Beaufort's Dyke

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:32 pm on 24th February 2000.

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Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 5:32 pm, 24th February 2000

The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S1M-351, in the name of Alex Fergusson, on Beaufort's dyke disturbance. The debate will finish, without any question being put, after 30 minutes.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament recognises the work done by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, South Ayrshire Council and other agencies in seeking to improve the marine environment of South West Scotland, but is concerned at the prospect of hazardous materials and munitions being distributed by the laying of underwater cables through the Beauforts Dyke region of the Irish Sea in order to service the Scotland to Northern Ireland Interconnector.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative 5:36 pm, 24th February 2000

I start by apologising to staff who will have to stay late tonight. Once it was announced that business would be extended, I offered to withdraw the motion, so if anyone has an axe to grind, I hope that they will take it up with you, Presiding Officer, as you declined my offer.

Nobody was more amazed than I was when this motion came up for debate, as it is a long time since I lodged it. In that time, I fear that the wording of it has altered slightly. The second half should read that

"the Parliament . . . is concerned at the prospect of hazardous materials and munitions being" disturbed, not "distributed",

"by the laying of underwater cables".

However, perhaps that comes to the same thing, so we can let it go.

Presiding Officer, had you spent much time in Ayrshire or Galloway over the past decade, the words pylon, interconnector and electricity would have become all too familiar. Those words were the catalyst for an alliance of unlikely bedfellows—drawn from every conceivable political hue and from every environmental faction—who were, and probably still are, united in a common cause.

That cause was to prevent the implementation of the Scotland to Northern Ireland interconnector project: a project that will involve the erection of 203 giant pylons starting at Coylton in Ayrshire and terminating—in Scotland at any rate—on Glenapp estate near Ballantrae; a project that has been the subject of an intense public inquiry; a project that our First Minister's predecessor as secretary of state had ordered to run underground for eight of the most scenically sensitive of its 28 miles—a ruling that the First Minister, when he became secretary of state, summarily overturned for a reason that has never been properly explained; a project that is still the subject of intense local dissatisfaction; and a project that I have no doubt would have had a very different outcome had this Parliament been in existence 10 years ago.

Despite vigorous opposition from both sides of the Irish sea, despite the best efforts of local politicians and punters, and despite public opinion, the Government has given the go-ahead for the erection of one pylon every 250 yd for 28 miles in order to supply electricity to Northern Ireland. The pylons will vary in height between 90 and 130 ft. Members will note that there will be no benefit to people who receive electricity in south-west Scotland, where they are as likely to have a power cut on a calm summer's day as they are during the now-traditional Christmas hurricane. There will be no benefit to the environmentally sensitive area through which this monstrous line is to be built, leaving yet another part of Scotland so scarred that film makers may have to go to Ireland to film unspoilt Scottish scenery. There is a certain Irish logic there, I think. There will certainly be no benefit to the consumers in Northern Ireland, who will be getting neither the cheapest electricity supply nor any extra jobs to go with its generation.

It seems completely bizarre to me that the suggestion put forward by Meekatharra Minerals Ltd to build a power station at Ballymoney in Northern Ireland—to be fuelled by the 660 million tonnes of very low sulphur lignite coal from what has been identified as the largest single open-cut coal reserve in the United Kingdom—has been dismissed out of hand, despite the fact that it would supply electricity more cheaply, would create a considerable number of jobs in that troubled state and would involve no scenic vandalism at all in south-west Scotland. We are justified in asking why that suggestion was dismissed.

The only possible answer to that question lies in an article in the Belfast Telegraph from August 1999, which highlights the fact that funding was being sought by Northern Ireland Electricity and the Electricity Supply Board of Eire to double the cross-border interconnector capacity between the two countries of Ireland. The article says that the interconnector

"will take on added importance by the end of 2001 when the Scottish interconnector is commissioned", although I suspect that, like our new Parliament building, the timing is a little bit out of kilter.

The article continues:

"The combination of the Scottish link and the north/south interconnector will mean that for the first time the entire electricity network of the British Isles will be interlinked."

