Thursday, 10 September 2020
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I realise the Minister of State will not have much of the detail I require in his response to me in respect of Irish Water, which is the competent authority in regard to the issue I am about to raise. I still believe this issue needs to get a hearing today. The issues raised in regard to Carrigrenan wastewater treatment plant and Belgooly in west Cork which my colleague, Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan, recently highlighted, are examples of a systemic failure in the ability of Irish Water to manage wastewater facilities in this country.
By way of background, Irish Water subcontracted the operation of the Carrigrenan wastewater treatment plan to a company called Northumbrian Water Projects, which is responsible for the running of the facility. The difficulties I, as a public representative, and the people who work and live adjacent to the plant have are the recurring issues with odour noise, in particular foul odours. When the €40 million plant was built in 2005, people were promised they would not even notice that the plant was there and that it would not be an inconvenience. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Since 2014, when I was elected as a county councillor, I have consistently raised the issues at the plant and have regularly logged numerous complaints, including my own, as advised by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and the local authority at the time. A number of local people have also done the same. After I requested that the EPA carry out an on-site odour survey last week, it detected issues around and on the site. It called into the plant where it also detected issues.
On foot of this incident, I requested that Irish Water supply me, as it is mandated to do in its licence, with the number and nature of the complaints it receives annually. Three weeks later, I have yet to receive a response from Irish Water. Thankfully, the EPA has given me its records. Those records, which were supplied to it by Irish Water, indicated that there were no odour complaints in 2018, 2019 or 2020 and only one noise complaint in 2019.
As I mentioned at the outset, I have submitted a number of complaints over the past few years and these obviously have not been recorded by Irish Water as it is statutorily mandated to do. Irish Water is, in this regard, conveying a complete disregard for me and the people affected by the plant.
The bigger issue I have is that if Irish Water is not logging complaints correctly as it is meant to do, and as in the case of Carrigrennan in Little Island and the same has proved to be correct in the case of Belgooly in west Cork, in how many other areas around the country is this requirement being flouted? It is very disheartening. Carrigrennan wastewater treatment plant is one of the largest in the country. All of the development proposed for the north side of Cork city in the next few years, all the housing, industry and commercial activity, is all contingent on the smooth running of that facility. That facility has been operating in breach of its nitrate emissions since 2015, under its EPA licence, and yet nothing has been done.
Irish Water is showing a complete disregard for both public representatives and local people. It is not handling complaints about noise and odour correctly, as it is mandated to do. Is Irish Water the competent authority to be governing these wastewater treatment plants? It is showing that it is incapable of doing so. Should another competent authority step in and do that job in light of what we are seeing here from Irish Water?
I thank Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan for raising this matter and the issue of Belgooly. It certainly is a concern locally but a concern to us all nationally also. The Deputy will appreciate that the operation of Carrigrennan wastewater treatment plant is a matter for Irish Water. In turn, the Environmental Protection Agency ,EPA , as the environmental regulator, is responsible for setting quality standards and enforcing compliance with EU directives and national regulations for wastewater discharges.
Since 1 January 2014, Irish Water has statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local levels. Irish Water's primary function is to provide clean safe drinking water to customers and to collect, treat and return wastewater safely back to the environment, including the wastewater treatment plant raised by the Deputy today.
However, from inquiries which my Department has made with Irish Water I understand complaints about odour at Carrigrennan wastewater treatment plant are being investigated. I understand Irish Water has committed to putting in place some additional works, including optimisation of the odour management system, to address the issue. While there have been complaints about noise in the past, I understand that there have been no complaints regarding noise in recent months. I also understand, separately, that the Carrigrennan wastewater treatment plant is not currently compliant with the EPA discharge authorisation on the total amount of nitrogen emitted to environment. This is unconnected to any noise or odour issue.
Irish Water has informed my Department that since this plant was commissioned in 2004, the area to which it discharges, Lough Mahon, has been designated as a sensitive area under the Urban Wastewater Treatment (Amendment) Regulations 2004. This means that the wastewater discharge authorisation has increased requirements for nitrogen removal which was not provided for at the plant when originally constructed. Irish Water plans to carry out a modelling exercise on the receiving water in relation to this issue and will maintain contact with the EPA in this regard to ensure the plant operates in accordance with the appropriate authorisation.
As the Deputy will appreciate, the investment needs across our entire water system are considerable and will take a number of investment cycles to fully resolve. This will require significant and sustained investment from the State. The programme for Government commits to delivering an €8.5 billion investment identified under the national development plan in public water services. This will ensure the continued operation, repair and upgrading of Ireland's water and wastewater infrastructure to support social and economic development across the State and to ensure compliance with EU directives.
In more general terms, the Government's River Basin Management Plan for Ireland 2018-2021 outlines what Ireland is doing to protect and improve our waters. The next river basin management plan is currently being prepared by my Department and will be a critical plan period. Gabhaim buíochas.
I thank the Minister of State and appreciate the response but it raises a number of questions. Even the very fact the Minister of State’s answer has acknowledged that the plant is in breach of its nitrate emissions in terms of its licence since 2015, although it is not connected directly to odour and noise, is a recognition in itself of this and is not acceptable. Five years on Irish Water is still in breach of its licence, and nothing or very little is being done to remedy this.
The second point is that capital investment is required but Irish Water has not identified to us what the specific issues are, how it is going to address them, or most important, given us a timeline. That is the very least that is required if a plant of this nature, as important as it is to the development of the Cork Harbour region, is in breach of this licence. We should be given a definitive timeline and detail as to exactly how it will be upgraded.
As I said, there are about 6,000 housing units pencilled in for that area of Cork over the next few years, not to mention all of the industrial and commercial activity that will feed into this wastewater treatment plant. As I said, it is unacceptable that Irish Water is continuing to ignore public representatives and its responsibilities to agencies like the EPA in reporting these incidents.
While I appreciate the response, it gives me very little comfort in terms of resolving the problems any time soon. It reflects very poorly on Irish Water which thinks this is acceptable in Cork North-Central, in the case of the Carrigrennan plant, and, as mentioned earlier, in Belgooly in west Cork. I am afraid that is indicative of its logging of complaints right across the country. I will be interested to know if any other public representatives will do similar research over the coming months on other wastewater treatment plants in their areas, which are managed by Irish Water, because there is a long story here. Irish Water is not covering itself in any glory.
I thank the Cathaoirleach and the Deputy for his comments. It is agreed that Irish Water will need years and significant investment to address deficiencies in our water and wastewater infrastructure. Irish Water’s primary function is to provide clean safe drinking water to customers and to treat wastewater and return it safely to the environment. In providing these critical services Irish Water plays a role in enabling social and economic growth and protecting the environment as well as the health and safety of the public. Irish Water, as a single national utility, is taking a strategic and nationwide approach to asset planning, investment, and meeting customer requirements. Our priority objective is to bring and maintain public water and wastewater services to acceptable international benchmarks and verifiably independent monitoring and reporting. Irish Water has been successful in achieving a 44% reduction in the amount of untreated and inadequately treated wastewater being discharged into our rivers lakes and the sea since 2014.
However, I note the Deputy’s comments and will certainly follow up within our Department on the recording and logging of complaints. I will also seek a specific timeline and further detail from Irish Water on this specific item. It is important that we get clarification on this and more specifics to try to move this issue along. As the Deputy quite rightly outlined, this has been recurring and dragging on for far too long. Gabhaim buíochas.