WORK aimed at making Mid Cheshire an important national - and possibly global - part of the gas supply industry is now well under way.
Work on E.ON UK's underground gas storage plant at Byley has now entered its second stage, and drilling work has begun.
The first of the eight cavities which will be used to store gas under land off Drakelow Lane is expected to be completed by the end of July, and work has already started on the second.
Updating the media on Wednesday, project manager Mike Cooper said: 'The drilling process starts with a small drill, which creates a hole some 300m deep, then a larger drill is used 24 hours a day seven days a week which will create a hole 24 inches in diameter to a depth of 750m to where the caverns will be below.'
The cavities themselves will then be created by firing water down the pipes to dissolve the salt in an oval shape.
Mr Cooper said: 'We use water to carve out the appropriate shape in the salt.
'This will then fill up with brine, which we will force up out of the ground by pumping the gas down into the cavities.'
Although many people have expressed fears over the plant's safety, Mr Cooper believes that the conditions under the Byley soil are perfect for safe gas storage.
He said: 'It's totally safe. Not only does salt peel, rather than cracking under pressure like some other substances, it also shrinks back on itself naturally, meaning that a break is very, very unlikely indeed. I can understand why people would be concerned about safety, as there will be a large amount of gas stored here, but in my opinion - and that of the company - the salt underground here at Byley makes this a perfect place for such a facility.'
Other fears were raised over the pipelines which will carry gas between the site and the national gas network.
At E.ON UK's second site off Byley Road, where building work has begun on the development's processing plant, upwards of 5km of pipe is being prepared for connection to the national supply pipe off King Street halfway between Middlewich and Lach Dennis.
Mr Cooper said: 'This pipeline is really what the storage plant is all about. We will be taking gas from the national supply which will be used to stop us being held ransom by overseas suppliers.
'Gas supplies are volatile, especially in terms of day-to-day costs, and this extra supply will steady prices.'
The plant's first cavity is scheduled to begin storage in January 2009, and when all eight are completed the development will be able to store half of the UK's total national demand for a day.
Mr Cooper said: 'This site will mean, wherever England gets its gas supply from in future, the supply and cost considerations of the nation's gas usages will be much more in our own hands.'
Jury out on plant
RESIDENTS are reserving judgment on what they see as a 'necessary evil' in Byley - according to protest group, Residents Against the Plant (RAP).
David Ord, RAP representative on E.ON UK's liaison panel, believes the company has tried to make the plant more acceptable to residents, but many issues must still be addressed.
He said: 'In as much as the plant is going to be built, it must now be regarded as a necessary evil. E.ON UK has dealt with complaints professionally and been reasonably responsive in the main, but I don't think people are satisfied yet.'
E.ON UK set up the liaison panel in order to give residents a chance to express their concerns. According to Mr Ord, there are currently 11 items on the company's complaints log.
He said: 'One of the major complaints was that part of Drakelow Lane has sunk six inches or so as a result of the extra HGVs driving through the area. Byley isn't the most stable area and this could be an ongoing concern.
'Landscaping is another major issue. This is a huge plant, but we were told E.ON UK would mask it by planting trees and bushes. However, all we've seen so far is small shrubs and saplings.
'And now that they have started drilling the storage cavities, which will be continuing 24 hours a day, noise will be an issue. To be fair to E.ON, it has agreed not to drill seven days a week, which was the original idea, but I'd recommend people to call Environmental Health if they are kept awake at night by the drilling.'
E.ON UK's project manager Mike Cooper said: 'We have created hundreds of jobs with this plant and are working hard to try to ensure good relations with the local community. We will continue to deal with any issues which arise.'