The ultimate aim of the whole project is to provide a United Kingdom electricity grid, although I would go one step further and suggest that the true aim is a European grid, given the amount of European funding that Scottish Power has attracted.

Although I see nothing wrong with that aim—whether UK or European in intention—I strongly object to the pretence and secrecy that has cloaked the project from the start. That, more than anything else, has put people's backs up in the south-west of Scotland over the past 10 years. The combination of Big Brother government and a multinational utility company has ridden roughshod over every objection that has been put in its way, and an ugly scar looks certain to become an unwelcome part of some of the most beautiful scenery in south-west Scotland.

However, that is far from the end of this sorry saga. Even the most geographically challenged will realise that any electricity supply that starts in Scotland and ends in Northern Ireland will have to cross the Irish sea, which is where the crux of my motion lies. In the middle of that ocean crossing, where the cables will be laid by Northern Ireland Electricity to carry the supply between the two countries, is the ticking time bomb of Beaufort's dyke. If I am to be completely accurate, I should say that it is the sea bed surrounding Beaufort's dyke that gives cause for concern rather than the deep hole of the dyke itself.

As we are all aware,

"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men

Gang aft a-gley", and that has certainly been the case in the decision to use Beaufort's dyke as a dumping ground for surplus or out-of-date munitions. Munitions is a harmless enough word, and as recently as 1995, the Ministry of Defence was still insisting that a mere 120,000 tonnes had been dumped in the area. Since then, it has reluctantly revealed that around 2 million tonnes have been dumped, much of it short-dumped, which quite simply means that it is lying around on the sea bed in the shallower waters north of the dyke itself—the very area through which the cables will be laid to complete the interconnector project.

As I said, munitions is a simple enough word. However, exhaustive investigations into exactly what munitions were present eventually revealed that alongside the everyday variety of bombs, grenades, rockets, bullets and explosives might lie a bewildering cocktail of canisters of sarin, tabun, mustard gas, cyanide, phosgene and anthrax. Phosphorus bombs abound and, in June 1997, it was finally revealed that radioactive waste containing both caesium 137 and radium 226 had been systematically dumped in Beaufort's dyke in the 1950s. It has now been freely admitted that some of that waste was thrown overboard in 40-gallon steel drums encased in concrete. After an examination of films taken along the proposed route of the cables, experts have identified several containers of remarkably similar dimensions.

As a result, the sea bed is littered with, at best, a variety of dumped munitions and, at worst, a lethal cocktail of explosive gases and nuclear substances waiting to be stirred up and released. The folly will be all the greater, given that we had a warning when, in 1995, a gas pipeline was laid through the region—admittedly before as much was known about the contents of the sea bed. The consequences of that were bad enough. After the pipeline was laid, 4,500 incendiary devices were washed ashore along the coast of Northern Ireland and south-west Scotland, which resulted in serious injuries to a child in Campbeltown and to an adult in Ballantrae. It is remarkable that more or worse injuries were not sustained.

That is what lies at the nub of the motion. If the worst were to happen, and more injuries—or even a death—were to occur following similar disruption after the laying of the electricity cables, who would own the responsibility? Which agency or department will put its hand on its heart and say, "That is our fault and we accept full responsibility for it"? I would dearly love the minister to answer that question in his summing up, but—if past experience is anything to go by—my hopes are not great.

Since 1997, objectors to the proposal have sought the answer to that question, through the Save the Overhead Powerline—or STOP—campaign. They have asked the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Scottish Office, the Northern Ireland Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Crown Estates and even the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. I can say only that the quality and speed of the buck passing has had to be seen to be believed. The DETR said that it was responsible for issuing the licence to lay the cable, but that was all, thank you very much. Nobody else wanted to know.

I willingly admit that I have always been opposed to the project, but lest anyone think that I am just some maverick MSP, off on a personal crusade, I should add that it is not long since Alex Smith, when he was still deemed good enough to be a member of the European Parliament, Alasdair Morgan—whom I am delighted to see here tonight—when he was the MP for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, Friends of the Earth and the national steering committee of Nuclear Free Local Authorities all called for a halt to the project or, at the very least, a full public inquiry, such was the depth of their concern. Of course, nowadays, a public inquiry would have considerable difficulties under the European convention on human rights.

