Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 14 October 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
Water Quality and Infrastructure: Environmental Protection Agency
Our witnesses today are from the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. They are: Dr. Tom Ryan, director of the office of environmental enforcement; Dr. Michelle Minihan, senior inspector; Mr. Noel Byrne, programme manager at the office of environmental enforcement; and Ms Mary Gurrie, programme manager at the office of evidence and assessment. Members have been circulated with the opening statements from the EPA. I will ask Dr. Ryan for his opening statement and members will then be invited to address their questions. I ask them to please remember to confine their questions to five minutes at first if possible and they may be able to come back in after that.
Members and witnesses attending remotely from within the Leinster House complex are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the presentations they make to the committee. This means that they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they say at the meeting. However, they are expected not to abuse this privilege. It is my duty as Chair to ensure that this privilege is not abused. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with such a direction if given. I remind members of the constitutional requirement that they must be physically present within the confines of the place where Parliament has chosen to sit, namely, Leinster House, in order to participate in public meetings. They are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
The opening statements submitted to the committee will be published on the committee website after this meeting. I now invite Dr. Ryan to make his opening statement.
Dr. Tom Ryan:
I thank the committee for inviting the EPA to assist regarding issues affecting water quality, drinking water quality and recent incidents at the Gorey and Ballymore Eustace drinking water treatment plants. I am joined by my colleagues from the EPA, Dr. Michelle Minihan, Mr. Noel Byrne and Ms Mary Gurrie. They are all senior managers dealing with water issues in the EPA.
My opening statement addresses briefly the current status of water quality generally in Ireland and the associated pressures, the current environmental priorities with regard to wastewater treatment, the current challenges in the provision of drinking water services, and more specifically, the recent failures at drinking water treatment plants in Ballymore Eustace and Gorey. All of that summary information is available for members' convenience. In the interests of time I will move to page 7 of the opening statement, from where I believe the committee will be interested to receive an EPA perspective and update on the recent drinking water quality incidents at the Ballymore Eustace and Gorey water treatment plants.
The Ballymore Eustace plant is the largest drinking water treatment plant in the country, serving approximately 877,000 consumers across Kildare, Meath and Dublin city and county and producing up to approximately 320 megalitres of treated drinking water per day. At 11.30 a.m. on Tuesday, 1 September, Irish Water informed the EPA of an alum dosage incident at the plant, which occurred on 20 August, 12 days earlier, but had only come to Irish Water’s attention the previous day. The EPA, accompanied by representatives of the HSE, conducted an audit of the plant on 9 September with the purpose of establishing the facts of the incident, the corrective actions taken following the incident and to verify the performance of the Ballymore Eustace water treatment plant once corrective actions had been taken. The root cause of the incident was a mechanical pump failure that took a number of hours to fix, as well as an issue with the chlorine dosing system. The impacts included the following: the Cryptosporidium treatment barrier was compromised for up to ten hours; there was ineffective disinfection of water when turbidity rose significantly; there was inadequate disinfection of water due to low chlorine levels in the final water for up to six hours; and there was a plug of inadequately treated water in the network for up to four days after the incident.
The Gorey Creagh water treatment plant serves 7,241 consumers in County Wexford. At 6 p.m. on Thursday, 26 August, Irish Water informed the EPA of an incident where inadequately disinfected water went into supply from the Creagh water treatment plant over the period from 19-24 August, seven days after the incident commenced.
The EPA undertook a virtual audit of the Creagh water treatment plant on 7 September and an on-site audit on 16 September to establish the full facts of the incident and the corrective actions taken following it and to verify the performance of the Creagh water treatment plant once corrective actions had been taken.
The root cause was a power failure on the evening of the 19 August which caused the chlorine pump to fail, compromising the disinfection system at the plant. In parallel, over the weekend of 21 August, there was heavy rainfall which resulted in a deterioration of the water quality of the River Bann, which supplies the Creagh plant. The impacts were that the cryptosporidium treatment barrier was compromised for up to five days and that there was inadequate disinfection of water due to there being little or no chlorine in the final water for up to five days The HSE advised during both audits that in late August and September many people in the locality became ill and were confirmed to have infections of VTEC, which is a form of E. coli, campylobacter, cryptosporidium, Giardia, shigella and rotavirus, with a number of people also being hospitalised.
There were common audit findings at both Ballymore Eustace and Gorey. The audits the EPA undertook identified Irish Water’s failings in managerial oversight in delivering on its role to supply safe and secure drinking water from Ballymore Eustace and Gorey. This was evidenced at local authority level through failings in operational control and responsiveness. The common issues identified include: a basic lack of awareness and understanding amongst operational and management staff as to the significance of the incidents and their impact on the drinking water quality and risk to public health; a lack of awareness of the requirement to communicate and escalate such an incident to Irish Water, thereby preventing the opportunity to assess the need for a boil water notice and to protect public health; a lack of critical alarm settings to inform operators of deteriorating water quality; an absence of documented alarm or incident response procedures; and no automatic shutdown of the plant in the event that critical alarms were activated.
The EPA published its audit reports on its website yesterday and made a number of recommendations which Irish Water will need to address to the satisfaction of the agency. Based on the significant findings of these audits, the EPA instructed Irish Water to take a number of immediate actions to ensure that these risks are not prevalent across all drinking water plants and to assess the performance of those plants. These actions include: an audit of all Irish Water plants, starting with the largest top 20 supplies by population, to ensure that staff were appropriately trained in incident awareness, response, reporting and escalation; a review of critical alarm and shutdown settings to ensure public health is protected; and engagement with senior management in local authorities to highlight the failings of recent incidents and measures necessary to prevent these happening again. The EPA is meeting Irish Water weekly to assess progress on actioning the items I have outlined. As part of the EPA audit programme, independent audits are being completed at the larger plants, focusing on incident management and critical alarm provisions.
I will emphasise the main issues highlighted by these incidents. The EPA has described these incidents as an abject failure of managerial oversight, operational control and responsiveness by Irish Water and the local authorities in terms of their respective roles to deliver safe and secure drinking water. While Irish Water has the primary responsibility for the safety of the water supply, the failure to report incidents between the local authorities and Irish Water prevented a timely risk assessment of the incidents and resulted in unacceptable delays in notifying the EPA and the HSE. These unacceptable delays in reporting, and, in particular, the failure to consult with the HSE as to the risk to public health during the incidents meant that there was no opportunity to issue a boil water notice to approximately 900,000 consumers of both supplies, which would have served to protect public health until issues at the plants were resolved satisfactorily.
