Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 4 October 2022
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
Issues Surrounding Water Quality and Supply: Discussion
We are dealing with issues surrounding water quality and supply. From the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, we are joined by Dr. Tom Ryan, Mr. Noel Byrne, Ms Mary Gurrie and Dr. Michelle Minihan. From the HSE, we are joined by Ms Ann Marie Part, Dr. Deirdre Mulholland and Ms Deirdre Lavin. The opening statements have been circulated to members.
I will begin with a note on privilege. Before we begin, I want to 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. For witnesses attending in the committee room, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their contributions to today's meetings. This means they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they say at the meeting. Both members and witnesses are expected not to abuse the privilege they enjoy. It is my duty as Chair to ensure 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 they comply with any such direction. Members and witnesses 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.
I will also note that there are housing statements starting in the Dáil Chamber from about 3.50 p.m. Members may have to leave and come back, but that is no indication of their interest in the subject, which we are very pleased to have the witnesses here to discuss.
I invite the witnesses to make their opening statements. I will call Dr. Ryan from the EPA first and then call Ms Part from the HSE. Please keep your opening remarks to five minutes. The opening statements have already been circulated to members.
Dr. Tom Ryan:
I thank the committee for inviting the EPA to assist in its deliberations on this matter of water quality and water supply. I am Dr. Tom Ryan, director of environmental enforcement with EPA. I am joined by EPA senior management colleagues Mr. Noel Byrne, Ms Mary Gurrie and Dr. Michelle Minihan, all of whom have various responsibilities for water quality issues within the remit of the EPA, which is very broad. It includes acting as the drinking water quality regulator for public water supplies; enforcing wastewater authorisations; co-ordinating and implementing the national monitoring programme to assess and report on water quality; and assessing the impact of human activities and pressures on the status of water bodies. In this context, the EPA publishes a series of reports annually including the drinking water quality in public supplies report; the urban wastewater treatment report; and the water quality in Ireland report, all of which are due for publication over the next few weeks.
The last time EPA was invited to address this committee was in October 2021 in the aftermath of two very serious incidents at drinking water treatment plants in Ballymore Eustace and Gorey towards the end of summer 2021. At that time, EPA highlighted our concerns that the existing arrangements for the delivery of safe drinking water in terms of managerial oversight, operational control and responsiveness were not working satisfactorily and were posing an unacceptable risk to public health by failing to ensure safe and secure drinking water. I will take the opportunity of this opening statement to update the committee on the current status of drinking water quality, with some remarks about water quality generally in Ireland.
Our drinking water is sourced from our rivers, lakes, springs and groundwater and must be treated to make it clean and safe to drink before it is supplied to people. To that end, the EPA is the drinking water quality regulator, which is responsible for enforcing the drinking water regulations. Irish Water is responsible for providing the public water services and ensuring that drinking water quality meets the standard in the regulations and that it is "clean and wholesome" for consumption. Irish Water has responsibility under the regulations for approximately 800 drinking water treatment plants in Ireland, for the most part operated by local authorities under a service level agreement for Irish Water.
The EPA enforces the drinking water quality regulations through an annual programme of audits, assessments and through promotion of our remedial action list, known as the "RAL". The RAL is a dynamic list of public water supplies that EPA has identified as priorities for significant action and investment by Irish Water to improve plant performance and resilience in supplying drinking water. A supply may be placed on the RAL if it cannot provide drinking water that is free from certain microbiological or chemical substances, or if the treatment plant is not operated effectively and correctly. It is important to emphasise that compliance with the microbiological and chemical standards for drinking water supplies remains high, at greater than 99.7%, which means that the water in our public water supplies is safe to drink. In addition, Irish Water had reduced the number of people served by RAL supplies from just over 1 million to approximately 370,000 at the end of 2021, which was a positive and very welcome development.
Some key achievements by Irish Water in 2021 included the commissioning of a new plant at Vartry, serving approximately 127,000 people, and an upgrade of Leixlip, serving approximately 590,000 people. Those supplies were subsequently removed from the RAL. However, issues at a number of other of other treatment plants in the first half of this year have reversed some of these positive gains. The number of people currently served by supplies on the RAL stands at approximately 560,000 consumers. This reversal underscores the challenge that, while water quality remains high, drinking water treatment in many supplies is still not as resilient as it needs to be to ensure the supply is safe into the future.
The EPA’s 2021 drinking water quality report, which will be published later this week, sets out in detail the main issues affecting the quality of the drinking water supplied by Irish Water that require action, including ensuring adequate disinfection; reducing the levels of trihalomethanes, THMs; addressing poor treatment control processes; and the need to replace lead water mains and household pipes.
I will highlight two issues for the purpose of this opening statement. The first is persistent THM failures. The number of people affected by THM failures has increased in 2022 by over 133,000 people due to five supplies being added to the RAL. This erodes the progress that was made in 2021, particularly following the commissioning of the new water treatment plant at Vartry. It should also be noted that the European Commission is progressing infringement proceedings against Ireland for failure to address THM compliance.
The second issue I would like to highlight is poor treatment control processes. At the end of 2021, 24 supplies were on the RAL for poor treatment control processes. While it is an essential step to have all required infrastructure in place, a water treatment plant must also be managed and operated correctly and be able to adapt and respond to changing conditions and to incidents, in particular. Essential alarms, monitors and staff training are critical prerequisites for a well-run drinking water treatment plant.
An inadequate response to plant alarms was a significant contributor to the incidents in the Gorey and Ballymore Eustace plants, which in the case of Gorey resulted in illness and hospitalisations in 2021.
I will turn briefly to the issue of boil-water notices, or water restrictions, that Irish Water imposes from time to time in consultation with our colleagues in the HSE. While boil water notices are a cause of inconvenience to people, they are necessary to ensure that members of the public do not consume water that could be contaminated and make them ill. Boil-water notices increased significantly in 2021 and affected far more people than in 2020. More than 211,000 people were affected in 2021 compared to fewer than 75,000 in 2020. However, this increase is attributed to improved vigilance by Irish Water and staff training after the Gorey and Ballymore Eustace incidents. The primary cause of the need to impose such restrictions is a failure in the disinfection or pathogen-removal processes. Assessments and improvements under Irish Water's national disinfection programme are continuing but clearly have not yet proved sufficiently robust to mitigate the need for boil-water notices.
I will move on to the drinking water legislative framework. It should be noted that the framework will undergo a significant amendment with the transposition of the new drinking water directive which is due before January 2023. The EPA continues to work with the Department and other stakeholders in support of that process. The transposition will bring new and more challenging drinking-water-standard requirements and will also provide an opportunity to address some gaps identified by the EPA in the enforcement regulatory framework.
I will finish with a few brief remarks about the general water quality in Ireland. In short, water quality in Ireland is not as good as it should be. Our rivers, lakes, estuaries and groundwaters continue to be under pressure from human activities such as agriculture, forestry, wastewater discharges and physical changes like land drainage. Slightly more than half of surface waters are in a satisfactory condition, which means that a large number are not in good ecological health. These are unable to sustain healthy ecosystems and are failing to meet the legally binding water-quality objectives set by the EU water framework directive because of pollution and other human disturbance. Urgent action is essential to drive and sustain improvements while preventing further deterioration through the implementation of the next river-based management plan.
I assure the committee that the EPA will continue to monitor and report on water quality issues, provide regulatory oversight of Irish Water and work closely with the HSE and the Department with the primary objective of ensuring the protection of human health and the environment.
Ms Ann Marie Part:
I thank the joint committee for the invitation to discuss issues around water quality and supply. I am assistant national director for environmental health at the HSE and I am joined by my colleagues Dr. Deirdre Mulholland, area director of public health; and Dr. Deirdre Lavin, regional chief environmental health officer.
The safety and quality of drinking water has a direct influence on the health of consumers. As the committee is aware, a number of bodies are involved in ensuring the supply of drinking water. The responsibility for the provision and supply of safe drinking water rests with Irish Water, local authorities, committees of group water schemes and those who individually provide their own drinking water. The EPA is the drinking-water-quality regulator responsible for enforcing the drinking water regulations for public water supplies. The HSE has a key role in assessing and advising on potential risks to human health. The HSE has a statutory role in the context of drinking water as a statutory consultee under Regulation No. 9(1) of the EU (Drinking Water) Regulations 2014 and has a further role under public medical officer of health legislative provisions to investigate and prevent spread from probable sources of infection, including water.
In accordance with the drinking water regulations, where Irish Water or a local authority considers that a supply of water intended for human consumption constitutes a potential danger to human health, it must consult with the HSE. The water service authority is obliged in so doing to obtain the agreement of the HSE on the action it proposes to take to protect human health. I have attached an excerpt from the drinking water regulations for the committee's ease of reference.
The environmental health service and departments of public health are the main services within the HSE with which water services authorities interact about drinking water safety. In addition, HSE laboratories provide analysis of clinical samples and microbiological expertise for the management of some drinking water issues. In some laboratories, they also provide analysis of water samples. To enable the application of Regulation 9, statutory consultation, an agreed process, referred to as the management of initial notification of drinking water issues of potential danger to human health, is in place.
In summary, an initial notification record, INR, has been developed and implemented by all those with an interest in the provision and monitoring of safe drinking water. The process outlines the consideration and steps to be followed by the appropriate parties when dealing with a water incident. On becoming aware of an incident in the supply, Irish Water or the relevant local authority undertakes a review and a risk assessment to determine whether it is necessary to consult with the HSE in accordance with Article 9 of the drinking water regulations and prepares a submission to the EPA.
Initial contact with the HSE national environmental health service is made via the local principal environmental health officer, EHO. The principal EHO will assess the information provided and further consider the matter in consultation with colleagues in the local public health department to ensure a consistent and cohesive engagement within the HSE and in response to the water service provider. The INR procedure also outlines the steps to be followed by the HSE environmental health service and public health departments, should they become aware of water incidents on foot of their work. The identification of potential cases or outbreaks may come about due to public health monitoring of infectious disease notifications.
If a drinking water issue is of sufficient seriousness and complexity an incident response team, IRT, will be convened and chaired by the local authority or by Irish Water as appropriate. The incident response team includes representatives of the various relevant agencies that have an input into the provision of safe drinking water. In the event of an outbreak of infectious disease where a drinking water source is suspected to be the cause of illness, the HSE may request that the water services authority convene an IRT. If a HSE outbreak control team is also convened, the outbreak control team, OCT, will liaise with the incident response team andvice versaas appropriate.
Separately, the national drinking water group within the HSE is an interdisciplinary forum to support best practice and promote competence of HSE personnel who have a role in the protection of public health in relation to drinking water. It reports to the relevant heads of service for environmental health and public health and includes representatives from the environmental health service, public health departments, health protection surveillance centre, microbiology and public analysts laboratory services.
My colleagues and I are happy to assist the committee in any way we can on the subject of water supply and quality.
I thank Ms Part and Dr. Ryan.
We move on to members' questions. Members are expected to confine their questions to the witnesses to seven minutes in total. The member may make a statement or ask a question and allow the remaining time for responses by the witnesses. The member can decide who to direct questions to. The first speaker is Deputy Flaherty from Fianna Fáil.
The EPA mentioned a drinking water quality report which will be published next week. It seems an inordinate length of time to wait for a 2021 report. There are many agencies and bodies are in the country. Farmers who were at the agriculture committee a number of weeks ago were exasperated that it takes so long to produce this report. Many staff and a lot of money are allocated to this. Why is a 2021 drinking water report not issued until October 2022, especially in the context of all the issues the EPA highlighted about water quality?
Dr. Tom Ryan:
I thank the Deputy for his question. We endeavour to get these reports out as quickly as possible. As the Deputy can imagine, a huge amount of data has to be assessed in order to draw the conclusions that go into the reports. We get that data from Irish Water. Each year we try to get through that process more quickly. We had hoped to get it out during the summer this year and it is our intention for next year, but I appreciate the comments.
Of course the report is not the only thing we do in enforcement of these matters. While the report highlights the issues for the public and the committee, we are working with Irish Water, the Department and with stakeholders as issues arise during the year. However, I take the Deputy's point and it is well made.
One would think that it would be a cumulative project. Surely the report can come out of the first quarter or even summer. In the context of the nitrates directives and everything else, this report has a huge impact on the farming community.
