There are fears that ESB's decision to suspend operations at Lough Ree Power Station in Lanesborough could have massive implications for the future of West Offaly Power Station in Shannonbridge and Bord na Mona jobs in Offaly.
The ESB move in turn prompted Bord Na Móna's to lay off 150 staff at the nearby Mountdillon work which supplies peat to the electricity generating plant at Lanesborough.
The ESB said it was temporarily suspending operations at Lough Ree Power, after legal proceedings were intiated by the Environmental Protection Agency, and until issues surrounding the discharge of water fro the station into the Shannon are resolved.
The Environmental Protection Agency has now also confirmed to Offaly Independent that there is currently "a prosecution before the courts in relation to the temperature issue and breaches of the licence condition at the West Offaly power plant".
Cllr Eamon Dooley said the issue in Lanesborough could mean the "collapse of whole peat industry" and the loss of up to 800 jobs associated the West Offaly power plant at Shannonbridge.
Bord na Mona said that it would be putting approximately 70 permanent employees on temporary unpaid lay-off from Thursday July 18 and this will continue until Lough Ree Power returns to normal operations.
“Some 78 seasonal employees will also be placed on lay-off immediately," the company said.
The workers affected are employed in peat supply, bog operations and maintenance at the nearby Mountdillion works supplying the electricity plant at Lanesborough.
The ESB is required under its license to return cooling water from Lough Ree Power back into the River Shannon in such a manner so as not to raise the downstream river temperature (thermal plume) by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above the upstream intake temperature.
Cllr Dooley explained that a changed in legislation in 2014 has forced the EPA to act.
“Unless the legislation is changed, it could see the whole peat industry collapse,” Cllr Dooley told the Offaly Indpendent on Thursday,.
“It will mean 80% of Bord na Mona’s workers will be laid off, around 700 to 800 jobs,” he admitted.
“The problem is the temperature of the cooling water that was flowing into the Shannon, the guidelines from Europe changed around this in 2014, and the EPA had no choice but to act.
“So unless the legislation is changed, you can’t operate, you’re either operating within or outside the law.”
In May this year, the ESB for West Offaly Power, Shannonbridge, applied to the EPA for a review of the Industrial Emissions Licence for a phased transition to the use of biomass.
Included in that application is a request for alteration to Condition 5.5 of the current EPA industrial emissions licence for West Offaly Power which relates to cooling water discharge from the station.
A spokesperson for the EPA told the Offaly Independent at the time of going to press that:
“I can confirm that there is a prosecution before the courts in relation to the temperature issue and breaches of the licence condition at the West Offaly power plant also. For that reason we cannot comment further on the matter at present.”
Meanwhile, when questioned if the Lough Ree Power issue would have ramifications for Shannonbridge, the ESB, it said: “Different circumstances prevail at West Offaly Power so the volume flow conditions at that point on the River Shannon are different, i.e. there is more flow in the river at Shannonbridge. As a matter of policy, ESB takes the necessary course of actions required to comply with our environmental license requirements.
The ESB said it had lodged planning applications to change the fuel source for both Midlands power stations, Lough Ree Power and West Offaly Power, from peat to biomass over a transition period, with full conversion completed by 2027 at the latest.
“These changes will start from early 2020 - once all consents (planning permission and Industrial Emissions licencing) are in place, and they represent another significant milestone in ESB’s journey of greenhouse gas emissions reduction.
“The transition will see the station operating initially with a high percentage of imported biomass until such time as sufficient indigenous biomass is available. This collaboration between ESB and Bord na Móna supports the National Energy and Climate Plan and the regional economy, local jobs, and will continue support the security of Ireland’s energy supply.
The company said it acknowledges the “difficulties and impact that this will have on employees and their families”.
A meeting has been arranged with the Group of Unions for today, Friday July 12 to work through this process and review all options.
“It is unfortunate that the Company has had to take this course of action and looks forward to a resolution of the issues at the earliest opportunity.”.
But Cllr Dooley continued: “I am very concerned that a similar situation will develop at Shannonbridge. If this were to happen it will have negative knock-on effects for Bord na Móna workers at Blackwater and Boora,” Cllr Dooley explained.
“I am surprised that the EPA has brought this matter to a head while An Bord Pleanala are in the process of making a decision on planning permission for co-fueling with peat and biomass.
“While this is a technical breach of the ESB licence, the situation of the cooling water discharge temperature is more or less the same since the plants were commissioned in 2004, indeed fishermen in the Shannonbridge area would argue that fishing is best at the point of discharge,” he claimed.
“During the operation of power plants in both Lanesboro and Shannonbridge for decades, the return of cooling water to the river has had a positive impact on angling and studies have identified no detrimental impact on marine life as a result of the stations operation.”