Thursday, 10 November 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Noel Harrington: I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this topic for debate as it is of vital importance to the 125 residents of Oileán Chléire — Cape Clear island — in going about their daily work. There is a huge problem in that the Bull’s Nose pier at Trá Ciarán in the north harbour has been battered by the sea since it was built during the Famine. It is in danger of collapsing and blocking the harbour to all navigation, thereby closing this gateway for the 125 residents and almost 120,000 visitors who visit the island every year. If the phrase “a stich in time saves nine” was ever applicable, it is in this case. The pier is in urgent need of remedial works, as it is the gateway for an industrious and hardworking population who, since the fourth century, have made mammoth efforts to combat their remoteness eight miles into the Atlantic — Ireland’s most southerly point.
I thank the Minister for his attendance. I know he has a comprehensive interest in and deep knowledge of marine and maritime affairs and is very familiar with this pier. The problem is that if this pier, one of three in the north harbour, collapses, it will totally block access to the other two piers and effectively close the island to the outside world. The pier acts as a breakwater for the rest of the harbour and has already been deemed to be unsafe since the late 1990s, when severe and deep cracks appeared in the concrete capping on the original pier in the 1920s. Berthing at the pier has been prohibited for some time.
The pier which is only 20 m in length has four major cracks which run the length of the pier and has been the subject of different studies and reports since 1997. In fact, I was informed only this morning that further studies were being carried out by UCC to examine the swell and wave heights at the pier. There is a tidal difference of at least 3 m at the harbour walls. While I accept these studies have to be carried out, it is 14 years since the first one began. Efforts were made to patch the pier at the turn of the century by pouring concrete into the cracks, but this work was immediately stopped when the concrete, unfortunately, ran straight into the sea.
The people of Oileán Chléire desperately need decisive action to be taken to secure the pier for the foreseeable future by the completion of the studies and the putting in place of a plan to conclude the work required. I note that yesterday the Government launched its website to prepare the population for possible severe winter weather. If this pier was to collapse at this time of the year, it might well be May or June of the following year before construction equipment or materials could be brought onto the island to undertake the necessary repair work.
There has been significant investment on our islands in recent years. They are one of our greatest resources. Off the west Cork coast there are seven inhabited islands, each of which has massive tourism potential and a resilient and hard-working native population that fights in challenging times to maintain the island way of life. I compliment the work of Cork County Council, through the county development board, which has focused as a priority on these islands off the west Cork coast in recent years and adopted an inter-agency islands strategy to deal with the problems they face. I earnestly ask the Minister to support this issue on Oileán Chléire and to help to resolve this engineering issue, which is a terrifying prospect for local people.
Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Deputy Simon Coveney): I know the island and the pier well. I have visited every year for the past 15 years and, therefore, I am aware of the issue raised by the Deputy. I accept this is an issue of concern. The maintenance and development of the harbour at Cape Clear Island is my responsibility and that of my Department. The main portion of the harbour was constructed in the mid-1800s and it is of masonry construction. In the early 1900s, there were further works consisting of an inner harbour cross wall with entrance and booms at one end. Repairs and improvements to the harbour walls and deepening of the inner harbour were carried out under the Marine Works (Ireland) Act 1902. The layout of Cape Clear Harbour has remained substantially unchanged since these works.
The various bodies charged with responsibility for the harbour have carried out significant works over the years to preserve its fabric. In 2005, my Department carried out major works at a cost of €870,000 to refurbish and stabilise the main pier, known as Duffy’s Pier, which is on the left hand side as one enters. This is used by ferry services as the main landing pier for the island and it is currently in a safe structural condition. My Department has set aside an annual budget for maintenance and safety works at Cape Clear with annual outturns in the years 2008 to 2010 of €30,000, €43,000 and €28,000, respectively, and an allocation of €30,000 for 2011. A number of studies were also carried out at a cost in excess of €50,000 between 2008 and 2010.
Two matters are a cause for serious concern. The first relates to the penetration of large waves into the harbour during storms which render the harbour unusable. During these events, all boats retreat in to the inner harbour, which is then sealed by means of wooden booms put in place by a crane. The second concern relates to the deterioration of the outer end of the main harbour breakwater, which is referred to as the Bull’s Nose and which has been exhibiting signs of stress and deterioration for years. This has manifested in several large cracks in the sides and surface of the structure. Repair works were carried out in 1999 but do not appear to have been successful.
The Department has been monitoring the Bull’s Nose structure since 2006 and has noted a slow but steady deterioration. In 2009, it took the precautionary step of closing access to, and prohibiting berthing at, the Bull’s Nose. Berthing and unloading of goods and passengers can continue at the main landing pier. In recent years, the Department has undertaken extensive measurements and analysis of wave conditions at Cape Clear Harbour. It is clear from this work that wave conditions are complex and the issue of wave penetration into the harbour does not present a ready or obvious solution.
With regard to the stability of the Bull’s Nose, the Department appointed consulting engineers in 2010 to report on the condition of the structure and to prepare a detailed design for the construction of a new or modified structure. The consultants’ terms of reference stated that cognisance should be taken of the information available on the wave conditions and access problems at this harbour and, rather than reconstructing the Bull’s Nose as it currently exists, should make provision in whatever way could reasonably be made for further works to improve access to the harbour. During their work, the consultants retained specialist hydraulic consultants from the Netherlands and University College Cork to provide detailed advice on the storm wave aspects of their evolving design. A report has been received from the consultants, which is being reviewed by and discussed with the Department’s engineers.
Deputy Noel Harrington: I sincerely thank the Minister for his reply. However, the islanders need to know when the necessary remedial works will start, how long they will take, when the pier will be made safe and when it will reopen for berthing. I acknowledge the Minister may not have the answers to these questions in his brief but I ask him to provide the answers over the coming weeks. The pier was originally constructed during the Famine. We have had years of studies of wave movements, swells and tides by scientists, engineers and departmental officials and the islanders feel it is time to make a decision on what is to be done while acknowledging it is a historical pier, which was built 160 years ago. The islanders at that time invested in the structure to make the harbour safe. The officials need to reflect on that and focus on coming to a decision on how this issue can be progressed on the basis of the studies they have conducted. It is frustrating for the islanders to have to wait for further studies.
Deputy Simon Coveney: The islanders will not have to wait for further studies as the studies have been carried out. We are examining the conclusions of the consultants which provide an expensive six options. The cost ranges from €750,000 to €20 million. There is no easy, quick fix, cheap solution to this. However, there is a concern that the Bull’s Nose is unstable and could collapse at any time, as the Deputy has pointed out. He is correct to raise this issue, as are the islanders. I will give an assurance that we will try to make this project a priority. I face budgetary constraints in making commitments. This is not a case of making a decision and paying out the money; I must find the money. People will be aware following the announcement at midday today of the limitations on capital expenditure faced by all Departments over the next five years. However, we have a responsibility to make this harbour safe. It is not a safe harbour in certain conditions and we need to improve that situation if we can while solving the structural problems at the Bull’s Nose, which is now a breakwater rather than a pier.
This is not the first time this issue has been raised and I have spoken to the Deputy about this previously. He is correct to keep raising it and to keep the pressure on. I will try to respond as quickly as possible and in as comprehensive a way as is possible and affordable in the current climate.
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