Staying with this, true to form farming is the big bogey. Dr. Ryan led with water quality and stated that agriculture, forestry and physical changes such as land drainage are the big issues. The farming community would take big issue with that. There are a lot more factors at play in terms of water quality. Has the EPA not seen a huge change in farming? Has it not seen farmers engage with the process and be inordinately proactive over the past ten years in particular as regards water quality?
Dr. Tom Ryan:
We are very much aware of the issues around farming. Our reports are just reflective of the sources that impact on water quality. We know that there is a huge amount of work going on with farmers and the farming community in terms of best practice, smart farming, mitigation and all of that. That feeds into the river basin management plan and the targets and ambitions around catchment management. We are very much aware of the engagement of the farming community in that process.
Does Dr. Ryan think that the way that is worded very much hones in on agriculture and forestry, that it is targeted and that as far as the agency is concerned agriculture is the big bogey when it comes to water quality?
The HSE boil water notices are a huge issue when they happen. I acknowledge from the presentations and from what the representatives tell us that when boil water notices kick in that the factors or transgressions are marginal before they implement a boil water notice. When a boil water notice comes into play, how proactive are they? Is it in real time that they are assessing the information and making a decision? For example, we had a boil water notice in Longford a number of months ago that caused a lot of frustration. To give comfort to the wider public how quickly does the HSE respond to that information when it receives it and how quickly are does it unenforce boil water notices?
Ms Ann Marie Part:
Boil water notices are not introduced lightly. We are very conscious of the impact they have on society and the community and on economics. However, when they are introduced they are introduced because that is what is needed to protect public health. That is the reason that the environmental health service and the public health service are called upon for advice by Irish Water. We respond to those consultations very quickly. We respond to them out-of-hours, if required. They are done through an agreed process; they are done by phone call initially and then they are followed up. We monitor and work with the local authority and Irish Water, and the EPA, if necessary, to ensure that every action is taken as quickly as possible to lift them. The time that boil water notices used to apply has reduced significantly but it is certainly not something that is done lightly; it is done because we feel that there is no other option.
Yes, I see that. In Irish Water 30 days is considered a long time for a boil water notice. Is there any reflection or report done afterwards or any accountability when a boil water notice is implemented? For example, regarding the boil water notice in Longford, is there anything we can say to the public that it will never happen again and that steps have been taken to ensure whatever transgressions occurred there in water quality, safeguards are in place? Do we learn from them or do we just deal with them, move on and not take any actions?
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
In relation to Longford central the treatment plant simply was not able to perform to the standards required to ensure that a suitable barrier against the parasite cryptosporidium was maintained and the filters were not performing satisfactorily. The EPA performed an on-site audit there in late November 2021 - I do not have the exact date here today - and we were accompanied, I believe, by the HSE, Irish Water and Longford County Council on the day. The risks were very clearly there and acknowledged by everyone on-site and the boil water notice was necessary to protect public health. An ongoing upgrade of the Longford central plant under way to address a few issues there - both trihalomethanes, THMs, and filter performance. It is on our remedial action list and is one that we are watching closely and that we are-----
I thank the EPA and HSE for their presentations. I thank Dr. Ryan, in particular, for continuing to be very frank with this committee in his presentations. The three reports that have published make for very uncomfortable reading year-on-year but, as a committee, we would do ourselves an injustice if we did not take the facts in those reports seriously because that is exactly what they are. This is very timely because the purpose of these discussions and the series of meetings we are having on water quality generally but tomorrow the Water Environment (Abstractions and Associated Impoundments) Bill 2022 will finally make its way through the Houses starting with the Seanad and, therefore, this debate and the debate on that legislation are very timely.
I have three questions for the EPA. First, to go from 370,000 to 560,000 people is a 51% increase in a very short period. Can Dr. Ryan give us a sense of the reasons for that from the data he has and also the severity? It is 560,000 people I presume rather than households but there are varying levels of negative drinking water quality that is impacted. Any extra information on that would be helpful.
The second relates to my usual bugbear, which is the ongoing infringement procedures by the European Commission for breaches of the urban wastewater treatment directive. Can Dr. Ryan give his view on where that is at and where progress has been made and if any are slipping behind?
It is also important to remember we have significant deadlines under the water framework directive of 2027. Given Dr. Ryan's stark concluding remarks, which I thank him for, because no matter how difficult the truth may be for us to handle we should get the truth, how optimistic or concerned is he that those key targets for 2027 will be met? That specifically relates to his third more general water quality report due to be published.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
The Deputy has referred to the number of supplies on the remedial action list increasing to around 565,000 as of last Friday. Six supplies were removed from the remedial action list last Friday, which is a measure of some progress. We did, however, add 11 supplies to the remedial action list. Five of those were for persistent THM exceedances and notable among those was the Clareville plant in Limerick city, which serves approximately 114,000 people and, therefore, that accounts for a considerable jump in the population on our remedial action list. A number of supplies went on for EPA audit observations where we found issues at plants. Another large supply was the Srowland water treatment plant in Kildare, which serves four different water supply zones, and we had other isolated issues around supplies on long-term boil water notices. We had poor turbidity removal in some of them and inadequate treatment for cryptosporidium. There was a variety of reasons but the vast majority of them were for THM exceedances.
Mr. Noel Byrne:
As the Deputy correctly said, we have an infringement procedure against Ireland regarding wastewater and compliance with the directive. According to the 2021 figures, 51% of our wastewater load met the standards. That compares to 90% across the EU average.
As the committee can see, we have a good bit to catch up on in that space. The big facility in that situation is Ringsend - bringing it into compliance. Works are progressing at Ringsend. They did the upgrade of the 400,000 population equivalent additional capacity in 2021. They are upgrading the other 24 units over the next two to three years. By 2025, they hope to have all of the works completed on Ringsend, with the aim of being compliant with the directive at that point.
Our current priority area lists identify 12 sites where Irish Water failed to meet the directive requirements in 2021. We have to bring those 12 sites into compliance to achieve that. As I said, Ringsend is the big one in that space. I suppose one-----
It would be fair to say that is significant progress on the 48 agglomerations we were talking about when the EPA first came to this committee three or four years ago. It is important to acknowledge that, while there have been significant problems, in Mr. Byrne's view, has there been significant progress?
Mr. Noel Byrne:
From the EPA's perspective in our priority areas, directive compliance is one of the number one issues we want to achieve. We highlighted that from our perspective. We want work done in this space. Indeed, Ringsend is going to be a game-changer in that space. Once we get to 2025 and we see 40% of the load achieving compliance, that will be a very good day for Ireland to achieve that. Challenges will remain around the collection systems. There are a number of collection systems involved in that infringement, which will prove to be big challenges, particularly around Cork city and similar places, which will require significant investment. At the moment, Irish Water are looking at what needs to be done in Cork city under drainage area plans, but once they establish what needs to be done, they will have to see about putting a plan in place to address that.
Ms Mary Gurrie:
Yes, as we said in our opening statement, only a little over half of our surface water bodies are meeting the standard, which is to achieve good or better water quality in all water bodies by 2027. In fact, in our submission on the draft river basin management plan, we welcomed the call for higher ambition and called for that to be clearly articulated in the final plan. We did say that the objectives would not be met with the measures in the current plan. We know there are decades of investment needed on our wastewater systems - several more cycles certainly. Agriculture is the most widespread significant pressure and a lot of work needs to happen on that. We need a regime for the hydromorphological pressures. There is a lot of work happening, but there is a way to go on delivering the water quality improvements still. We do have the science and evidence is improving all the time. Knowing what the problem is and being able to identify the measures needed has advanced a lot in recent years. We know what needs to be done; it is a question of trying to get it done.
Chair, I must give my apologies. I have to go and do a debate with the Minister for Housing, Heritage and Local Government now, so I will not be here for the rest of this session and I will miss a bit of the next session. I will catch up afterwards.
I thank the Chair and the witnesses. I am not being parochial even though I could probably be accused of being so in referencing some areas in my constituency in County Waterford but what I am trying to do is tease out the process that occurs when an issue is identified and what stages are followed to remediate the issue. It was stated to the HSE that 30 days was a significant time. An estate in Kilmeaden, County Waterford has been on a boil water notice since February this year. Another in Touraneena has been on a boil water notice since 7 September. Will the witnesses talk me through the process from when the alert is sent out? Of course, everybody gets that. It is Irish Water's issue to resolve, and I will tease that out with them. What in the process is done, either from the HSE's or the EPA's perspective, specifically on the boil water notices?
Ms Deirdre Lavin:
Regarding boil water notices, our primary concern is the protection of public health and, therefore, the supply will remain on that boil water notice - with that in mind - until such time as we get clear samples or the remedial action, which, as the Senator said, is Irish Water's responsibility, has been delivered. We are never slow in deciding or determining that it is the correct time to lift a boil water notice but it is always done with that consideration of the protection of public health. We need to be sure that the necessary measures are in place. You see that through the testing mechanism that has provided the results that come in. If they are not indicating that supply is "wholesome and safe", we are not in a position to lift that notice. Protection of public health is paramount across the board.
Ms Deirdre Lavin:
Today, one of our inspectors is out in Touraneena doing an audit. That boil water notice was in place for a few weeks back in September. If that inspection determines that further enforcement action is required to identify a problem that could recur and needs to have a solution in place, then we will assess that when the audit report is completed and we have gone through the due process of doing that. If we need to take further enforcement actions such as placing it on our remedial action list or issuing a direction to Irish Water, we will do so once we get the findings of today's audit back to us.
On the other estate on a long-term boil water notice since February, there is a plan in place to connect it. That will be in 2023. That boil water notice is necessary to protect public health because there is poor turbidity removal there and, therefore, it is a necessary measure. The long-term plan is to rationalise that supply - to do away with it - and connect to Cappoquin.
Perhaps there is a little bit of a mix-up there between the two because Fán Glas is in Kilmeaden; it would not be connected to Cappoquin. Ms Levin probably meant Touraneena when she spoke about the two supplies. I understand that Irish Water have a plan to resolve the Fán Glas issue.
I might tease that out a little bit more.
I return to the EPA on enforcement. Another issue has arisen in Bonmahon, County Waterford. I have a report open in front of me from one of the EPA inspectors from April of this year. It was prepared by Dr. John Feehan, on the agglomeration in Bonmahon, of which there are three elements. From the recommendations made in this report, clearly there are ongoing issues in the area. It is very close to a beach and it affects the streams upriver. I have been liaising with Irish Water on this with the intention of getting it onto the small towns and villages growth programme and-or another development. How does something go from a report in April, which clearly identifies serious deficiencies in the area, to getting actioned, from the agency's perspective?
Mr. Noel Byrne:
I cannot speak specifically on Bonmahon, but if the Senator wants, we can come back to him directly on that one. When a report is done, the EPA will complete that report and identify the actions that are needed. That gets sent to Irish Water. What we request from Irish Water then is that it puts a plan in place to address the issues at that particular wastewater treatment plant to achieve compliance with the licence. Irish Water will be given the report, it gets specific actions to do and then the agency will follow up with Irish Water on how they progress those actions.
On forestry, in general, we are aware of the impacts across the board.
The EPA referred to agriculture. I too believe significant work is being done by the agriculture sector to try to minimise the problems, but I am not so certain about the impact of forestry. Maybe that is an omission by me in not knowing the issue in as much detail as I perhaps should. Will the witnesses briefly outline how they see the impact of forestry? Is it the machinery required to fell trees or is it perhaps something else?
Ms Mary Gurrie:
I will respond to that question. I am just checking my notes. Forestry is now the second most significant pressure on water quality. Some 223 water bodies are impacted by forestry. A legacy issue exists in that forestry was historically planted on the wrong sites, for example, on upland sites that were considered bad land and maybe fit for nothing else. These are sensitive locations, however, as they tend to be where our highest quality water bodies are also located. They get impacted by sediment run-off, nutrients, pesticides, changes in the flow and hydromorphology, as we call it, from drainage associated with forestry, which tends to impact on these more sensitive waters. That legacy issue needs to managed. The particular activities also tend to have an impact. When a forest is stable it tends to be lower risk but when activities such as felling and road building take place, that is when they need the most management. Proper management and oversight are needed at that stage to make sure issues do not arise.
