Dáil debates

Thursday, 9 March 2023

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Wastewater Treatment

3:45 pm

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I would normally complain if the Minister from the relevant Department were not here to take my Topical Issue matter but I am glad to see a Minister of State at the Department of Finance is here because these issues inevitably go back to finance and the lack thereof. We are in the fortunate position at the moment where we have a surplus and a lot more money than we might sometimes have anticipated we would have, although there are questions regarding the ongoing reliability of that money and the period for which we can rely on it. Nevertheless, it is coming in. I am sometimes concerned that some of those moneys are not being used for infrastructural projects. There is the question as to what we will do if and when the money dries up.

The Minister of State and I, although our paths have diverged, both supported a Government that had no money to do anything and was trying to find money for ongoing expenditure and there was very little money for infrastructure.

One of the victims of that was Carrigaholt because there was an anticipation, particularly in the years up to 2009 and the years immediately thereafter, that a sewage infrastructure would be put in place in Carrigaholt. Like many other projects across County Clare and, indeed, across the entire State, that was shelved.

Irish Water was since established. I suppose to describe it as "great" would be perhaps to use an entirely inappropriate word, but Irish Water is struggling to improve the wastewater infrastructure of towns and villages where there already is a wastewater infrastructure. However, there are towns, villages and settlements where there is no wastewater infrastructure at the moment. Carrigaholt is one of those. Because there is no Irish Water infrastructure in place, Irish Water is saying that it is certainly not its problem. The same would be true of Broadford; Cooraclare, which is just up the coast from Carrigaholt; and Doolin, which is further up the coast again.

While the Minister has announced a pilot scheme of €50 million to introduce wastewater treatment plants in towns, villages and settlements where there is no treatment plant whatsoever, unfortunately, the sum of €50 million is entirely inadequate. It would not come near solving the problem in Clare alone, much less across the entire State.

When that scheme was announced, both Broadford and Cooraclare were put forward. A decision is anticipated. I have no problem with that. That was a decision which was made by Clare County Council and I suppose it made the decision on the basis that there were lands that were owned that were suitable, plans were in place and they were to some extend shovel ready. Carrigaholt was less shovel ready, but it is a real chicken and egg scenario because there is no fund to which Clare County Council can apply to get money to buy lands on which a sewage treatment plant will be located. There is no fund to which Clare County Council can apply to put the plans in place if the scheme is extended so that it can say it is shovel ready.

The community of Carrigaholt is a place I anticipate the Minister of State knows. Lots of people from Limerick holiday in Kilkee. I do not know where the Minister of State holidays or how much time he might have spent in Kilkee as a youth or, indeed, more latterly, but Carrigaholt is just down from Kilkee. It is a beautiful spot. It is on the verge of the lower River Shannon special area of conservation but there is no sewage treatment plant in place which obviously has environmental impacts but also has a serious impact on the potential to develop what is a beautiful village with significant potential for sustainable tourism. There is a real impetus in Loop Head to develop that type of tourism but without a sewage treatment infrastructure, it cannot proceed.

I am focusing on Carrigaholt. The same is equally true of Doolin, but it is much bigger project. It might take up a lot of the €50 million on its own but it needs to be done.

3:55 pm

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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I am familiar with Carrigaholt. I spent two years in Irish college in Carrigaholt and I know it well. Many of my constituents holiday there on a regular basis. It is a lovely part of Clare.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue and providing me with the opportunity to address the matter.

The programme for Government supports the uptake of Uisce Éireann's Small Towns and Villages Growth Programme 2020-2024. The programme provides water and wastewater growth capacity in smaller settlements that would otherwise not be provided for in Uisce Éireann's capital investment plan.

I understand that funding of almost €100 million has been approved by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities for the programme. Across the country, under this programme, Uisce Éireann is working with local authorities to ensure that the investment supports the growth of identified settlements, as prioritised in local authority development plans.

In addition, the Department's multi-annual rural water programme, using Exchequer funding, is also delivering improvements to water services, including wastewater, in areas of rural Ireland without public water services.

On 28 April 2022, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, announced funding for a new measure under the Multi-Annual Rural Water Programme 2022-2025, for the wastewater collection and treatment needs of villages and settlements that do not have access to public waste water services. An allocation of €50 million, which the Deputy has already identified, has been committed under the national development plan specifically for this measure to address this issue.

