CHRISTOPHER O’KEEFFE IS leaning on the railings under a newly built bridge, looking out onto his beloved River Nore in Kilkenny. As the water gushes past the columns embedded in the river bed, O’Keeffe remembers the less peaceful scenes that unfolded on this spot. The span of concrete above him was heralded as a link within the city, but instead became an expansive divide.
Environmental problems with the building of St Francis Bridge in the centre of Kilkenny City first came to light in the summer of 2014 when construction began. It was already a controversial project having been approved in spite of opposition from heritage bodies as well as local groups.
After an image of a truck pouring stones into the river was spread on social media, O’Keeffe went to see the construction work for himself. “I was shocked,” he says. “When I arrived down, there were trucks backing up and pouring large amounts of stone. There were plumes of silt and dirt flowing down the river as far down as… the next bridge.”
To O’Keeffe, “it looked like the river bed was being devastated”. More and more people went to see the works. Petitions and Facebook groups were set up. Complaints were lodged. Camps at the site entrance were formed. A protest movement had begun.
- This is the second in a three-part series following an in-depth Noteworthy investigation. Part three will be published tomorrow. You can read the main investigation here.
The protest started in earnest a week after they first saw the stone hit the river bed in July 2014. “Everyone was unhappy with what they were seeing,” according to Margaret O’Brien, one of the main organisers of the protest group, Save Kilkenny. “The developers were basically making a platform… scooping everything out of their way.”
A controversial scheme from the start
This wasn’t the first time there was a protest about the Central Access Scheme (CAS), or the inner relief road as it was previously known. One of the major reasons people were opposed to the plan was its effect on the archaeology of the medieval city.
The local elections which were held two months before these events put “CAS to the fore” according to a local paper, The Kilkenny People. The election results were hailed as a success by opponents of the scheme who felt the project could now be scrapped. However, shortly afterwards contracts were signed and work began to the dismay of some of the newly-elected councillors.
The contractor had strict conditions to follow to prevent damage to the watercourse. The River Nore is designated as a special area of conservation (SAC) and is part of a European network of important ecological sites called Natura 2000.
To prevent damaging the protected site, a Natura Impact Assessment (NIS) was conducted in 2010 as part of the planning process. This stated that construction of temporary access causeways in the river would not be allowed but long reach excavators or temporary suspended access platforms supported on driven piles were permitted. Localised containment structures were also to be constructed in which in-river works were to take place in order to protect water quality.
Once work began, geotechnical investigations determined that rotary piles, in place of driven piles, would be necessary. Rotary piles required the creation of an access platform within the water. In the summer of 2014, stones were poured into the river, and ‘perimeter sheet piles’ were installed afterwards, so as “to create the containment structure”. This was the cause of the protest. In December 2014, the council then asked An Bord Pleanála to approve the new methodology.
An Bord Pleanála noted this ‘causeway’ restriction in an inspectors report on a proposed amendment to the scheme in February 2015 but also noted that neither the phrase ‘access causeway’ or ‘containment structure’ had been clearly defined in the original planning documents.
The planning authority said the approved 2011 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Natura Impact Assessment (NIS) “made no reference to the importation and deposit of stone in the river for the creation of a working platform and there was no assessment of the potential adverse impacts of this aspect of the development on the SAC”.
William O’Connor of Ecofact told Noteworthy “it would be no surprise” if you put gravel and rocks in the river, “that there would be no life after”. Ecofact is the environmental consultant firm that the contractor for the bridge, John Cradock Ltd, employed to conduct a survey before and after the works.
The Ecofact report commissioned after the work in October 2014, stated “the river bed has been completely changed with the introduction of limestone” and “macroinvertebrate habitat has been obliterated as a result of the instream works”.
One aspect of the construction that was adjusted following the protesters’ complaints was that the stone for the in-river causeway had to be washed twice prior to being tipped into the river.