I am from Limerick. I have a construction background, having worked in the sector all my life. I also have a farming background as I grew up on a farm. Dr. Ryan highlighted four main issues. He may have heard from my previous contributions, including in the Dáil, that I go into the local authorities when it comes to pollution. Before I was elected a Deputy, I sat on the council representing the Adare-Rathkeale district for six years. The EPA was mentioned with reference to the number of times it has visited the water treatment plant at Askeaton, on which no action has been taken. People have been waiting for an upgrade of the sewerage system for 33 years. It is a three-bed system which has not been used in a number of years. Irish Water fixed man-holes and pipeworks at the site last year but the problem is that the sewerage goes directly to the Shannon.
In Dromcolliher, the biggest polluter in the River Deel is the local authority. If I jump across to the River Loobagh, the biggest polluter there is the local authority. When I went around County Limerick, I saw that Oola was operating at capacity. Irish Water has stated it will upgrade the existing systems but will not allow for any extra capacity. That has been going on for years.
In Hospital, where 26 new houses were built, there was capacity for only 21 houses so five were connected to a treatment system on a site, while the others were connected to a system that came up directly through the streets.
In Kilbehenny, Irish Water took over a system that only had three houses connected to it. However, it did not even know that 27 houses were connected directly to a system that was going into the rivers.
I am disappointed treatment systems are last on the EPA's list because local authorities and the treatment systems in the area are number one for us in Limerick. They have not received investment for many years. It is going on for decades and it is causing a problem for the EPA. Irish Water has taken responsibility for water and sewerage in Limerick but 70 people employed by the county council are looking after this for Irish Water. Many of these treatment and water systems do not have caretakers. The information the EPA gets is from someone taking a sample now and then, but there is no proper caretaker. I am in favour of what needs to be done and I see the vision the EPA has set out, but unless we tackle the biggest polluter in this country, our local authorities, we are not going anywhere.
The first sectors Dr. Ryan mentioned were farming and forestry. I have a big problem with that. Yes, problems may exist within farming but the sector is doing its bit. The local authorities and Departments are not doing their bit and they are last on the EPA's list.
The HSE has to issue boil water notices for public safety. There is no doubt about it. Luckily, after being lobbied here, Irish Water lifted a boil water notice after two years in Fedamore. The water notice was needed for water safety but it was in place for two years. People had to buy bottled water so they could have a cup of tea, give the children dilute orange or whatever.
While I understand the process, I do not understand the process for coming up with the four issues. I have been on the road since I was 15 years old and I have been self-employed since I was 21. I am in the construction industry so I understand this. I understand the treatment systems but I also understand what happens if the existing treatment systems are not maintained. They are not being maintained at the moment because the council has stopped maintaining them because it is waiting for Irish Water to take over the running of them. By leaving them for years, it is creating a problem for the EPA to try to fix. Making the council fix these issues is a big problem. How many treatment systems in Limerick are not properly functional and how many systems in Limerick city and county are causing serious problems? Massive investment is needed now for the protection of people in this area. I ask Dr. Ryan to respond.
Dr. Tom Ryan:
We will have to come back to the Deputy with the detail on the wastewater treatment plants in Limerick. We will provide it, however, as it is something we track carefully. Our brief for this meeting was water, water quality and water services. We took the view beforehand that the focus of interest would be on drinking water. That is how my opening statement was calibrated, but we have been here in the past talking only about wastewater. We have a team in the EPA that only deals with wastewater treatment plants. It charts Irish Water's progress and holds Irish Water to account to its plans. That is a significant part of our activity-----
I will address Dr. Ryan directly on waste treatment. Limerick City and County Council has 70 water specialists who have been asked to change over to Irish Water under a section A or section B contract. If none of them transfer to Irish Water and they remain within the remit of the council, as they can under their contracts, will Irish Water not be in big trouble? The reason these staff do not want to go to Irish Water is that they will lose their public status and the number of years they have worked with the local authority. The contracts of 70 people who run the water system delivering fresh water for people to drink in Limerick state they will stay within the local authority if they do not transfer to Irish Water. This applies to 70 engineers and other qualified staff employed to look after the quality of water in Limerick city and county. Does the EPA consider that a big problem?
Dr. Tom Ryan:
I appreciate the Deputy will have an opportunity to speak directly to Irish Water about those issues. The EPA issues the authorisation so regardless of whether Irish Water or the local authorities are responsible, we deal with the licensee, the holder of the authorisation, and hold it to compliance. Regardless of who the holder is, we will regulate it.
I apologise as I have to leave early to be in the Dáil for statements on Housing for All. I will focus on the issue of trihalomethane, THM, failures. The EPA's opening statement notes that the number of people exposed to persistent THM failures has increased this year by 133,750.
That is a very significant figure. Dr. Minihan suggested earlier that in most of the cases of the 560,000 people whose water supply requires remedial action, it can be attributed to exposure to THMs. Does she have numbers to indicate in how many of those 560,000 cases that is the issue? Can she give us an idea of what percentage of the overall number of people in the country have a water supply that is affected in this way? I would welcome any indications in that regard.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
As of last Friday, the total population with persistent THMs in their water supply is 243,137 across 24 water supplies. Given that between 4 million and 4.2 million people are on public water supplies, it is probable that less than 10% of people are affected. Nonetheless, it is a significant issue. Unfortunately, we have seen a increase in the number of water supplies where we are detecting THMs. Some 58 public water supplies failed to meet the standard in 2021, which was an increase on 35 public water supplies in 2020. The good progress we had seen was reversed in 2021. For THMs, the problem is persistence. Irish Water needs to install treatment to remove the THMs and prevent them from forming, or optimise the plant to ensure they cannot form as water moves through the network to get to consumer's taps because that is where the point of compliance is. Water does not just need to be compliant leaving the plant; it also needs to be compliant at consumer's taps in their homes.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
It is a mixture of both. In order for a supply to be assessed to go on the remedial action list, RAL, we will assess all the exceedances that have been reported to us. Some of those are at the plant itself. We will have non-compliance at the plant and in some cases we will have non-compliance at people's taps. That is how the sampling programme is operated. There is ongoing monitoring of how the plant is performing to ensure it is meeting the regulatory standards. In the directive, however, the point of compliance is the consumer's taps. If you are getting it in the plant, inevitably you will get it in consumer's taps.
-----in terms of it possibly being carcinogenic. I know that the evidence in that regard is inconclusive. However, I think the evidence in terms of animals being exposed to THMs and it being carcinogenic is stronger. It is a concern to people. I would like to ask about how we compare to other countries in this regard? Are we an outlier? Is Dr. Minihan aware of the European Commission progressing infringement proceedings against any other country on this matter, or is it just Ireland?
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
As far as I an aware, to date we are the only country that has had infringement proceedings progressed against it. They are moving forward in July of this year. The European Commission has written to Ireland to tell us that we need to provide a response and that we will be going to the European Court of Justice on that. As regards our results, we seem to be an outlier. If we look at our nearest neighbour, we will see from the Drinking Water Inspectorate in England and Wales that they had two THM failures last year across 12,000 samples. This means they had one failure each across two water supplies. We had 58 public water supplies with THM exceedances last year. We seem to be out of kilter with our nearest comparator on that.
Can I ask the EPA if this is being addressed quickly enough by Irish Water? Does it need to be addressed more urgently? Based on Irish Water's current track record of dealing with this, how confident is the EPA that this will be dealt with quickly?
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
There have been some positive developments. We saw Vartry, which serves approximately 127,000 people, removed from the RAL at the end of last year. A large upgrade there has resulted in approximately eight water supplies across north Wicklow and Dublin now being compliant for THMs. That is really significant. Some supplies with persistent THMs will be on our RAL through to 2026, which is far too long. Action, which involves identifying a solution and putting it in place, has been delayed in those cases. We have also seen supplies that had treatment installed for THMs, but that treatment has been unsuccessful and has not worked. We added six supplies to our RAL for persistent THMs over the last 18 months, which means that progress which had been made is being eroded.
I thank the witnesses. We have had two key achievements since many of them were with us this time last year. I refer to the progress made at Vartry and to the Leixlip upgrade, which serves much of my constituency. I welcome the significant investment of €59 million in a 100 million l reservoir in Saggart, which will also serve my constituency when it is up and running. I toured that site at the start of the summer. I am really excited to hear about the benefits it will provide in terms of long-term water security for the greater Dublin region. Much of what the witnesses said about public drinking water quality remaining so high is really encouraging.
However, it is disappointing to learn that many of the gains that have been made have already been eroded. Why has that happened? Last year Dr. Ryan and Dr. Minihan addressed the committee on a concerning report specific to Ballymore Eustace and to Gorey. As they might recall, what concerned me, coming from a business background, was the lack of processing, the escalation path breakdowns and the weak business continuity planning. They presented quite a detailed action plan that they felt would rectify a lot of that. Is that happening?
I can see from what the HSE has outlined today that it has thorough incident response procedures and processes in train and in action. They seem to be working quite well. Does the HSE feel it is getting the necessary buy-in, collaboration and co-operation of the other agencies involved? I do not know who wants to start.
Dr. Tom Ryan:
Around this time last year, we were in here with two very serious matters. There were two incidents, one at the plant at Ballymore Eustace and the other in Gorey. There was a lot of concerted action after that to remedy the issues at both of those plants and to take the learnings from those incidents. Irish Water carried out its own inspections of the top 20 plants across its fleet of plants, and we did something similar. Many lessons were learned around that, particularly around the training of staff. We are seeing the results of that coming through, almost perversely, with increased boil water notices. As I said at the beginning, the issuing of such notices-----
Dr. Tom Ryan:
-----is very inconvenient for people, but it is a layer of necessary protection. The increase we are seeing means that incidents are being responded to, boil water notices are being issued in consultation with the HSE and people are being protected. We are not there yet, however; there is a way to go. We continually detect issues of that nature, albeit not as big as in Ballymore Eustace or in Leixlip in 2019. There are ongoing issues. We know that there is a transition from one delivery model to another. That is a matter for the Department and Irish Water. A great deal has been learned from those incidents and we are seeing it come through.
The increases and the reversals are very disappointing. We have a report coming out at the end of this week which looks at 2021. The picture at the end of 2021 was on a very positive trajectory, but we have seen those gains eroded because of five additional plants going on to the remedial action list for various reasons.
Dr. Minihan can add more detail on this point.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
It is disappointing to be adding five supplies to the remedial action list for persistent THM exceedances. By persistent, we mean three or more months where we have seen this occur. The Clareville treatment plant, because of its size, has caused those numbers to jump to 114,000 people. We have had persistent THM exceedances there for six months of this year. It is a persistent and ongoing problem, unfortunately, because of the way THMs form when organic matter reacts with the chlorine in the water that is used to disinfect it. We cannot compromise disinfection, so we must add the chlorine. What is key, however, is that the treatment processes at the plant are optimised and the network managed appropriately to ensure there is no additional THM formation as the water moves through the network. For example, if it takes four days for water to move from the plant to the extremity of the networks, then for all that time there is potential for THMs to form. It is key therefore to optimise the plant and to install whatever treatment processes are needed to remove THMs. Equally important, though, is ensuring the distribution network is managed appropriately and that it is compliant as well. I say this because it is compliance at consumers' taps that is the point of compliance.
Ms Ann Marie Part:
On whether we feel we are getting buy-in, we work closely with our colleagues in the EPA, Irish Water, the local authorities and the various water suppliers. It is fair to say, in the main, that we are satisfied we get timely notification of consultations around issues. We have put in place a process in this regard. Since Irish Water became an entity, that has made our interaction with water service providers easier. Irish Water has an obligation to notify us and to consult with us. Regarding whether that happens in a timely manner all the time, I suppose there are no absolutes in life and we have learned from experiencing some situations that there may have been a breakdown in communication along the way. I agree with Dr. Ryan that a fair amount of learning has been derived from that experience. Equally, though, from a health authority perspective, it behoves us all to be vigilant and cautious and to keep an eye on things as they progress. Therefore, I would say there is still probably some room for improvement in this regard.