The principal aim of the new measure is to address environmental and public health issues in locations of need across the country on a national, prioritised basis. The measure provides an opportunity for local authorities to take an innovative approach with a series of demonstration projects being considered.

Local authorities are working with communities and other stakeholders to facilitate progressively providing waste water infrastructure needs of rural villages-settlements in parts of rural Ireland not currently serviced by Uisce Éireann. Having this dedicated approach will allow for projects to begin now, making the village-settlement a better and more attractive place to live.

The closing date for receipt of applications was 15 September 2022. It was a matter for each local authority to decide which villages or settlements within their functional area meet the criteria set out in the framework for the measure. The Deputy has already referenced that Clare County Council has submitted applications for Broadford and Cooraclare.

The demonstration project model supports a longer-term strategic approach to this issue. This approach also informs potential future funding needs of villages in need of public wastewater collection and treatment infrastructure in villages that are currently without these services, including villages such as Carrigaholt.

I appreciate the Deputy's interest in wastewater in areas of rural Ireland - he referenced Carrigaholt and Doolin - without public water services and specifically his interest in these services for Carrigaholt, County Clare. I have listened carefully to what the Deputy has said and I want to assure him that it will be kept in mind in the context of the evolving new measure.

While the Department has responsibility in ensuring the overall funding for Uisce Éireann in respect of public water services and for the provision of funding under the rural water programme, including for the new measure, the prioritisation of individual projects is a matter for the local authority, which is Clare County Council.

An independent expert panel is currently evaluating all valid applications under the measure. The panel will provide a report on the applications and upon receipt, the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, will give consideration to this, and a decision on funding for each application will be made.

The Deputy will appreciate that it is not possible for me at this stage to give a commitment regarding locations that may be identified or selected for advancement in the future.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I am not asking the Minister of State for a commitment as to what sites will be chosen in the future. I suppose a site on the verge of the lower River Shannon SAC that does not have any sewage treatment infrastructure speaks for itself. A settlement of the size of Doolin in the summer when it is full of tourists - long may that continue - without any sewage treatment infrastructure also speaks for itself.

What I ask is what mechanisms will be put in place to ensure that they can progress because there is a chicken and egg scenario that affected Carrigaholt. There is not a site. There is some local authority owned land in Carrigaholt but it is relatively near a relatively small local authority sewage treatment plant. However, that site is potentially suitable for development for housing and the local authority wants to retain it for that purpose. Then there is no site in the ownership of Clare County Council currently on which could be located the sewage treatment plant. Clare County Council cannot buy because there is no fund under which it can buy. It has been told that wastewater is not its area, it is Irish Water's. There is a real problem that the Minister of State can appreciate.

Carrigaholt is a progressive community with a lot of good ideas around sustainable development. There is a big caravan park in Carrigaholt. There is capacity for a lot more. Carrigaholt was a much more important settlement 100 years ago relative to the time than arguably it is now but it has significant capacity.

The Minister of State mentioned the Irish college. If Deputy O'Donnell is passing by there again, I suggest he look at the Irish college. Unfortunately, it is closed. That is something that could be developed to bring life and economic activity into this beautiful part of Clare, and one with significant capacity.

The same is true of settlements right along the coastline. I mentioned Doolin, but it true of the whole country. As I said, €50 million, if the Minister of State will pardon the pun, is a drop in the ocean. We need to address this when there is money in the State for infrastructure because there will not always be money in the State, as I fear the Minister of State knows.

4:05 pm

Photo of Kieran O'DonnellKieran O'Donnell (Limerick City, Fine Gael)
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I will make a couple of points, the first of which is that I have no doubt the Deputy has engaged with Clare County Council on this particular matter. I suggest that he sends a proposal into the Minister to get a formal response on the particular issue of Carrigaholt. That is his prerogative as a Deputy representing the constituency.

I will take the matters he highlighted back to the Minister. However, there is a need for him to continue to engage with Clare County Council and then come back to make a submission or put something in writing to the Minister to get a formal response on this particular proposal for Carrigaholt.

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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I will do that. I thank the Minister of State.