Additional unreported incidents were uncovered by EPA inspectors during the auditing process, which supports the EPA’s view of incident management by Irish Water and local authorities and their seriousness as a risk to public health. Unfortunately, these incidents are not isolated and have been evident in other audits conducted in other parts of the country. It is clear to the EPA that the current arrangements for the delivery of safe drinking water in terms of managerial oversight, operational control and responsiveness are not working satisfactorily and are placing unacceptable risk on public health by failing to ensure safe and secure drinking water. While the EPA is aware of the ongoing work towards the transformation of Irish Water to a national water services utility by 2023, immediate significant improvement in the provision of water services by Irish Water and local authorities operating under the current service level agreement is required to ensure the public is provided with safe and secure drinking water and that public health is protected.
I assure the committee that the EPA will continue to monitor and report on water quality, to provide regulatory oversight of Irish Water and to work closely with the HSE and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage with the primary objective of ensuring the protection of human health and the environment. I thank members for their attention.
I thank Dr. Ryan. The first speaking slot is for Fianna Fáil. With the committee's indulgence, I will take that first five-minute slot. If I continue for too long, I hope somebody will cut me off.
The two incidents that have been outlined and the audit that has been completed demonstrate circumstances in which there was a really significant risk to public health. With regard to the incidents at Gorey and Ballymore Eustace, in addition to the previous incident at the Leixlip plant and the incident that endangered the Liffey swim in 2019, Irish Water says that these were down to people management at the plants. It has put them down to mechanical error compounded by human error. I have visited Ballymore Eustace and I know many of the people who work in that plant. The structures put in place between Irish Water and local authorities have had a profound impact in hollowing out much of the expertise in respect of water that previously existed in local authorities as these people moved to Irish Water. There are also employment issues, which have had a significant impact on the security of employment for people on the local authority side of things. Can Irish Water stand over its assertion that this was all down to staffing and the expertise of the operators of the plan given that it has ultimate responsibility for water quality and the strategic management of the public water supply?
Dr. Tom Ryan:
With regard to both of the incidents, in addition to the incident in Leixlip the Vice Chairman mentioned, the root cause analysis came down to issues around mechanical failures, lack of training and failures to escalate. Those are the issues detected at the local level. It is our view that it is Irish Water's statutory responsibility to provide safe and secure water to the public. Therefore, arrangements need to be put in place and working appropriately which ensure that, when incidents occur in plants, they are escalated so that action can be taken. The two incidents in question, those in Gorey and Ballymore Eustace, occurred as a result of preventable issues. If the incidents at those plants had been escalated in time, there would have been an opportunity to do a risk assessment and to place boil water notices on the public supply in both cases. Public health would have been secured and safeguarded in that way.
Boil water notices are an inconvenience to the consumer but they do safeguard and protect consumers, or allow them to protect themselves, while the issues at the plant are being resolved, so-----
Key to this seems to have been the seven-day delay in Gorey, and I think the delay was 12 days in Ballymore Eustace. What has Irish Water done to explain the delay in that notification and the processes and procedures it has in the service level agreement which should have prevented that?
Dr. Tom Ryan:
Irish Water states that it received the notifications of the incidents late and then proceeded to inform us and the HSE. Then we responded to those incidents. There was a failure to escalate but, as I said, it is our contention that it is Irish Water's responsibility to make sure the processes and procedures are in place such that when things go wrong at the plant they are immediately escalated in order that they can be acted on appropriately and that public health is protected.
Dr. Ryan spoke about "a failure to escalate". I return to the point that Irish Water has strategic responsibility. As for the service level agreements, SLAs, in place between Irish Water and the local authorities, what does the SLA say about when such a notification should be given and the timelines for it? It is not clear at all that Irish Water had in place any notification periods that employees in those facilities should understand and follow.
I thank Dr. Ryan for his presentation. I have a couple of questions. I will try to keep them brief. In the second last paragraph of the second last page of the EPA's report, which Dr. Ryan read out earlier, it states, "Additional unreported incidents were uncovered by EPA inspectors during the auditing process which supports the EPA's view of incident management by Irish Water and Local Authority and their seriousness as a risk to public health." That is a damning indictment of Irish Water.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
As Deputy Gould correctly points out, our audit reports refer to additional unreported incidents. At Gorey, at the audit of 7 September, there was an additional unreported incident. We found that water with lower levels of disinfection entered the supply from the period 28 August to 30 August. At the time of the first audit, the virtual audit on 7 September, when the EPA auditors queried that an explanation could not be provided for it-----
I am sorry to interrupt Dr. Minihan but I ask her not to go into the details of each case because my time is limited. I appreciate her answer. From the EPA's point of view, is there now a risk of ongoing problems such as these? What can we do and what can Irish Water do - it is responsible - to ensure there are no further such incidents? If the EPA is uncovering incidents that are not being reported, that is very serious.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
This is where the awareness training Irish Water has undertaken in the interim, over the past few weeks, comes in. The training is on what constitutes an incident, what should be reported to and escalated to Irish Water and what needs to be reported to the EPA and the HSE. That training will be key in ensuring that when these types of incidents occur, they are escalated in a timely manner, the appropriate risk assessment is undertaken to ensure the protection of public health, the HSE is consulted, a decision is made on whether a boil water notice might be warranted and the EPA is notified. That training, and that understanding of what constitutes an incident, should result in rising awareness as to what an incident in a plant is, what action the operator needs to take and to whom they need to escalate the matter in a timely manner.
I have another question. There is an incident in Ballingeary, west Cork, at the moment. In the 1930s a septic tank was built for ten houses there. Now there are 61 houses, 13 businesses, two schools, a summer school, a community hall and a GAA club there and the septic tank cannot cope with the amount of wastewater going into it, which is flowing into the local river. We have been in contact with Irish Water. The residents believe this is a serious incident but nothing is being done to address it. Can someone answer me that? Should Irish Water not be dealing with cases in which wastewater can be seen going into a local stream or river?
Yes, I can email the witnesses that.
There have been another couple of incidents, and this goes back to who is in charge of water quality. In Ballyphehane, Cork, a number of residents have brown water coming out of their taps. It is the same in a couple of houses in Knocknaheeny. We have been contacting Irish Water for maybe a week or ten days and the issue has not been resolved. Irish Water has not put the areas on boil water notices. It has not come out to those areas. This is public drinking water from people's taps. To whom do we escalate such matters if Irish Water is not taking care of the issues?
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
I will respond to that query. If consumers or householders are experiencing discoloured water, they should in the first instance log a call with Irish Water, get a reference number from Irish Water and request that the issue is looked into and resolved. If they are unsatisfied with the response they receive, they can contact the EPA and we will follow up with Irish Water to ensure that the complaint is addressed and resolved. Generally, once a certain number of complaints about discoloured water is reached in a given locality, that will be escalated further within Irish Water.
I appreciate that my time is up. In Churchfield industrial estate there are a number of waste collection facilities. Last year the EPA did an audit and found there was ammonia in the groundwater there. The witnesses will know that ammonia is serious.
