Thursday, 13 November 2008
Water and Sewerage Schemes.
Almost a year ago to the day I raised this issue, on St. Cecelia's Day, 22 November. I had raised it a few years previously in the Dáil and a few years before that in the Dáil also. It relates to bringing the grant for the group sewerage scheme up to the same level as the group water scheme. I am very familiar with the group water scheme's success. Its aim was to increase water quality and enhance water conservation, all the issues that are pertinent to drinking water. When I raise the issue of group sewerage schemes, people tend to say that no one wants them and there is no pressure to have them. However, there is no pressure for group sewerage scheme grants for individuals because the grant is not at a level that would encourage people to get involved in it.
I have been raising this matter since former Deputy Bobby Molloy, a colleague whom the Minister of State knows well, was Minister of State at the then Department of the Environment. At that stage, the Minister said that a pilot scheme would be introduced to examine the whole issue of group sewerage schemes. When that was done, the funding element would be considered. I am raising this now because, as of last year, construction work on the pilot project was completed. Commissioning was undertaken and monitoring of the performance of the new infrastructure commenced. Preliminary results were made available to the national rural water monitoring committee, presumably before Christmas last year. The lessons learned then with regard to the technologies and the costs associated with the treatment and collection system of the pilot project would have informed policy in determining the potential role for group sewerage schemes in the provision of waste water collection systems.
The Minister asked the national rural water monitoring committee to report to him on the results of the pilot projects, and to include the role of group sewerage schemes into the future in the provision of waste water collection systems. The Minister at that time said he was committed to reviewing the level of grant aid for group sewerage schemes when the report and the recommendations of the national water monitoring committee became available to him, and he felt this would happen in the short term.
My issue at this point is that, a year later, the short period of time envisaged this time last year may have been met. We are all aware of the desperate situation, particularly in Galway, where again people have been drinking bottled water. I lived in Nigeria for a year and I know the concept of boiling, straining, re-boiling and freezing water. Many of us take it for granted that water from the tap is safe.
One pollutant, which may not be the major one, must be the proliferation of septic tanks. We are geared towards the concept of every half an acre having a septic tank. This is one way of dealing with this. We also talked about environmental protections and the fact that tanks will have to be emptied more regularly and overseen more often. It is a win-win situation for everyone if we can move to group provision of sewerage schemes. This will happen, and we can bring people along with us, only if the level of grant aid is commensurate with that of the group water scheme. As evident from the recent water quality report for Ireland, there are many problems with which we must deal, but there is no doubt septic tanks is one of them. Until we embrace that we will go nowhere.
We in Donegal feel the pilot schemes introduced there can be often of the negative variety. We would have loved one of the positive pilot projects but we are beyond that discussion now. The pilot project has taken place, monitoring is taking place and I would like to think we can give the matter the urgent attention is deserves, particularly having regard to the recent report on water quality. I hope the Minister of State has good news for me today on driving the allocation for group sewerage schemes up to the same level as group water schemes, and embracing the wishes and needs of county councils around the country to improve water quality.
I thank Senator Keaveney for raising this issue. Forming a group sewerage scheme to construct a communal sewage collection system can provide some communities with an opportunity to connect their homes to a local authority sewerage scheme at an affordable cost. While grants are available for group sewerage schemes, the number of such schemes is small by comparison to group water schemes. The current rate of grant for a household under the group sewerage scheme programme is 75% of capital cost, or €2,031 per house, whichever is the lesser.
The corresponding grant for group water schemes, as the Senator said, is substantially higher. However, the level of grant aid is not necessarily the key issue where group sewerage schemes are concerned. Interest in forming new group sewerage schemes comes mainly from clusters of houses currently depending on septic tanks and situated close to towns or villages with public sewerage services. In some cases, septic tank owners, particularly in sensitive areas or locations with poor ground conditions, are experiencing difficulties with the disposal of septic tank effluent. Where the houses are close to a public sewer it may be possible for them to connect to the sewer at a reasonable cost, provided there is capacity for the additional effluent load. Waste water collection needs of small villages without any sewerage facilities are mainly looked after by local authorities under the small public schemes measure of my Department's rural water programme. This year I have allocated €23.2 million for this measure and local authorities have full discretion about where they decide to invest the money.
Issues associated with the location, siting, ownership and management of communal waste water treatment systems militate against community ownership of sewage treatment works. Operational failure could result in serious public health or environmental consequences and there is the ongoing issue of disposing of treated effluent and the sludge from the treatment process. Senator Keaveney is aware that my Department has funded a pilot programme — she referred to it earlier — to test a range of new, small-scale waste water collection and treatment systems under Irish conditions.
The objective is to evaluate new approaches to meeting the waste water collection and treatment needs of rural communities. As part of this pilot programme the potential role for group sewerage schemes in extending collection systems to households outside the catchment of new or existing public sewerage networks is also being assessed. The construction phase of the pilot programme is now finished and operational, and monitoring is ongoing. A report is being compiled on the technologies and costs associated with both the treatment and collection elements. This will inform policy development as to the potential role for group sewerage schemes in the provision of collection systems and the appropriate level of grant aid that should be made available to assist such groups. I have asked the national rural water monitoring committee to have the report on the pilot programme forwarded to me as soon as possible. I will review the grants for group sewerage schemes in light of the report and the recommendations it contains.
I have one short supplementary point. The Minister of State will be aware that the last two paragraphs I read into the record on 22 November 2007 and the last two paragraphs of what I said today are almost identical. I ask the Minister of State to take on board, particularly in the context of the recent report, that it is time to stop thinking about what we are going to do and decide what we are doing. We have the right Minister of State at the helm to drive that. I am glad to bring it to his attention today that a year on, we are no further on in decision making and I urge the Minister of State to embrace my thoughts on that.