I thank the witnesses for coming in and I have listened with interest so far. To be honest, I am concerned by some of the comments made. On the 58 additional failures we had in 2021, and I am aware of the comment regarding finishing the year strongly, these were serious failures. As Irish people, we have pride in how green the grass is and how clean the water is. This is one of the reasons we are so famous around the world. In this context, we are looking at how we compare with other European countries and what I am hearing is that we are at the bottom of the table and that we are not performing. Is this an accurate assessment of where we are?
Dr. Tom Ryan:
When it comes to drinking water, in particular, the first thing I need to reiterate is that the quality and standard of drinking water in our public supplies is very high. From a microbiological and chemical perspective, it is in compliance greater than 99.7%. Therefore, it is very important to emphasise that drinking water is safe. What we are primarily talking about here is resilience in this regard, the future performance of plants and their ability to keep performing like this. There are particular issues around THMs and other issues that we continually call out in our reports that require action and investment.
Is one of the reasons we are having so many issues the decades of underinvestment in water services nationally and then Irish Water taking over? I am a Deputy from Cork North-Central and we are losing 50% of our water every day. We take water from the Lee and we are pumping it up into the Lee waterworks. I remember one time in Cork when we had no water for nearly ten days because of flooding issues, which is unbelievable. Are decades of underinvestment the reason we have these constant problems? Would it be fair to say that is one of the reasons?
Dr. Tom Ryan:
Yes, we have been coming from a very low base and decades of underinvestment. As Irish Water will point out, however, there have been significant improvements if we look back over the last decade. Yet, we still have a long way to go and we are talking about another couple of decades of consistent investment to get the standard of drinking water services and wastewater services up to where they need to be.
Dr. Ryan referred to another couple of decades of investment, but we have commitments and targets to reach. I refer to a situation where we are looking at decades to achieve them. We have a case against us now in this regard. Will we be looking at multiple cases being taken against us for failure to hit our targets in this regard?
My questioning is intended to get information from the witnesses and it is not directed at them personally. I respect the work they do and I thank them for being here. To have an acknowledgement now, however, that it looks like we will have multiple cases taken against for breaches in respect of not reaching targets is an indictment in this regard. Irish Water is now carrying the can for decades of underinvestment. The point, however, is that we have targets that the Government has committed to and it has a duty of care then to ensure that Irish Water has the resources to tackle this undertaking. I believe that water services should be in public ownership, that there should be a referendum on water to enshrine that right in the Constitution and that we should have a non-commercial semi-State entity. We brought people onto the streets years ago to ensure this was the case. People who fought to stop the privatisation of the water services might be listening now. We are looking at how Irish Water is performing and we have the witnesses from the EPA and the HSE with us. We are talking about the quality of drinking water and when we look at the figures, some 565,000 people have been impacted and 243,000 have ongoing problems. As a percentage of the 4 million people who use the water services, these are huge figures. Am I wrong in saying that?
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
Regarding remedial action, we set out our priorities for Irish Water. We have clearly identified them and they have not changed in the years since Irish Water was formed and began operating. These are around prioritising supplies on the remedial action list so they can be upgraded and safeguarded for the future. Our remedial action list now has 57 supplies on it. If we take it that there are 750 water treatment plants, then we are trying to focus on where the greatest risks are to ensure that drinking water quality is protected. We recognise that we cannot invest in everything right now. We must prioritise the risks and where we are investing to address such risks, and this is where the remedial action list came from. These are the places where we needed to prioritise the risks because of the cryptosporidium outbreak in Galway almost 15 years ago. This is what we have tried to do.
We have communicated these priorities to Irish Water. We have also tracked them to ensure the company delivers against the dates it has communicated to us regarding when improvements will be delivered. I am trying to contextualise how we prioritise, how we communicate our priorities to Irish Water concerning drinking water quality and how we safeguard our water supplies for the future and ensure their resilience. I refer to ensuring our supplies are not just safe today but in future as well. Dr. Ryan spoke about the current high levels of bacterial and microbiological compliance and it must be ensured this is safeguarded for the decades to come.
Regarding the EPA's interaction with Irish Water and these priorities, is it felt that Irish Water is taking on board everything the EPA is communicating to it? The witnesses from the HSE might comment on this aspect as well. Is Irish Water taking on board the seriousness of the issues being raised and the priorities being set out?
I am sorry to interrupt, but so do I and I do not feel like I am making any headway in my interactions. This is how I feel as a Deputy raising local issues with the company. I will not discuss those here now because we are looking at this issue on the broader scale. Sometimes, however, I get very frustrated when I am dealing with Irish Water. I do not feel it is listening. Do the witnesses-----
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
We have seen some really good cases where that engagement and investment has paid off. We spoke earlier about Leixlip, Vartry and the new reservoir in Stillorgan. Those are really positive developments that have safeguarded the supply, not just for those communities but for the wider Dublin area, and are really important. We have had some really good successes. It is now about ensuring we get continued delivery on the priorities that we have identified for Irish Water and targeting that. We use our enforcement actions to do that.
I am looking forward to that. I have two points. I am not sure if Mr. Byrne made the point earlier in relation to Cork. My ears pricked up when he spoke. I have huge concerns about the amount of lead piping in Cork city. Cork is a very old city, especially the city centre. We are losing 50% of our water. How much of the old pipe system is lead? Will the HSE or the EPA comment on the implications in relation to the health concerns. I think of my daughters and making their bottles at night. Did we realise the water we were giving our kids was coming through lead pipes? I think Mr. Byrne said that there was no plan yet for Cork? Can he clarify this? A lot has been done by Irish Water in Cork but Mr. Byrne spoke about the plan.
Mr. Noel Byrne:
I was referring to the wastewater collection network. It is the sewerage network that Irish Water is doing an assessment on. It is doing a drainage area plan on the network to see where the issues are and what works need to be done to address it. That is currently happening and then Irish Water will be putting investment behind that to deal with the issues found. It is dealing with the sewerage I was speaking to earlier.
I will come in with the last eight minutes for myself.
I want to turn to the issue of bathing water quality. We have not covered it in depth. In 2019 there was a series of meetings between Dublin city councillors, the HSE, Irish Water and the EPA, regarding some concerns around bathing water quality. It was very unfortunate that on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Liffey swim, there was an incident involving Fingal County Council with the release of infected - if that is the right word - water into the Liffey. I want to talk about the learnings from that process, from water quality in general, bathing water quality, and then to talk about the overlap between the EPA and the HSE on bathing water as opposed to drinking water.
Ms Mary Gurrie:
I thank the Acting Chair. The local authorities are the main managers for bathing water quality. They manage the beaches, designate certain areas identified as beaches and bathing water areas and these are monitored throughout the bathing water season. The EPA's role is to gather up the information and the data, act in an oversight role of the process and to classify the bathing waters. We publish an annual report on that. Overall, bathing water has been improving last year and this is probably a reflection of some of the investment in wastewater over the years and maybe some improvements in agriculture. Some 97% of our bathing waters meet the minimum standard required but we have problems in some locations with agricultural run-off. After heavy rainfall events there can be a flush of bacteria off the land. There can be wastewater overflows or problems with a wastewater plant. We also have problems with dog fouling in some locations which is causing an impact. What happens on the land and in our wastewater treatment plants impacts directly on our bathing water quality and it needs to be managed. We speak about a catchment management approach. The whole catchment needs to be managed in order to maintain good quality bathing water.
Dr. Deirdre Mulholland:
If we are contacted by the local authorities to let us know there is an issue of exceedance around one of the parameters, we consult with our environmental health and public health colleagues at that point and then put forward the recommendation that there should be no bathing. That is the mechanism at the moment.
That relies on the testing regime of the local authority which then informs the HSE if an excess level is found. Is it the HSE's decision as to whether there should be a prohibition on bathing or not?
Dr. Deirdre Mulholland:
It is done in consultation with the local authority and the EPA colleagues if required but it is predominantly on a health basis. Again, like a boil water notice, nobody wants to disrupt anybody's swimming fun, particularly during the summer. It is done purely to protect public health, particularly because one of the parameters tested for is for E.coli which can make people very sick. It is done on that basis. We are cognisant of the fact that community and social activity are being disrupted so it is not done lightly and only until such time as clear test results are back. Then it is reviewed again straight away and the ban lifted as soon as possible.
Open water swimming is a particularly active group; the Liffey swim being the culmination of that sector. Is Dr. Mulholland aware of any liaison with those organisations at local authority level to ensure any concerns are well-addressed? The organisation of this event is really complex yet in the case of 2019, the local authority only informed the HSE the night before the event. This puts an almost impossible pressure on the people organising an open water swimming event.
Ms Ann Marie Part:
I cannot speak for the local authority in terms of its interaction with groups. It was obvious it was going to take testing before an event purposely to try to avoid a situation arising where there would be a large number of people using a watercourse at a time when there was high incidence of a pathogen or bacteria. Sometimes that is what happens at the last minute.
Can I turn to similar incidents in that year which resulted in disruption to water supply because of a human error in the Fingal area. My memory of it was that an alarm sounded but there was not the appropriate human intervention at that time. That comes down to the training and the capacity of local authority staff or what would be Irish Water staff. Has the HSE engaged with Irish Water in that area?
Dr. Tom Ryan:
It was a really significant number. There were a lot of learnings from that but more importantly there has been a lot of investment in Leixlip to the point that it has been taken off a remedial action list. We have seen the kind of incidents that occurred there replicated in Ballymore Eustace and in Gorey last year and again, we have learned from that. We are not there yet. A lot of work is being done but there are still issues around training, responsiveness to alarms, and what we really want to do is mitigate-----
I am conscious of time and having to speak to everybody else.
I visited Ballymore Eustace, for example, and am very conscious of the strategic importance - in terms of national security - of such a facility. While there is fantastic work being done there by the staff, it has to be said that it is a very low-security environment. From a risk management perspective, has there been any assessment in terms of a terrorist attack? A person could essentially pollute 40% of Dublin's water supply by walking onto a site that has low level security. Is that something the EPA or the HSE has a role or involvement in or are they aware of anything at a more strategic level?
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
Every site is physically secure and has access points and control points entering and exiting it. The locations of drinking water treatment plants are not advertised. We do not give their locations, nor does Irish Water. They are not widely publicised. That is to protect security of supply. Then there is a whole raft of measures in place to ensure protection against things like cybersecurity threats. Measures are taken to ensure that the locations of plants are not widely advertised or widely known. There are sign-in and sign-out procedures, as there are on most sites. Adequate measures are in place on the sites to protect-----
I would say even an amateur version of Google Maps would assist people in discovering some of those locations. Perhaps this is not a question for now, and maybe the witnesses did not prepare for it, but if they had any information on this that they could share with the committee, I think it would be useful. We talk about water quality but, in respect of national security, one could take out the water supply with probably a very low-level intervention at any one of those facilities. We see what happens when something breaks, so imagine the impact an intentional intervention could have.
I would like to ask just one question. I am sorry. I was in the Seanad so I could not get here earlier. I direct this question to the HSE. I sit on not only the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage but also the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. There is a double connection in all this. It is the simple question about the alarming level of pesticides found in our water. There has been recent media coverage of this, on which I have commented. The level is very high in parts of the UK. We have it here. I know that Irish Water is touching on this because I have read its written statement. Its representatives will be here later and I will put to them the same question about enforcement and the alarming effect of pesticides, which are found in the urine of children. This is quite well documented. The witnesses may not have come equipped with too much information on it, but if they had a particular view on it I would be interested to hear it. If not, I would like them to supply, with their agreement and that of the committee, some more information on facts, data and samples, who is ultimately responsible and the co-ordination of this between Irish Water, which does a certain amount of work on this. There is some talk that there is clearly evidence of a reduction in pesticides in certain areas in respect of enforcement and that enforcement levels and sampling have gone down. These are carcinogens. They pose very serious challenges to all human health. In particular, evidence of pesticides has been found in young children. How is that coming into the system? Is it coming through the food chain, the water or the water used in respect of agriculture and crops? It is a challenge, it is disturbing and the witnesses might be able to share some thoughts or some data or information here or furnish the committee with it subsequently.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
To bring the Senator completely up to date on the figures, our 2021 report is due out later this week and we will report that 31 water supplies failed to meet the pesticides standard in 2021. That is down slightly on 33 water supplies at the end of 2020. The main herbicide found was 2-methyl-4-chlorophenoxyacetic acid, MCPA, which continues to dominate the exceedances we see for pesticides. There are six water supplies on our immediate action list for pesticides at the end of 2021, and five of those have catchment focus groups in place to undertake measures in the catchment, raising awareness, educating and advising as to the correct use of pesticides in those catchments and bringing together the relevant stakeholders to inform responsible pesticide use and action. We saw a small reduction in pesticide exceedances last year, which is certainly welcome.
