Tuesday 12 November 2019

Caroline O'Doherty: 'Latest water woes just the tip of a very flawed system across country'

Problem: Emma Purcell (8), from north Co Dublin, is among the hundreds of thousands of people forced in recent weeks to use bottled water for everyday tasks such as brushing their teeth. Photo: Mark Condren
Problem: Emma Purcell (8), from north Co Dublin, is among the hundreds of thousands of people forced in recent weeks to use bottled water for everyday tasks such as brushing their teeth. Photo: Mark Condren

Caroline O'Doherty

The boil water notice affecting 615,000 people in the east of the country may be the biggest and most disruptive ever but the only unique thing about it is its scale.

All around the country, the problems that have plagued the Leixlip Water Treatment Plant are being played out in miniature.

Outdated design, creaking infrastructure, weak warning systems, clunky governance structures and communication failures have all contributed to the current woes in Dublin, Kildare and Meath.

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Those boxes can also be ticked at many smaller plants the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has audited over the past 12 months.

Audits are "reactive" as Dr Tom Ryan, the EPA's director of enforcement, described them to an Oireachtas committee this week. "We are on-site when issues arise."

In other words, the number of audits does not accurately reflect the number of problem plants - it just tells us how many had problems that escalated into a public health risk.

Swanlibar water treatment plant in north-west Cavan, a diminutive facility serving a population of 301, is one.

On the morning of July 2 last, Cavan County Council issued a boil water notice to its users, followed in the evening by a 'do not use' notice. That meant no drinking, no washing, no contact with the water at all.

An Irish Water-EPA investigation uncovered a series of breaches and quality issues over the previous month.

As with Leixlip, the water was too cloudy, or turbid, from silt, sediment or other organic matter, which meant the filters hadn't adequately cleaned it and there was a risk of parasites and other contaminants making their way to the taps.

As with Leixlip, the filter system needed upgrading and indeed works were under way. Just like Leixlip, heavy rainfall brought extra-cloudy water into the plant from the source.

And as with Leixlip's October incident, a blockage caused the disinfection-dosing pumps to malfunction.

Similar to Leixlip's March incident, there was a delay in informing oversight authorities. This was "despite the fact training was provided to Cavan County Council in June 2019 on the communication to Irish Water and the HSE of exceedances and incidents".

Swanlinbar is not alone in having its shortcomings made public. On January 2 last, it was discovered that part of the Mullingar regional scheme had supplied undisinfected water to 16,607 people for 56 hours because of mechanical failure and an alarm that failed to go off because it wasn't reset after a previous incident.

Irish Water was not told for another two days.

The Galtee scheme that supplies 11,436 people in the Cashel region has been on the EPA's watch list since 2015 and an audit in July this year found key issues had still not been addressed.

Again, intense rainfall highlighted the plant's weaknesses, with filters unable to screen out aluminium and the turbidity alert system non-existent.

Here, the auditors praised the staff who were working in conditions where Irish Water had not fulfilled previous undertakings.

These are just a few of the many audit reports available to give an insight into the challenges of running a water service that is piecemeal in both physical infrastructure and management structure.

How to fund the service has long been the most controversial issue but with water charges now on a very long finger, attention is turning to the question of how to run it.

Events at Leixlip seem to back up what an official from Minister Eoghan Murphy's office told the Oireachtas committee was a "critical gap" between Irish Water, which has legal responsibility for water services, and the councils and their staff who have operational responsibility.

The minister wants to bridge that by allowing Irish Water to take over the lot - responsibilities and workers - speeding up the end of the current arrangement, which is meant to run until 2025.

Preliminary talks have taken place at the Workplace Relations Commission and Peter Nolan, of the Fórsa trade union, said workers were willing to address any problematic "rigidities" in the current arrangement.

But he warned their strong preference was to maintain the 2025 plan. "It's the most complex transformation of any public service since the foundation of the State. You're talking about transferring 3,500 people from a public-service organisation into a commercial State agency. That's never been done before."

He also said he would be "disappointed" if the issues at Leixlip were used to try to score points on the issue.

Irish Water and Fingal County Council will jointly meet the EPA and HSE again next Tuesday in the hope their joint efforts will finally allow the boil water notice be lifted at Leixlip.

Getting the parties to jointly plot the longer-term future for the country's water service will be a far bigger task.

Irish Independent

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