Stormont's Agriculture Department is facing legal action over a controversial plan for gas caverns on the shore of Larne Lough.
The plans to create seven underground gas caverns in Larne Lough would involve carving out of salt layers by a method know as solution mining.
The hyper saline salt solution created by this excavation process, would then be discharged into the sea near Islandmagee creating a “dead zone” where no marine life could survive campaigners say.
They say the increased salinity will also extend for several kilometres with adverse impacts on sensitive species, including otters, dolphins and porpoises.
A DAERA spokesperson said: “The matter is the subject of litigation and the Department is not in a position to comment further.”
No Gas Caverns and Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland have jointly launched legal proceedings against Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs [DAERA] over plans for the controversial and destructive gas storage project under close to where key scenes of the Game of Thrones series were filmed.
The groups warn that the scheme would have a significant detrimental impact on the local environment and sea life, as well as undermining efforts to counter the climate crisis.
Eleven Northern Ireland Priority Species, which are given protection under legislation, are found within 100 metres of the discharge point.
The gas caverns plan will also have an adverse impact on efforts to deal with the climate crisis, it has been claimed. During the operational phase, the caverns will be one of Northern Ireland’s largest energy users.
Following the UK government’s setting a net zero by 2050 carbon reduction target, and the Climate Emergency declared by the Northern Ireland Assembly in February 2020, Friends of the Earth NI and No Gas Caverns say decisions on all major projects should take account of their impact on climate goals.
No Gas Caverns and Friends of the Earth NI filed papers to the High Court in Belfast, earlier this month, requesting a judicial review.
They are challenging DAERA over a number of issues relating to the gas storage caverns proposal, including if the scheme has been properly assessed to determine if it is needed.
They are also asking if officials have taken into account the energy use of the scheme and if wildlife surveys have been conducted and if there has been a decommissioning plan for the caverns.
Decommissioning could give rise to a huge financial and environmental liability but DAERA removed the requirement for the developer to provide a bond to secure decommissioning of the caverns at the end of their useful life.
Instead, DAERA have sought to rely on future legislation which will require the UK taxpayer to guarantee the cost of decommissioning of the caverns.
“We are delighted that Friends of the Earth have joined as co applicants in legal proceedings against the department", says Lisa Dobbie, from No Gas Caverns.
Describing the collaboration with Friends of the Earth as "a huge boost" to local residents who have been opposing the move for years, Ms Dobbie added: “This discharge could severely harm our porpoise, puffin and other priority species and no decommissioning plan for the caverns has been assessed or conditioned in the marine licence."
“If this scheme goes ahead, highly polluting hypersaline brine will be pumped into the sea, 450 metres off the coast creating a ‘dead zone’ in an area teeming with wildlife, including seals, sea otters, dolphins and porpoises," said Friends of the Earth Northern Ireland director, James Orr.
“It's little wonder local people are angry. This beautiful area is a major tourist attraction and an area of international importance for wildlife.
“We believe DAERA decision-making over this proposal is riddled with errors and is deeply flawed, which is why we are challenging it in court.”