I thank Dr. Minihan for that, but that is alarming. Bells should be ringing. We now have pesticides in our water systems. I look forward to that report, and I think we as a committee look forward to it. I thank Dr. Minihan for the indication that it is coming this week. This is alarming, however. We talk to oncologists and researchers about this. In our country, our food chain and our human health are impacted by pesticides in our water systems, and that is really scary. It would be great if the witnesses could share as much information as possible because we need transparency on this issue. This is the most alarming thing about the consumption of water in the State, and we need possibly to revisit this on some future date.
Dr. Michelle Minihan:
Each of those pesticide exceedances, when notified to the EPA, is also the subject of consultation with the HSE. None of those exceedances has been deemed to pose a risk to public health on the basis of the levels found. Notwithstanding that, I take the Senator's point, but each of those exceedances is consulted on with the HSE. There have been no water restrictions put in place for supplies where pesticides have been found. I wanted just to give the Senator that context.
Speaking of cumulative effects, we have run over time. I thank our witnesses from the EPA and the HSE for their answers. We will now suspend the meeting for a moment, which will allow our witnesses from Irish Water to take their seats.
I thank the witnesses from Irish Water who are joining us on the issue of water quality and supply. We are joined by Mr. Niall Gleeson, Ms Angela Ryan, Mr. Tom Cuddy and Mr. Seán Laffey. Their statement has been circulated to members, so I ask them to stay within five minutes for their opening remarks.
As the witnesses were not here for the previous session, I will repeat my remarks on privilege. Witnesses attending in the committee room are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their contribution to the meeting. This means they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they say at the meeting. Members and witnesses are expected not to abuse the privilege they enjoy and it is my duty, as Chair, to ensure this privilege is not abused. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory in respect of an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with such a direction. Members and witnesses 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.
I invite Mr. Gleeson to make his opening statement.
Mr. Niall Gleeson:
I thank the Vice Chairman and members for the opportunity to attend the meeting. I am CEO of Irish Water and I am joined by Ms Ryan, head of asset strategy, Mr. Cuddy, head of asset operations, and Mr. Laffey, director of asset management and sustainability. Our written statement is lengthy, so I will summarise it to leave more time for questions and answers.
Under our strategic funding and capital investment plan, Irish Water has delivered significant improvements. We will invest €5.3 billion in water services between 2020 and 2024. We have delivered significant drinking water and wastewater infrastructure, including the Vartry plant to which reference was made in the previous meeting. We sat in on that session and are aware of the issues raised. I foresee wide-ranging questions from members. Reference was made to the Vartry plant and upgrades to Leixlip. We have also done work on Lee Road in Cork and other significant upgrades in wastewater infrastructure.
Over 99% of our drinking water is compliant with regulations. We have reduced untreated sewage discharges nationally by over 60% by volume. That is a significant improvement and relates to many of the untreated agglomerations that have been discussed. We still have a significant amount of work to do but, by 2025, we will have 95% of those treated. Those that are outstanding involve planning issues that we are working through. Our leakage rate is now 38%. It was approximately 50% when we took over. Our target is to be at 25% nationally by 2030, while the target for the greater Dublin area, GDA, which is particularly stressed on the water side, is 20% by 2030. We expect to achieve both those targets.
On the housing side, in 2021 we issued 32,000 offers for connections for new housing units. We are now halfway through 2022 and approximately 18,000 offers have been made so far this year, so we will overtake the figure for 2021. We are delivering significant connections and offers for housing.
We welcome and highlight the critical ongoing work by the Government to secure planning reform. Obviously, we agree that, on the planning side, people need to be able to object and have a say in what happens. However, I refer to the greater Dublin drainage, GDD, project, which is a critical project to complement the work the Ringsend project is doing. We originally got planning for that project in 2019 but have been challenged in the courts. We think the process will take eight years overall on the planning side alone, before we even get started on construction. That level of planning delay cannot continue.
On drinking water quality and supply in the long term, in 2021 Irish Water adopted the framework for its first national water resources plan. This is a 25-year strategic plan that follows a three-pillar approach of use less, lose less and supply smarter. Two of our regional plans have been published, that is, the plans for the eastern midlands and south-west regions, while two further plans for the south east and north west will be published in the coming months. We have had public consultations on these plans and the public and various authorities, including the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, the HSE and Inland Fisheries Ireland, IFI, have had the opportunity to comment on them. This is research on all the water resources in the country and the examination involves their longevity, the current challenges and the challenges we predict will come with climate change. We have identified the water supply in the eastern midlands region project as being of critical national importance. It is in the national development plan. Currently, 85% of the greater Dublin area is reliant on the Liffey to supply water. Such reliance on a single source creates risk, particularly as the population is expected to increase by 24% by 2044. This project will provide alternative water supplies using water from the River Shannon, but it will also secure supplies along the route, in the midlands, and allow some of the Dublin plants to release water north and south. The project is not just about supply for the GDA.
In the first river basin management plan, prior to the establishment of Irish Water, urban wastewater was listed as the second most dominant pressure on catchment water quality. By the end of the third cycle, we expect it to be the seventh most dominant pressure. It is currently in fourth position in the context of the pressure on water bodies. This reflects significant investment by Irish Water in upgrading infrastructure and optimising operations at wastewater treatment plants. We know we still have challenges, but we are working through them. There are currently 217 significant urban wastewater pressures impacting on 208 water bodies. This equates to 4% of water bodies nationally requiring urban wastewater improvement measures to achieve water framework directive objectives. Works are complete to address urban wastewater problems on 12 water bodies and projects are progressing on a further 61. Another 63 water bodies are due to be completed by 2027 and the remaining 72 assessments are initiated in a rolling program. All current wastewater treatment pressures should be addressed by 2030. Network pressures, particularly in cities, will take considerably longer to address due to scale and complexity.
There has been significant improvement in water quality since 2015. Irish Water performed almost 180,000 individual tests on public supplies last year. The amount of time boil water notices remain in place has reduced significantly. In 2014, notices that were in place for 200 days were considered to be long term, whereas 30 days is now the measure. Last year, Irish Water removed 250,000 customers from boil water notices and 211,000 of those customers had their notices lifted within 30 days. Again, we have challenges but we are making improvements.
Irish Water has built new wastewater infrastructure for 21 towns and villages where no such infrastructure existed, ending the discharge of raw sewage into the environment. We remain on track to achieve the 95% target by 2025.
Irish Water makes every effort to go beyond our regulatory requirements to ensure people are made aware of issues. On water quality issues, we have a reactive and robust system for reporting and dealing with the HSE and the EPA when we are notified of issues. Mr. Cuddy will get into this in more detail. We last appeared before the committee after the incidents at Gorey and Ballymore Eustace. We are trying to remove from the chain the potential for individual mistakes to cause a public health issue. We have introduced our project connect programme. As part of that programme, the top 51 plants in the country are now covered by our 24-7 operation centre, accounting for 2.7 million of the population. We continue to roll that out. We hope to cover the top 70 by the end of the year and the top 100 plants next year. Notably, the top 100 plants cover approximately 86% of the population.
The remaining 14% of the population are covered by about 650 plants so one can imagine the challenge of trying to run oversight over all of those much smaller plants that cover anywhere from 150 to 1,000 people. They are a big challenge, including logistically.
Mr. Niall Gleeson:
Yes, I am concluding now. We welcome our budget this year, which is €1.5 billion. We expect to spend €1.1 billion on capital this year and €1.2 billion next year. We are investing considerable amounts of money in capital around the country. It is difficult to address everything at the same time and it is difficult for our supply chain to keep up because we keep increasing our spend. We started off at €400 million and we are now at €1.2 billion. It is incremental. We are trying to address as many issues as we can in as short a time as possible but the challenges are enormous.
Thank you Mr. Gleeson. We will now move on to questions. Each member has seven minutes for both questions and answers. I will take the first slot myself.
Mr. Gleeson has outlined some of the improvements that Irish Water has made, but having heard previous speakers from the EPA and the HSE, there is no doubt that there is a significant challenge remaining, with more than 500,000 people having what can be described as an "unsatisfactory" level of water quality. We have an indication that Ireland may be the only EU country facing court proceedings, which is not an ideal situation for Irish Water to be in. Are these issues being taken seriously and can Mr. Gleeson outline to us a sense of urgency, given the really stark facts that were given to us in the previous session?
Mr. Niall Gleeson:
It is very unfortunate that we went back last year. The predominant issue is around trihalomethanes or THMs. We are trying to address it. I will ask Mr. Laffey to come in on this. It is a tricky issue to deal with and it is not for lack of trying. We have put systems into plants that have worked for a period and then stopped working. Mr. Laffey will give a bit of background to the THMs and how we deal with them. I want the committee to understand that we are trying to deal with this issue.
Mr. Se?n Laffey:
As Dr. Minihan said, THMs are a class of organic compounds that are formed when dissolved organics in the water interact with the chlorine that we use to disinfect the water. That is how we get THMs. Research has shown that exposure to trihalomethanes over a very long period of time can be carcinogenic so we take them very seriously. The issue with THMs is that they will form immediately they come in contact with chlorine but the longer they are in contact with the chlorine, the more formations of THMs we get, so as Dr. Minihan said, we have issues with the extremities of our networks because water out at the extremities could have left the plant five to seven days previously. Historically, we have had a problem with THMs in Ireland because a lot of our water sources are impacted by a lot of dissolved organic matter from bogs and so on, and the plants that were put in simply were not up to the highly technical challenge of removing that dissolved organic matter. We are moving on the issue. We have a case against us and we have a THM programme in place. We are spending millions of euro every year on the issue of THMs. It is not the case that our water supplies are getting worse. What is actually happening is that Irish Water has looked across all of our water treatment plants in terms of their trihalomethane risk profile and has initiated additional testing above what is required in the regulations. We are doing that in the plants and out on the network and we are finding THMs. This is bad news in the short term because ultimately, the remediation action list, RAL, goes up, that is, the numbers go up, but in the long term it is good news because it means we have identified a problem and we can put a plan in place to fix it.
You have alluded to the fact that there are environmental elements associated with bogs and so on. Is it that there are factors that are unique to Ireland or is this related to the unsatisfactory systems in place in our water treatment network?
Mr. Se?n Laffey:
I would not say we are unique. Scotland has similar typography to us, as does Wales. A lot of the plants that were put in, from a technical point of view, will perform fine during the summer when the water is quite clear but during heavy rainfall events, a lot of organic matter is washed in and the plants are not technically capable of removing those organics. In Irish Water, we have the expertise to make sure the plants we invest in are capable of removing the organics and therefore the THMs.
The first time a member of the public becomes aware that there might be an issue is if there is discoloration, a smell or a taste in the water. The EPA and the HSE outlined their role in the overall process in terms of issuing boil water notices and so on. How does Irish Water escalate reports that come into its call centre? In recent weeks, for example, across Clontarf, some parts of the northside of Dublin, Dún Laoghaire and some parts of north Wicklow there have been reports of an earthy or mouldy taste and smell from the water. Is Irish Water aware of that? If Irish Water gets several phone calls into its call centre, how does that get escalated up and what level of investigation is carried out following the first, second and subsequent calls?
Mr. Tom Cuddy:
We are well aware of the situation that transpired across Wicklow and Dún Laoghaire first, before moving through the east side of Dublin, which was associated with very trace organic material, which is associated with an algal bloom that occurs very occasionally. We have not had that effect at the treatment plant at Vartry for about ten years. When we get any taste, odour, discolouration or other complaint, we immediately raise an investigative work order and our site staff go out and investigate on the site locally. Quite often, as in this case, we get clusters of calls and that immediately warrants closer investigation, sampling and testing. We consult very rapidly with the HSE where there is any health concern. In the case of the incident that we have noted in the last few weeks, we see now that it is diminishing. It is very similar to the situation we found with other sources in recent years and in fact, it is associated with no health effects. It is also very subjective. I spoke to some of my colleagues today who live in the area and even in the same household, some people got the musty smell while others did not. In this instance, it is relatively benign although unpleasant for some people. It has worked its way through and we can see that things have gone. After we do the investigation, we do immediate resolution measures. For example, we will flush the local mains, flush the taps, sample again and so on. In the event-----
Mr. Tom Cuddy:
We have a record of the calls that we get and they reached up to about 60 or so, per day, at the peak period but they have diminished now. We also observed how they moved geographically through because as Mr. Laffey mentioned, it can take several days for the water to work its way through the system.