An internal email obtained by Noteworthy from the local National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) inspector from September 2014, stated an engineer from Kilkenny County Council informed him “that the early loads of stone had not been washed, when leaving the quarry, to a satisfactory standard and that Kilkenny County Council had received assurances from [the quarry] that they would double wash the loads”. With the now cleaner stone, the platform continued to be built.
Camping at the construction site
Turlough Kelly joined the protest as he felt Save Kilkenny’s concerns weren’t being addressed by the council. Revisiting the site of the now built bridge, his frustration at this entire process is still evident. Looking up at the metal supports that hold the path overhead, the hurt in his voice is evident as he reflects on the events that took place.
Kelly was part of the smaller group who set up a camp at the entrance to the construction site which they occupied day and night for a number of weeks.
One of the more dramatic moments occurred when a number of lorries tried to access the site. They were lined up along the old medieval Green’s Bridge which is right beside the newer structure. “[I knew] as soon as a truck got in, it would be game over,” says Kelly. To prevent this happening, he sat on the road in front of the line of trucks.
“At that point I’d been there for two weeks to a month. A lot of people had spent so much time and effort. I didn’t want it all to go to waste and not do anything.” Instead, Kelly “tried to do something”.
The gardaí moved him as he was obstructing traffic and gave him a caution back in the station. “I had zero resistance”, explains Kelly. “They were literally picking me up… for standing in a place that’s causing inconvenience [and] then bringing [me] to a police station.”
Taking the council to court
When they ran out of options, the protesters ended up in the High Court, and then the Supreme Court against Kilkenny County Council, with Christopher O’Keeffe being the official name on the case on behalf of Save Kilkenny. “A lot of people felt that this scheme was misjudged but the case itself was essentially about the environment and protecting our natural resources,” he explains.
O’Keeffe feels there is a conflict of interest when “the County Council are the guardians of this river but they’re also the financial developer of the project”.
To reduce the potential expense on groups, O’Keeffe feels that there should be “an ombudsperson [for planning] or somebody who can resolve a complaint”.
Work was stopped on site for almost two weeks leading up to the judgement of the High Court as the proceedings related directly to the construction methodology being used.
Both O’Keeffe and Kilkenny County Council agreed “to an Order striking out the proceedings and confirming that works were compliant with An Bord Pleanála’s approval for the scheme”, according to the Kilkenny County Council audit report from that year.
The settlement included the council contributing €61,500 towards the protester’s legal costs as well as paying their own legal costs of €176,508. Simon Walton, director of services of Kilkenny County Council at the time stated “the contribution to the legal costs of the plaintiff was paid on foot of a recommendation from the council’s legal team” in an update to councillors.
“The County Council gave commitments that all the stone would be removed from the river,” according to O’Keeffe. “We also ended up with an agreement in changing the methodology [of how] the work was done.”
Significantly, the council agreed that containment structures should be in place before further stone was put into the river when the bridge was being finished in the summer of 2015 – a ‘steel before stone’ compromise.
In the same update to councillors, Walton added “while both construction methodologies are compliant with the provisions of the An Bord Pleanála approval the ‘steel before stone’ option was chosen in 2015 so as to minimise the risk of a repeat of the events of summer 2014”.
After the court case, an amendment was submitted by the Council to An Bord Pleanála in order to change the construction methodology. The methodology used was different to that originally submitted in 2011 to An Bord Pleanála due to the change in the types of piles required to be used. Piling involves drilling into the riverbed, removing material and filling the resulting hole with concrete and reinforcements. This enables the bridge supports to be built.
The inspector’s report stated “it is indicated that the works carried out in 2014 involved the importation and placement of stone fill in the river, subsequent to which perimeter sheet piles were installed to create the containment structure”.
This amendment was not approved in 2015 as it resulted in a material alteration in the planning approval.
The planning authority concluded that “the amendments in question, including in particular the placement of large volumes of stone within the river, have the potential to affect a European site, and the environment generally”.
After this, the protesters were happy that the council “did what they were supposed to do in the summer of 2015,” according to O’Brien. “They worked with long armed machinery from the bank. They then built a box and a platform which they worked from.”
