Seanad debates

Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Water Services

2:30 pm

Photo of Victor BoyhanVictor Boyhan (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Malcolm Noonan. The next matter is from Senator Fiona O'Loughlin and relates to the water supply issues at the Ballymore Eustace plan in the great County Kildare. She is welcome.

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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It is absolutely the great county of Kildare. I am glad the Acting Chairman said that. I welcome the Minister of State, and I hope he will take on board the comments and points I will make. I certainly welcome any answers he has.

"Water is the lifeblood of our bodies, our economy, our nation and our well-being." That is a quote from Mr. Stephen Johnson, a former head of the American Environmental Protection Agency, and it rings completely true to us. I know the Minister of State is familiar with Kildare, where Ballymore Eustace has Ireland's largest water treatment plant, serving a population of almost 1 million people. It is located in County Kildare, although it is looked after by Dublin City Council. I am raising the really important question of water quality and the management of our water treatment plants.

We were all shocked in August to learn of the incidents that occurred at the Ballymore Eustace treatment plant, as well as the Creagh water treatment plant at Gorey. It is clear the management of these facilities failed miserably. Essentially, the management had to protect and safeguard the quality of water coming from these facilities but that did not happen. The failure of the local authorities, including Dublin City Council and Wexford County Council, to report issues with water quality to Irish Water in a timely manner led to an absolutely unacceptable delay in the Environmental Protection Agency and the Health Service Executive being notified, meaning there was no opportunity to issue a boil water notice. A prompt response could have protected the over 900,000 people dependent on this water supply from being needlessly put at risk.

We all accept a boil water notice is a major inconvenience, and I agree that they should be used sparingly and only issued when absolutely necessary. In these cases, however, a notice would have allowed people to protect themselves while the problems at water treatment plants were resolved. The failure in communication allowed consumption to continue as normal when it was known there was a problem.I put it to the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, that this was simply unacceptable. I find even more concerning the reports of how the specific issues were dealt with, such as the pump failure in Ballymore Eustace and the power failure at Creagh water treatment plant. Even under normal circumstances we were failing to protect our water supply. A safe and secure water supply is the very least that any of us can expect in our country. A recent audit has found that chlorine levels at the Ballymore Eustace plant were below standard even when the facility was functioning normally. This means that the water coming out of people's taps was regularly put at risk. That is absolutely unacceptable. Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents. The entire process of how we supply water in the State needs to be reviewed. It is clear that enhanced scrutiny and oversight of the entire process is needed. Indeed, a month ago in this House I spoke about the issue whereby a number of eels were entering the water supply in the Carlow north regional water facility, which supplies water to Castledermot in south Kildare.

These are just three examples I have given to the Minister of State but I could go on all day recounting stories of issues from across my county and the country. What plans are in place to ensure a reliable and safe water supply to be provided to Irish citizens? What mitigation measures were put in place to give the general public confidence in the water coming from their taps?

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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I agree with the contention about the great County Kildare. I have Kildare blood in me too. It is a fantastic county.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. It is of deep concern to us all. The recent issues at both the Ballymore Eustace and Gorey water treatment plants gave rise to genuine concerns regarding operational failures at these plants as identified by the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA.

At the outset, I can assure the Senator that at recent meetings with the managing director of Irish Water and the chief executives of Dublin City Council and Wexford County Council, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, was informed that both treatment plants are stable, operating normally and are producing clean and wholesome water.

The Minister requested that Irish Water undertake audits on the largest water treatment plants in the State serving the majority of the population. These are now complete and refresher training has been provided to the operatives at these plants. In addition, refresher training is being provided to all local authority management and engineers who are then cascading this training to all operatives and technical staff in all 800-plus water treatment plants nationwide.

In the longer term, ensuring security of water supply requires fit-for-purpose working arrangements and appropriate investment. As to the limitations to the current working arrangements between Irish Water and local authorities, a process is now under way in the Workplace Relations Commission to deliver the transformation of this service so that Irish Water has full control of the water services workforce and is therefore fully responsible and accountable for the delivery of the service.

On funding, as part of budget 2022 the Government will be investing more than €1.57 billion to support water services next year. This includes more than €1.4 billion for domestic water services provision by Irish Water. This is part of the commitment under the national development plan for €6 billion of capital investment to be undertaken by Irish Water in the period 2021-25.

We should note that the recast EU drinking water directive, adopted on 16 December 2020, updates the obligations on member states regarding the provision of water intended for human consumption. The objective of this directive is to protect human health from the adverse effects of any contamination of water intended for human consumption by ensuring that it is wholesome and clean, and to improve access to water intended for human consumption. This will be achieved through a number of measures including the introduction of a risk-based approach to water supply that incorporates drinking water safety plans. A programme of drinking water safety planning is currently under way as part of Irish Water's water services strategic plan.

I assure the Senator that we acknowledge there were clear and unacceptable failings here in terms of communication. People took ill from what happened at these plants. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, acted swiftly with Irish Water, with the local authorities and with local government in general to ensure that incidents of this nature do not happen again

Photo of Fiona O'LoughlinFiona O'Loughlin (Fianna Fail)
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I appreciate that it has been acknowledged that there were clear communication failures in what happened with the Ballymore Eustace and Gorey supplies. We have to ensure that does not happen again. I appreciate the plants are now stable and operating normally, are producing clean and wholesome water and the refresher training has been put in place for all staff. That is very important.

The Minister of State has mentioned very significant investment of €1.57 billion next year, which is an incredible amount of money. If that is what is needed for a safe and secure supply of clean water, then it is money well spent. It is about the outcomes, however, it is not about the money spent. We must ensure we do not have these systemic failures again because, as I said at the start, the very least people can expect is access to safe, secure water.

Photo of Malcolm NoonanMalcolm Noonan (Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)
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Again, I want to give that assurance the Senator that certainly the learning experiences from this incident have been taken on board. The Minister, as I said, has acted swiftly and the Senator is correct in saying the investment of €1.57 billion is needed. That is sustained investment that is required over a period of time. The investment of €6 billion over the lifetime of the national development plan, NDP, is required because, as we have heard in this House and in the Dáil, we have had a number of incidents throughout the country where there have been discharges of raw sewage into watercourses. It is unacceptable from a human health and biodiversity point of view and these have to be addressed. That is why the Government is deeply committed now to ensuring we have a fit-for-purpose water and wastewater treatment system that is suitable for the needs and growth of the population in years to come. It is only fit and right we continue to invest, and this Government is committed to record investment in water and wastewater treatment over the next decade.

Sitting suspended at 3.17 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.