Wednesday, 26 June 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
The discharges of sewage into Dublin Bay as a result of rain, something that happens a lot in this country, and the rendering of significant parts of Dublin Bay and its beaches - many in my area but all around Dublin Bay - impossible to swim in is horrendous and unacceptable. Many constituents in my area have rung me in disgust at the idea that rain could be the reason sewage is discharged into the sea. It is not as if this is an isolated example. It happened earlier this year and has happened repeatedly over many years.
I took the time to look back at the Irish Water business plan from 2015, four years ago, in which Irish Water identified 44 wastewater agglomerations where discharges were taking place nationally, 43 of which did not comply with secondary treatment requirements. Irish Water identified the critical problem relating to the discharge we are discussing, which was the lack of capacity at the Ringsend wastewater treatment plant. It is massively over capacity. That was identified four years ago and Irish Water stated it was going to do something about it. It is still happening and, although there are plans in train for the upgrade and so on, it will still be another year, according to Irish Water, before anything happens to stop this. It is not acceptable.
We have a problem at the moment in Dublin Bay. There have been discharges of sewage of various types into the bay 15 times in the past year. The fact that it is only noticed several days after the fact means people are swimming in sewage.
I am keen to hear the Minister of State's views on same day testing all year round. People swim, surf and do everything in Dublin Bay all year round. We should have same day testing all year round. I want to know from the Department if that is being advanced and funded as needs be.
We also need to know the exact technical reason this is happening. Is there anything that can be done other than waiting for the new sewage plant in north Dublin or the expansion of the existing site? We need to know if that will solve the immediate problem in Ringsend or whether the cause is that the other parts of the plant cannot cope with the volume, particularly when there are heavy rains causing sewage and rainfall water to mix together with the overflow tanks unable to cope. We need details on this and on the timeline offered for solutions. We also need details on the public information aspect so we are not getting notice several days after the fact and do not have to close all our beaches for several days after that until further updates come into place.
This issue is enormously significant for the people of Dublin where access to our bay is one of the best things about the city. We cannot tolerate the ongoing problem in Ringsend and the Government needs to take proactive measures to try and avert it.
I thank the Deputies for raising this as it gives me the opportunity to discuss the matter and set out some clarifications on it. The issue has been raised at Leaders' Questions this week so I am conscious there is information out there but I am happy to put more information on the record and tease out some of the issues around it.
On Tuesday, 24 June, Dublin City Council and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council both issued temporary bathing prohibition notices for local bathing waters. Notices are in place on Dollymount Beach following a storm water overflow from Irish Water's Ringsend wastewater treatment plant and at Seapoint, Sandycove and the Forty Foot bathing areas following storm water overflows at a number of locations in the bay area of south Dublin. These are specific and temporary bathing water notices and have been issued as a precautionary measure to protect people, pending water test results. This form of notice is required by the bathing water quality regulations.
Separately, the status of Sandymount and Merrion Strand is classified as poor and these bathing waters will have a bathing water restriction in place for the entire 2019 season due to more complex pollution issues. This is unrelated to the recent overflow from the Ringsend plant.
Under the bathing water quality regulations, responsibility for water quality testing at bathing waters lies with the relevant local authorities. The frequency and parameters of such sampling, as well as the appropriate laboratory procedures, are set out in the bathing water directive. Due to the nature of the testing required, it may take between 48 and 72 hours before validated results are available. That is to allow the bacteria time to grow. Deputy Ryan raised the issue of same day testing. There are certain procedures and science behind the testing that mean a certain period must be allocated. The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has asked and stressed that we look into any ways we can improve those timelines. There are clear directions set down regarding how those tests should be carried out. I am not sure if we can beat that timeline but we are looking at that. It is hoped that we will have results tomorrow.
With regard to dealing with the regular storm water overflow issue, Irish Water is undertaking a major upgrade at the Ringsend wastewater treatment plant to deliver improved treatment and additional capacity, and to ensure a decrease in the number of overflows experienced each year. This upgrade is due to be completed by the end of 2022. It has been said that this has been going on for a long time. Planning permission takes a little time. It was secured in April this year so plans can now move on, this can go to tender and the works can start. It was signalled a number of years ago but all the channels had to be followed to implement that and bring forward planning permission. I am sure the Deputies want us to follow correct procedure in these cases because of the significance of the area we are putting the development and to make sure everything is done correctly from the planning point of view.
The recent overflow occurred following heavy rainfall during a status yellow weather event in Dublin. Our sewer network is designed to collect both rain water and sewage. During the recent exceptionally heavy and sustained rainfall, the storm water holding tank reached capacity at the Ringsend wastewater treatment facility and the overflow from the tank entered the sea. It is important to note that this form of release ensures that sewers do not back up and flood streets and homes, which would be a much more serious threat to public health. That is the choice one is faced with and the procedures that are in place.