I thank our witnesses for coming before us. I am sure it was due to the time pressures Dr. Ryan faced in making his contribution but I note that much of what was in the opening statement provided to us between pages 2 and 6, which contains information on lots of positive progress in the water and wastewater areas, was not touched on. I am not for one second suggesting that everything is rosy in the garden, but it is important to say that, according to Dr. Ryan's statement, there has been a reduction of 16, from 28 to 12, in the number of large towns and cities that failed to meet the standards under the wastewater treatment directive. Priority areas for wastewater treatment systems have decreased from 148 to 97. Importantly, Dr. Ryan also said the quality of public drinking water remains exceptionally high in Ireland, with 99.9% compliance with microbiological parameters and 99.6% compliance within chemical parameters in 2019. Those are positive things. Are there updated figures for those parameters for 2020?
I have a further question relating to the Creagh water treatment plant issue, which obviously caused a great deal of concern and anger. I refer to the main incident, which resulted in the hospitalisation of people. The EPA's presentation stated that there was no chlorination between 19 and 24 August. I wish to ask about the situation during 28 to 30 August. In the report on the virtual audit of the plant, finding No. 1 states that inadequately disinfected water entered the Gorey supply system between those dates. However, the report later notes that Wexford County Council and Irish Water stated that disinfection was adequate during this period. Those statements are contradictory in nature. Following the audits and investigations at the Creagh water treatment plant, and the evidence provided by the council, is the EPA satisfied that between 28 and 30 August - I am not referring to the initial period of 18 to 24 August - the water that entered the supply system was adequately disinfected?
Dr. Tom Ryan:
I will take the first part of the Senator's question and my colleague, Dr. Minihan, will deal with the issue of timing in regard to the Creagh disinfection piece. We are still working on the latest data about the drinking water quality report for 2020. It will be finalised in the coming month or so. I therefore do not have the updated figures for 2020 to present today. The Senator is correct, and it is contained in our opening statement, that there are many positives to point out in the developments in drinking water quality and infrastructure provision. We are looking at the new plant in Stillorgan and the development in Vartry, and now we are looking at the Leixlip plant coming off the remedial action list. They are all positive developments that mean supplies to 500,000 people are at risk, as opposed to more than 1 million people this time last year. That is moving in the right direction, although we have a long way to go in that regard. Similarly, there has been progress on the waste water side and, again, we have a long way to go, particularly in regard to the treatment of the discharge of raw sewage into the environment. I was happy to point out the many positive developments in my opening statement. I will now hand over to my colleague, Dr. Minihan.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
The audit of 7 September found that the second incident, which occurred between 28 and 30 August, could not be explained. We did not have the verification data to determine there was satisfactory and adequate disinfection at the time. It is important that both audit reports are read in conjunction with each other. At the on-site audit of 16 September, the auditor was provided with contact time calculation data from that day which supported the assertion from Wexford County Council and Irish Water that adequate disinfection was achieved. Our finding in the second audit report made reference to this and included that, while it was adequately disinfected, looking at it so late following the incident is not an appropriate risk assessment response. That is how they should be read.
My question is about the audit of Ballymore Eustace plant. When Irish Water representatives came before this committee, they made the point that there are 800 water treatment plants around the country and that they could not know exactly what was happening in each plant. Ballymore Eustace is the largest water treatment plant in Ireland and serves 750,000 people in the greater Dublin area, Kildare and Meath, as well as businesses.
The fact that the audit of the Ballymore Eustace plant found that chlorine levels were below standard when the facility was operating normally, and that Irish Water was unaware of this until the EPA raised this matter, is a significant finding. In addition, it is significant that the Irish Water’s national disinfectant programme failed to identify this deficiency and that these incidents were not isolated. The audit report states:
It appears that [the] monitoring data was not assessed by Dublin City Council or Irish Water to provide insight into operations at the plant, in particular the issue of intermittent drops in chlorine levels. This identifies a lack of oversight by management in Dublin City Council and Irish Water.
It is a serious issue that the monitoring and data compilation has been done but no one seems to have been assessing the results. If Irish Water had ensured someone was assessing it, that would have been picked up as an issue. Is there any insight into why Irish Water or Dublin City Council did not assess the collected data? This is quite different from the issues Irish Water brought to our attention when it came before this committee.
Will the EPA do a follow-up audit and, if so, when? I note from the audit report that will be an answer in writing from Irish Water on 12 November, however, will there be a follow-up audit at a later point?
Dr. Tom Ryan:
On the Deputy’s final point, we meet with Irish Water about these issues weekly. We will do follow-up audits in these plants to make sure things move in the right direction, in addition to a wider programme of audits we have started, and that will focus on the incident response and the issues that occurred at these two plants. I will hand over to Dr. Minihan to discuss the substantive point about analysis and trending.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
On the point raised about the chlorine contact time, our audit found - as the Deputy correctly stated – in regard to the scenarios in which the Ballymore Eustace plant operates, the disinfection level is meeting the WHO recommended value of 15 mg/l per minute, but is not meeting the site specific target that Irish Water set. The site specific target is put in place so that there is an abundance of safety to ensure adequate disinfection under all conditions, including water temperature, changes in pH etc. That is something Irish Water was not aware of until we raised it. The Deputy rightly pointed out that our audit report referred to the fact that the national disinfection programme had assessed and surveyed the Ballymore Eustace plant site in 2019 and had not identified this. That observation in our audit report points to and identifies a lack of management oversight by Irish Water in the operation of the plant.
Additionally, during the audit it became clear the staff on site were aware of the intermittent chlorine drops and were trying to manage the problem, but it had not been escalated or reported to Irish Water for it to support, assist and intervene, if necessary. On the operational monitoring, which is ongoing daily at a number of plants that serve the greater Dublin area, when we received the information following the audit, we found the daily samples were pointing to lower than normal chlorine levels in the treated water leaving the plant. Those reports do not appear to have been assessed by Irish Water or factored into its oversight of the plant.
I thank the witnesses for their report and input today. I will start with one of the few key positive messages in the report, which is outlined on page 6 of the submission. It was not in Dr. Ryan's address, but it was referenced thereafter. I will refer to it more for the benefit of the public than for any other reason. According to the report, the overall quality of public drinking water remained high in 2019, with 99.9% compliance with microbiological standards and 99.6% compliance with chemical parameters. Of course, boil water notices are in place and have been issued in recent years. In an average year, how does our experience of boil water notices compare with the international average?
I thank the witnesses for their explanation of the mechanical pump failure at Ballymore Eustace, which serves many of my constituents in Clondalkin, Rathcoole, Saggart, Newcastle and Brittas, and their outline of the audit findings following the Ballymore Eustace and Gorey incidents. There is a great deal of cause for concern in their report. These are serious public health matters and incidents, and according to the EPA's findings, they were preventable. That is what makes this the biggest failure of all but, in fairness, something that can also be cured a little more easily. Managerial oversight and the escalation path and emergency response, or the lack thereof, seem to be the two key contributors to these incidents. If we can take any good news from this, it is that both can be acted on quickly. Managerial oversight can be tackled relatively quickly and effectively through training, change management and process amendments, and business continuity planning, BCP, can help with the mapping out of a better escalation path and emergency responses, graded according to the seriousness of incidents that arise. I was in the corporate sector before I became a Deputy. There, BCP meetings were a critical and routine part of business as usual. BCP should be a priority for Irish Water and the focus of routine meetings between Irish Water, the relevant local authorities and the EPA. Is that happening? The witnesses mentioned the EPA was meeting weekly with Irish Water, but has BCP been incorporated into the EPA's day-to-day or week-to-week business?
