THE lay-off of 230 workers at Bord na Mona is likely to take place even though the company has been granted permission by An Bord Pleanala to resume harvesting peat.
The An Bord Pleanala decision, not expected until next Tuesday, May 12, was made this week and was announced by Offaly Fianna Fail TD Barry Cowen late last night (Tuesday, May 5).
In a Facebook post, Deputy Cowen wrote that the planning decision was the first break in a while for the company and its workforce “which allows for immediate product for Shannonbridge, Lanesboro, Edenderry and briquette factory”.
Deputy Cowen said it is imperative that the report and recommendations from Just Transition Commissioner Kieran Mulvey are published and considered in the context of programme for government negotiations.
In a statement on Wednesday morning, Bord na Mona said:
"Bord na Móna can confirm its applications for leave to apply for substituted consent have been granted by An Bord Pleanála (ABP). The company had been prevented from harvesting peat this season as a result of a High Court ruling in September 2019 which struck down the peat regulations enacted in January of last year.
"The decision by ABP relates to the harvesting of peat on bogs over thirty hectares and helps sustain peat supply to Derrinlough Briquette Factory, the Horticulture business and meet the reduced peat requirement for Edenderry power station. The decision also allows Bord na Móna to commence the formal substitute consent application process and to begin pre-harvesting preparations.
"The scale of the collapse in energy demand caused by the health crisis means that many of the recent Covid-19 mitigation measures, including the temporary release of employees, will likely remain in place. The company will however review the implications of the ABP announcement to assess the new operational requirements for peat operations. The company will be communicating the full implications of this decision to employees in the coming days and weeks."
In a letter to Bord na Mona energy division staff on April 27, seen by the Tullamore Tribune, Tom Donnellan, chief executive of the company, had indicated the 230 temporary lay-offs would go ahead, regardless of the planning decision.
Mr Donnellan told the workers: “A decision on leave to harvest peat this year has nothing to do with the immediate impact of Covid-19 on our business - they are entirely separate issues and events.”
Mr Donnellan added: “Even if we secure leave to harvest peat this year, as long as the power stations remain closed due to weak demand and weak prices, we will not have any requirement to supply peat to our customers...”
About 230 roles “will still be impacted and subject to release” said the Bord na Mona chief.
“It is vitally important that you understand this point - with or without a peat harvest it is still the case that 230 roles will not be required for the immediate future.”
He reminded staff that both of the ESB generating stations which Bord na Mona supplies, West Offaly Power in Shannonbridge and Lough Ree Power in Lanesboro, will cease operating for good at the end of this year.
“I remain hopeful that we will receive a positive decision from An Bord Pleanala by May 12th and that we will see a peat harvest this season,” he said.
“However, the future for peat harvesting beyond this season will remain in doubt as further planning permission will be required to allow us to continue.
“This is why it is vital we commence the Enhanced Peat Rehabilitation Programme next season and reassign impacted employees to that activity to ensure their long-term employment with Bord na Mona.
“However, I also want to be honest with you that it is likely Covid-19 will be with us for some time to come and it is certain that it will continue to have an impact on our operations both in terms of demand for product but also in terms of how we operate on a day-to-day basis while adhering to public health guidelines.”
Mr Donnellan also outlined how the coronavirus pandemic had resulted in a nationwide decrease in demand for electricity.
Eirgrid stated in April that demand was down about 10% since the outbreak “and is continuing to decline”, said Mr Donnellan.
“In terms of price, currently the price of oil and in particular gas, means that brown electricity cannot compete in the market for access.”
The power station in Shannonbridge was switched off on April 7 and Lanesboro, where there is also a technical issue with thermal plume, ceased on April 14.
“In these circumstances the power stations will not run and therefore we have no demand from our customer for peat. Even though the stations remain available to the grid they are simply not being 'called on' by the grid as the price of brown electricity is not competitive.
“Anyone directly employed in the supply of peat to these operations is unfortunately impacted in that we simply have no work for you to do.”
Though Edenderry Power, which burns both peat and biomass, is still generating electricity, there has been a 40% reduction in the amount of peat it needs “which also results in a reduced number of employees required to supply same”, said the Bord na Mona chief.
See the full story about Mr Donnellan's letter in the Tullamore Tribune this week.