Public meeting about lighthouse proposals

Public meeting about lighthouse proposals

11 September 2019

REVISED plans for the future of the iconic sweeping beam at St John’s Point lighthouse in Killough will be confirmed at a public meeting next week.

Senior officials from the Commissioner of Irish Lights (CIL) are hosting the meeting at Ardglass Golf Club next Wednesday evening.

Ahead of the event, they have revealed that they have tested and developed new technology to retain the historic lens and sweeping beam “to ensure the environmental footprint and safety standards at the site are improved”.

However, the move has not secured the support of the Lecale Lightkeepers campaign group who claim CIL’s plan will reduce the range of the beam by up to nine miles.

Campaigners say that their drive to preserve the beam includes the historic Fresnel lens rotation mechanism “which continues to work wonderfully well over a century after it was installed”.

In a statement,  CIL said that since plans for the future of the lighthouse were first discussed with the local community in March 2015, “significant research and development has taken place” to facilitate finding a suitable solution to the goal of retaining the historical First Order Fresnel rotating lens, while ensuring the environmental footprint and safety standards at the site are improved. 

It says with “significant progress” now made in this regard, engineering works at the Killough site planned for 2022 to be discussed at next week’s public meeting include the retention of the rotating lens, the necessary removal of mercury, which it described as a highly toxic substance from the site and the discontinuation of an inefficient diesel generator, “as is best practice and standard across all Irish Lights’ sites”. 

CIL Director of Coastal Operations, Captain Robert McCabe, insisted that the organisation is committed to investing in St. John’s Point Lighthouse.

He said this is to ensure suitable modernisation and maintenance is carried out to meet the needs of the mariner who relies on it as a functioning Aid to Navigation and to ensure it is safe and running in an environmentally-efficient manner. 

“In addition to this, we want to safeguard this site and its valuable heritage. Over the past three years Irish Lights has proactively engaged with the local community and relevant state agencies to establish the best approach to the site.” he continued.

“We have now developed and tested new technology to achieve a sustainable solution that will enable retention of the historic lens and sweeping beam at St. John’s Point. I look forward to meeting with the community to discuss these plans in more detail.” 

The Lecale Lightkeepers say that while they accept there is some concession on CIL’s part in proposing to keep the sweeping beam at the lighthouse, they have been informed by the Commissioner that the range of the beam will be reduced by up to nine miles. They also claim that the beam’s iconic “loom” will be lost, robbing the lighthouse of what they describe as its “intangible heritage”.

A spokesperson for campaigners said that through their freedom of information requests for communication between CIL and others, they have found a “lack of appreciation” for the intangible heritage of lighthouses and a disregard of the views of coastal communities.

“We have seen examples of modernised lights and none have retained their original characteristics. The new light source proposed for St John’s Point would be an LED which, in itself is suspect, as according to the Royal Society Publication April 2015, LEDs have detrimental effects on Epifaunal Marine Communities.”

Campaigners say Newry Mourne and Down Council  has already voted unanimously to protect the sweeping beam’s current mechanism and trusts’s that CIL will not be given planning permission to proceed with its proposal.

“The lighthouse is a listed building and its character, the light, must be protected,” declared the campaigners’ spokesperson.

“With the loss of the historic lights at Fastnet, Mew and Tory it is even more vital that St John’s Point should be kept for heritage purposes. Moreover, it is a beautiful feature of our nocturnal landscape, much loved by the local communities.”

Turning to concerns about the mercury in the current lighthouse mechanism, the spokesperson said mercury vapour is a known toxic substance, arguing that vaporisation only occurs in certain circumstances, notably in very warm conditions where there is poor ventilation.

“The St John’s Point lighthouse is fully automated and the lantern room is well ventilated. 

“According to the late attendant Henry Henvey, the mercury had not needed any attention in at least 44 years nor were there ever any concerns about its safety.”

Next Wednesday evening’s meeting in Ardglass starts at 7pm.