I appreciate that the EPA has compiled an action plan to resolve the issues it has uncovered, but will the witnesses outline what specific changes have happened since then to mitigate against these issues arising in future? Are they satisfied that actions are being taken or are planned to be taken in a way that will prevent preventable issues like these?
Dr. Tom Ryan:
The Deputy was correct to point to page 6 of our submission, which I did not have time to read but is available for reference. There is a positive story. We found that, in 2019, the overall quality of public drinking water remained high, with 99.9% compliance with microbiological standards and 99.6% compliance with chemical parameters. The level of compliance is very high. Notwithstanding that, there are supplies that are at risk, which is why we compiled our dynamic list, called the remedial action list. It identifies plants that, while operating well, are vulnerable for various reasons and need investment in infrastructure.
I am sorry to interrupt, but there is only a minute on the clock. Could we get to the BCP questions and what actions are being taken? I am sorry to cut across Dr. Ryan, but I am conscious of the time.
Dr. Tom Ryan:
There is a whole strategy for developing water safety plans. Irish Water committed to this approach, which involves taking an holistic look at the water supplies coming into plants, the risks to those supplies in terms of the ingress of pollutants, and how those risks can be mitigated. That is the future work.
We have reached the end of the first round. Senator Garvey and Deputy O'Donoghue were due to be called during it. With members' permission, I will ask them to contribute before we proceed to the second round.
I thank the Vice Chairman for allowing me to contribute.
Yesterday, I had a meeting with Irish Water. The issue of water quality has been raised at this committee numerous times. The greatest obstacle I have found is the connection and communication between Irish Water, local authorities and local representatives. On a positive note, my meeting with Irish Water yesterday was the most positive meeting I have ever had with it since becoming a Deputy. It was able to give me a roadmap of various projects that were ongoing or had already happened. We have had a boil notice in Fedamore for nearly a year and a half, but Irish Water was able to provide me with a programme of when the works would be finished.
This is an important issue. The connection must not just be between Irish Water and local authorities, but also with local representatives, by whom I mean councillors and Deputies, so that we can get the message to the people on the ground who are asking the questions and give them a roadmap. At our meeting, we were able to discuss how Irish Water had told this committee that it was going to sort out the issue in the next couple of weeks. When we went through each project, though, Irish Water showed us that it could not meet the targets it had set. I would prefer to hear targets that can be met rather than spin and everything going around in circles.
Collaboration between local authorities, Irish Water and public representatives is the way forward for any project. Funding to carry out projects must also be made available. For example, Askeaton has been waiting for a sewerage plant going on 33 years. We are now being told that the project is not included in the budgets up to 2024 but that it will be in the 2025 budget. At least I have been given a year for the project to happen. Regarding water supplies in Fedamore, I have been told that Irish Water has hopes for the first quarter of next year. Due to boil notices, having fresh water in their houses is costing families in Fedamore €50. At a time when the cost of living has gone through the roof, spending an extra €50 just to be able to drink water, plus the extra €50 on fuel, does not make sense.
I would like projects to be more transparent, proper dates to be targeted and proper funding to be in place so that Irish Water can carry out the works. Being briefed that the works will happen is important.
Dr. Tom Ryan:
The Deputy emphasised an important point about an issue we have repeatedly raised, namely, providing concrete plans and timelines for installing the relevant infrastructure in different areas. In recent years, we have called out delays and slippages with timelines. This is why we have said Irish Water needs to get to a point where it can reduce as much as possible the uncertainty around its project planning so that we have realistic targets to work towards. In the planned raw sewage infrastructural projects, timelines have slipped over the past 12 months. Even if they are now stable, we will still have raw sewage discharging into the environment up to 2025 in many cases and, in some cases, up to 2027. As the Deputy rightly pointed out, if we have realistic and concrete targets to work towards, it represents a substantial improvement.
I thank the officials for their time. It is always good to have an opportunity to talk to the EPA. I have been working with water issues for a long time now. It is a basic human right but unfortunately, as a very wealthy developed country, we do not seem to have got it right. Even though there are a lot of places where the water is good, there is a huge issue with the confidence people have in water, hence 1 million plastic bottles of water are bought every day because people do not have the confidence to drink their tap water. I would love to hear if we are going to do anything about that and promote the fact that water is safe to drink in many places. There is obviously miscommunication around that when the whole country is buying bottled water every day.
The third cycle of the EU water framework directive is due and local authorities must feed into that national strategy. I worry about the lack of staff and the lack of time local authority staff have to do all the things they are asked to do, on top of feeding into the framework directive and having it properly done. I think Clare County Council has only four staff working full-time. They have to do everything from dealing with pollution complaints to planning applications, farm inspections, forestry applications and inspections for the national inspection plan for domestic wastewater. They work on all those things and I do not see how it can all be done in a way the EPA can trust as being of the good quality we need if we are serious about having this proper plan to get things right. There is also the polluter pays principle but how can the polluter pay if we cannot find the polluter because we are understaffed and under-resourced? There were many sweeping statements about blaming certain sections of society, such as all farmers and random things like that, when we really need to hold it down to the specific polluters and ensure they are punished. However, if we are not resourcing authorities appropriately that will not be done and then we will just have division between people and in communities instead.
We also want to have rural and regional rebalancing in Ireland. Now more than ever people will be able to have opportunities to work remotely. In order to be able to do that we need more water infrastructure that is done well so we can have serviced sites in our villages and towns to bring life back into those places. I would love to know what work is being done on that or how the EPA feels about that being able to happen politically if we do not have the infrastructure being built in time. I could name three or four villages in my county where we smell sewage every day and it has been going on for 30 years. In 2021 that is not good enough anymore. The EPA is the regulatory body over Irish Water and the local authorities so I guess it is on the agency to see what we need to do, ask for it and get it because the other bodies I mentioned are under the agency, if the officials know what I mean. I would like to hear the officials' thoughts on that and on how we are going to move forward to become a place where people have trust and faith in water.
I am sorry. I will leave the officials with the two minutes. I could go on for a long time about water. I thank them for the Liscannor treatment plant. We are delighted about that but there are huge issues with water and I want to do anything I can to support the agency in getting what we need for everybody.
