Thursday, 1 March 2012
I welcome the Minister of State and thank her for responding to this Adjournment matter. My objective is to ascertain the total amount of taxpayers' money invested in the necessary and most welcome upgrading of public waste water treatment plants in recent years. This feeds into the current debate on private waste water treatment systems, the owners of which the Government seems determined to oblige to replace them.
Any Revenue worker will say it is possible to impose a tax or levy on people so long as it is deemed to be fair and equitable. The issue in this case, as I am sure the Minister of State's figures will show, is that billions of euro were spent in upgrading waste water treatment plants in Dublin and in towns and villages throughout the State at no cost to many of the individuals who benefited from the upgrades. Levies were imposed on developments when the developers applied for planning permission and that money met some of the cost of upgrading water treatments plants. However, for householders in Merrion Square and elsewhere in Dublin, any future upgrading required at Poolbeg, for instance, will not involve any charge. At the same time, taxpayers in County Kerry who receive no benefit from the service are paying for the upgrade of the facility at Poolbeg through their taxes.
If the Government does not put in place a grants system for the upgrading of waste water treatment facilities for private householders, there will be a significant inequity within the system. Billions of euro have been invested in upgrading the public system at no cost to those who use it because it is the right thing to do. Any facility that does not meet the required environmental standards must be upgraded, about which there is no argument. However, considerably more is being asked of people with private waste water treatment facilities which were installed in accordance with the regulations at the time and at the owner's cost. The Government has now changed the rules and is insisting on these facilities being upgraded to meet new standards. I agree that where water quality is not as it should be, there is an obligation to upgrade water treatment systems to meet modern standards. However, the owners of these facilities should be given the same treatment as people living in Dublin.
The Government is meeting fierce resistance on this issue because people can see how inequitable it is. If a person in County Kerry has a system that is not working, it is only right that he or she should be required to upgrade it. However, while taxpayers fund the bill for the upgrading of public systems, the individual is expected to bear the cost in rural areas. That is where the Revenue Commissioners tell the Cabinet that unless a charge or levy is equitable and fair, it will not have the support of the people. Rural householders are entitled to grant assistance to help them in meeting the required standards. I look forward to the Minister of State's response.
I am responding to this Adjournment matter on behalf of the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Phil Hogan.
I thank the Senator for providing me with an opportunity to outline the improvements made in the area of waste water treatment in the past 15 years. More than €6 billion in Exchequer resources has been invested in water services infrastructure since the early 1990s, with more than €5 billion of that spent in the past decade and a half. The focus of this investment has been on ensuring compliance with the European Union directives on both drinking water standards and urban waste water discharges and improving water supply to keep pace with population and economic needs. Annual Exchequer funding for waste water infrastructure has risen steadily since 1997, at which stage €116 million out of a total of €181 million was spent on waste water services, to €220 million out of almost €350 million of Exchequer funding in 2011.
Some €3.7 billion, or 71%, of the overall €6 billion has related to waste water infrastructure investment. Compliance with the EU urban waste water directive has been a key driver of investment during this period, as well as the need to respond to the requirements of population growth and the needs of industry. There are 482 agglomerations with a population greater than or equal to 500, with the two largest treatment plants in Dublin and Cork representing 55% of all public waste water discharges from these agglomerations. In the period 2000 to date, 341 waste water treatment schemes and contracts have been completed. This has led to an increase in treatment capacity equivalent to the needs of a population of almost 3.9 million. Some 1,250 km of sewer network have been constructed and almost 160 km of the existing network rehabilitated.
Ireland is approximately 93% compliant with the 2005 deadline relating to the EU urban waste water treatment directive, which requires secondary treatment for discharges from agglomerations above certain specified size thresholds. This compares with a compliance rate of 25% in 2000. Current investment plans under the water services investment plan 2010-12 will lead to the necessary infrastructure for secondary treatment in larger agglomerations being put in place by 2015. The monitoring of the effluents discharged by waste water treatment plants falls under the control of the Environmental Protection Agency. The report of the agency for the period 2008 to 2009 was published recently. While it indicates improvements in performance and compliance since the previous report, its findings indicate a need for further and more comprehensive improvement in operational performance. It also highlights the need for continued investment in waste water treatment infrastructure. The EPA has listed a number of areas in which secondary treatment or secondary treatment with nutrient reduction are still required and all of these locations are included in the current water services investment programme, with contracts under way or schemes in planning with a view to completion by 2015 at the latest.
The combination of investment, licensing and supervision of the sector is having a positive effect. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government will continue to work with local authorities and the EPA to ensure the investment made, combined with a continuous improvement in operations, leads to sustained improvements in compliance with standards.
I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive reply. I accept that she may not have the relevant information in her possession, but I was under the impression that the EPA had indicated that 50% of current public waste water treatment units needed to be upgraded. This is an astonishing figure. I am somewhat confused by the fact that the report to which the Minister of State referred indicates a compliance rate of 93% in respect of the 2005 deadline. There is obviously a slight difference between these two figures. I would appreciate if it the Minister of State provided further information on this matter.
I will certainly ask the Department to communicate further with the Deputy on the matter. However, I must take issue with him on the points he made on what was happening in the Dublin area. It is easy for people outside the capital to point the finger and state that Dublin gets everything. When one considers the figures, it is obvious that this is not the case. In that context, one could highlight the significantly higher level of investment in road projects, schools, health services, etc., outside the greater Dublin area. If one is determined to discuss these issues, one must compare like with like.