A real risk to the public
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.