You might have heard the question I put to the EPA and the HSE regarding the security risk at water treatment facilities and whether we had sufficient cybersecurity and physical security in place to prevent a malicious attack on somewhere like Ballymore Eustace which provides 40% of our water supplies. Is that something Irish Water can comment on? What measures are in place?
Mr. Niall Gleeson:
We liaise with An Garda Síochána and we have consulted our UK colleagues on the security of water treatment plants in general and we have taken a lot of their advice on board. We have electronic control systems and CCTV at Ballymore Eustace. A lot of it is discreet. I do not want to go into too much detail here on live television but I am quite happy to give the committee an update on it. We are also working very closely with the National Cyber Security Centre, NCSC, on our cyber risks. Again, we have a very significant-----
I thank our guests for being here today. I have a number of questions for Irish Water, following on from our engagement with the EPA and the HSE earlier. There are serious implications from the court case that is being taken against us, and possible future court cases that will be taken, because of our failure to meet the targets that have been set out.
It was mentioned in the introduction that Irish Water has a budget of €1.5 billion for this year. If we are looking at having court rulings against us in Europe, is a budget needed that could get us where we need to get to meet the targets we have signed up for?
Mr. Niall Gleeson:
As I alluded to at the start, we are delivering €1.1 billion of capital investment this year, which will go up to €1.2 billion next year. As an organisation and a national supply chain, there is a limit to what we can deliver. I am not sure throwing more money at this immediately would solve the problem. We are making progress.
Mr. Se?n Laffey:
We have five-year revenue control periods, which are approved by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, and our Department, and we get roughly €5 billion to €6 billion per revenue control period. We spend about €1.2 billion per year, which it is hoped will go up to about €1.5 billion per year. We are looking at somewhere in the region of €40 billion or €50 billion worth of work to bring all of our water and wastewater assets, both treatment and network, up to good standard. It will take multiple investment cycles.
Mr. Niall Gleeson:
That was for the water values and various things. We are working closely with the EPA and the European Union on these fines. We go back to them, demonstrate we are making progress, and there is a leniency on those fines on behalf of the EU. The fact we have stepped back on the THMs is a problem and the EU is not happy with that, so we need to make progress, but with the concerted effort we are putting into it, we can fix the THMs issue within a relatively short time.
Commentary was made on plants. I would take from what was said that a number of plants are not fit for purpose, especially in the wintertime. It was said they operate well in the summertime but that there are issues in the winter. How many plants are we looking at? Were they badly designed, are they just old or is it down to underinvestment over the years? Why are those plants in the condition they are in?
Mr. Se?n Laffey:
I made those comments about THMs. If you are taking water out a river during the summer, it is calm and there is no heavy rainfall so the water is quite clear and settled and the plants can deal with them. The plants were not designed to deal with extreme events. Plants are built with a certain headroom and additional capacity, and when they are new they can take shock events a lot easier than when they are slightly older and working more towards the upper end of their capacity.
I will go back to the figure of 560,000 people being affected and 243,000 people having ongoing problems. Those are huge figures given the size of the country and our population. Is a figure of 500,000 people being affected a damning indictment?
Mr. Se?n Laffey:
The RAL was going well until Clareville and Srowland were included, and that added roughly 230,000 people to that number. Srowland is not producing poor water. The EPA has observed some operational issues there it would like us to fix. That has become a priority for the EPA so that has been added to the RAL. Srowland has not failed to date. It just has some operational issues the EPA would like us to look at. The Limerick plant at Clareville has gone because of THMs. That is an issue we are seeing at extremities of the network, and our teams already have an action plan. We hope to be able to resolve that issue rapidly.
I touched on water quality earlier. I am coming at it from a Cork point of view but it is a national issue when you are dealing with lead pipes. I am not sure if any of the witnesses were involved but I had a number of meetings with Irish Water as a Deputy and when I was a councillor on Cork City Council about the plan in place to reduce the use of lead piping. Unfortunately, I have never had enough time to get the HSE to comment on this from a health point of view but where are we with the lead piping extraction?
Ms Angela Ryan:
Irish Water has a lead reduction strategy and we are looking at various actions to resolve the issue of lead in drinking water. There are no lead water mains within the distribution network. Lead occurs between the distribution network that supplies water and the customers' properties, namely, the customer service pipe. An element of that customer service pipe is within Irish Water's control, a section of it is privately owned by the customer, and then there can be lead in the plumbing systems within a property. Irish Water must work with other stakeholders to reduce lead exceedances at the customer's tap. We have an implementation plan in place and to date we have removed 50,000 lead services of an estimated 180,000 lead services nationally within the public supply.
Ms Angela Ryan:
They are the pipes that connect an individual customer's property to the public water supply out in the road or footpath. It is the small pipe that connects each individual household's supply. To have overall coverage, Irish Water is looking at processes within our water treatment plants. By 2026, we will have pH optimisation and orthophosphate dosing covering 90% of the population that is at risk from lead exceedance. Through orthophosphate dosing and pH correction we reduce plumbosolvency and using that measure we should be able to become about 92% to 93% compliant with the parameters set out in the drinking water regulations.
I thank the witnesses for being with us. That was an education on lead pipes. I congratulate Irish Water on the two significant achievements we have seen in the past year in Vartry and the significant upgrades in Leixlip, which serves many of my constituents in Lucan. It is great to get that update on the eastern and midlands regional project, which is coming down the tracks. I spoke earlier about the Saggart project and the 100 million l reservoir that is being installed there. I had the opportunity to go on site with Irish Water's partners that are building that. It is great to see they are more than halfway through that project, which will provide better stability and security for the greater Dublin region when it comes to water. I welcome all that investment.
My first question is on water quality, although not really on the minimum quality standards. I accept we need to ensure the water that comes out of everybody's taps is safe to drink. That is a requirement but we should be aiming for a higher bar than that and to deliver high-quality water that tastes good to encourage people, in particular children, to drink it. In some areas of Lucan that are served by a particular pump, we do not have that. We have extremely hard water which damages expensive appliances like dishwashers and washing machines, which is a complaint I hear repeatedly. Will it be possible to merge water supplies to dilute hard water as part of the eastern and midlands regional project? Will the pipes allow for that?
My second question is on leaks. It is soul-destroying to talk about leaks and to see the wastage. I congratulate Irish Water on all it is doing to reduce that. Reducing it from 50% to 38% has been an achievement and to get it to 25% and 20% in Dublin will be great. How much is that costing? How much money are we pumping into leaks?
This is the Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage and all of us are committed to making sure we deliver new homes, houses and housing estates as quickly as possible.
Water is a key service when it comes to that. I have had a situation in my constituency, and have seen and know of similar situations in Dublin South-West and Cork, where estates have been built but there have been delays in getting people into homes, or people went into homes but did not get water, because the connections were not happening when they should have been. Is that still happening? Are there estates that people are or should be in that are not connected to water supplies at present? My three questions relate to the wider quality issue, whether we could merge water supplies and leaks from a funding perspective, and housing commencements.
Ms Angela Ryan:
Hard water is a cosmetic issue. Hard water can be beneficial for public health, which is one of those paradigms in life. People do not like hard water but it can actually be quite good for them. On the water supply in the greater Dublin area, two of the main water treatment plants, one of them Ballymore Eustace, has relatively soft water. Leixlip water is harder. It is an integrated supply, which means some of the district metered areas, DMAs, within the city are mixed DMAs so they are blending, but the supplies along the north fringe close by, and the Leixlip water treatment plant, are predominantly harder water. It is not the hardest water on our networks but it is hard water. When the water supply project, eastern and midlands region, comes in, it will sit somewhere between the two. We have a blended supply. For some DMAs that are predominantly served by Leixlip, it is unlikely that will change over time.
As a number of Deputies mentioned, there are many priorities across our public water supplies and wastewater supplies. We are looking at addressing some of the risk elements within our supplies, such as leakage and wastewater discharges. When we have resolved many of those issues, we may come back to look at the more cosmetic issues over time. The priority, however, has to be public health at present.
Mr. Niall Gleeson:
It started lower but will increase. It is an incredibly significant expense. There is a theory out there that Irish Water just wants to build new plants and does not care about leaks but we will put almost the equivalent investment into fixing leaks as new plants.
On supplies, I am aware of a few individual houses that are waiting for connections but I am not aware of any estates at present. Typically, when we drill into those issues a lot of it is due to late applications by developers or an infrastructure issue because of the direction of a pipe, a wastewater pipe more predominantly, where we thought we could run it but something else was in the way and more remedial work was needed. We investigate all of those issues and try to resolve them as quickly as possible. We do not sit on our hands regarding them.
I welcome the Irish Water representatives. We are dealing with the matters of fresh water and wastewater; both are pertinent to the question I will pursue. I sit on this committee and, as I said, on the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The HSE confirmed to us this afternoon the presence of toxins, particularly pesticides, in our water stream. This has been well documented by medics and there has been a lot of media coverage of it in the past 12 months. The most alarming aspect of all this is the percentage of pesticides in the urine of children in the UK and Northern Ireland, but also in this jurisdiction.
One could ask what the cumulative effect of this will be, especially if it is coming from a water stream. I recognise much of this is coming from agricultural leakage, potentially, through the water streams to aquifers etc. but we need to reassure the public. This is an alarming situation that has been confirmed by the HSE today. Irish Water referenced on page 4 of its statement - it has not numbered its pages but I have - that there is evidence of a reduction in pesticides and "pesticide enforcement files across public water supplies...". It has identified, admitted and accepted this. That is good because we now know we have a problem but we have to reassure the public.
This is now primarily a public health issue and we have to give reassurance. I do not think I would be happy if I were to read in tomorrow's newspapers that there were pesticides in our water system. How will we address that? That is one question. It is about accountability, transparency and, as I said, public health. The high levels of pesticides found in children are alarming. We need to identify whether that is coming through water for crops or through drinking water. Somehow it is water that is getting into the systems of our people. The association with carcinogenics and cancer is there, which is the most alarming matter to be raised in this committee today. It is certainly the thing I will take away with me. I ask Irish Water to touch on that issue and how it is addressing it. As I said, there are two issues, including that of wastewater.
Irish Water states in the top paragraph on page 4 of its statement: "There are currently 217 significant urban wastewater pressures impacting on 208 water bodies." Are the representatives in a position to furnish that schedule or list to the committee? I ask them to map, or if not map include an index, on the local authorities those particular plants relate to. It is important we get a greater understanding. The representatives have come today and told this committee that there are "significant urban wastewater pressures". That is important. It would be very helpful, from our point of view, if we knew where they are and what local authorities they involve. We could then look into that in greater detail. Irish Water sought to reassure the committee that it will resolve most of these issues by 2030. This is 2022. I put it to the representatives that 2030 is just too far away. They know the ins and outs of it and I do not, but this is the first I have heard and read about it. I am somewhat concerned that we will have to wait until 2030 on this issue.
I acknowledge that I received the Irish Water press statement on the River Vartry. The rationale was very well set down. I read its press release - these press releases are issued to the Houses of the Oireachtas anyway - and I thank it for that. I thank Irish Water for it engagement in respect of its communications strategy with Oireachtas Members. There is a lot of work to be done on how it engages and communicates beyond that. I spoke to a woman today, who lives just outside Loughrea, who was on a boil water notice for three months. She did not get too much communication and did not know who she should communicate with. Most people tend to go their local authority. We have a lot of work to do on how we can address that.
The representatives have confirmed Irish Water has €1.5 billion in its budget this year, which is an enormous amount of money. I ask them to address the issue of carcinogenics, pesticides and water. I would have thought, and I suggest and put this to Irish Water, that one of the topmost priorities in drawing down some of this €1.5 billion is how we address the issue of herbicides and pesticides in our drinking water.
