Local politicians seek reassurances about Derrinlough's future

Thursday, 29 March 2018

FOLLOWING a statement that Bord na Móna is exiting the coal business last week, local politicians have called for reassurances about the future of the Briquette factory in Derrinlough, Birr.

Derrinlough employs about 60 people and there were fears for its future last year, but the briquette factory in Littleton was closed down instead.

Deputy Barry Cowen said he was concerned and pointed out that Bord na Móna's restructuring could "devastate" communities unless handled correctly.

He called on Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Denis Naughten to reiterate his support for continued operations at Derrinlough.

Deputy Cowen made his comments following an announcement by the company that it is to exit the coal business and cease production of convenient products such as fire packs and fire-logs.

The TD pointed out that Bord na Móna has been a significant employer in the Midlands down through the years. "Many communities in Offaly have become reliant on the jobs that the company provides. There is no doubt that these communities could be devastated unless the restructuring of this company is handled correctly.

"Every effort must be made by the Government to ensure that Bord na Móna is able to diversify into new renewable energy technologies. Minister Naughten needs to have a clear commitment that the company will be supported to allow it to continue its operations in Derrinlough in particular.

There is a plan to turn the facility into a world class biomass production facility. We need to see tangible evidence that this plan is progressing now that Bord na Móna has announced such a significant change to its overall operation."

Deputy Marcella Corcoran Kennedy also this week called for a meeting with Bord na Móna to "progress without delay its proposed plans for the conversion of its peat briquette production facility to a large-scale biomass briquette plant at Derrinlough."

Daithi de Roiste, Press Officer for Bord na Móna, told the Midland Tribune that the company is fully committed to Derrinlough.

He said Littleton is closing this week following an acceptance of redundancy packages by 94% of the staff.

"Derrinlough is our Fuels Hub and produces briquettes for what we call the solid fuels market. The briquettes which you buy in the shops are made in Derrinlough."

He pointed out that as well as the 60 members of staff there is ancillary staff harvesting the peat for the factory.

He said Derrinlough has nothing to do with the power stations in Edenderry, Shannonbridge and Lough Ree. Bord na Móna harvests the energy peat which supplies these three power stations. Bord na Móna runs the Edenderry station while the ESB run the other two stations.

Deputy Corcoran Kennedy issued her statement in response to the decision by the company to exit the coal business. "I am determined," she said, "to ensure that production at Derrinlough is protected into the future. The company is a vital employer in West Offaly and I am working to ensure that employment in the facility grows in the years ahead.

"The transition to sustainable biomass production will ensure the viability of the domestic fuel business and it will also assist Ireland to reach its climate change commitments.

"I am calling for this meeting to ascertain from management the status of its development plans for the plant. I have been contacted by a number of concerned stakeholders recently who are anxious that the company delivers on its investment commitments to modernise and future proof production in Derrinlough."

"The discussions between Bord na Móna and the ESB are still ongoing regarding the price of peat for power stations," commented Deputy Cowen. "It's worrying that this issue still hasn't been resolved. The Government needs to ensure an agreement is struck as soon as possible. Failure to do so puts jobs at risk in Edenderry, Shannonbridge and Lough Ree. These communities cannot be allowed to be left behind.

"I have been calling for funding raised under the Carbon Tax to be reinvested in renewal energy technology. This will give Bord na Móna a future and will ensure continued employment in the Midlands. The Government needs to recognise the significance of today's announcement. Jobs are at risk unless decisive action is taken."

Last month it was announced that seven months of negotiations with Bord na Mona had culminated in union members based in Littleton accepting a deal which will include redeployment for 40 workers following the closure of the peat briquette plant, as well as a redundancy package including six weeks' pay per year of service and other benefits.

Commenting, Unite Regional Officer Ed Thompson said: "Unite members, along with members of SIPTU and Connect, have voted to accept the redundancy package negotiated between unions and management. In addition to six weeks per year of service, the package includes a once-off voucher and continuation of the outplacement training programme.

Significantly, those workers being redeployed will have a year in which to decide whether to continue with the redeployment or avail of the redundancy package. Given the continuing decline in the market for peat briquettes, the focus must now move to a 'just transition' for the workers and communities in those rural areas where Bord na Mona was previously an economic driver.

In recognition of this, unions and management will commence negotiations on a protocol that will apply to future restructuring programmes. However, the Government must also play its part in driving investment in community renewal, including the construction and services associated with renewable energy.

The agreement endorsed by union members last night should be seen as a first step in a process to ensure that the rural communities affected are fully supported through this inevitable transition." There were 69 people employed in Littleton briquette factory.

In a statement issued to the media Mr De Roiste said Bord na Móna "fully supports the Government's decision to introduce a nationwide Low Smoke Zone. The ban on the sale of bituminous coal in the existing zones, which has been in place in larger towns for some time, will be extended countrywide from autumn 2018.

The company will fully comply with the provisions of the new Low Smoke Zone and will exit the bituminous coal business before a total ban comes into effect in 2019. As part of preparing for the ban, the company will close their bituminous coal yards and associated operations.

The closures will commence over the coming months. The company confirms it has communicated the decision to employees working in the coal area of the business and are now entering a process of consultation with the affected 45 employees and their representatives across the 10 locations impacted."

Mr De Roiste added that as part of a review of its strategy, Bord na Móna has determined that it will focus its investment on its sustainable businesses portfolio, including development of new renewable energy assets. "Following a commercial review the company has decided not to enter the smokeless coal market and therefore will not progress with a manufacturing plant at Foynes, instead it will focus its solid fuels business on the Peat Briquette and Peat Nuggets.

"Nearly 70% of the company's solid fuels business will be unaffected by the bituminous coal ban as the iconic Bord na Móna Peat Briquette is a low smoke product. A market leader for over eighty years the Briquette has proven to be an adaptable and resilient market favourite.

Its popularity was evident during the recent storm when over 750,000 bales of briquettes were purchased by Irish consumers in a five day period. Bord na Móna is committed to supporting the sustainable long term future of the company's Peat Briquette business and the 120 jobs supported by the company's fuel hub in Derrinlough, Co Offaly.

Bord na Móna looks forward to heating Irish homes for generations to come with Bord na Móna Peat Briquettes."


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