Seanad debates

Monday, 31 May 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Water Quality

10:30 am

Photo of Róisín GarveyRóisín Garvey (Green Party)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as ucht teacht isteach arís. Tá sé an-ghnóthach an tseachtain seo. We will have to make the Minister of State an honorary member of the Seanad. He is great for coming in. To more serious matters, we all heard about Kilkee last week. It is a very famous beach and the reason is that it is a beautiful and safe bay. Unfortunately, Kilkee has had major issues for years. This is the third year in a row that the beach has been closed. I have said before that we have a water emergency, and this is another big example of it. Kilkee was promised a water treatment facility many years ago, which was to be completed by the end of last year. Now it is being said it will not be completed until 2024 or 2025. People want to know what is happening and when it is happening. I do not care whose fault it is. At this stage, nobody cares. We just want the solutions.

A very worrying issue that keeps coming up, and it also came up in Lahinch previously, is e.coli infection of younger bathers and more vulnerable bathers. Families have contacted me. In one case, a child got e.coli and gave it to his two week old brother who ended up in hospital. Are we waiting for the Government to get sued in the courts? Several families have contacted me about this issue.

At present, there is no treatment plant in Kilkee. There is a unit with a screen but that is it. The water is pumped out over the cliff. It is not fit for purpose anyway. Even on a good day, it is not good enough. On a bad day, we all see what happens. People blame climate change but there are many elements to this. There is no one simple solution because there are so many elements. We have heavier rainfall now. Previously, storm drains fed into the sewerage treatment system or the septic tank or whatever was holding it. This worked in the past but now we have different types of rain and heavier rainfall. This means the raw sewerage and storm drain water all get mixed up. Sometimes the system backs up because it cannot cope. This happens all over the country, as we know from the Environmental Protection Agency's results.

Two weeks ago, burst water mains resulted in the shutdown of the beach, which is devastating for all of the businesses that have finally reopened.Meanwhile, it could be another four years before Kilkee gets a treatment plant.

A number of factors are at play and, unfortunately, a treatment plant will not take care of all of them. The Victoria stream, which has run-off from the catchment area, must be dammed every year. That stream sometimes bring contamination to the bathing areas. Water from the dammed stream is then fed into a pump station for pumping to the outfall at the cliffs. There is also the Atlantic stream on the east side of the beach. That is not pumped out at all and goes straight into the bay. That could also bring about contamination.

We have been saying this for a long time. The Minister of State, who is a member of the Green Party, realises that water was a major issue for us when the programme for Government was being negotiated, particularly in the context of proper investment in water, looking at water quality and catchment-based solutions. There can be many of these, and they can include soft engineering as well as hard engineering. We need catchment-based solutions because septic tanks and water treatments will not solve all the problems. There are myriad issues and unless we see water as an emergency issue, we will not solve the problem.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as ucht an t-ábhar seo a ardú inniu. I acknowledge that this is a human health matter and that there is also a cost to businesses, many of which have been dealing with lockdown over the past number of months and are seeking signs of hope from the pandemic towards a brighter summer. This is the summer of the outdoors, as the Taoiseach has stated. It is really important that our wastewater treatment plants and bathing areas are in a condition where people can enjoy bathing in a safe manner.

With the recent publication of the Environmental Protection Agency's Bathing Water Quality in Ireland 2020 report, I am pleased to see the continued improvements in the quality of our bathing waters, especially those bathing waters that are meeting or exceeding the minimum water quality requirements. Up from 95% in 2019, 96% of bathing waters met or exceeded the minimum required standard, and these continued improvements in bathing water quality are welcome and necessary. Excellent work is being carried out by local authorities and other stakeholders on the continued improvements in our bathing water quality. For both local and national tourism, it is important that the network of bathing waters is strengthened and enhanced. For this reason, I was particularly delighted to see two new bathing waters, at Carrigaholt and Quilty, identified in 2020. Credit must go to Clare County Council for its work in making this happen. I encourage all bathers to use the information on the dedicated www.beaches.iewebsite before going swimming and to always follow the advice of the HSE and Department of Health on social distancing protocols when at the beach.

