ESB whistleblower reveals massive leak of oil & potent GHG from cables

Published by Niall Sargent on

June 6th, 2019

A whistleblower within the ESB has revealed that 1,200 kilos of a gas with a global warming potential 23,000 times greater than CO2 leaked from Moneypoint Power Station between 2016 and 2017.

The information revealed on RTÉ Investigates yesterday came to the surface after Seamus O’Loughlin made a number of Protected Disclosures to the Department of the Environment (DCCAE) that is still analysing the case.

The gas Sulphur Hexafluoride (SF6) has been used in most of ESB’s high-voltage switchgear on its transmission and distribution networks, with emissions rates reported to the EPA on an annual basis due to its potency as a greenhouse gas.

The ESB has previously said in its own sustainability reports that it has used the gas because of its very high electrical insulating properties that allows the switchgear to “work efficiently and safely”.

Mr O’Loughlin, however, claims that there were seven leaks at Moneypoint power station in recent years. An internal ESB technical log seen by RTÉ Investigates reveals that between 2016 and 2017, around 1,200 kilos of SF6 was leaked, releasing the equivalent of 28,000 tonnes of CO2.

Speaking to RTÉ Investigates, the head of projects delivery at ESB Networks, Derek Hynes, said that the leakage was “clearly not good enough” and that last piece of equipment was replaced recently as a part of a commitment to take “poorly performing equipment” out of service.

One million litres of oil leaked

In addition, Mr O’Loughlin, who worked for the utility for 25 years, revealed that one million litres of oil has leaked from underground cables over the past 20 years.

RTÉ Investigates revealed that the leaks were primarily in the Dublin area, including along cable lines close to both the Grand and Royal Canals.

A spokesperson for EPA told RTÉ Investigates that the majority of the cables contain a mix of mineral oil dating back to the 1970s and more modern oil, linear alkyl benzene, all of which is biodegradable.

In documents seen by RTÉ Investigates, however, reveal that the ESB was concerned that the leaks could present a “very high environmental impact” due to the proximity to the Grand Canal.

Internal ESB reports from 2009 seen by RTE Investigates outline plans to replace the cables over a 45 year period, that environmental scientist Dr Olivia Hall said was not appropriate and that leaks should be dealt with immediately.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was not made aware of such issues by the ESB until the end of May on foot of being contacted by RTÉ. The watchdog has now begun an investigation into the leaks.

Dublin City Council also states that it was not informed of the leaks into the canal, with Waterways Ireland only made aware of the leaks in October 2014, with the ESB later repairing the cable causing the leak.

Political reaction

Social Democrats Co-Leader Catherine Murphy described the revelations as “horrifying”, commending the courage of Mr O’Loughlin for lifting the lid on the dangers to employees and the hazards to the wider environment.

“That the issue was not immediately and comprehensively addressed when the first issue was raised as far back as 2015 raises serious questions regarding the ESB’s laissez-faire attitude to the safety of their employees,” Ms Murphy said.

She added: “For all the talk of CO2 emissions and a climate crisis, here we have a Semi-State company wantonly using and improperly storing this hugely detrimental gas [SF6] over a significant time period.

“This in addition to the revelations that significant amounts of oil are still being leaked from ESB pipe-lines into the Dublin waterways and have been for at least two decades, shows at best a flippant regard for environmental concerns by the ESB and at worst a complete disregard for the environment.”

The Green Party last night called on ESB Networks to release all information regarding oil leaks and for the company to put in place a plan to fast-track the removal of cables that may be leaking oil into the ground or adjacent watercourses.

It said the company must now also put in place plans to remediate the lands and clear up the polluted areas, with newly elected MEP for Dublin Ciarán Cuffe adding that it is “deeply worrying” that a State company could allow this to happen for decades without informing the public.

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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