Notwithstanding the planned investment at Ringsend, the Minister accepts the concerns of Deputies about the closure of beaches in Dublin. He has asked his officials to meet officials of Irish Water, the EPA, HSE and the Dublin local authorities to ensure the response to incidents of this kind, any restrictions imposed and the associated communications are appropriate and consistent. Many of the issues that have been raised this week, and by the Deputies here, have been about communication and ensuring we get the right, up-to-date and timely information out there and that people have confidence in that information. That will be a part of what the Minister is asking, as well as exploring if there is a quicker way to do the testing and make other changes.
The Minister has clearly asked for the issue of the testing regime to be examined as part of this consideration but there are issues in that regard, which might mean we cannot improve the timelines but we will do so if we can. EPA reports show an overall improvement in the quality of our bathing waters with 94% of our bathing waters meeting the required standard and almost 86% classified as either good or excellent.
However, it is no secret that the wastewater networks require ongoing and sustained investment to bring them up to the required standards, deal with population growth and adapt to the impact of climate change. Investment in wastewater infrastructure is prioritised in the Irish Water strategic funding plan, as it was in the business case made a number of years ago. It is estimated that through the national development plan €1.9 billion will be invested in wastewater projects from 2019 to 2024, inclusive. Delivering on this investment will continue to be a key priority. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, and his Department will remain closely engaged on this issue with Irish Water. The solution to these problems is this planned expenditure.
We should have same-day testing, but even if we do not, there is surely a way, when discharges occur, that it can be announced immediately. There is a problem if we do not know when there is a discharge and it cannot be announced publicly. At the very least, the public can be made aware of the incident.
Representatives of Irish Water gave testimony before the joint committee recently. They indicated that it needed €18 billion to rehabilitate water infrastructure. It is clearly not getting that kind of money. It stated large-scale service failures were unavoidable and that they were happening. There is not enough money going into rehabilitating water infrastructure and it was exacerbated by misguided austerity cuts after 2008, when the already inadequate expenditure went from €423 million per year to €382 million under the Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government. That pattern continued under the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government and spending has only begun to climb up again recently. However, it is still inadequate. We need more investment, as well as early warning systems.
If the Minister of State does not have the details, his Department might respond in writing to my questions. I understand it is possible to have same-day testing services and that Dublin City University might have pioneered some of those systems. It is important that we advance these processes as the current system is completely inappropriate because we only find out what is wrong days later. Are we assured that the key problem of the overflow tanks, arising from the mixture of rainwater and sewage, will be solved with the addition of the new aeration and settlement tanks on the Ringsend site? Will the Minister of State provide the details of the wider and more complex pollution issues on Merrion and Sandymount strands, given that they will be closed for the entire summer? Is it safe for children to play on Sandymount beach and build sandcastles? That is one practical question people are asking me.
I will try to answer all of the questions asked, but I can send anything I miss to the Deputies in written correspondence. The Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, has asked that we look at earlier communications and officials are investigating if that is possible. There is also the question of giving more detailed information in our announcements. We are happy to try to do that, too.
The EU bathing water directive sets out the frequency and parameters of water sampling, as well as the appropriate laboratory procedures. There is an issue in allowing bacteria to grow over 48 hours. I do not know if that can be changed to allow results to be given within 24 hours. The Minister has asked about this to see if there is any way we can improve the timelines for testing. I am not saying there is, but we can follow up on what Deputy Eamon Ryan has mentioned. If it is possible, it is something we will certainly strive to achieve. I understand how significant this issue is for everybody and we should have test results by tomorrow.
The Deputy asked if increased capacity at the Ringsend plant would solve the problem. We are fairly confident that it will. At the Ringsend wastewater treatment facility any flow from rain storms above maximum flow capacity is forced into a holding tank in order that it may be sent back to the plant after the storm flow has passed. During especially heavy and sustained rainfall the storm water tank reached capacity and the overflow from the tank entered the sea. This is not something that generally happens in the summer months; it has probably happened twice recently and is not very common. It is a capacity issue which will be dealt with through planned expenditure.
Separately, in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council's area, the heavy rain affected the pumping station on the west pier and had an impact on bathing waters around Dún Laoghaire. This is not connected with the storm water overflow from the Ringsend wastewater treatment plant, but it has resulted in notices forbidding bathing at Seapoint, Sandycove and the Forty Foot. Irish Water is liaising with the local authority on the matter. It is not a capacity matter.
The bottom line is that the Ringsend facility was built for a population of 1.64 million people and is over capacity. That is why there is a planned upgrade. As we all know, infrastructure such as this must go through a planning procedure involving much environmental law. That is correct, but it takes a little time to spend the money. The funding is secured for the project which will happen in the years ahead.