With regard to the bathing waters at Kilkee, despite the complex pressures in the surrounding catchment, the continued rating of excellent - the highest and cleanest class - and the award of another blue flag for the 2021 bathing season is also to be commended. As we can see with the recent specific and temporary bathing prohibition notice that was issued for Kilkee as a result of a burst sewer main, however, ongoing and sustained investment to improve the standard of waste discharge into the environment is required. Since 1 January 2014, Irish Water has had sole responsibility for all public water and waste water services, which includes the investment in and planning of all future plants and infrastructure withinIreland. The Minister has no direct role in this matter. Irish Water, working in partnership with Clare County Council, is progressing with the Kilkee sewerage scheme project. This project is currently at detailed design stage and includes the construction of a new waste water treatment plant, the construction of new sewer pipelines and upgrade of the Irish Water combined sewer pumping station.

As mentioned, our entire water system needs substantial and sustained investment over a number of investment cycles to fully improve performance and resilience. In this regard, as part of budget 2021, over €1.4 billion was secured to support water services. This includes €1.3 billion in respect of domestic water services provision by Irish Water. This overall investment will deliver significant improvements in public water and waste water services, support improved water supplies right across Ireland, including rural Ireland, and support a range of programmes delivering improved water quality in our rivers, lakes and marine areas. Water quality in Ireland is facing complex pressures and increasing demands from population change and a previously growing economy that we all hope will continue after we emerge for the current pandemic, as well as from a changing climate, which have been documented. It is certainly the case that this will require sustained investment . We will work with Irish Water and local authorities to achieve this. There is capital investment.The commitment made by the Government shows that we are committed to resolving these issues around the country.

Photo of Róisín GarveyRóisín Garvey (Green Party)
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I am glad to hear that better funding than ever before is being given to Irish Water for capital funding. That is very positive news. I do not accept that the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, can say that he has no direct role in this matter. This keeps happening: we set up some sort of semi-State agency and we then say it is all their fault. People blame Irish Water all the time but what of the State? Even I as a legislator feel slightly responsible for what is happening in Kilkee. The Minister cannot just say it is up to Irish Water and that he has given them loads of money. This has been going on for quite a long time. While there is an older legacy issue there, and I cannot blame it all on the new Ministers, we must take responsibility as legislators. We cannot just say that Irish Water has been given the money and that is the end of that. Irish Water was also given the money for this four years ago and it did not happen. Now we are told it is in the plans but there is no definite date. I appreciate the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, coming to the House. I appreciate that Irish Water has been given bigger funding than ever before. That gives me hope.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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The Senator is correct. It is collective responsibility. It is not just that of Irish Water. We are embarking on a whole new cycle of river basin management plans, the public consultation for which will commence shortly, and on marine protected areas. There is a lot of work we must do collectively. The Government is committed to working in partnership with Irish Water to resolve these infrastructural deficits that have existed for far too long and have caused the significant problems in Kilkee.

There is an update on the specific incident over the weekend, which the Senator referred to. The sewer, which is the foul rising main, that burst in Kilkee, County Clare, did so at 2 p.m. on Saturday, 29 May. There is no effect on the beach for now because flow has been diverted to the storm rising main and the dam in the Victoria stream, which flows onto the beach. This has been in place since earlier this week. Irish Water has tankers on standby to assist if needed. The break in the rising main is located in the caravan park, and has been traced to a location under an occupied caravan. The caravan will be vacated tomorrow evening and moved for repair to start on Monday morning. Irish Water has notified the EPA as a prosecution.

I acknowledge the challenges this has created, including the disruption to business and the concerns for public health. We are working and putting every effort in to try to resolve the issue as a matter of urgency.

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I thank the Minister of State. That concludes Commencement matters for today. The House will suspend until 12 noon. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Sitting suspended at 11.33 a.m. and resumed at 12.03 p.m.