'We don't use the water. I can't risk a sick customer'
The people of Boyle in Co Roscommon will soon have to pay for tap water they cannot drink.
Published 03/06/2014 | 02:30
PENSIONER Austin Keigher loads bottle after bottle of still water into a trolley at Kelly's Londis on Boyle's main street before driving it, expert-like, across the road to his car.
His groceries today include a precious cargo to replace what most of us take for granted – clean tap water.
But here in Boyle there's no such thing. A boil-water notice is still in place – or 'Boyle-water' as the locals call it.
To the naked eye, water here looks like what the rest of us get when we run a tap to fill a kettle or drink a glass.
But it's not; it's riddled with tiny spores of cryptosporidium, an infestation caused by faeces.
If you get this nasty bug in your system, expect to be sick for up to a fortnight with stomach cramps and diarrhoea.
It's deemed safe by Irish Water for having a shower or a bath; but not for drinking or washing food. Residents are advised to boil the water before drinking it; but most don't – preferring like 69-year-old Austin to buy bottled water.
"I have to buy two five-litre bottles of water every day," says the retired shopkeeper, lured to buy more at Londis today by a 'special offer' of 10 litres for €3.
"It's hard to believe that we're living in 2014 and having to lug water from one place to the next.
"It's a disgrace and it has been going on far too long."
To add insult to injury, Irish Water is proposing to start charging residents for their water along with the rest of the country next year, albeit with a 15pc discount thrown in as a gesture.
Surprisingly, many locals would be happy to pay for water, as long as it's clean.
"We should pay for our water," says Austin.
"When you don't have something you soon realise what you're missing. It's costing me €5 every day for my water right now. But I do think it's disgraceful that we're still going to be charged for dirty water next year. The discount is an insult."
And no one feels more aggrieved than the staff inside Londis.
Deli-counter manager Sinead Corrigan could do without the hassle.
All food is prepared here using bottled water.
"It's costing us €50 per week but we have no choice in the matter," says the shop's owner Dan Kennedy.
"It's our customers though I feel sorry for, having to come in and out all the time to buy water, a basic necessity for everyone.
"We also get questions from tourists who can't believe they have to buy bottled water."
Down in the town, one business owner had enough when two customers walked out of her restaurant during last summer's heat wave.
"They asked for free tap water and all we could offer was bottled water, which they had to pay for and before we could explain, they'd walked out," says Alison Clarke.
She installed specialist filtering equipment worth €2,500 to end "our hell" at Clarke's Bar and Restaurant.
"There was no end in sight and we had grown tired of carrying water from the shops all the time for our kitchens," she said.
"We daren't use the tap water. I couldn't take the risk of seeing a customer getting sick.
"Thankfully, life has returned to normal. During all this time we've had to continue to pay water rates, not a cent has been knocked off our bills and we're paying the costs of making our water clean."
Boyle is feeling very unloved.
The town council disappears in a few weeks and councillor Jane Sufflin fears a promised fix to Boyle's water problems will disappear with it.
"We're told it will be sorted in a year," she says.
"In the meantime, families struggling to pay their bills are left to pick up the tab of the failure of the county council and Irish Water.
"Most people buy bottled water and that costs €20 or €30 per week. No one has even considered the cost of the extra electric used every time someone has to boil a kettle.
"The problems have been going on for five years, getting worse each year."
Denis Naughten, the local TD, says the water problems across Roscommon are "a national disgrace".
He says upgrades have been announced three times by governments since 2010.
"Promises were made to the county council for 10 years and nothing has happened," he says.
He says the Commission for Energy Regulation, which sets water prices, mustn't be allowed to charge any customer being supplied with dirty water.
Irish Water says it awarded the contract to repair all of Co Roscommon's water supplies last December.
It will be the end of 2015 – at the earliest – before all works are completed, with a number of mobile filtration systems being used in some areas.
In the case of Boyle, an Irish Water spokesman says the company's "ambition" is to have a new system in place by Christmas having "accelerated" its plans for the town.
"I'll believe it when I can drink it," says Ms Sufflin.