Thursday, 14 November 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
As the Minister is aware, the Environmental Protection Agency published its urban wastewater treatment report for 2018 earlier this week. As with its predecessor reports in 2017 and 2016, it makes for very depressing reading. While there has been a marginal level of improvement in both the number and volume of untreated wastewater that is going into our rivers, lakes and seas, progress is so slow that one can see the concern of the Environmental Protection Agency in the report escalating with each year. It is telling us that the number of priority areas where treatment is needed is now 120. Yes, it is down from 132, but is still very significant. It is telling us that improvements are needed at these 120 areas to eliminate raw sewage, prevent water pollution, protect freshwater pearl mussels, bathing water, shellfish waters, but crucially, to meet EU standards.
More alarming, it is telling us that sewage for the equivalent to 77,000 people in 36 towns and villages is released into the environment every day without treatment. In fact, half of this is from a very small number of larger wastewater treatment plants which are not currently receiving the level of attention that they require. The Environmental Protection Agency stresses that Irish Water is taking: " too long to complete some of the improvements necessary to protect the environment." Delays mean that 13 areas will continue releasing raw sewage after 2021, the date that has been agreed if I understand this correctly by Government with the European Commission to ensure both compliance with the urban wastewater directive but also to avoid very substantial fines for failure to address those issues. The Environmental Protection Agency is urging Irish Water - this is relevant to the Minister in his responsibility - first of all to target resources to resolve environmental issues at the 120 priority areas, which the EPA itself is indicating are at serious risk of falling foul of the urban waste water treatment directive, but crucially to increase the pace of upgrades of deficient wastewater treatment systems to prevent pollution, protect public health and avoid financial penalties.
The Minister and myself have spoken about this at some length before. It is important to remind people that we have been subject to a very protracted enforcement proceeding from the European Commission dating back to 2013. The origin of that was very substantial cuts to capital funding in the upgrading of wastewater treatment plants in the three years leading up to that, namely, 2011, 2012, and 2013. While to date we have avoided significant fines from the European Commission, that is subject to us meeting the targets and the agreed upgrades that have been set out.
Every year we get the report from the Environmental Protection Agency. While it shows a little bit of progress, it also shows very significant levels of slippage in the upgrades that are so urgently needed. Can the Minister give the House some assurance that those key requirements of the Environmental Protection Agency, both to target the resources and to increase the pace of the upgrades, is going to happen? Can he tell us is what engagement he has had or intends to have with Irish Water and other relevant local authorities on foot of these findings from the Environment Protection Agency? Does he also share the concern that many of us have on this side of the House that we could end up having very significant fines as result of failure to meet some of the crucial 2021 targets for bringing these now 26 agglomerations up to the level that is required legally under the urban wastewater directive?
I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and for providing an opportunity to give an overview of the Environmental Protection Agency's latest report, Urban Wastewater Treatment in 2018, which was published yesterday. The EPA issues this report on wastewater each year, as referred to by the Deputy, and it is an important piece of work. The EPA plainly sets out the significant issues in our wastewater sector. Many of these issues are long-standing. Without Irish Water acting to address these issues we would be in a worse situation.
The EPA reports on its assessment of monitoring results from cities, towns and urban communities as reported to the EPA by Irish Water and on enforcement activities carried out by the EPA during 2018.
I welcome the elements of this report that show Irish Water is making progress in many areas. The EPA has found the number of priority urban areas, that is, the areas where wastewater treatment most needs to improve, is down from 132 in 2017 to 120 in 2018, to which the Deputy referred.
In 2016, the EPA reported 44 towns and villages were discharging raw sewage — this is an unacceptable legacy of past underinvestment. However, by 2018 this has now reduced to 36. The majority of the remaining areas will have appropriate treatment by 2021.
As the EPA has pointed out, however, much more needs to be done. Wastewater is one of the main threats to the quality of our rivers, lakes and estuaries and it contributed to poor quality bathing water at three beaches in 2018, although the number was down from six the previous year.
Ireland's shortcomings in this area are not a surprise. In March, the Court of Justice of the European Union found that Ireland was in breach of the wastewater treatment directive. The judgment listed specifically 28 towns and villages that need upgrades. The EPA report shows that out of the 169 large urban areas in Ireland, 21 areas failed to comply with the EU's legally binding standards for the treatment of urban wastewater in 2018.