That is, in essence, the situation. We are faced with a monstrous accident waiting to happen. It was foolish indeed to deposit the munitions on the sea bed in the first place; how much more foolish will it be to disturb them for the second time in a decade? Do we really dare take the risk of finding out, and if we do, who will take the responsibility?

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

Thank you. I remind members that, from now on in the debate, they have a four-minute time limit.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 5:47 pm, 24th February 2000

I congratulate Alex Fergusson on obtaining the debate. As he said, my involvement in the matter has been going on for some time. It has always puzzled me why a dyke should be an indentation rather than a protrusion, and I am still none the wiser.

Even before my election to Westminster in 1997, Hector Monro asked a question that alluded to the fact that the gas pipeline had caused munitions to be washed up. He got a fairly bland answer from Nicholas Soames about what would happen when the electricity interconnector was laid. My first contribution to Prime Minister's questions was on the same subject.

It is clear that incendiaries, at least, will be washed up if the interconnector is laid, exactly as happened with the gas pipeline. As Alex Fergusson said, the electricity connector does not go through the dyke, but because many of the boats that sailed out in the 1950s to dump the munitions stopped short—either because of bad weather or because they wanted to get home early on a Friday night—a large number of munitions are not in the dyke itself.

I wrote about those concerns to Donald Dewar in October 1997, when he was Secretary of State for Scotland. He replied:

"The proposed route of this cable passes to the north of Beaufort's Dyke and has been the subject of detailed seabed surveys which have shown no evidence of munitions dumping along the cable corridor although a small number of unidentified containers have been located."

Then I had to read the fisheries services report into Beaufort's dyke. Conveniently, the report contained a map that gave an indication of where there were high concentrations of munitions and where the corridor was, and blow me if the corridor did not go through a high concentration of munitions.

I then wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland to point out that small fact. By that time, it was Lord Sewel, of blessed memory, who replied. He said:

"Various figures in the Final Report do indeed show the cable corridor traversing areas where the distribution and densities of munitions . . . are recorded as high".

He carries on to come to precisely the same conclusion that was reached in the previous letter: that there would be no problem whatever.

In other words, a low concentration of munitions is all right and a high concentration of munitions is all right. Faced with totally different data, the writers of both letters manage, marvellously, to arrive at the same conclusion.

I am not necessarily against the interconnector. Strangely enough, there are environmental benefits for Galloway in shutting down the power stations in Northern Ireland—there has been a total refusal to build a new power station there—because they dump sulphur dioxide on the forests of Galloway and kill them. However, I have come to the conclusion that the only way in which the situation can be sorted out properly is to put the interconnector further north so that it is well away from the high concentrations of munitions. If even one child is badly injured as a result of picking up or touching a phosphorous device washed up on our shores, that will be too high a price to pay for the project.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green

I am sorry. I thought you said me.

Photo of Patricia Ferguson Patricia Ferguson Labour

It is an easy mistake to make, Robin, I know.

Photo of Euan Robson Euan Robson Liberal Democrat 5:51 pm, 24th February 2000

Mistaken identity seems to be the flavour of the day.

It is quite unjustified to take a sub-sea electricity cable across the Beaufort's dyke area. I do not see the need for the interconnector.

In 1995, there was considerable disturbance as a result of the Premier Transco pipeline, which went from near Stranraer to Ballylumford in Northern Ireland. I recall that, at the time, the Gas Consumers Council—for which I worked in my previous career—argued strongly for a gas supply to Stranraer. It was clear that the Premier Transco pipeline would supply Stranraer quite easily, as well as the combined cycle gas turbine electricity generator at Ballylumford. There was even scope to do more—to supply Belfast and perhaps to take gas further south to Dublin.

