A real risk to the pub­lic

The Irish Times - - Comment & Letters -

The lat­est En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA) re­port on ur­ban waste­water treat­ment is a grim ac­count of fail­ure to pro­vide ad­e­quate in­fras­truc­ture; of poor main­te­nance; and lack of ur­gency in pro­vid­ing new fa­cil­i­ties or up­grad­ing ex­ist­ing plants. The fail­ures mean there is con­sid­er­able on­go­ing risk to pub­lic health.

There are shock­ing as­pects to this re­port on 2016: most notably, 50 out of 185 large towns and cities are not meet­ing legally-bind­ing EU stan­dards in force since 2005; the scale of dif­fi­cul­ties in Cork and Dublin (which pro­cesses 40 per cent of all waste­water); and the num­ber of lo­ca­tions where raw sewage con­tin­ues to be dis­charged on a daily ba­sis.

Cork and Done­gal ac­count for al­most 50 per cent of the 44 ar­eas where un­treated sewage is be­ing re­leased, but Gal­way and Wex­ford have lit­tle cause for com­fort given dis­charges that con­tinue un­abated in so many ar­eas in their ju­ris­dic­tions – all notable tourism lo­ca­tions. For and con­sumers, ex­po­sure to bac­te­ria and viruses is an in­evitable con­se­quence. Dis­charged sewage also ex­acts an en­vi­ron­men­tal toll, threat­en­ing shell­fish habi­tats (and Ire­land’s hard-won rep­u­ta­tion for safe, qual­ity seafood) and desta­bil­is­ing del­i­cate fresh­wa­ter ecosys­tems.

It is to the EPA’s credit that it has been un­com­pro­mis­ing in spell­ing out com­pli­ance fail­ures. It is rare that a State agency is so frank on the per­for­mance of another State body – in this case Ir­ish Water, which since 2014 has had re­spon­si­bil­ity for drink­ing water and waste water. It has acted on its find­ings, se­cur­ing five pros­e­cu­tions against Ir­ish Water – with seven more in the pipe­line.

With some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion, Ir­ish Water points to “decades of un­der-in­vest­ment” in crit­i­cal in­fras­truc­ture. But there has been a marked de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in waste water com­pli­ance since 2015 un­der its watch and sewage, raw or par­tially treated, has be­come the sec­ond most com­mon cause of water pol­lu­tion af­ter agri­cul­ture.

To its credit, Ir­ish Water is in­tro­duc­ing a new sys­tem of com­bin­ing projects with the aim of get­ting through the tor­tu­ous plan­ning sys­tem faster. It is also in­creas­ing in­vest­ment to ¤326 mil­lion a year, and has been re­as­sured it will be funded ad­e­quately by gov­ern­ment up to 2021. The over­all level of in­vest­ment re­quired is iabout ¤18 bil­lion, which will place a strain on the Ex­che­quer for years to come, es­pe­cially in the ab­sence of rev­enues from water charges.

Ir­ish Water pri­ori­tised drink­ing water in the first in­stance. That was the cor­rect ap­proach then. It is now broad­en­ing the fo­cus to ad­dress un­ac­cept­able in­fras­truc­ture deficits in sewage treat­ment. There will be two in­di­ca­tors of suc­cess: short­en­ing the time­frame for de­liv­ery and en­sur­ing ex­ist­ing fa­cil­i­ties per­form to a stan­dard that pro­tects hu­man health and the en­vi­ron­ment.

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