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Internal documents show up to one million litres of oil leaked from ESB underground cables

An RTÉ Investigates programme will look into the pollution.

Image: RTÉ

THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION Agency (EPA) has launched an investigation into the leaking of up to one million litres of oil from heavy-duty electrical cables under the streets of Dublin.

The investigation was launched 10 days ago after RTÉ Investigates and ESB contacted the EPA in relation to records of oil leaks going back over the last two decades. 

The RTÉ Investigates programme into the issue will air tonight. The programme will hear from whistleblower Séamus O’Loughlin who made a number of protected disclosures around environmental and safety hazards within the ESB Network.

His first Protected Disclosure documents the leaking of vast quantities of insulating oil from the national grid which continues to this day. RTÉ reports that the cables have been leaking thousands of litres of industrial fluid over a sustained period.

“I got the report on the fluid filled cables, I got the total leakage, up to a million litres in 20 year period. I just couldn’t compute it to be honest. I was astounded,” McLoughlin told RTÉ.  

An internal ESB report from 2014, marked confidential and seen by RTÉ, states that:

“leaks could present a very high environmental impact, given the proximity to the Grand Canal”. 

The ESB report goes on to say that the underground cable oil is “not considered compatible with watercourses and the associated eco systems, in rivers and canals and the sea”.

Leaked oil 

Other records show that a total of 19,781 litres of oil was leaked from one underground cable over a ten-year period up until 2009. RTÉ reports that over the next five years to 2014, almost 10,000 litres of oil was leaked from the Grand Canal line.

Waterways Ireland received four reports of oil pollution from members of the public over this period. WI was unaware of the source of the pollution and had to pay for the clean up, before learning the ESB cables had leaked the oil. 

The EPA said that it was first contacted by the ESB about these leaks was 10 days ago, after RTÉ had contacted both organisations. 

“Given the alleged scale and duration of these incidents as reported by RTÉ, and the correspondence received this week from ESB Networks, the EPA has launched an immediate investigation into the matter,” an EPA spokesperson said.

A Dublin City Council spokesperson also said that apart from two incidents in 2009 and 2011, the council was not informed about leaks from the underground network.

A spokesperson said the council “would also expect to be notified of any instances of such leakage by ESB Networks”.

ESB response 

In a comprehensive statement to TheJournal.ie, a spokesperson for ESB said it was aware that RTÉ was planning to broadcast a programme about its activities and that it had responded to the issues raised.

“ESB Networks is of the view that these matters should not give rise for concern in relation to the safe operation and maintenance of the electricity network for employees or the general public,” the spokesperson said. 

Performance in relation to fluid filled cables in 2019 is in line with similar utilities in Europe.

The spokesperson said that it was committed “to ensure that the electricity network is operated to the highest standards in regard to the safety of the public, our staff, our contract partners and the environment”.

“We understand that a primary focus of the programme relates to fluid-filled cables. It is important to note that the cable insulating fluid is classified as non-hazardous and readily biodegradable. 

Notwithstanding this, ESB Networks acknowledges that it is preferable to minimise and eliminate leaks. To that end, ESB Networks continues to invest in repair technology and is engaged in a long-term cable replacement programme.

The spokesperson also said that ESB has been required to report to the sectoral regulator (CRU) on environmental performance since 2006. 

“This requirement has included reporting on cable insulating fluid leakage and we have complied with this requirement,” they said.

We have not traditionally engaged with the EPA in relation to fluid filled cables. However, following a recent review, we have approached the EPA on the matter in order to clarify our reporting obligations, if any.

RTÉ Investigates – The ESB Leaks will air tonight on RTÉ One at 9.35pm.  

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Cormac Fitzgerald

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