There is still surplus capacity in the Premier Transco pipeline and electricity could still be generated in sufficient quantity from the gas supply and from further combined cycle gas turbines to meet Northern Ireland's needs. It is therefore not clear why we need this interconnector to take what appears to be surplus electricity from Scotland to Northern Ireland.

It would be monstrous to spoil Ayrshire's countryside with pylons. It is also wrong to proceed without an assessment of the needs of electricity consumers in Northern Ireland and further south, which could be met by using the existing gas supply without further disturbance of Beaufort's dyke. I take Alasdair Morgan's point that replacing some of the sulphurous and dirty power stations in Northern Ireland is important. However, the means exist to do that without unnecessary intrusion in Ayrshire and without unnecessary disturbance of Beaufort's dyke.

Photo of Cathy Jamieson Cathy Jamieson Labour 5:53 pm, 24th February 2000

The first time that I was made aware of the issues surrounding Beaufort's dyke was when my young son and a few of his pals ran in one Saturday morning to tell me that there were men in spacesuits on the beach poking about in fires. Subsequent investigation revealed that people were indeed on the beach, investigating a rather strange jelly-like substance that was giving off smoke—the substance turned out to be the phosphorous flares that had been washed up from Beaufort's dyke.

The reason why people are concerned about what is happening is that a string of reassurances were given at various stages that subsequently proved to be no reassurance at all. For a considerable time, the Ministry of Defence denied that there was any ordnance in the area. I have some written information, signed by Michael Portillo no less, who had to admit that he did not know what was in the area. He suggested that there was no need to be worried about things having being dumped outside the areas that were marked on the Admiralty charts.

Subsequently, the Ministry of Defence had to do a U-turn and give an extensive explanation, confirming that things had been dumped there, certainly from before 1945 and possibly from as early as 1920. The MOD also confirmed that disposals

"may not have been confined to the Dumping Ground area defined by the Notice to Mariners No 4095 issued in 1945".

The MOD had to accept that thousands of tonnes of various sorts of ordnance were dumped in and around Beaufort's dyke.

Beaufort's dyke was last used by the MOD for general munitions dumping in 1973, although one emergency dump of a small number of 40 mm shells took place in 1976. At that time, there were some concerns about whether chemical weapons had been dumped. Indeed, suggestions were made that nerve agents had been dumped.

Although reassurances had been given that nothing like that had been dumped in the dyke, the MOD had to admit that Operation Sandcastle resulted in the loading of some munitions that had been stored in north Wales into ships at Cairnryan; the ships were scuttled, and it was admitted that they contained a nerve agent.

A 1997 National Radiological Protection Board report confirms that Beaufort's dyke is one of the areas where various sorts of radioactive waste were deposited. Much of that waste was from factories producing luminous clock and watch dials, but other sorts of rubble containing various radioactive components were also mentioned. The report gives detailed information on that.

Despite assurances that there had been no indication of explosions or of anything else caused by such dumping, The Scotsman said on 23 December 1995 that George Foulkes, the MP for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, who has waged a considerable campaign on the issue, secured an admission that there had been a number of sub-sea explosions over time and that those had caused such concern that information had to be given to people working on the shipping lines so that they could prepare themselves to take the appropriate action.

Members can understand why people are worried. Despite all the assurances, objects have continued to wash up on the beaches. A number of incidents have occurred that have caused people concern.

I have the same report that Alasdair Morgan was referring to. It states that low to medium densities of dump munitions, munitions-related materials and unidentified man-made debris were confirmed to be present in an area crossed by the proposed corridor for the submarine electricity cables linking Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Despite all the reassurances, the people living in the area close to the North channel are still concerned. They want further work to be done to ensure that there will be no more injuries and they want be assured that that work will be undertaken safely.

Photo of Robin Harper Robin Harper Green 5:58 pm, 24th February 2000

I call on the Executive and the Government to abandon, even at this late stage, this unsustainable, unnecessary and potentially very dangerous project.

Representatives of the Scottish Green party attended the public inquiry at Ayr. It became clear that the interconnector would do nothing to reduce the price of electricity in the province, but that Scottish Power was promoting the project because it would allow the company to make a lot of money through fuller use of Longannet power station than is possible at present.