Mr. Se?n Laffey:
We absolutely test for pesticides and we are very aware of them. The Senator is quite correct. It is not just pesticides; it is pesticides and herbicides. We have looked at international best practice regarding these types of chemical compounds. They are very useful for agriculture. In fact, a lot of agricultural yield relies on the use of these particular compounds. We have found that catchment management, and Dr. Minihan referred to it directly, is the best way of controlling the use of pesticides and herbicides. The Senator is quite correct in calling out that they are a health issue, but in excess amounts pesticides and herbicides also have an impact on, and are very detrimental to, aquatic life and the environment.
Ultimately, we have to look after the environment because it looks after us. We are working with a number of bodies, including the EPA, Teagasc, local authorities, the local authority waters programme, LAWPRO, etc. We are running catchment management programmes with local farmers to try to come up with new methods of applying herbicides and pesticides, keeping them away from streams, and making sure they are employed at the right time of year during the right weather conditions etc. We are part of a project jointly funded by ourselves, Northern Ireland and the European Union, Project SWELL, which is a cross-Border initiative looking at the use of pesticides and herbicides around Lough Erne.
There was a 65% reduction through working with and educating farmers and making sure herbicides were applied in the correct way. Ultimately, if they cannot be got to a level that is consistent with best practice and public health guidelines – we are not there yet – we will have to consider what we call an end-of-pipe solution, which means taking the chemicals out at the treatment plant. However, we believe that catchment management is the best approach overall at the moment.
Ms Angela Ryan:
On the river basin management plan and the pressures posed by our wastewater treatment plants, at the start of the second cycle of the river basin management plan we were deemed to be a significant pressure on 291 water bodies. We have reduced that to 208, so we were one of the success stories of the second-cycle river basin management plan. We comprise one of the pressures on the water bodies. At some water bodies, there may be other pressures also. We have prioritised the areas where Irish Water comprises the most significant pressure on the water bodies. Even since the start of the third-cycle river basin management plan, we have taken a further 12 water bodies off the list of 208. We have plans and projects under construction or going to construction to address a further 63. Therefore, it is a key focus of Irish Water. We anticipate that by the end of the period of the third-cycle river basin management plan, we will have reduced the pressure we exert, bringing the figure from 4% of water bodies to 2% of water bodies. Therefore, we are showing a consistent downward trend.
On the remaining water bodies, we will not be the predominant pressure. However, we will seek to address our role as a pressure at those water bodies. We are currently progressing feasibility studies on 73 water bodies. I am referring to the early stages where we go out, do initial feasibility studies and examine options. That is a precursor to developing projects to address the areas in question. We should have all the studies completed by 2029. In the remaining 61 areas, we will be progressing the investigative studies and feasibility reports. We hope to have all the feasibility studies on the remaining sites under way by 2029, but it is likely to be the end of the 2030s before we have removed ourselves as a pressure at all water bodies.
The initial focus of Irish Water was investments in our wastewater treatment plants. Over the last investment cycle, we upgraded 129 wastewater treatment plants and 96 collection systems. We spent €2.3 billion doing that. We are seeing the return on investment now. We will tee up additional investment in our supplies, but also our wastewater collection networks. However, it will take more time to resolve those issues. We are considering developing integrated wastewater and drainage plans for the large urban centres. We hope to have six of them under way by 2027. That is a commitment we will be making as part of the third-cycle river basin management plan.
The next slot is the Fine Gael slot. I will take that.
Senator Boyhan referred to Irish Water's engagement with us as Oireachtas Members. It is important to put on the record the positive and proactive engagement we have with Irish Water staff. I can speak from my experience of trying to resolve several issues in Waterford. I thank the representatives for that. There are particular issues concerning Waterford that I referred to in my engagement with the EPA and HSE. I raise them not to be parochial but to give an example of what happens when a complaint is registered when a boil water notice is in existence and to explore how we get to the point of rectifying the problem.
Could I go back to the first point, on the boil water notice? Mr. Gleeson referred to 30 days. The community of Fán Glas, Kilmeadan, has been subject to a boil water notice since February of this year. I understand Irish Water is engaged in procurement for works to rectify the problem; however, it will be an awfully long time from February to Christmas, which is when I hope the problem will be resolved. Brown water is coming out of the taps. I argue that tankers should be provided by Irish Water. They are not. The community has been left in this position since February. Can the delegates explain why it has taken so long? What are the impediments that have meant brown water is still in the taps in October although a boil water notice was put in place with the HSE regarding a problem that was identified in February?
Mr. Tom Cuddy:
Quite a number of our sources are challenged. The basic raw water is not treatable fully, certainly by the older treatment plants. In many cases, the resolution is either to find a new source or extend a neighbouring network to connect up. When we do apply a boil water notice, it is for very good reasons. It may be because there are concerns about the risk to public health. It is not necessarily that there are pathogens. The difficulty of cloudiness means treatment with ultraviolet and chlorine cannot be fully effective. In fact, over-chlorination, which results in trihalomethanes, can be detrimental.
Let me address the question on tankering water. Unfortunately, when we tanker water to an area, that water also has to be boiled. Therefore, people would still have the same issue. The tankers themselves would need to be flushed out, cleaned and so on.
Perhaps we can take that up offline.
Another case in point is Bunmahon, which I also referred to. An EPA report shows significant deficiencies. I have been engaging with Irish Water on putting a scheme together through the small towns and villages growth programme. The difficulty obviously is the timelines. Mr. Gleeson referred to this in his initial remarks. If we are starting a process in 2023, which I hope will be the case, how can we expedite delivery on the ground in terms of agglomerations such as Bunmahon? We all accept the process takes time but is it possible to front-load to speed up at the back end? With regard to procurement for a site, for example, should we carry out negotiations to acquire land at the front end so we do not have to start a process at the back end? Are there planning steps that Irish Water could be taking, independent of the possible planning delays, that could speed up the delivery of the much-needed networks?
Mr. Niall Gleeson:
We are considering all those types of options. Consider the example of the Arklow site, a wastewater treatment plant. It represents a very significant investment in the town. We consulted the local population quite significantly over a period of probably two years to get the right site, get buy-in from the local people and avoid objections. That got through the planning process quite well. Again, we welcome the support of Oireachtas Members on that kind of issue so we can get planning permission more quickly and avoid objections in the first place.
As to procuring land in advance, we can try it on the smaller projects, where it is probably practical. Our Department gets very nervous when we put money down with the risk of not getting that site followed through. We have our friends in the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General coming in to us next year and they would be very interested in that kind of stuff. We have to be cautious. We will certainly look at every opportunity.
Irish Water can never eliminate a possible objection, but in the case of Bunmahon, there has been very proactive engagement from the community and there is a very good group in place that is working to try to ensure the proper facilities are put in place to service the community. The hope would be that that engagement piece would reduce the issue. Could other measures, such as those suggested by Mr. Gleeson, be front-loaded?
I want to raise a point that is not particularly within Irish Water’s remit but I did not get the opportunity to ask the EPA earlier. There is a grants scheme in place for domestic septic tanks, which had to be registered before February 2013. I know of a couple of cases where there is a difficulty, although this is more for our report and I am just asking for an opinion. Where somebody bought a house in 2018 or 2019, they were not responsible for registering that septic tank in 2013. However, because the tank was not registered in 2013, they are not eligible for the grants. As a result, it is a particular issue the local authorities have in terms of enforcement and the person having the ability to carry out those works. For the purposes of our report, would Irish Water support the adjustment of such a measure to regularise that so a new homeowner who bought a property subsequently is not penalised for the inaction of somebody else back in February 2013?
I thank the speakers for coming in and for giving us a very comprehensive overview of all the work they do. We have heard plenty so I will try to be as succinct as possible. I have a couple of questions and the witnesses can come back to me when I have gone through them, if that is okay.
In regard to the new connections, it is great to see we are at 18,000 and, on that basis, we will exceed expectations and will have 36,000 new connections, which cuts to the chase and proves that houses are being built in the country. However, there is an issue with connections. We have a new local authority estate in Longford where there was an issue with a connection, although it has since been resolved. I know of one constituent who cannot move into her new house because she has an air-to-water heating system. The clue is in the name of the heating system and she urgently needs to get a connection. I will follow up with Irish Water with the details after the meeting and we will try to resolve it rather than labouring it here. What is the average time for a new connection? Irish Water can come back to me at the end with that information. I believe the ballpark figure for a new connection fee is about €1,600 and there seems to be no discretion for an applicant. For example, I know of an applicant who has been told there is an additional charge because where he should be connecting, Irish Water cannot guarantee a good water supply. He would say that is not his issue and that it is Irish Water's issue. I would like an answer on that point as well.
I have a question for Mr. Cuddy on the Lough Forbes upgrade in Longford town, which seems to be going on an inordinate length of time and there was a boil water notice there. Will Mr. Cuddy update us on what has been spent on that to date and whether there is a finish line in sight?
I want to raise a couple of issues in regard to wastewater, which we may not get through fully today due to time constraints, so I will follow up with Irish Water after the meeting. Edgeworthstown and Ballymahon are among the four principal towns outside Longford town and both are at maximum capacity for wastewater at the moment. I am well aware of the eight-workshop process in regard to trying to get a new plant in place. I understand Ballymahon has completed the second workshop but, although I am not sure of this, the work at Edgeworthstown appears to have been stalled. There has to be some degree of foresight within Uisce Éireann so that, when towns are at maximum capacity, the process is expedited. This is especially the case at Ballymahon, where we have seen Center Parcs announce an ambitious expansion of 96 new units last week. I would be interested to hear the response on that.
With regard to small issues, for Lisbrack Downs in Longford town we were advised early last year that a consultant was being appointed to look at a new pumping station for that estate to connect it to the nearby treatment plant on the basis there was an admission that the pumping station was not working. It seems to have gone off the boil. I know of a couple of exasperated residents who are besieged with waste matter in their gardens every time it rains. Radharc na Coille and Woodlands are two small housing estates and I do not expect the witnesses to know them off the top of their heads, or they will shock me with their knowledge of Longford. To cut a long story short, Radharc na Coille is a new development of six houses that were all purchased post the arrival of Irish Water. There was a developer plant in situso, obviously, Irish Water has not taken that in charge. Down the road, Woodlands was completed before Irish Water's time so the council took it in charge, but Irish Water is sending a tanker at least once every two weeks to empty out that plant because it is not working. The population there is not big enough to come under the new scheme, but surely some degree of credence must be given to the fact it is simply not working.
On the group water schemes that were anticipated to be taken in charge, can we see a ramping up on that, specifically the Forgney group water scheme in Longford town?
Mr. Se?n Laffey:
Around new connections, we generally get 85% of connection offers out within 16 weeks. A lot of the more complicated ones go through, but we have had very good prior engagement. On new connections, what we always say is that we need early engagement. Let us get into the room together and let us work out the issues so that when the time comes to connect, it is there.
In terms of group water schemes and DPI, or developer provided infrastructure, there is a memorandum of understanding between ourselves, the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and local authorities around a methodology of taking in group water schemes and how DPI is dealt with. The DPI and the group water schemes need to come through the local authorities first, but if they are brought to our attention, we certainly look at them. We have a section in Irish Water that deals with the taking in of those particular group water schemes and the resolution of issues with DPI. We have a mechanism in place for that.
We will get the Deputy an update on the Edgeworthstown and Ballymahon wastewater treatment plant. I would not like to say anything here which might be inaccurate or wrong. We can also get the Deputy an update on Lough Forbes.
With regard to the connection fee, the CRU has given us a connection policy which has been in force for roughly three and a half to four years. It did go out to consultation and we submitted a view on it, as did a lot of other third parties. We have to abide by the connection policy of the CRU. What I would say is that when the time comes for a review of that policy, and I do not believe it is too far away, all of these unforeseen issues should be brought into the mix. We have quite a number of them lined up to discuss with the CRU.
The Deputy raised the issue of someone living right beside the network who could connect just for the connection fee but they are told they have to go 2 km down the road because there is not enough water pressure. That is something we can raise with the CRU and it can take a view on it. Whatever view it takes, that is the view that Irish Water abides by.