Stone remains on the river bed
In a planning document from September this year, the council wrote that “aggregate deposited in the area of St Francis Bridge for the purposes of facilitating the construction of the bridge, were removed on completion of the bridge construction works”.
Documents from the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and a new survey commissioned by Kilkenny County Council obtained by Noteworthy can now reveal that the aggregate was not fully removed.
Kilkenny County Council was requested to carry out a survey of the River Nore earlier this year because construction material from the project, which they had previously said was fully removed, remains in the river bed. Despite that, the limestone aggregate left behind cannot now be taken out of the waterway because it would cause even more environmental damage.
The investigation took place after a confidential complaint from a member of the public.
A senior official from the NPWS explained in an internal email: “I have visited the site in the company of Ranger [X] … and confirmed the presence of a large amount of aggregate stone, though it is clearly there for some time and there is no evidence of recent activity.”
The email said most of the “containment structure” from the time of construction had been removed and what remained was a “residual amount” of aggregate. “The residual deposits of aggregate in the river would therefore seem to be contrary to the consent granted, but these deposits have now been in place for four years and a question arises as to the impact, and the impact of removal,” said the official.
Nonetheless, in October last year, the NPWS asked the County Council to carry out a fresh inspection of the river. By April of this year, they had heard nothing, and had to send a second letter to Kilkenny County Council seeking an update.
That report was finally sent in May with internal NPWS records discussing how the River Nore had been substantially altered by not just the bridge works but also a flood relief scheme in the 2000s.
The NPWS said that following discussions with their scientific officer, they had concluded that the ongoing presence of aggregate in the river “does not constitute on-going impact to site integrity”.
“Kilkenny County Council is satisfied that the river bed is in a satisfactory condition,” it said in a statement to Noteworthy, adding, “that the construction of Saint Francis bridge has had no long term negative effect”.
The council also confirmed it has no plans to carry out further works on the river.
“It’s not acceptable to say rivers recover after pollution events occur,” says William O’Connor from Ecofact, the company responsible for the environmental surveys conducted around the time of construction of the bridge. He adds that “in most acute pollution events, the river recovers once the stress has been removed”.
“There was damage done… and silt released into the river,” explains O’Connor. “Works like these that release silt into the river are working against the conservation efforts in the SAC.”
Two species are of particular concern to O’Connor. The River Nore is home to the freshwater pearl mussel, Ireland’s longest living animal, which is facing extinction. Atlantic salmon also use it as a spawning ground. That species has suffered a catastrophic population decline in Ireland, according to the National Biodiversity Data Centre.
The follow-up ecological survey done earlier this year stated that “while silt was present… the amount was far less than as described in the Ecofact report of October 2014”. It also noted “as none of the Qualifying Interests of the River Barrow and River Nore Special Area of Conservation, other than passing migratory fish, occur in the dredged section of the river channel, the presence of the stone can have no direct impact on Conservation Objectives of these species and habitats”.
“Freshwater pearl mussels need extremely clean rivers and can’t tolerate any amount of silt,” explains O’Connor. “Ireland has an obligation to restore the water quality in the River Nore so they can be recruited to the river.
Though the methodology of the works was changed for the second summer of construction, Noteworthy found that visual inspections were not carried out by the contractor as frequently as detailed in their Environment Management Plan. It states that ‘JCL recorded all visual inspections every two hours and maintain records of the same for inspection on site in the environmental folder at the JCL site office’.
However, the recordings in the appendix of the same document, show that these inspections were done twice a day for many of the documented weeks in the summer of 2015. When asked about this, Kilkenny County Council stated they “are satisfied that all necessary environmental inspections were carried out during the construction of the KCAS project”.
Noteworthy contacted John Cradock Ltd, the contractor commissioned by the local authority to build the bridge, but they did not respond to our queries.
Loss of trust
The formal protests ended after the result of the Supreme Court case but the impact of the division remains.