We were told at the inquiry that, although the interconnector itself was not necessarily Government policy, interconnection in principle was Government policy. Planning inquiries are not allowed, of course, to call into question Government policy.

We venture to suggest that if, as Northern Ireland Electricity believes, there was a need for more peak load capacity in the province, it could be provided more cheaply and efficiently by other means. Euan Robson has pointed the way on this: gas could be used far more efficiently in combined heat and power stations in Belfast and Londonderry, in the Scandinavian way.

There used to be a pump storage facility, and Northern Ireland shares with Scotland the potential for wave power and wind power generation, but those schemes have been abandoned to build this dangerous interconnector.

The reporter, who was courteous and patient throughout the meeting in Ayr, allowed us to have our say, although it was made clear that it was not the business of that inquiry to decide on the best means of supplying power to Northern Ireland.

The need for the interconnector was based on the supposition that the Northern Irish grid was an isolated system. While the inquiry was in progress, however, the connection with the grid in the republic, which had been blown up by the Irish Republican Army, was restored, so that the Northern Irish system was no longer isolated and could supply the peak load together with the rest of Ireland. That made the need for the interconnector doubtful.

If our Government were to take seriously its commitment to improving the efficiency with which we use energy, the steady increase in demand for power in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the UK could easily be stopped. It looked to me as if the approval for the interconnector was a fait accompli and the Secretary of State for Scotland was going through the procedure for the sake of form, on the understanding that Scottish Power would get approval for its profitable transmission line with the minimum of fuss. I ask the Government to abandon the project.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson Labour 6:00 pm, 24th February 2000

There is no case of mistaken identity—I am aware that I am not Sarah Boyack. I know that members might have expected her to reply to this debate, but I am doing so in my capacity as the Deputy Minister for Rural Affairs with responsibility for fisheries. Obviously, however, the lead responsibility for environmental issues lies with Sarah Boyack. I assure members that points raised in this debate will be brought to her attention.

I must echo the recognition in the wording of the motion of the work done by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, South Ayrshire Council and its neighbouring councils, which have worked together to safeguard the marine and coastal environment of south-west Scotland. I am sure that members will be unanimous in their support for that part of the motion at least.

This debate seems slightly familiar and, with the greatest respect to Mr Fergusson, the case for the Ayrshire landscape has been put effectively for many years by George Foulkes—with whom I have had some interesting discussions on this issue—and, more recently, by Cathy Jamieson and Alasdair Morgan. I also had opportunities to consider the subject of munitions in Beaufort's dyke during my time on the House of Commons Defence Select Committee. It was interesting to consider some of the places where surplus munitions had been dumped in past years and I hope that we have learned lessons from that.

Bearing in mind our previous debate, perhaps I should declare an interest, as Cockenzie power station is in my constituency and I would like to preserve jobs in that area. I stress, however, that I am speaking on behalf of the Executive.

As there are two power stations in my constituency, I am well aware of the impact of pylons on the landscape—we have more than our fair share—but I have had to accept that we cannot have electricity without cables and that the important thing is to route electricity cables as safely and as sensitively as possible.

The island of Ireland is, with the exception of Crete, the only part of the European Union that has an isolated electricity system. For technical reasons, that means that electricity prices are higher and less predictable there than in the rest of the EU. People in Northern Ireland have as much right to access to competitive prices and secure electricity supplies as other citizens of the UK and, as Scotland has an abundance of capacity to generate electricity efficiently, there is a powerful case for an interconnector between Scotland and Northern Ireland. That is why Northern Ireland Electricity and Scottish Power have worked up this project and why consent has been given—in the case of the overhead power lines in South Ayrshire, consent was granted after detailed scrutiny at a public inquiry.

I appreciate the concerns about the possibility of munitions dumped in Beaufort's dyke being disturbed, so it might help if I describe the processes that have been followed.