Dr. Tom Ryan:
I really appreciate the Senator's comments and her passion for water quality. The primary role of the EPA is to set out what the environmental parameters are. Those can be about drinking water, and in that area the parameters are around ensuring our water is free of the kind of harmful bugs that caused problems when they got into the system in Gorey. It is also about minimising harmful disinfectant by-products. These are what we call the trihalomethanes. Eliminating lead from our networks is another aspect, as is preventing pesticides from entering our systems. On the drinking water side, these are the priorities we advocate which are incorporated into the infrastructural spending plans of Irish Water, which are financed by Government and will be rolled out over the next few years.
Similarly, on the wastewater side our role is again to identify what the priorities are so they can be incorporated into Irish Water's investment plans. On that side, we are talking about ensuring Ireland complies with the urban wastewater treatment directive, that there is the elimination of discharges of raw sewage into the environment, that inland and coastal waterways at risk from urban wastewater discharges are protected and that the non-compliant wastewater collection systems are dealt with. The latter is a massive issue for the next number of years. We should not forget issues like the precious, endangered pearl mussel that is trying to survive in waters at risk of pollution by sewage. Our bread and butter is to call out the priorities and try to ensure they are incorporated into Irish Water's investment plans over the next number of years.
I thank Dr. Ryan for his presentation and himself and his team for the answers and all the work they do behind the scenes. His regular appearances at this committee are really important because it gives both us as Oireachtas Members and the wider public an opportunity to see the really important work the EPA is doing on working to improve water and wastewater quality. I commend him and all the team on that work as well as the information provided today.
I have two sets of questions. The first focuses specifically on the detail of the EPA report with respect to events in Ballymore Eustace and Gorey. The last time the officials were in talking to us about similar issues was back at the end of 2019 on foot of the boil water notice affecting 600,000 households in Dublin following the problems in the Leixlip plant. Notwithstanding the very specific technical differences, are there any comparisons or parallels between what has happened recently in the two plants and what happened back in 2019? I ask because a programme of work was agreed with Irish Water and the local authorities post 2019 to address those issues. I am interested to know whether that work was done correctly, and if some of it was not might it have led to the problems we have experienced most recently. I am aware that with Leixlip there was a 51-minute delay before the alarms were noticed, etc. but I am very keen to hear the officials' thoughts on that.
The second question relates to the updates the agency publishes regularly on wastewater treatment plants, drinking water quality and in particular those plants or areas - I think we may be down to 19 - that are subject to the European Court of Justice enforcement action. The officials have outlined some of the progress and the agency's 2020 report on drinking water is coming out soon. Will Dr. Ryan comment more specifically on whether he is satisfied with the speed of that progress? I ask because it seems every time we have Irish Water in, the date for the resolution of all these issues is pushed further out. Irish Water blames planning among other things. Is Dr. Ryan satisfied the speed of resolution for these matters is satisfactory? Maybe he can speak specifically to the two areas of drinking water and wastewater treatment. That would be helpful.
Dr. Tom Ryan:
I thank the Deputy for his comments. I will address the Leixlip issue and then turn to my colleagues on the specific issues around infringement and the speed of investment and remediation of the issues that are the subject of those proceedings.
We were with the committee after, and in fact during, the issues in Leixlip. There are strong commonalities between what happened then and what happened in the two incidents in Ballymore Eustace and Gorey, where there were some failures to escalate or late escalation. One of the main differences though was that in Leixlip, because of the time factor, there was an opportunity to respond, risk assess and put in place what was a very significant boil water notice on over 600,000 people at the time, and all the inconvenience it caused people. There was that opportunity to put in place measures that help people protect themselves. The difference here is similar issues arose but they were not escalated until after the incidents, so unsafe drinking water was put into the system and then we had the illnesses we saw in Gorey. Thus they were very similar issues with different outcomes.
I will turn to my colleague, Mr. Byrne, to talk about wastewater and where we are in terms of the pace of infrastructural developments.
Mr. Noel Byrne:
I will touch first on the infringement. In 2019, Ireland was found to be non-compliant with 28 agglomerations as part of the infringement case. There are still 13 of those on the EPA's priority list. We have highlighted those and they need to be addressed to bring them into compliance with the directive.
The EPA has highlighted in a report the concerns over delays. We have seen that and it is something we particularly want Irish Water to address.
As for addressing the underlying causes of the delays, what we have noticed is that generally these are nearly in the pre-construction phase. Once Irish Water gets a plant to the construction point, you do not see the delays after that. It is the pre-construction phase. It is in the early phases. For example, Ringsend, which should have been compliant with the directive pre-2000 and is so late getting to the compliance stage, will achieve compliance in 2023. We will report, it is hoped, a full-year compliance for 2024 and that will achieve the directive compliance. Arklow, from a treatment plant perspective, should be done by 2025.
In the infringement case, we have a number of networks. They will be slower. The networks are looking at drainage area plans to address the issues in the networks. They are currently assessing the problem, but once they get to understand what the problem is, they will have to look at what steps need to be taken to address those issues and bring those up to a satisfactory standard to ensure the sewage is collected, brought to the treatment plant and adequately treated at that stage.
It definitely is a significant issue. It is something we have highlighted. What we have said to Irish Water is that it needs to look at the underlying causes of these delays in all of these pre-construction cases. They are not all necessarily linked to planning or compulsory purchase orders, CPOs. That is what needs to be looked at.
I thank the witnesses for the briefing. It has been very informative. I have a series of questions and I will be brief. Where I am coming from is that we are in a housing crisis and there is a capacity issue. My remit, for as long as I am a Deputy, is delivery of affordable housing. The questions are based around that.
Have the Irish Water services deteriorated or got better since the 2007 incident in Oughterard where there was cryptosporidium? At a certain time, it was thought it was cows and, eventually, it was determined it was us polluting the water.
It was mentioned there are 34 areas in the country that are still discharging raw effluent into our watercourses, from 50 in 2014. We have been promised the capacity register by Irish Water. I have not seen it yet. I am not sure whether any of the other Deputies have seen or whether it has come in. However, we have been promised that to see where there is capacity. Have the witnesses seen this capacity register and does it correspond with those 34 raw effluent areas they identify? Is it possible to get a list of the 34 plants? I would be interested to see them.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
I might come in there and address the first of those queries for Deputy Duffy. The Deputy made reference to 2007. The cryptosporidium outbreak in Galway in 2007 was what brought about the introduction of the EPA's remedial action list. At the time, in 2008, at its birth, there were 300 plus water supplies on the remedial action list. Over time, the number has reduced significantly. That is obviously a measure of the progress that has been made. There were 141 sites on the remedial action list when Irish Water came into being in 2014 and we have seen that list gradually reduce over time. At the end of 2020, there were 46 supplies on our remedial action list. At our most recently quarter update at the end of July 2021, that number had climbed somewhat to 53 water supplies. Therefore, there is a slight movement upwards of the numbers on our remedial action list.