Kilkenny County Council has attributed some hundreds of thousands of costs to the protest, something those involved bitterly dispute. In a press release after the court proceedings, Kilkenny County Council stated that the “obstructive protests” added €419,000 of additional costs to the scheme.
One of the leaders of the protest sent Noteworthy a document with a breakdown of their cost estimate. They claim that over €300,000 of these additional costs should not be attributed to the protest.
- In the first part of Noteworthy’s investigation, we reveal the cost of the bridge more than doubled while Kilkenny County Council paid €7 million for two buildings in the centre of Kilkenny that are now valued at just €400,000. Read here >>
Local Sinn Fein TD Kathleen Funchion believes that the protest did add extra costs as work was halted during the court proceedings, but does not agree with the volume of extra costs attributed to the protest. “Protests that actually stopped work were so minimal,” she adds.
Others in the city continue to blame the protesters for increased costs. The Kilkenny Chamber of Commerce chief executive John Hurley says “that a small minority managed to upset the whole thing, caused significant disruption and added significant costs”. Around 10,000 people signed a petition opposing the bridge at the time.
He feels “people should engage with consultations and then go with the voice of the majority.”
The local authority “lost a lot of public confidence”, according to Funchion, who explains that because of what happened with the bridge, some people in Kilkenny are “suspicious of the council and their activities”.
Green Party councillor Malcolm Noonan has similar sentiments. He says “the whole issue of the bridge has been incredibly divisive and has broken down a lot of trust that the people in Kilkenny have around public consultation”.
“The bridge is built, get over it”
Noonan refuses to cross the bridge to this day. He explains there’s a joke that says “the bridge is built, now get over it,” but he won’t go over it. Standing at the entrance to the new road, he won’t even take a step towards it.
“The bridge protest took a huge personal toll… it was stressful on everybody. It created a terrible divide in Kilkenny that will take time to heal.”
There was a lot of disagreement, says Hurley. “Looking around today, we have a completed bridge that’s contributing very positively to how the city works,” adds the Kilkenny Chamber of Commerce chief executive. “I don’t see any evidence of any long-lasting damage, relationships broken forever, no, there’s none of that.” He feels that lessons can be learnt on the consultation process but “we’re all very firmly… looking to the future”.
Current Mayor Martin Brett says the city would by now be suffering “gridlock” if the Central Access Scheme had not been completed. “Standing still is not an option,” he adds, “looking for progress is what we should be [doing]. You could take the easy way out and say you won’t do anything.” When asked if he had any regrets about the project, he says: “One big regret – the outer ring road hasn’t come as quickly as we would have hoped.”
More consultation and effective communication are themes that emerge when talking to both sides.
Malcolm Noonan feels that the council should listen to public opinion saying “if you have a public process, and there’s overwhelming public objection to a project, then it shouldn’t proceed”.
Chris O’Keeffe says there has been a change in attitude in Kilkenny about people trying to have their voices heard. “If people get more involved, I think that’s it’s got a good outcome in the end.” He adds that the council has “changed somewhat” when it comes to the environment “but they’re not there yet”. One change he cites is that they now publish documents from meetings a few days after they take place.
Turlough Kelly says that “shouting at a picket line is not enough” when it comes to protesting. “You need to understand the rules of the system you’re dealing with,” he adds.
A defeated looking Kelly sighs as he talks about the bridge. “I just kind of wanted to ignore it because of how time consuming… and frustrating it was.” He says he feels a sense of sadness but “since it’s here, it may as well be used”.
As O’Keeffe walks away from the bridge, he talks about the projects their group did to try to improve the look of the area around it, including painting murals near the site. His passion for the river resounds in his every word.
“We love this river, the people of Kilkenny. It’s part of our life and we knew it was wrong. The court case might have proved one thing or another, but that’s not relevant… The main thing was that we stood up for our environment here.”
This investigation was carried out by Noteworthy, the investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers, as well as with support from the Noteworthy general fund to cover additional costs.
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