The Angling Trust has weighed into the debate on new plans for a privately funded concrete barrage across the environmentally sensitive Severn Estuary and challenged former Welsh Secretary Peter Hain's claims that fish and birdlife would not be damaged by the turbines and changes to habitat.
Giant construction consortium Halcrow are behind new plans by Corlan Hafren to build a massive barrage across the Severn estuary from Brean Down to Lavernac Point in South Wales and are presently in discussion with DECC to win govt approval for the scheme. Over the years there have been many proposals for power generation from the Severn estuary, mostly by means of a barrage, all rejected after scrutiny on environmental and economic grounds. As recently as 2010 a two year feasibility study felt unable to justify government backing for the scheme.
Then in November last year Corlan Hafren announced new plans for a barrage. Although technically different in some regards from the scheme for which the govt could see "no strategic case for investment" in 2010, the recent proposals have much in common with the original in as much as they still pose a significant threat to the already fragile populations of migratory fish and bird species that use the estuary.
Peter Hain, the M.P. for Neath in South Wales and a long time backer of power from the Severn has added his weight to the campaign for a barrage by resigning his shadow cabinet post in order to devote his time to promotion of the scheme. He claims that "one by one all the environmental objections have been overcome" and that "turbine design has been reconfigured to make sure it is fish friendly". Hain has also claimed that the RSPB are warming to the scheme, something that has been strongly disputed by their Conservation Director Martin Harper.
Angling Trust CEO Mark Lloyd said:
"Peter Hain needs to explain how these fish mincing turbines would not damage the salmon, seatrout and shad that run the Severn Estuary and into the Wye, Usk and Severn tributaries and a myriad of sea fish that spawn in the estuary. Until the plans are revealed and examined in detail it is difficult to see how the structure could ever be described as fish friendly when it has an array of a thousand turbines (800 more than in the 2010 STPG plans) which will work on both phases of the tide ie. doubling their running time to twenty hours a day. These rivers host 25% of the total salmonoid fish runs in England and Wales and enjoy legal protection via the European Habitats Directive which cannot simply be wished away by Peter Hain or any other politician. We are seeking a meeting with Mr Hain and his successor Owen Smith MP to make them aware of anglers concerns."
The new design being submitted by the group is still a low head barrage but will only hold back three to four metres of water as opposed to the seven metre head that the old STPG barrage planned. Designers claim this will lower the pressure in the turbines and lessen the risk of fish kill through blade strike as they will rotate at lower speeds. All this of course is purely theoretical and even if true only represents part of the threat to fish trying to navigate their way up or downstream through the barrage. Mystery still shrouds the exact behaviours of migrating fish and a barrier across the channel will undoubtedly alter the very nature of the estuary and its delicate relationship with the fish that use it. Flow patterns and water temperatures will change, sedimentation and scouring will occur and nobody knows how this will alter the cues that trigger movement in the affected species.
The threat to the Severn estuary and its unique environment seems to be very real and ever present. The massive potential for clean carbon neutral power production holds huge attraction for developers who have seen the price of energy skyrocket to the point where the most unlikely and previously prohibitive schemes have become viable. At the same time governments tied to emission reduction agreements are realising that wind power alone cannot solve their dilemma and that nuclear power is now extremely short of backers.
The push for power production from the Severn has never been stronger and with it comes the very real threat of local extinction for the migratory fish species that use the channel as a conduit to their spawning grounds. In the case of the Atlantic Salmon this represents some 24% of the breeding population. This could be the sacrifice being contemplated in the quest for carbon neutral power.
In a statement Martin Harper, the RSPB's conservation director said:
"A two-year study by Decc concluded that the strategic case for government support of a £30 billion barrage had not been made. The 2010 statement confirmed that the government would not return to this unless or until the strategic case changed and not within the life of this Parliament.
We welcome the opportunity for constructive dialogue with both Peter Hain and with potential developers, and we welcome the up-front consideration being given to reducing or avoiding the environmental impacts of a barrage scheme.
However, we do not recognise Peter Hain's interpretation of our position. The RSPB has been clear, and the Decc study confirmed, that a conventional, high-head barrage would effectively destroy the estuary, and that the scale of the effects of a lower-head barrage on the estuary, on birds, fish, and flood risk are still unclear and would need to be carefully assessed.
We don't believe that a post-barrage estuary would support greater wildlife or potential for bird life than it does at present, and to date no details of the turbine design have been made available, preventing us from having a view on the likely impacts on fish.
Until details of the resulting proposal are made available, it is wrong to suggest that environmental objections have been overcome."
Gareth Clubb, director of Friends of the Earth (Wales) said:
"We have yet to see the specific proposals for a Severn barrage that Peter Hain is campaigning for, but we have real concerns about the potential impact of a massive concrete structure on an internationally important wildlife habitat.
We agree that we need to invest in clean British energy, including tidal power, to reduce our nation's dependence on dirty and expensive fossil fuels, create jobs and tackle climate change.
But there are alternative ways to capture tidal energy that could cause less damage - and could also provide clean energy sooner than the 20 years it will take to build a barrage."