Thursday, 25 February 2021
Topical Issue Debate
I want to talk to the Minister of State about the wastewater treatment plant in Arklow. This is absolutely critical infrastructure not only for Arklow and County Wicklow, but for the country. As the Minister of State will be aware, the Avoca river has significant issues with pollution as a result of mismanagement and a lack of infrastructure within the Arklow area. This project has been in planning for years and years. Residents have been waiting for it and are very eager to see progress being made. Businesses are also waiting for something to happen. The whole town is waiting for this project to get moving.
Irish Water has been working on it and the plans are in place but it is now sitting on the Minister's desk. In late 2020, the proposal was submitted to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. It is now awaiting ministerial consent. It is important that this project be developed as quickly as possible. Arklow has great potential but this potential is being restricted by the fact that this infrastructure is not in place. I refer to potential from a tourism perspective, a business and economic perspective and a housing perspective. Arklow is really on hiatus waiting for this project to happen. From an environmental perspective, fines are potentially coming down the road if this work is not done.
My question is very simple. What progress is being made in respect of the wastewater treatment plant? Will the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage expedite this matter because, as I have said, it has been on his desk since late 2020, three months ago? This is an important project and we need to focus on it. My third question relates to funding. I want to make sure that funding is in place and that this project can start as quickly as possible because the contract cannot be allocated until this funding is signed off on.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta. Her points on human health, business and the development of Arklow are well-raised. It also involves an area of mutual interest to me and the Deputy, the area of nature, biodiversity and the environment. There is no doubt that this project must be expedited.
Since January 2014, Irish Water has had statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local levels. The prioritisation and progression of individual projects is a matter for determination by Irish Water.
As part of budget 2021, funding of more than €1.4 billion was secured to support water services. This includes €1.3 billion in respect of domestic water services provision by Irish Water. This overall investment will deliver significant improvements in our public water and wastewater services, support improved water supplies right across Ireland, including rural Ireland, and support a range of programmes delivering improved water quality in our rivers, lakes and marine area.
Arklow has been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, as an area where wastewater is discharged into the Avoca river without any treatment. This practice of discharging untreated wastewater into the river is no longer acceptable. Irish Water is working to address this historical issue, in partnership with Wicklow County Council, through the provision of a new wastewater treatment plant in Arklow. This will bring benefits to the town and surrounding areas in terms of health, environmental protection and improved water quality for all.
The Arklow wastewater treatment plant must be delivered in a way that not only meets the required legislative standards but that also ensures that all works are undertaken in a safe and environmentally responsible manner, in co-operation with the local community. Under the Water Services Act 2013, Irish Water is required, as the Deputy said, to seek the consent of the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, given with the approval of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, to enter into capital commitments. Irish Water must seek ministerial consent prior to entering into any individual capital commitment of a value in excess of €20 million. This is a financial control and not an issue of project consent.
In the context of the updated public spending code for evaluating, planning and managing public investment in the project as it proceeds through its life cycle, consideration is also being given to the appropriate application of the code having regard to the current life cycle stage of the project.
I assure the Deputy that the capital commitment consent request is currently under active consideration. However, given the significant investment by the taxpayer, this does involve close scrutiny by my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. In addition, NewERA carries out an in-depth review of the request on behalf of Ministers to help inform the decision. I also understand that some further inputs into the review process are awaited from Irish Water. However, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, hopes to be in a position to provide a timely decision to support Irish Water in its delivery of the project once all scrutiny is complete.
I was hoping for a commitment that this would be fast-tracked. It is a really important project. I understand that all the checks and balances have to be in place and that it is a very large project but, because of its importance, it would be really good to see it prioritised and for it to be ensured that it happens as quickly as possible. An indication of the timeline would also be really good. The proposal at the moment is for Irish Water to finish this project in 2024 or 2025 but there have been delays in the process all the way along. We want to prevent any further slippage and, rather than have slippage, for the whole thing to be expedited so that it can be done as quickly as possible. I know this requires ministerial consent but does it need to go to Cabinet? Is the project of such a significant size that it needs Cabinet approval? If that is the case, when does the Minister of State envisage it going to Cabinet?
Initially, it seemed funding of approximately €30 million was required but lately there have been reports that in excess of €100 million may be required. Is the Minister of State aware of any increase in costs and whether this could potentially impact on the delivery of this project because, to be honest, we cannot allow anything to impact this project? As I said, Arklow has waited for this for 20 years. The town cannot wait any longer. The river, biodiversity and the environment cannot wait any longer either. My fear is that, if progress slows any further, too much damage will be incurred.
Will the Government expedite and prioritise this project? Is the money available and can the Minister of State outline the timeline for completion?
I will revert to the Deputy with a written response on the two specific items she raises. It may well be the case that additional costs are involved at this stage, given the delays to the project but I will provide a written response on that. It is important to note that we will enter into a new cycle of river basin management plans and projects similar to this one must be expedited to improve our water quality status, which deteriorated during the previous plan period. We are all very conscious of that fact.
Plans for the delivery of the Arklow wastewater plant are at an advanced stage. Irish Water has secured the necessary planning, land and licences and the procurement of the construction contract is in the final stage. I am acutely aware of the need to progress the plant to stop the practice of discharging untreated wastewater into the Avoca river, provide a wastewater treatment facility that will comply with all relevant legislative requirements and service the population of Arklow well into the future and improve water quality in the river.
Irish Water expects construction work to begin in the second half of 2021. Together with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is expediting consideration of the capital commitment consent for a timely decision to support Irish Water’s plans to commence construction. I hope this is of some assurance to the Deputy.