Release of turbine collapse information and the public interest
On 22 March 2013 in moderate winds a Vestas V52-850KW wind turbine collapsed at the Loughderryduff wind farm at Maas, between Glenties and Ardara in south west Donegal. The Loughderrryduff wind farm had nine such turbines and is contracted to supply Energia in Ireland. Debris from the catastrophic tower collapse was scattered over a significant zone and thankfully no one was injured in the incident.
Despite this incident occurring one year ago no serious incident report detailing investigations and possible outcomes has never been made public.
Donegal County Council response
The local authority Donegal County Council continue to refuse to publish information they have on the issue. So, what information does the Council have in relation to the Loughderryduff turbine collapse? In this regard a number of reports into the collapse have been highlighted by the Council themselves, namely:
- Loss Assessors Report that Mr. Heaney, Director of Community, Culture and Planning, stated at the April 2013 Council meeting (see in particular C/189/13 pp.20-25) would be made available to the council;
- Vestas: Preliminary Incident Report;
- Report of the company’s (North West Wind Limited’s) own engineers which was to be forwarded to the Health and Safety Authority of Ireland as confirmed by Mr. Heaney, Director of Community, Culture and Planning, at the April 2013 Council meeting;
- Report of the company’s (North West Wind Limited’s) own engineers which deemed the further eight turbines safe to be restated (this was confirmed by Mr. Heaney, Director of Community, Culture and Planning, at the April 2013 Council meeting);
- Report of the Health and Safety Authority of Ireland into the turbine collapse;
- Reports and records relating to the Council’s own investigations into the matter; and
- Reports which may be commissioned by Energia who claim to have contracted energy from Loughderryduff.
However requests to the Council for copies of such reports including those made under Freedom of Information and Access to Information on the Environment legislation have been refused. The Council’s response is that it cannot be released:
Having regard to the authorship of the report, to the circumstances of its commissioning, to its content, and to the circumstances by which it was voluntarily furnished in confidence to the Council.
Subsequent correspondence from a senior planner in Donegal County Council from October 2013 clearly sets out their position – they view the reason for the collapse as an “operational issue” which they claim they have no remit to deal with, see below:
There is a Preliminary Incident Report which was carried out by Vestas (the turbine manufacturers). The wind farm owners agreed to make this report available to Council officials to inform officials on the turbine collapse incident. As the report was considered to contain commercially sensitive information it was agreed that DCC would not make the report available in the public domain. It was evident from the report that the collapse was solely an operational issue. As such there is no direct implications or responsilities [sic.] on the matter for DCC. The turbine collapse is defined as a work place incident and therefore falls within the remit of the Health & Safety Authority.The Preliminary Incident Report will not be made available to the public as same was given in confidence and is considered to contain commercially sensitive information – even if same was sought under FOI it’s release is exempted under the FOI Act for these reasons.
The manufacturers took the usual wind industry response Mr. Matt Whitby, the External Communication Partner with Vestas Northern Europe, gave an interview on local radio (25 March 2013) and merely stated that such incidents are very rare and that Vestas were investigating. However, despite persistent questioning from the presenter Mr. Whitby refused to confirm the number of similar Vestas turbine collapse incidents around the world – “I am not going to disclose that data” was the Vestas response.
The only further update from Vestas was a terse statement, issued to media, in October 2013 stating that:
A thorough investigation reveals the incident is likely to have been caused by an error in the pitch system. As a result, it appears at least one blade failed to pitch out of the wind, leading to an over-speed situation in which a blade struck the tower.
No further detail has been released into the public domain by Vestas in relation to this matter.
Health and Safety Authority response
The turbine collapse was reported to the Irish Health and Safety Authority (HSA) and an investigation was undertaken. Repeated efforts to access information from the HSA have to date proved unsuccessful. Sadly the HSA are excluded from the scope of the Freedom of Information Act in Ireland. Section 74 of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act, 2005 amended section 46(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 1997 (as amended by section 29 of the Freedom of Information (Amendment) Act 2003, so that it now provides at section 41(1) that the FOI Act does not apply to:
(dc) a record held or created under the relevant statutory provisions by the Health and Safety Authority or an employee of the Authority, relating to or arising from its enforcement functions (other than a record concerning any other functions of the Authority or the general administration of the Authority).
As can be seen efforts to gain access to incident reports and investigations is severely curtailed. Nevertheless the Access to Information on the Environment Regulations do apply to the HSA. Sadly the HSA’s attitude is that due to the Freedom of Information exemption they can use this to block access to information they hold. Their response and reasoning reads as follows:
The provisions of Article 8(a)(iv) of the above Regulations [Access to Information on the Environment] provide that where the confidentiality of the proceedings of public authorities is otherwise protected by law, information relating to such proceedings may not be made available under these Regulations. This includes information exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003.
In my opinion the HSA’s interpretation is incorrect – they are excluded from Freedom of Information not exempt. Therefore the article 8(a)(iv) which they rely upon does not provide an automatic shield from Access to Information on the Environment Regulations.
The public’s right to know
Nevertheless as is becoming clear despite a number of public bodies holding significant information which relates to the catastrophic turbine collapse the current legislative schemes promoting openness and transparency permit these bodies to refuse access and hope requests are eventually dropped in the increasingly cumbersome, costly and lengthy appeals process. Information on such catastrophic incidents relating to electricity generating infrastructure is in my mind clearly a matter of considerable public interest. Members of local communities should not be forced to engage in access requests – such detail should be made public as a matter of course.
This is especially so in County Donegal where there is currently NO MANDATORY SETBACK distance set out in County Development Plan between wind farms and residential properties. Furthermore wind farms in Ireland benefit from public monies through subsidies and a statutory based REFIT scheme. The public have a right to know why this collapse happened – in an open democratic society such continued secrecy is indefensible.