On how the cryptosporidium gets into our water supplies, it is important to understand that 80% of our drinking water sources are well water sources or surface waters, such as rivers and lakes. Those rivers and lakes are open to exposure from either animal or human waste and can become contaminated with parasites such as cryptosporidium and giardia that can make people ill. What is important is that the water treatment plant recognises the level of contamination and is appropriately equipped to deal with the contamination in the well water so that it has a treatment process in place that is controlled and verifiable either to remove or inactivate the cryptosporidium or giardia that can make people ill. That covers off that bit.
Mr. Noel Byrne:
I will speak to that, if that is okay. I will take up the raw sewage issue, first. Deputy Duffy correctly stated there are 34 areas. Thankfully, Cobh was connected in September in Cork city and the number is down to 33. Details of all those are on the EPA's website. You can see on a map the volumes of raw sewage that are discharged. You will also see the timelines Irish Water put in place to address those.
It is a concern that the dates have slipped. Dr. Ryan spoke about that. There are 12 that will not be completed until after 2020, which is a concern to the EPA. We do not want to see these dates slipping, which we have. That is a big concern. The Deputy will get all that information on the EPA website.
On the capacity register, Irish Water has created a capacity register for all its treatment facilities throughout the country. That is being provided to each local authority so that each can see which plants are below capacity, at capacity or above capacity and, indeed, when we speak about the raw sewage, which plants have no capacity at present to deal with it. These are serious issues that need to be addressed and that information has been provided to the local authorities by Irish Water.
I thank Deputy Duffy. I now ask for any speakers to indicate. Deputy Ó Broin has indicated. Anybody else can indicate online as well. Deputy Ó Broin, I will give you the floor. I also want to give you the Chair for five minutes as well.
I have two supplementary questions and then I will return to the questions we did not get time to deal with initially. Returning to Dr. Ryan's comments with respect to comparisons between Leixlip and the recent incidents, he stated that similar issues arose but were not escalated. The non-escalation is what potentially made the more recent ones more significant. Part of my original question was about a series of actions which Irish Water and the local authorities were meant to take after Leixlip, and it seems that, in fact, not only were there serious issues and similar issues arising but also there was no escalation or notification more recently. That suggests, at least in these incidents, things were somewhat worse. Will Dr. Ryan talk us through in a little more detail what the similar issues were and whether he has any concerns that the programme of work that was agreed by Irish Water and the local authorities post 2019 is unsatisfactory? That is materially relevant to whether the programme of work they have agreed will do what is required.
With respect to the enforcement actions, could I clarify if it was said that whereas when the EPA last reported in 2019 there were 28 agglomerations, that is down to 13? From the EPA's estimation, when will those 13 be fully in compliance if everything goes as the agency is being told? I am also interested that it was stated it is not believed all of the pre-construction problems are planning. Perhaps it could be itemised what it is believed some of the others might be because when we raise it with Irish Water, its representatives seem to suggest planning is the only or primary one.
With respect to the appendix A priority areas in the EPA annual urban wastewater treatment report, the most recent report I have in front of me indicated there were 113 areas where improvements needed to be made. Will Dr. Ryan give us an update on progress with respect to that, both in terms of the number and the overall progress? Likewise, I appreciate the new equivalent drinking water report is coming out soon, but I would appreciated it even if Dr. Ryan could give us some indication or preview of the improvements on that front that we can expect in the report when it is published.
Dr. Tom Ryan:
I thank the Acting Chairman for his questions. I will ask Dr. Minihan to deal with the Leixlip comparator with the recent incidents. Dr. Minihan was the senior inspector in both cases. Then Mr. Byrne will talk to us about where we are and our estimations in terms of the priority areas for wastewater.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
The comparisons around it are essentially that it was the same mechanical failure.
An alum dosing pump failed in Ballymore Eustace. It was the same piece of equipment that failed in Leixlip two years ago. While equipment can fail in Ballymore Eustace and in Leixlip, they responded to fix the mechanical issue but the difference this time in Ballymore Eustace was that there was not an awareness or appreciation of the impact of the failure of the alum dosing pump. It took a number of hours to fix. The plant operators responded immediately to the alarms to fix it but there was not an awareness or understanding within the plant of the implications of that alum dosing pump failure for drinking water quality. When the incident in Leixlip happened in October 2019, the operators responded, shut down the plant and they brought the plant back into production under the protection of a boil water notice because that was what the risk assessment determined was appropriate to protect public health and keep water in supply. The difference in Ballymore Eustace was that a risk assessment was not undertaken, and there was not an opportunity for the HSE to be consulted, the EPA to be informed and the boil water notice to be put in place. Our reports and letters to the Minister and to Irish Water have pointed out that this highlights that the lessons from Leixlip have not been learned or taken on board. At the time of Leixlip we highlighted the importance of ensuring that alarms were responded to and incidents were escalated in a timely manner and that fail-safes such as automatic shutdowns of the plant were put in place if water quality incidents could not be addressed in a timely manner. A number of these were not the case for either Ballymore Eustace or Gorey.
I have a supplementary question because that is very interesting. My memory from Leixlip is that four separate alarms were missed. It was only when there was a changeover in staff that the staff member who came in recognised the alarms and took action. Am I right in interpreting that Dr. Minihan is saying that in the cases of Gorey and Ballymore Eustace, alarms were going off for a longer period of time? Do we know how long it was before, even within the plants themselves, there was a shutdown? Do we know how long it was before Irish Water was informed? The EPA report tells us when it was informed in both instances with delays of 12 days and seven days. I cannot remember how long the Leixlip delay was but it was a matter of hours. Are we talking about a matter of days in the case of Gorey and Ballymore Eustace?
