InfraStrata begin exploratory oil drilling at Woodburn Forest site
DRILLING began on a exploratory oil well at the controversial Woodburn Forest site in Co Antrim on Tuesday, despite the fact that Mid and East Antrim Borough Council are still to issue a decision over complaints at the site.
Protesters, cut off by a high perimeter fence, called it a "sad day".
Environmental protesters, who have expressed concerns about the potential effect on supplies of drinking water, have set up a camp on the edge of the site with one man arrested last week after he attempted to stop drilling by chaining himself to a crane.
Despite the High Court being told on Friday that Mid and East Antrim Borough Council would issue a decision on areas of complaint by Monday or Tuesday, the council said last night that it was "unable to comment" at this stage.
A spokesman said: "Due to there being a further session of the previously adjourned Judicial Review on Thursday 19th May, council is unable to comment at this point."
The High Court action is seeking to secure an interim order to stop the exploratory drilling work at the forest near Carrickfergus.
InfraStrata, the company behind the project, confirmed the commencement of drilling at the site on Monday, which it said had got underway at the weekend, but no activity was observed at the site.
It has said the work will take around six weeks to complete.
James Orr, the director of Friends of the Earth in Northern Ireland, tweeted: "Today we mourn loss of #woodburn forest, our water catchment and our democracy. Tomorrow we hold them to account."
West Belfast People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll called for an "immediate halt" to all drilling activity at the site.
Green Party Belfast councillor Ross Brown said: "There has been a lack of transparency in the decision making process that has allowed the drilling to start.
"There is no community consent for this activity. I am astounded that it appears that the rights given to Infratrata were done so by default as the council did not make an assessment on the decision," added councillor Brown.
Sinn Féin MLA Oliver McMullan said it was "concerning" that drilling had begun.
"There are genuine concerns in the local community around Woodburn Forest about the potential impact this drilling could have on the environment ... this issue should be a priority for the new Executive," he said.
The CEO of InfraStrata, Andrew Hindle, said that the plans would benefit the local economy by "an estimated £1 million" and added that the company were committed to "completing this project in an environmentally responsible and safe manner and will seek to minimise disruption for local residents at all times."
The Irish News revealed on Monday that Paul Duffy, the head of planning at Mid and East Antrim Borough Council, contacted InfraStrata for advice on how to answer councillors' concerns.
One of the councillors said he was still waiting for the answers and found Mid and East Antrim's approach "unacceptable."
A spokesman for the council said it had "requested the information from InfraStrata on account of them being the developer of the project."