The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has published a report which is extremely critical of the ESB Network's failure to report the leaking of large quantities of oil from underground cables over a prolonged period of time.
The report examined the leaking of oil from fluid filled underground electricity cables by the ESB Networks.
The cable leaks were highlighted in an RTÉ Investigates programme 'The ESB Leaks', which was broadcast on 5 June 2019.
The EPA report states that the "scale of the leaks from fluid filled cables has consistently exceeded the annual targets set by ESB Networks", and that the fluid filled cables need to be decommissioned "within as short a time as possible to minimise the environmental impact".
Fluid filled cables were installed for the transmission of electricity until the mid-1980's. Approximately 177km of fluid filled cables remain in service in Ireland under the control of ESB Networks.
The public disclosures of these leaks were first revealed in the RTÉ Investigates documentary. In the programme ESB Manager, Seamus O'Loughlin, described the scale of these leaks. He had previously made a protected disclosure to the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment on this matter, outlining the decades-long period the leaks had continued.
The EPA has confirmed that, contrary to claims by the ESB, the oil leaking from the cables is hazardous. In July 2019, the ESB Networks told the Oireachtas Committee on Communication, Climate Action and Environment that the oil "is readily biodegradable".
However, the EPA found that the oil is often a combination of fluid which "is not readily biodegradable in the environment" and that "such a mixture must be classified as hazardous."
The RTÉ Investigates programme and Seamus O'Loughlin's protected disclosures led to Oireachtas committee hearings into the leaks and the EPA investigation.
The EPA has now confirmed that prior to June 2019, the "ESB Networks failed in the case of 48 leaks to notify Local Authorities, in accordance with Section 14(1) of the Local Government".
In addition, ESB Networks failed to screen the impact of fluid leaks, which occurred since 1st April 2009, until after June 2019.
The EPA report states that it is now for the relevant local authorities to establish if a prosecution under Section 14 of the Local Government (Water Pollution) Act 1977 would be successful, appropriate or necessary.
In preparing this report, the EPA sought detailed information from ESB Networks, the whistleblower Seamus O'Loughlin and numerous other state authorities.
The EPA report concluded there were 68 'historic' leaks between 1993 and June 2019 and a further 7 'current and new' leaks since June 2019. The locations and scale of each leak has been identified by ESB Networks and they are now undertaking site specific investigations of each episode.
ESB Networks has established two protocols since June 2019 to deal with historic and future leaks. The EPA is satisfied with the approach and protocols now being implemented by ESB Networks to assess each leak and to engage with the relevant Local authorities.
The EPA acknowledges that decommissioning of fluid filled cables can be a challenging process. but considers fluid filled cables that have a high occurrence of leakage and are in proximity to sensitive receptors should be prioritised for decommissioning.