SLIGO COUNTY Council has opened a fresh round of public consultations on plans by Sligo North West Airport Company to extend its runway at Strandhill into an adjoining Special Protection Area under the EU Birds Directive.
The airport company sought planning permission for the controversial project last August, after being officially told by the Irish Aviation Authority that it needed to provide runway safety areas at either end of the existing runway.
It said these were needed “to bring the airport into compliance with the safety standards of the Irish Aviation Authority to maintain a public use aerodrome licence and the security requirements of the Department of Transport”.
Every passenger travelling to Sligo and other regional airports has their air trip subsidised by an average of €140, dispensed by the department under its Public Service Obligation regime. By contrast, the mainline rail subsidy is €10.70 a ticket.
The proposed development would involve infilling 12 acres of Sligo Bay and reconfiguring the runway to provide the required safety areas. It would extend the existing runway, which is 1,170 metres long, by a further 285 metres.
It also includes the installation of an instrument landing system and new runway lighting, as well as replacing the existing runway approach lighting with a new lighting system that would extend more than 400 metres from the end of the runway.
However, the airport is practically surrounded by the Special Protection Area (SPA) and by a candidate Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the EU habitats directive. It is understood that an earlier plan to extend the runway into the sea was ruled out on cost grounds.
Following a request from the county council and an unusually large number of submissions – some 200 in all, most of them against the plan – the airport company has now submitted further information on the proposed extension into Sligo Bay.
Contentious issues include the ecology and hydrology of the Sligo Bay SPA and SAC, visual aspects of the proposed runway extension and the potential impact of it on a clam nursery which operates in the channel that would be crossed by it.
There is also local concern about the potential impact on the road to Coney Island, which is only available for use at low tide, despite an assurance in the environmental impact statement (EIS) by RPS Kirk McClure Norton that it would not be at risk.
According to Sligo-based environmental consultant Suzanne Tynan, the EIS “failed to examine alternative designs for the runway extension or to make any real effort to look at alternative locations before dismissing them, largely on cost grounds”.
She said this was not consistent with EU guidance on the treatment of Natura 2000 sites – the network of SPA- and SAC-protected areas throughout Europe.
There is no provision in the guidance for alternatives to be ruled out because of their cost alone.
One of the options not considered would involve installing “cinder beds” at each end of the runway, instead of a solid construction, to cater for Aer Arann’s ATR 32 jet-prop planes, which operate to and from Dublin twice a day in each direction.
Ms Tynan complained that hydraulic modelling in the airport company’s EIS “appears to have complete certainty about there being no impact and makes no reference to the existing draft designation of Sligo Bay under the EU Shellfish Directive”.
Other objectors include Birdwatch Ireland, the Dorrins and Cummeen Strand Conservation Group, Dorrins Shellfish Ltd, Lissadell Shellfish Ltd, IFA Aquaculture and the Northwest Clam Marketing Group. The deadline for further submissions is July 31st.