As I stated at the outset, Irish Water is now addressing these issues. In the period 2018 to 2024, Irish Water intends to carry out upgrades and improvements at these urban wastewater treatment plants to help ensure that treatment levels and capacity comply with the requirements of the urban waste water treatment directive.
In more general terms, our River Basin Management Plan 2018-2021 outlines what Ireland is doing to protect and improve all of our waters. Among a broad suite of measures, the plan sets out significant investment by Irish Water in urban wastewater projects. In support of this, the Government has approved the Irish Water Strategic Funding Plan 2019-2024, comprising of a €6.1 billion investment in infrastructure and assets and €4.9 billion in operating costs. In 2018, Irish Water invested €230 million in wastewater infrastructure. Further to this, Irish Water has stated that its investment in wastewater infrastructure is to increase to almost €400 million in 2020, as the amount invested in upgrading wastewater infrastructure matches the investment in drinking water for the first time. This will make a significant contribution to addressing Ireland's needs and bringing us into compliance with the urban wastewater directive.
I thank the Minister for the reply.
It is important to acknowledge in the figures in the report that while there has been progress, if one scratches beneath the surface it shows that although a number of urban areas are coming off the list of those in breach of the urban wastewater directive and therefore subject to the European Commission's legal action, the volume of the waste that is going untreated into our rivers, lakes and seas is not reducing by the same percentage. That means that some of the large polluting areas continue to pollute. That is why that figure of sewage from the equivalent of 77,000 people in 36 towns and villages being released is so important.
I accept that the level of capital investment in upgrading these wastewater treatment plants has increased significantly, albeit from a low base. In the previous Fine Gael-Labour Administration, at one point it fell as low as €150 million. I welcome the fact that it potentially will reach €400 million in 2020.
I will ask the Minister two questions. Given that the 2021 target is so important, to ensure we are fully compliant with the EU urban wastewater directive and do not start to receive fines, will the Minister and his Department's engagement with Irish Water escalate quarter on quarter the closer we get to that to ensure the slippage we have seen in some of the upgrade timelines does not continue? Can the Minister also give me an indication that if further funds or other interventions are required, whether at a planning or a project development stage, he will work constructively with both Irish Water and the local authorities to ensure that by 2021, we will have the level of upgrades of these facilities that is required and that the aforementioned figure of the raw sewage of 77,000 people spewing into rivers, lakes and shores on a daily basis is not only reduced but, in fact, eradicated as EU law requires us to do?
I thank Deputy Ó Broin for the follow-up questions. I will make a couple of points and will come back to his specific questions in a moment.
Irish Water has achieved a 44% reduction in the amount of untreated and inadequately treated wastewater being discharged to our rivers, lakes and seas since it was established in 2014. It is doing good work in this regard. If we look at the 44 problem areas that we have been talking about, 14 of those areas already have had the works completed, 18 are under construction and we intend to get 12 through planning permission in 2020.
Of course, when the EPA talks about delays, it is fair to point out that not all delays are the fault of Irish Water or because something has gone wrong at that end. There are elements, such as the planning process, which it cannot control in terms of timelines etc. It cannot address every delay but it is trying to expedite this.
I cannot write a blank cheque in terms of future funding needs that might arise out of matters that have not been considered but it is good to note the political support that we have here. On a related point, yesterday we saw planning permission come through for the greater Dublin drainage scheme. It is a significant investment to treat wastewater. Then, regrettably, we saw the housing and water spokesperson for Fianna Fáil come out against that project. On the same day that the EPA landed this report about how wastewater is flowing into our environment and into oceans untreated and how we need to invest in it, and that we get planning permission for a much-needed investment in treating our wastewater, unfortunately, the Fianna Fáil spokesperson for water came out against it. My fear is that it is because of local constituency concerns and not in the national interest. I have not had a chance to hear the Deputy clarify that it is not a local concern. We need to be clear here as a body politic. As the Oireachtas, we must invest in wastewater treatment. We must have new plants funded, planned for, designed and come into operation and we need to make sure there is the political will and courage to do that, even though it might rub up against some local interests or local concerns. We cannot let them stand in the way of protecting the environment but also our precious water resource.