoming chairman.
Mr Rabbitte has faced a barrage of criticism from anti-pylon protesters who claim the overlap in Mr O’Connor’s roles points to a clear conflict of interest.
However, EirGrid flatly refused to comment on the claims of a potential conflict of interest.
“We are a company, we don’t choose or have any function in that. I absolutely accept that you are raising it, but I can’t comment,” EirGrid communications manager Michael P Kelly told the Sunday Independent.
EirGrid also rejected fears of potential health risks posed by the giant pylons.
A study by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has found there are “no substantive health issues” from low-frequency (ELF) electricity fields such as pylons.
However, other research found “limited scientific evidence” of a link between ELF magnetic fields and childhood leukemia.
Another Irish expert group said in 2007 that it could not rule out the possibility that ELF can cause cancer.
“The WHO have reviewed thousands of studies over the past 30 years, they have reviewed all of these and don’t believe that a link has been established between pylons and illness,” Mr Kelly said.
However, couple Paula and Mike Sheridan, whose house in Curraghmore, Drumree, Co Meath, is just 35 metres from a 400kv line that runs directly above their back garden, claim their health has been blighted by living beneath the high-power voltage line for three decades.
Both Paula and Mike have been diagnosed with cancer in the past three years and have demanded an independent health audit of their community.
EirGrid said it planned to meet the couple after they publicly voiced their concerns in an interview with the Sunday Independent earlier this month.
“I personally had hoped to meet with them today,” Ms Meghan told the Sunday Independent.
“They are to get back to us and I am hoping there may be a meeting early next week.”
EirGrid has come under fierce criticism from anti-pylon community groups who accuse the company of refusing to consult with them.
The semi-state company refutes this, and says it has held “dozens” of open days and “many other meetings” to inform the public of its plans.
However, when repeatedly pressed on the matter, senior executives admitted they did not attend any of the ‘monster’ protest meetings that have taken place in towns in affected areas across the country in recent weeks, despite calls for them to directly answer communities’ fears.
And they could not say if they would attend rally meetings over the coming weeks and months, despite deepening public anger over the pylon plans.
“Well, over the years we’ve found that those meetings aren’t as effective [as open days] and that’s the reason why we’ve been seeking really to have a way where there would be a two-way communication,” Mr Kelly said.
“We’ve been at supermarkets, we’ve been having meetings with hundreds of local groups and stakeholders.”
Responding to communities’ concerns that the giant pylons would be a blight on some of the country’s most scenic areas, EirGrid argued that similar structures were commonplace in other countries.
It also dismissed fears expressed by community leaders that pylons erected close to homes would wipe up to 35 per cent off their property values, at a time when hundreds of thousands of homeowners already found themselves in negative equity.
And despite EirGrid’s claims that it has done everything possible to inform the public about all aspects of the pylon plan, community and farm leaders say most people who will be affected by the pylon plans remain in the dark about how exactly it will impact on their lives.
On Friday, John Comer, president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association, told the body’s annual conference in Limerick that there was “growing and growing” anger about the plan among farm families.
“The State seems to be gradually withdrawing from rural life vis-a-vis rural post offices, DVOs (district veterinary offices), garda stations, hospitals, schools and so on,” Mr Comer said.
He said 99 per cent of people he knew did not understand what was going on in the pylon debate: “They just know they are plain ugly.”