I imagine that the direction in which I intend to go will not come as complete shock. Water quality has been a huge issue in Dundalk for a considerable amount of time and in the mid- to north-Louth area in particular. It is fair to say that people have even to a degree gotten used to having brown water. I was in a chip shop the other day and somebody asked me if I wanted tap water or bottled water. I said tap water, and everybody laughed and assumed that I was not being serious. They just did not consider how mean I am. It is a considerable issue.
I will ask Mr. Gleeson for his opinion on the CRU investigation specifically on Cavanhill treatment plant. In 2020, there were breaches in manganese levels, but there was a huge issue in communications and in making the information public. This also happened later in June 2021, but the fact is that every year for the last number of years, Irish Water has spoken about flushing programmes and has said that the problem would be dealt with. It went from iron oxide to manganese. I accept from my engagement with Irish Water that the flushing was not being done as comprehensively as it is being done now. I want to check that we are now having more comprehensive flushing for those hard-to-get areas that it had not been possible to access. I have seen a number of teams that have been out in order to do this work.
Over the summer I, along with various elected representatives, tried to make contact with Irish Water, as, even, did LMFM, the local radio station. We were given the date of 14 September as the end of this flushing process. I did not believe it to be the case that that would be the end of it. Irish Water’s own press releases had listed Blackrock initially, parts of Dromiskin and later Dundalk. In Dundalk, Irish Water named the number of the estates, such as the estate I live in myself, Bay Estate, as well as St. Alphonsus Road, Muirhevanmore, and the areas around me. I was also constantly and consistently getting pictures and videos of brown water from other areas of Dundalk. I am speaking about the likes of O’Hanlon Park, Marian Park and the north end of Dundalk. I never saw any of those places on the list. I accept that when there is a plan that other things can get in the way. The date of 14 September could have been pushed back anyway. However, I find it hard to believe that the date of 14 September could have ever been the end date. I am still getting photographs and videos of brown water. The situation has not been completely resolved.
I am looking for a timeline. I accept that there will be a short-term fix for some of this, but can we get a timeline on when that will be done? I was told, and I want to get clarity on this, that a flushing team is now dealing with this piece of work and that it will continually be doing this. Some of this will not be resolved until the pipe work is completed as regards the iron oxide. I understand that there is a specific problem with manganese. Could Irish Water answer all that?
Mr. Tom Cuddy:
At an operational level, in the past four years we have noticed incredible increases in manganese as a phenomenon in water systems right across the country. Dundalk is one of the specific locations. The treatment chemicals that we use are only in a few plants, but we now have to add them to other plants-----
Mr. Tom Cuddy:
The raw water is the issue. Manganese is a naturally occurring mineral and the amount of it in the raw water is far greater than it has been. It is much more widespread across the country. It also tends to be seasonal, so it comes to the fore in the summer time and late summer. That adds to the issue. Of course, manganese is not captured by our normal treatment. What happens is that it comes out of solution when it is in the network. It then causes cloudy and speckled water. The only resolution, once it gets that far, is for us to flush the network. Initially, when this came to our attention a couple of years ago, simple local flushing was sufficient. Now it has progressed to the stage where it needs, as the Deputy also mentioned, pretty much a dedicated a flushing team and we have had to make changes within the network.
To go back to address the fundamental issue, this is really a treatment issue. It is a matter of improving the treatment process and adding to it. It is a new process within the overall treatment plant. To go back further to the issue of raw water in the catchment area, a study is now being undertaken by the EPA and we are participating in that. It seems to be a phenomenon not just in Ireland, but across northern Europe. It is a matter that we will have to deal with more and more.
The comments from the CRU are related to the fielding of calls and their categorisation as complaints. Be that as it may, once these calls and issues are raised with us, they are still investigated thoroughly at site level. The reaction on the ground at an operational level is exactly the same, however. The communications were not to the standard that was required. Many lessons were learned from that and that has been corrected at this stage.
I think Mr. Laffey might want to touch on the overall manganese treatment issue across the country, which I know-----
Ms Angela Ryan:
In relation to the Cavanhill water treatment plant, the source is, as Mr. Cuddy said, Lough Muckno in County Monaghan. We have been looking at that source and it is a good source for water availability. However, we have found in a number of instances over the past few years that we have had some dry weather events and the levels in Lough Muckno have dropped two levels. That, on a historical timeline, is a very low level.
We are having a look at the causes of the manganese within our raw water supplies. Again, this requires us to look not just at this water treatment plant but at many others where we are seeing greater manganese issues. We are looking at process optimisation within our plants, but we will have to have further investigations and jar testing in order to understand the chemistry of the water and how we can improve the processes across those water supplies. It will probably require us, because it is a recurring issue across our supplies, to set up a programme to address that specific topic.
I will be very brief. Communications is a difficulty, and it is an area in which I think there is still much improvement to be made. This flushing process is not yet over, and the date of 14 September was not met. That is fine, but people need to know that and then they will accept that. The last correspondence I have relates to 14 September, which includes, as I said, an incomplete list of areas in Dundalk. I want to know the end date for the comprehensive flush, accepting that further flushing will have to happen at different times.
Mr. Tom Cuddy:
I have a point on the current year’s situation. Samples and testing that are being done at the moment show that manganese levels in the Dundalk supply are below the compliance limit of 50 mcg per l. Nevertheless, as the Deputy mentions, there may be some areas where flushing is still needed. It may be needed for other reasons, because we do get sedimentation in dead ends, etc.
That is a phenomenon we find everywhere. As far as manganese is concerned, which Ms Ryan touched on, the seasonal peak seems to have passed. Flushing seems to have done the job from the point of view of bringing the water within compliance levels for manganese, but there is an underlying fundamental problem that we will have to address.
I have two supplementary questions. I will focus on Ms Ryan as she responded to my question about page 4. We talked about the 217 pressure impacts and she outlined how that figure was being eaten into. I suggest we should be provided with some sort of a breakdown on that. The committee continues to monitor Irish Water. We do not just consider it at today's meeting; it is part of our constant engagement throughout the Oireachtas. Can Irish Water commit to that, if possible? I am conscious of the sensitivities of Irish Water's work and programmes, but it would give the committee a greater understanding of the issue. Also, how does it fit in with the timeline? It is clear that Irish Water has prioritised them and there are financial considerations and capital issues, as well as a whole load of other issues. Is there any chance of pulling back on the 2030 target? I am sure Irish Water wants to be realistic and honest with us, but that target is a long way off. It would be great and helpful if Irish Water could commit to that, if possible.
I will return to pesticides and the fact that they have been found in urine samples. This is a real danger to public health, our ever-fragile environment, on which Mr. Laffey touched, and the food chain. It raises the question of what best international practice is. I know much work has been done on this in Canada, the US, Germany and Austria. It is time to look at best practice to see how we can address this issue. It touches on agriculture, food production, the environment and public health, which is the most important. There should be some sort of collaboration. The EPA has come before the committee as well as the HSE and the Department of Health. This issue is multifaceted and needs a collaborative response. Has there been any collaboration between the Department of Health and the EPA in addressing this issue? I am committed to continuing to raise this issue in the coming weeks because it needs to be raised. I believe other members will do so as well. Has there been any collaboration or does Irish Water plan on having greater collaboration to address this concern?
Mr. Se?n Laffey:
Yes, absolutely. There is a national pesticides action group of which Irish Water is a member. From memory, there are representatives from the EPA; the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; the HSE; Teagasc; the local authority waters programme, LAWPRO; and the environmental sections of some local authorities. The group takes a combined catchment-based approach to managing pesticides. Best international practice has been around the fact that while pesticides and herbicides are used for agriculture, they are a useful tool and will be used going into the future. The best way to minimise the impact they have on water bodies is through catchment management and we are focused on that.
The actions we are taking are up there with the best international practices. The farmers with whom we have engaged and discussed this have been very receptive in trying out new methods. They get the impact - for good or for bad - they can have on the environment and they want to be a force for good. We have gone from spraying herbicides to setting up weed lickers, which means that rather than spraying crops, a wet cloth is used to touch various plants and kill them. We are making progress in that space. There will always be some level of those chemicals in the environment because we are putting them into the environment, but the solution will be to work with the manufacturers of these compounds to make sure they also look at the long-term impact of what they are manufacturing on the environment and they produce herbicides and pesticides that do a job but break down nearly immediately once they hit the soil.
The connections policy and the charges in place from the CRU were touched on. In framing my question, I am conscious that Irish Water would not want to deny itself a revenue stream. The difficulty I have is not with connection charges for greenfield sites or the infrastructure that has to be put in place, but more with the charges for brownfield sites and urban renewal spaces. Thankfully, in my county of Waterford, we have been proactive in using schemes like the repair and lease scheme to bring derelict units back into productive use for housing. There are a number of examples of former pubs that people are now living in because they have been renovated into high-quality apartment units. The difficulty is with the connection policy as it stands in terms of wastewater and water connections. They are levied as though they are greenfield sites. The policy does not take account of the fact that the infrastructure is already in place in many cases. By way of example, one of the former pubs had a wastewater connection going from the pub and the seven bedsits and two water connections. The new configuration is for seven apartments. The developer applied to use the existing wastewater connection and to add five new water connections but was, unfortunately, levied for seven new wastewater connections and five water connections. That seems totally unjust not on the basis that it costs the developer more but in terms of fairness in respect of what is being provided there. It is reusing existing infrastructure that is already in place. I am conscious that Irish Water will not want to deny itself a revenue stream. However, following feedback from the CRU, does Irish Water believe greenfield sites and city-centre sites for which the infrastructure is already present should be treated differently?
Mr. Se?n Laffey:
Ultimately, a case-by-case basis approach will be taken. The vast majority of the cases we deal with will fall into a couple of categories and that is it, and they are very well covered by the connection policy. We do get cases from time to time that do not fit any particular category and we have to take a view on them. The policy states where an existing wastewater or water connection is altered or upgraded, the connection fee shall apply, and that is the view we are taking at present. If the policy stated that for seven bedsits, seven apartments and now seven connections there would be no additional charge, we would be fine with that. It is not about a revenue stream for Irish Water. It has to have a certain kind of logic and natural justice to it as well.
Where flexibility is allowed, I ask that it be applied because we want to regenerate existing units and bring them back into productive use. When people are willing to do that and put their money into it, they should not be penalised for doing so.
If the representatives could ask the committee to include two things in a report on water quality to help them in their work, what would they be?
Mr. Niall Gleeson:
A recent survey by the CRU found that approximately 40% of people are still contacting the local authorities when there are water issues. As Irish Water takes over next year, we have a framework in place to take over local authority control, or control of plants and that. Getting that message out to constituents would help us to communicate that Irish Water is now and should be the main point of contact for communicating water issues. The other thing we are trying do is to use more technology such as text messaging.
People are still reluctant or, as we have yet to test the water on this, it may be that people are reluctant to give personal data to Irish Water. We would certainly be keen to set up a system where, based on a person's Eircode, they would get a text if there was an issue in their area. That is something we are going to pilot next year on a voluntary basis. Again, it is something this committee could help us to promote. It would certainly help with many of these communications issues that we raised, where we are trying to update people on boil water notices. Right now, it is very cumbersome and, for example, we are doing hand drops and deliveries. We do not even know who is in what house now because we have lost a lot of the billing data and we do not have that. If people move house, they will change their electricity or gas, but they do not tell the water company that they have moved. The committee could help us there.
We are getting the funding, which is good and I think we are in a good place. Over the next few years, we just need to keep up that level of funding.
Mr. Se?n Laffey:
It is a personal opinion. Irish Water is a public body. We invest vast sums of money on behalf of Ireland Inc., the Irish public, the Irish environment and Irish society, in so far as is possible without interfering with any rights or legal processes. When it comes to strategic infrastructure, there should be a clear path through environmental law, planning law and procurement law. We are not a for-profit company, we are not a corporation, we are not doing this for ourselves; we are doing it for Ireland Inc. If the system helps us to do what we do, then we will have a better society for it.
We need streamlining of the process, notwithstanding the constraints that are there. That is understood. I thank the members and witnesses for their attendance. It was a constructive meeting that will feed into our report on water quality. I also thank the witnesses from the EPA who attended earlier.