Consent to lay undersea electricity cables is granted under section 34 of the Coast Protection Act 1949, which is concerned solely with the safety of navigation. Its purpose is to ensure that construction, deposit or removal of works on, under or over any part of the sea shore lying below the level of mean high water springs does not constitute a danger to shipping.

Consent for the sub-sea section of the interconnector cable was issued by the then Department of Transport in February 1994. The minister south of the border was John MacGregor and the minister north of the border was Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, whom I am delighted to see here today.

A thorough consultation process was undertaken as part of the investigation by the Department of Transport to confirm that the interconnector cable would not pose a threat to the safety of navigation. That involved detailed consultation with the Ministry of Defence, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, the then Scottish Office agriculture, environment and fisheries department, the Marine Laboratory Aberdeen, the Clyde Fishermen's Association, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Northern Lighthouse Board. The comments of those bodies were given full consideration before a decision was reached. The consent stipulated a number of detailed conditions and safeguards including that the works be open to inspection and that no alteration of the specified plans would be permitted without prior written approval from the department.

It is not possible to revisit the decision to grant consent for the interconnector, which was made six years ago under the previous Administration. For future reference, the powers under section 34 of the Coast Protection Act 1949 are devolved and can be exercised in relation to safety of navigation in waters adjacent to Scotland.

Northern Ireland Electricity, which is responsible for the sub-sea element of the interconnector, has been made fully aware of the interests of Government departments and has taken appropriate action to address those concerns. That action has included a comprehensive physical survey of the area using a range of technologies. Cable routes have been moved further north, away from the heaviest concentration of munitions. NIE has also modified the specification for cable installation to minimise disturbances that could give rise to risks.

Mr Fergusson asked who would be liable if something went wrong. I am advised that the normal procedure will be that NIE will bear responsibility for its actions if any negligence can be proved. Although one can give no absolute guarantee of safety, I am satisfied that NIE is fully aware of the potential dangers and that it has taken all reasonable steps to minimise risks.

NIE has selected a route and a cable-laying technique that will minimise the danger of disturbance. The company proposes to install the interconnector approximately 5 miles north of Beaufort's dyke in a sea-bed trench to be excavated by a water jet that will be controlled by a remotely operated vehicle. That is a far more precise art than the ploughing technology that was used for laying the gas pipe in 1995. It is not unreasonable to assume that the appearance on the coast soon after that pipe was laid of 4,500 items from the munitions dump—instead of the average of 12 items in a normal year—was connected to that ploughing operation.

The remotely operated vehicle water-jetting system, which is specified in the contract for cable laying by NIE, will include high-resolution detection equipment, which will make it possible to avoid extraneous objects that are visible while the job is being done. The ploughed trench for the gas pipe was 12 m wide, but the new one will be just 1 m wide and will be fine-tuned to avoid items that can be seen on the sea bed. I therefore hope that the chamber will accept that we are making progress.

To reduce further the risks, in the light of the Marine Laboratory survey reports of Beaufort's dyke in 1996, NIE has shifted the route for the cable further north, away from the heaviest concentrations of munitions and other man-made debris that have been detected. There are grounds for reasonable confidence that the risk of disturbing objects on the sea bed will be kept to the minimum. That is because of the survey and the separate work that was undertaken for NIE, and because of the selection of the best possible route and the availability of far better technology for cable laying.

Members might be interested to know that, in 1992, two telephone cables were laid using similar technology without any evidence of disturbance. They were laid in an area that is now known to contain a high density of munitions. That should be compared with the high levels of munitions strandings that were reported after the gas pipe was laid in 1995.

Members can be assured that the combination of better technology and a thoroughly surveyed route will keep the risks to a minimum. The interconnector will bring considerable benefits to the Scottish economy, by creating new markets for electricity from Cockenzie and Longannet power stations and new markets for our coal industry. It will give customers in Northern Ireland—and, possibly, customers in the Republic of Ireland—the advantages of competitively priced electricity supplies.

I can assure members who have taken part in the debate that the Executive takes coastal and marine hazards seriously. That is why we have gone to such lengths to keep risks to a minimum.

Meeting closed at 18:10.