Wednesday, 10 November 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Minister of State for dealing with this issue. According to Irish Water, in the four-year period from 2017 to 2020, a total of 8.875 million cubic metres of untreated sewage and storm waters have been discharged into Dublin Bay from overflow tanks located at the Ringsend wastewater treatment plant. That figure does not include other significant discharges from the 410 storm water overflows in the Dublin region, which are not measured but are thought to exceed the discharges in the Ringsend plant. This equates to 3,550 full-size Olympic 50-metre pools over the four-year period and averages out at 74 Olympic pools full of untreated wastewater each month. These discharges of untreated sewer wastewater usually occur during storm periods when the current Dublin wastewater treatment facility reaches maximum capacity and cannot cope with loads being received.
As a representative for Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, I am aware, as are all representatives along the Dublin Bay coast, of the beauty of Dublin Bay. We want to protect it. Every time it rains, there is a seawater quality issue. People swim in the sea all year round but it has become a part of the lifestyle of many more people since the pandemic. It is a serious health issue that they do not know whether the water they are going into is clean. They have an indication that if it has been raining, they should not go in for a couple of days, but the lack of transparency is a problem. My constituents want to be able to pick up their phone and check an application to see whether the water is good right now, not whether the water was good two days ago or whether the water will be good two days from now. There should be ongoing testing and live updates.
Councils have made some improvements and one can see the water quality on Killiney beach and so on, but people want to be able to check so they do not pick up serious illnesses, as we know has happened. People are interested in this. Approximately 21,500 people have signed a Dublin Bay petition organised by an excellent expert and advocacy group, SOS Dublin Bay. It is a live issue and features all of the constituencies along Dublin Bay.
There is also a serious concern that Ireland, by failing to deal with this in the appropriate way, is in breach of the 2006 bathing water directive. I would be interested to hear the Minister of State's points on that issue.
I and other Deputies have raised this matter consistently. Some 35 Deputies from the Dublin Bay area have signed a letter calling for year-round sea testing so our constituents have knowledge about whether or not the water is clean. That would provide additional data as to where the difficulties are, and that can be quite nuanced. There was a situation recently where the water on one beach was fine while the water on a neighbouring beach was seriously bad. It was later discovered that was to do with migratory birds or something random like that and was not to do with the water system. The key is having data for people to allow them to decide whether or not to get into the sea in the first instance. We need year-round water testing. We also need the ultraviolet technology in Ringsend to be used on a year-round basis so bathers can be protected.
Its usage has been extended somewhat, but I do not know to what extent. Perhaps the Minister has provided clarity on that in his script for the Minister of State to respond to me.
The Deputy is quite right; I am taking this question on behalf of the Minister, Deputy O'Brien. I thank her for raising the ongoing issues with water quality in Dublin Bay. I point out that primary responsibility for the monitoring, management, protection and improvement of water quality is assigned to local authorities under the Local Government Acts and related legislation.
As the Deputy will be aware, since 1 January 2014, Irish Water has had statutory responsibility for all aspects of water services planning, delivery and operation at national, regional and local levels, including investment in wastewater treatment plants and returning wastewater safely to the environment in an efficient and sustainable manner. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, is the key statutory body for investigating complaints of pollution and for the enforcement, both directly and through oversight of Irish Water and local authorities, of environmental legislation in Ireland, including compliance relating to licensed urban wastewater discharges.
As part of budget 2022, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage secured funding of more than €1.57 billion to support water services. This includes €1.459 billion, comprising current expenditure of €629 million and capital expenditure of €830 million, in respect of domestic water services provided by Irish Water. The overall investment will deliver significant improvements in public water and wastewater services, support improved water supplies across Ireland, including rural Ireland, and support a range of programmes delivering improved water quality in rivers, lakes and marine areas. It is key to addressing Ireland's shortcomings in water and wastewater infrastructure, including compliance with the urban wastewater treatment directive.
As regards Dublin Bay, the Ringsend wastewater treatment plant was originally designed and built to treat wastewater for a population of 1.64 million people and is now overloaded. In response, Irish Water is currently undertaking a major upgrade of the plant. This upgrade will increase the capacity of the plant to cater for the growing population of the greater Dublin area and will address compliance with EU law. Planning permission was granted for the project in April 2019 and the project is current under way. In addition, officials are currently examining the most suitable options to provide for safe bathing water during the winter months and improve the dissemination of information in respect of bathing water quality, particularly in the Dublin Bay area.
Both the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, and the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, have met several local interest groups regarding the Dublin Bay area, including the SOS Dublin Bay group, and are committed to developing a solution that will allow flexibility in respect of the bathing season and the protection of those who swim throughout the year. Ongoing work by the Dublin Bay task group chaired by Dublin City Council is aimed at improving bathing water quality all year round. The work of this group and the welcome commitment from Irish Water to operate its ultraviolet filter at Ringsend for a period outside of the bathing season are already providing improved protections for bathers while also improving our knowledge of the quality of bathing waters outside the defined season.
I thank the Minister of State. Obviously, my question is in respect of the fact that Irish Water is going to operate the ultraviolet filter at Ringsend for a period outside the bathing season. As the Minister of State is aware, the bathing season lasts for three months in summer. My question to the Department is about how long Irish Water will operate the filter. Will that be publicised and constituents informed of it?
As regards the Irish Water upgrade, the Minister of State is absolutely right. I met representatives of the body a very long time ago in respect of this problem and they told me the ongoing works in the Shanganagh catchment drainage area plan programme and the west pier and Ringsend catchment drainage area plan will not be completed until 2023 and 2024, respectively. I believe that completion just relates to analysis and planning, never mind actually getting down to doing the work. Dr. Eimear Cotter, the director of the EPA, has said that it is calling for additional water quality monitoring at beaches where there are a large number of year-round swimmers and for that information to be made available to the public. That statement by Dr. Cotter validates and endorses the position I am taking and that of the 35 other Deputies who have signed up to this body of work.
On 2 November, I received a response from the Department to a parliamentary question I tabled on this issue and the response of the Minister of State mirrors it very closely. However, a section of that response has been left out of her script today, and I query it. It states that departmental officials will examine options with the bathing water expert group at the next meeting of the group, which is in December. The part of the response that I do not understand states that the group will undertake a robust analysis of the positive and negative consequences of each of the options and, in particular, the Minister is aware that the group will wish to ensure existing summer time bathing water designations are not jeopardised in the short term as a consequence of weather-affected winter sampling results, while also providing protection to those bathing in Dublin Bay all the way through the year. I do not even understand that in English, never mind in policy or political terms. I assume it is not some class of threat or a case of being one or the other. I encourage the departmental officials, who I hope are watching these proceedings, to embrace a philosophy of being able to do both.
I thank the Deputy for her ongoing comments on and interest in Dublin Bay. It is interesting that all 35 Deputies across the Dublin area have signed the letter in question and are very concerned. She is right in what she said. Many people now swim all year around. They do not swim only during the summer season, as we call it. Today is a mild day and I am sure there are plenty of people in swimming today in their bathing suits.
As regards the Deputy's remarks, officials are currently examining the most suitable options to provide for safe bathing water during the winter months and improve the dissemination of information in respect of bathing water quality, particularly in the Dublin Bay area. Officials will examine options with the bathing water expert group at its next meeting. The group will undertake a robust analysis of the positive and negative consequences of each of the options. I am not particularly sure what that means. The next meeting of the group is expected to take place in early December, after which the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage will give consideration to the most appropriate option for amending the regulations. I have no doubt this issue will come to the floor of the Dáil again.