Committee to recall ESB for fresh answers on cable leaks

Published by Niall Sargent on

November 15th, 2019

The Environment Committee is set to recall the ESB to answer questions on oil leaks from underground cables following evidence of new leaks uncovered by the Environmental Protection Agency.  

The Committee is holding hearings into the leakage of one million litres of oil from underground cables over the past 20 years that was revealed on RTÉ Investigates earlier this year.

Information provided by whistleblower Seamus O’Loughlin revealed that the leaks were primarily in the Dublin area, including along cable lines close to both the Grand and Royal Canals.

The majority of the cables contain a mix of mineral oil dating back to the 1970s and more modern oil, linear alkyl benzene, which is biodegradable. Mineral oil, however, is not readily biodegradable in the environment.

Documents seen by RTÉ Investigates revealed that the ESB was concerned the leaks could present a “very high environmental impact” due to the proximity to the Grand Canal.

The EPA was not made aware of the issue until May on foot of being contacted by RTÉ. The watchdog then began an investigation into the leaks, presenting evidence to the Committee on Monday.

The EPA told Committee members that it found evidence of 68 “historic” leaks between 1993 and June 2019, as well as seven “current and new” leaks. In addition, the EPA said that ESB Networks failed to notify Local Authorities as required under the Water Pollution Act in 48 cases.

The semi-state also failed to screen for the impact of leaks since April 2009 as required under regulations introduced in 2008 to ensure that measures are taken to prevent further environmental damage where damage has already occurred.

ESB Networks have commenced an impact assessment process for the “historic” leaks and have notified “current and new” leaks to the relevant Local Authorities. The EPA said that it is satisfied with the approach and protocols being implemented by ESB Networks to assess each leak.

Committee chair Hildegarde Naughton TD said that it will now ask the ESB come before the Committee again “to explain its record and the failings, identified by the EPA investigation”.

“We would also like to hear again from Seamus O’Loughlin who bravely raised concerns about these leaks,” she added. “From what we heard today from the EPA, he has been vindicated. The Committee would like to express its gratitude to him and RTÉ for bringing this matter to light.”

Moneypoint Power Station - nocturne in blue and gold
Moneypoint Power Station Photo: Tiger

Moneypoint greenhouse gas leaks

Mr O’Loughlin, who worked for the utility for 25 years, also revealed that 1,200 kilos of a gas with a global warming potential 23,000 times greater than CO2 leaked from ESB’s coal-fired Moneypoint power station between 2016 and 2017.

The gas, Sulphur Hexafluoride (SF6), is used in high-voltage switch-gears on transmission and distribution networks. Emissions rates are reported to the EPA on an annual basis due to its potency as a greenhouse gas.

The head of projects delivery at ESB Networks, Derek Hynes, told RTÉ Investigates that the leakage was “not good enough”. He said that the last piece of equipment was replaced earlier this year as a part of a commitment to take “poorly performing equipment” out of service.

A two-day site visit by the EPA in late June revealed that management of SF6 at Moneypoint is operationally rather than environmentally focused with “sustained and prolonged leaks” from equipment.

According to the preliminary results of the EPA investigation, ESB Networks generally tried to remedy the issue by topping-up equipment with SF6 rather than undertaking repair work. The EPA said that this approach is “inadequate to control and minimise leakage”.

In addition, the EPA found that the site does not have a robust system for the management, labelling and storage of recovered SF6. ESB Networks also failed to report the leaks to the EPA as required under its industrial emissions licence, the watchdog said.

The EPA will finalise a full investigative report in the coming weeks.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London