Thursday, 4 December 2008
Water Supply Contamination
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Curran, for remaining in the House to respond to this matter. Will the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government consider the provision of a support scheme for households and families that have suffered as a result of lead contamination in the water supply in Galway city, arising from the existence of an outdated and defunct lead network system in the older sections of the city? Such a scheme will enable families to afford the cost of the replacement of the lead pipes between the public water mains, located at the boundary or gate of their house, and their kitchen sink. As many as 3,500 households may be affected by this problem, although officials in Galway City Council told me today that they do not expect the number to be that high. The households affected by this problem are located in Mervue, Shantalla, Claddagh, Salthill and the older sections of the city.
The obligation of a local authority is to provide water to the boundary of a house, that is, to the front or back gate, whichever is most convenient. Currently, it is a matter for householders to connect to the water supply at the boundary of their properties. I am making a case for a grant scheme to enable families to manage the financial cost of connecting the new safe water supply into their kitchen sink. There will be considerable cost involved in ripping up driveways or patios, depending on whether the connection is at the front or back entrance, replacing kitchen and hall floors and so on.
A grant scheme is not only essential but would also be a responsible move by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. It will enable families to avail of safe drinking water which meets the existing lead standard of 25 micrograms per litre, as set in 2004. Moreover, it will enable households, and the local authority, to meet the 2013 standard of 10 micrograms per litre, thereby achieving a national objective in water safety standards. Prior to 2004, the lead standard was 50 micrograms per litre, an indication that the standards are becoming increasingly stringent. The grant scheme I am proposing is for a specific, defined purpose and will meet the Department's own goals as well as meeting the needs of families in Galway city for safe drinking water. A safe water supply is a personal and public health issue as well as a resource for living.
There is already a precedent for grants such as the one I am proposing for specific defined purposes, such as the essential repairs grant of €6,000 to extend the useful life of the homes of elderly persons. I am pleased that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has stated publicly on two occasions that money is not an obstacle to the provision of safe drinking water in Galway city. Against this background, I strongly encourage the Department to provide for this grant scheme in order to discourage householders from opting for temporary and less safe solutions. Temporary solutions such as filtration are much discussed in Galway at present. However, there are maintenance issues. With filtration there is evidence of the public water supply testing safe at the gate or the boundary of the property but being contaminated at the sink as a result of faulty, unmaintained filtration systems. It is not a permanent solution.
The solution I propose is permanent. It will serve the needs of the householders and families in Galway city and will meet the local authority's and, most importantly, the Department's obligations into the future under EU law. I look forward to the Minister's reply.
I am replying on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government who regrets that he cannot be present. I thank the Senator for raising the issue.
Each local authority is responsible for the quality of the drinking water it supplies to the public and is legally required to ensure that any failure to meet quality standards is investigated immediately to determine the cause and remedied as quickly as possible. Galway City Council's priorities are urgently to introduce additional water treatment to eliminate the leaching of lead into the supply and to implement permanent pipe replacement measures as quickly as possible. The council has engaged a recognised expert on lead contamination who has visited the two water treatment plants serving the city. Work on the additional treatment — pH correction — has begun and initial testing indicates that it has resulted in a drop in lead levels in affected areas.
I understand the HSE has confirmed that tests carried out have established that none of the affected householders has shown any evidence of lead toxicity. Sampling of water throughout the affected areas is continuing. The council is providing drinking water from tankers and is subsidising bottled water for affected households. The council is also advancing plans to replace lead distribution mains. These works will be funded by the Department under the water services investment programme.
Substantial funding is also being provided to both Galway City Council and Galway County Council to enable them to provide high quality water services infrastructure in their areas. The water services investment programme includes more than 50 major water and sewerage schemes, with a value of more than €464 million, for County Galway and a further eight schemes worth in excess of €114 million for Galway city. In particular, substantial funding is being provided towards the city's programme to replace old water distribution pipes.
There is a record allocation of €560 million for new water and sewerage schemes next year, an increase of 19% over 2008. This is the clearest possible statement by the Government of the priority attached to high quality water and waste water services. As far as individual service pipes are concerned, under water services legislation the owner of a premises is responsible for ensuring that the internal water distribution system is capable of delivering drinking water that complies with drinking water standards. This is similar to the provision of an electricity supply to a house where the internal wiring is the responsibility of the owner or occupants, not the supplier. The Department's water services investment programme funds major strategic infrastructural projects but does not extend to replacing individual service connections or other measures relating to single households.
The Minister has asked me to say that he greatly sympathises with those people who are enduring the hardship of not having a good quality water supply. He is providing funding for any necessary infrastructural works the city council needs to undertake and will facilitate the council in every way possible to get these works completed quickly. He regrets that there is no source of funding from which he could provide grants to individual householders. I hope this helps to clarify the matter for the Senator.
I am disappointed with that response. We do not need the Minister's sympathy. I am seeking serious consideration of a request for a grant scheme, and let today be the beginning of that consideration. It has been done in the other areas I mentioned. The Minister said there is no difficulty with funding for the provision of safe drinking water in Galway city. There is little use in water being brought to a certain point if it cannot be brought from there to the household sink. What is the point? People will still have unsafe water because they cannot replace the lead pipes that bring water to their sinks. Will the Minister of State consider this and speak further to the Minister about it?
The Minister has clearly indicated that responsibility for water supply from the boundary into the home, as is the case with the electricity supply, lies with the householder.
He goes on to point out that he does not have funds available for a grant scheme such as that envisaged by the Senator. He also said he is doing everything possible, with Galway City Council, to rectify the infrastructural problem with water pipes. The Senator asked if funding is available and his reply is clearly "No". It is not available for grants for the water supply from the boundary to the house.