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
In Ballymore Eustace the response was as soon as the alarm was activated. The alarm was activated at 8.30 p.m. on 20 August. The shift operator responded to the alarm and manually switched over to the standby dosing pump but that subsequently airlocked. He made the call to get the appropriate fitter on-site to attend it. The fitter attended on-site. It took a number of hours to fix. Normal dosing levels were restored by approximately midnight on 21 August. That part of the response worked. What did not work was that it was not understood or comprehended that there was a corresponding increase in torpidities across the filters because of the almost 4.5-hour period where the alum dosing was not at its optimum level. That had a knock-on effect on the filters, which caused the cryptosporidium treatment barrier to be compromised and also resulted in inadequate disinfections. That awareness and appreciation of the significance of what happened was not there in Ballymore Eustace on the night of 20-21 August. Irish Water became aware of it the day before it contacted us. It contacted us on 1 September. It was investigating an exceedance on the sludge waste treatment plant that supports Ballymore Eustace and examined how the front end of the treatment process was working. This came to light to them on 30 August. It went to investigate it at the plant and phoned the EPA on the morning of 1 September and that is how it came to light for them.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
No. The torpidity levels returned back to normal within about ten hours. The event had passed, essentially, by the time Irish Water was aware of it on 30 August and by the time it notified us. Torpidity levels had returned back to normal once the alum dosing pump was restored to full operating capacity.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
The incident at Gorey was notified to the EPA on the evening of 26 August. There was a short power failure and a chlorine pump failure on the evening of 19 August, seven days previously. The power outage which caused the chlorine pumps to fail was not recognised on the evening of 19 August. On 20 and 22 August, that is, the Friday and the Sunday, operational staff at the plant were there but the disinfection malfunction was not addressed and it was not escalated for attention within Wexford County Council or to Irish Water. Additional alarms were activated at another part of the plant, the dissolved air flotation unit, on Saturday, 21 August. They were not responded to or escalated for action. On Monday, 23 August, it was recognised that there was a problem with the chlorine dosing system. Contact was made with a contractor to attend site, and they duly attended on 24 August and fixed the issue. For those five days, from the evening of 19 August until the unit was fixed on 24 August, inadequately disinfected water was entering into the supply in the Gorey network. That was not reported or escalated within Wexford County Council. Reports of illness and discolouration in the water began on 22 August. There was initially one report of illness on 22 August. That was investigated by Irish Water which called to the complainant and took a sample at their house. At that time, Wexford County Council did not look at the operations at the treatment plant. However, on foot of a second report of illness on the morning of 26 August, Wexford County Council management staff investigated further, recognised that there had been an issue with the chlorine system over the previous five days, 19 to 24 August, and immediately contacted Irish Water by lunchtime on 26 August. That risk assessment around the impact to water quality was undertaken by Irish Water and Wexford County Council on the afternoon of 26 August and the consultation with the HSE was held sometime later that evening. The EPA was notified later that evening as well. The notification stated that the chlorination system had returned to satisfactory operation since 24 August.
I thank Dr. Minihan. I think it is important that we allow all that on the record of the House. I will continue this line of questioning. Is it correct to say that unless Irish Water had been doing the testing on the separate sludge facility, it is likely that the issue in Ballymore Eustace would not have been identified?
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
It was not that it was doing works; it was investigating an exceedance from the sludge discharge, which is a discharge licensed by Kildare County Council. There had been an exceedance of the torpidity limit that is permitted for the sludge treatment plant. Therefore, the first approach Irish Water did when investigating it was to make sure that everything at the front end of the process, or the water treatment process, was working satisfactorily before it determined there was a problem with the back end of the process, or the sludge treatment process. In investigating the front end of the water treatment process in response to a torpidity exceedance at the sludge treatment plant, Irish Water uncovered the incident that had occurred on the night of 20 August into 21 August.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
As our report highlights, there were trends available at the plant which showed that the turbidity levels had risen over that period. They had risen again on another date, a few days later on 24 August. Those were not being assessed at the plant. There were no alarms in place to indicate to the operators that a critical alarm on turbidity had been breached. There was no incident response procedure in place at the plant to advise those at the plant what the operational performance should be or what they should do in the event that an issue occurred. There was a discussion on the Monday, when it was escalated within the plant management structure. Irish Water was not informed of that at the time. It was only when Irish Water queried it about ten days later, which was about 12 days after the event, that the information and trends became available to demonstrate what had actually happened. Then there was an investigation into the ultimate root cause, in which the failure of the alum dosing pump came to light.
In the second part of my slot, I would like to raise a disconnected issue, although it does have some connection. We have seen here a case of an accidental incident, where water quality was impacted. One could say that security at any of the water treatment facilities is at a minimal level. Taking the Ballymore Eustace plant as a particular example, because it serves nearly 700,000 people in Dublin city, does the EPA have any concerns about the threat that could be posed to the water supply of the city by a deliberate attempt to poison the water source or by an attempt to take it offline by way of a terrorist act? It is clear that this is a finely balanced system. It is too finely balanced, one might say. This happened in the case of an accidental incident. This would lead us to believe that the system is almost entirely unprepared for what might be a deliberate attack.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
The query about the security of supply is not within the remit of the EPA. However, we would expect that Irish Water would have procedures and processes in place to ensure appropriate security, either physical security to prevent access to the water treatment plant or cybersecurity to ensure any remote access would not occur. I am confident that there are processes and procedures in place around that. There is a directive in place from Europe around information systems to ensure that any vulnerabilities, particularly around critical infrastructure such as water treatment plants, are not compromised. I would imagine that Irish Water has that in place, but that is not specifically within our remit.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
That is correct. That is why it is important that the appropriate alarms, response procedures and plant shutdowns are all in place to protect water quality. This is to ensure that even in the unlikely event that those things were to happen, the alarms are there and are responded to when activated, and operators and plant management understand what to do and what it means. It is also to ensure that ultimately, if there is a need to shut down the plant to protect the water supply, such an action is undertaken. It is also to ensure that there is consultation and timely notification to the HSE to protect public health and get a public health message out there, whatever that might be, in such an eventuality.
I thank the witnesses and the committee members for this slot. I will probably have another opportunity to talk to the EPA at the climate action committee about the new legislation on packaging, etc. However, today, I would like to raise a few issues, the first of which relates to noise and noise complaints. This is a frequent issue that constituents raise with us as public representatives. I wonder about the EPA's interaction with local authorities about the level - no pun intended - of noise complaints. Have they increased substantially over the last number of years? How does that fit in?
Senator Garvey spoke about inland waterways, water pollution in general, foul water discharge and misconnections. In an urban area such as Dún Laoghaire, there is a large number of misconnections in small waterways. The witnesses might not have the information today, but they might correspond with the committee on the percentage of misconnections in urban areas, as it is an issue.
Dr. Minihan mentioned Irish Water and its plans. Sea or bathing water quality is an important issue. As the EPA knows, Irish Water has plans to try to deal with some of the treatment plans. The water quality in Dublin Bay at times is not sufficient. I wonder how the EPA can work with Irish Water on that.
Dr. Tom Ryan:
With regard to noise, I would invite the Deputy to formulate a specific query, which we could research, and then we can come back and address it. If there are issues around a particular site or facility we would be happy to look into that and provide detail to the Deputy and the committee on it. I will ask my colleague, Mr. Noel Byrne, to comment on misconnections. Then Ms Mary Gurrie will talk about the bathing water issue.
Mr. Noel Byrne:
Certainly, misconnections are an issue in the networks where sewage is collected and is brought to the wastewater treatment plants. Irish Water investigates these misconnections, particularly where they give rise to issues, such as bathing water or water quality issues. There are ongoing investigations. The drainage area plan assessments are looking at the full network catchments and the sewerage plan in the city. They look at each element to see if there are misconnections and to find them. They then make sure that those connections are put into the sewerage and not into the clean water drains, if it is the case that that is happening. If the Deputy is interested in any of the drainage area plans, I suggest that he should speak to Irish Water. It has all the plans mapped out for different areas of cities and towns. If the Deputy is interested in a particular area of a city, he can get that information and see where the assessment is at, what the condition of the sewer is and whether there is an issue of misconnection. In some areas there are issues of misconnection. The plans get down to that granular level of detail.
