THE bitter battle over the €3bn Corrib gas discovery resumes today, now hingeing on a new plan to build a giant underwater tunnel to bring the fuel ashore.
The alternative route for the pipeline will be outlined at an An Bord Pleanala oral hearing, 10 years after the planning battle began.
The planning authority ordered Shell E&P Ltd to redesign the pipeline for a third time and move it away from homes, ruling that it posed an "unacceptable risk".
Although the board said the pipeline could still come ashore, it will not be able to pass through land at Rossport, Co Mayo, the subject of a long-running campaign by a group of local residents.
Shell wanted to bring the pipeline from the sea and make landfall at Rossport before tunnelling underneath Sruwaddacon Bay and terminating at the Bellanaboy refinery.
But An Bord Pleanala upheld concerns by Rossport residents and found that up to half of the route was "unacceptable" on safety grounds because of its proximity to housing.
Now, Shell has come up with another route involving a bigger 4.9km tunnel under the bay, which is a protected habitat, bringing it further away from homes. The company has also agreed to reduce the pressure in the onshore part of the pipeline.
The nearest occupied house would be 234 metres from the pipeline -- three times the originally proposed distance.
The company will be outlining its plans at the hearing in Belmullet, while those opposed to the pipeline will continue to object to the proposal.
Shell insists that the the modified route will not present an unacceptable risk to the public and will minimise potential disturbances to environmentally sensitive habitats.
The Corrib project is expected to supply Ireland with 60pc of its natural gas needs over a 15- to 20-year period.
Retired teacher Vincent McGrath, who was jailed with four other local men in 2005 for flouting a court order, revealed yesterday that community group Pobal Chill Chomain has sent a formal complaint to Environment Minister John Gormley about Shell's preliminary investigative works at Sruwaddacon Bay.
The works are the subject of a foreshore licence granted by Mr Gormley.
Shell is drilling up to 80 boreholes in the bay as part of these works. Mr McGrath accused Mr Gormley of allowing "a free-for-all" by Shell while cynically stalling on the controversial incinerator project in his own constituency.
"Sruwaddacon Bay is a designated SAC and SPA, which in other areas of the country seem to be sacrosanct," he said.
A Shell spokeswoman said: "Shell E&P Ireland Limited is as yet unaware of the precise content of the complaint. We will, of course, respond to any issues raised when informed of their substance by the relevant authority or department."
A Department of the Environment spokesman confirmed the complaint was being investigated, but that some matters raised were not within its remit.
Treacy Hogan and Aine Ryan