Mr. Byrne mentioned Irish Water. I have a question about what happens when water quality is not sufficient and there is a "water off" notice. There was a recent experience in Blackrock where an area had no water for 12 days. I appreciate that this is more in the domain of Irish Water. However, I do not understand and am not happy that after 12 days residents were told that water was safe to drink again, but no explanation was given to them. From the EPA's perspective, surely that is not sufficient.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
I will take the specific question about Blackrock. The Deputy is correct that a "do not consume" notice was placed on approximately 100 consumers in three streets in Blackrock recently because of elevated levels of manganese in the drinking water. We have followed up with Irish Water, following a complaint from a consumer in the area that provision should have been made for alternative water supplies to be put in place. We have asked Irish Water to investigate that and come back to us on it. The residents can be assured that the notice was lifted, following consultation with the HSE, when Irish Water determined that the water had returned to a satisfactory quality. We were notified of the lifting of that notice and the return to acceptable levels of manganese in the water supply at the time.
That is correct, but the communication following the initial notice was poor. I would expect that the EPA would communicate to Irish Water that a follow-up to those consumers is vital to reassure them. Irish Water should also inform them of exactly what happened.
Deputy Devlin had a good question about bathing water. Dr. Ryan said that somebody was going to come back to that topic. Perhaps in my last section somebody could reply to that.
There were two questions I asked previously that the witnesses did not have time to answer. Could Mr. Byrne come back on when he thinks the 13 agglomerations will be in compliance? Could he also comment on the progress on the 113 priority areas for water treatment plans? Could he revert with a general overview of progress on the list of at-risk drinking water supplies?
Ms Mary Gurrie:
As the Deputy knows, local authorities are primarily responsible for bathing water quality. They undertake the monitoring and management of beaches during bathing water season. The EPA has an oversight role in terms of classifying bathing waters and publishing an annual report on their quality. We also manage beaches.ie, which provides up-to-date information.
Overall, Ireland's bathing water quality is good and we have a large number of excellent beaches in terms of water quality, but all of our beaches are susceptible to pollution events, particularly after heavy rainfalls, from wastewater, animal run-off or other factors. For example, misconnections can often be a problem. In Dublin Bay, Merrion beach was unfortunately declassified a number of years ago and Sandymount was at poor water quality status for a number of years. A task force involving the local authorities, Irish Water and some other stakeholders, such as the HSE and the Department, has been set up to examine the problem, get to its root causes and put solutions in place. That has been progressing in terms of identifying the causes of the problems that are impacting on bathing water quality at those beaches. I hope that we will see quality improve over time. We have many beaches in Dublin that have excellent water quality, which is great to see, and it is important that we maintain and protect them, try to reduce the number of incidents and manage them when they do happen so that the health of bathers is protected.
Mr. Noel Byrne:
There are 13 agglomerations on our priority list that still have to achieve compliance. We are told that Ringsend will achieve compliance by mid-2023. From the plant's perspective, Arklow will be 2025. That should be the last treatment plant to reach compliance. Networks may take a bit longer. Currently, a drainage area plan assessment is being undertaken in respect of a number of them. It will take some time to complete. It will identify the actions that are needed to ensure that all of the sewage is collected in compliance with Article 3 of the directive. All of the details in respect of those sites are on the priority action list on our website. If the Deputy wants more specifics on any site, he will find them there.
The Deputy's second question was on the progress being made with our priority areas list. As he rightly stated, it contained 113 priority areas last year. In 2017, that figure was 148. It is now down to 97. Since 2017, a third of sites have come off the list. That is good progress. However, we are seeing issues on the list. For example, there are significant delays at a number of sites, particularly those dealing with raw sewage. By 2023, 28 were meant to have achieved treatment. Due to the past 12 months, that target is now down to just 14. The delays are causing a significant knock-on effect. There are 29 agglomerations on the list that we do not yet have plans for and that are not included in the current investment plan. These cover areas where there is pressure on water quality. We want to see Irish Water putting plans in place for these agglomerations so that, as Deputy O'Donoghue mentioned, the general public can see the timeframes for when the issues will be addressed.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
I will take Deputy Ó Broin's question on drinking water. Our report is not published yet but, at the end of 2020, 46 drinking water supplies were on our remedial action list. That is a reduction on the end of 2019, when 52 supplies were on the list. To give the committee a more up-to-date picture, 53 supplies were on the list at the end of July 2021, so the number increased. However, we should note the significant development at the end of July when Leixlip was removed from the remedial action list following the installation of UV treatment there. That was a positive development. Another positive development that we are expecting before the end of this year is the new Vartry plant. It is in production and is being phased into supply over this quarter. Irish Water is looking to the end of the year to verify that the new plant is meeting all of the requirements of the drinking water directive. If successful, it will be a significant development.
Regarding some other metrics,-----
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
Trihalomethanes, THMs, represent an important metric. At the end of July, 21 supplies serving 196,000 people and with elevated levels of THMs were on our remedial action list. That figure is an increase on the 20 supplies serving 170,000 people at the end of last December. That trend is going in the wrong direction.
On overall water quality, I expect the level of compliance with microbiological and chemical standards to be as high as reported in previous years. That trend will be maintained and borne out in the figures when they are reported.
I thank the Vice Chairman for allowing me in again. I thought I had asked a question the first time around, but what I got was a description of the EPA's job, which I am very aware of, so I will try again. How will we resolve the issue of understaffing in local authorities? They are the backbone of how information is fed into the EPA and Irish Water on many matters, including the framework directive that is due. What are we doing differently to ensure that we have increased infrastructure for serviced sites and town centres first? Is there any plan to promote the fact that there is a lot of good drinking water all over Ireland so as to stop the madness of spending millions of euro on plastic bottles of water?
Ms Mary Gurrie:
Regarding local authorities and their water management role, the resourcing of local authorities and the allocation of those functions are not matters for the EPA. The local authority water programme was established in recent years to increase resources and local authorities are focused on priority areas for action and on restoring water quality therein. There is probably a recognition of a need to protect our water quality. We are seeing many declines in water quality. It is important that we stop these declines so that we can achieve our water framework directive objectives.
Although resourcing is not a direct matter for the EPA, there is an action in the draft river basin management plan, to be led by the Department, that involves reviewing local authorities' resources in terms of their water protection functions. I would refer the Senator to that.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
Regarding access to water, including tap water, the committee may be aware that a new recast of the drinking water directive was signed by the Commission in January. It will need to be transposed into Irish law by January 2023. One of the key drivers behind the revision of the drinking water directive was ensuring that all parts of society, including marginalised and vulnerable populations, had access to clean and safe drinking water for their needs. While it remains to be seen how it will be transposed, one of the key new requirements in the directive is that member states must promote the use of tap water in order to reduce bottled water waste and the usage of disposable plastic bottles. That is coming down the tracks at us from January 2023.