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Incident at Wexford water treatment plant that left 46 people ill ‘will never happen again’

Councillors told of lessons learned and changes made since water incident

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Creagh Water Treatment Plant.

Creagh Water Treatment Plant.

Neighbours Tess Sinnott and Jack Murphy, who both fell ill after drinking tap water in Gorey.

Neighbours Tess Sinnott and Jack Murphy, who both fell ill after drinking tap water in Gorey.

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Creagh Water Treatment Plant.

goreyguardian

“We can be confident that we will never see an incident like that again” was the message shared by Director of Services at Wexford County Council Eamonn Hore as he outlined a detailed report on the Creagh Water Treatment Plant incident that caused 46 illnesses last August.

At the monthly meeting of the Members of the Gorey-Kilmuckridge Municipal District, Mr Hore presented a report commissioned by Wexford County Council to examine all the circumstances that led to the water quality incident in Gorey. The report was prepared by P.J. Rudden of Aengus Consulting Ltd., who was appointed on September 30 2021 to carry out the task.

The report detailed how, on August 19, 2021, a power failure incident at the plant caused the chlorine dosing pumps to fail at the plant. The impact of this was ‘compounded by human error that allowed water, without the appropriate level of disinfection, to enter the public water supply at Gorey for a period of four days’. 46 people fell ill as a result of consuming this drinking water, one of whom was hospitalised. While the HSE audit in September 2021 initially identified 52 infections, they clarified in November that the number of people who fell ill from the water incident was in fact 46 as some people had more than one infection. The age range of those who fell ill ranged from ‘very young’ to over 65.

According to the report, the fact that some of the automatic alarms were activated to a ‘low priority setting’ meant that relevant SMS messaging was not issued to council staff after the pump failure.

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While the first complaint of illness was on Monday, August 23, this connection between the water treatment plant and the illness was not then realised. Wexford County Council visited the person’s house in Ardmore Estate and tested the water, which was determined to be satisfactory.

The water issue came to light on August 26 – seven days after the power failure – when a second illness complaint to Irish Water from a Gorey resident was passed to Wexford County Council, prompting a review of plant operations.

The reports notes that Irish Water released a statement in September 2021 to confirm that water quality issues had arisen at Creagh Water Treatment Plant and assured that these were resolved. Wexford County Council has accepted and apologised for these failings.

In the report conclusions, the primary cause of the water quality incident was stated as ‘the failure of the disinfection system’ which occurred following a power failure. “The disinfection system, consisting of sodium hypochlorite pumped into the treated water, cased to operate due to mechanical failure but human error in not detecting and escalating the problems extended the timeline of the incident by approximately four days.” The report highlight the 'lack of supervisory oversight’ at the time of the incident, and recommended staff refresher training, which had been delayed by the pandemic. ‘A significant lack of incident reporting from site operational staff to management at Wexford County Council’ and ‘limited compliance with the Irish Water Standard Operational Procedures’ were also noted as issues that contributed to the incident.

The report outlines 13 separate recommendations to ensure that there is no recurrence of the Creagh incident. These include: the provision of an alarm system for power failure; a standby generator in case of power failure; a return to quarterly maintenance of mechanical equipment; changes to the remote monitoring system; a review of staffing and duties at the plant; implementation of automatic plant shutdown in response to water quality issues; an upgrade of the chlorine dosing system; replacement and servicing of the sand and filtration system; the full implementation of Irish Water Standard Operation Procedures and an audit of all treatment plants in the county and a review of incident management.

Some of the improvements that have been actioned were outlined including the hiring of additional staff; the reorganisation of staff duties; the reinstatement of quarterly servicing following a previous reduction to biannual servicing in 2020 and staff training.

Members at the recent meeting heard that, since the incident at Creagh Water Treatment Plant, €200,000 has been invested in the plant. A further €2m has been secured for upgrades in 2022 and 2023.

“We can count ourselves lucky that there were no fatalities. We had a lot of very vulnerable people during Covid,” said Cllr Breen following the report presentation. “Good sound water infrastructure is what we need in this town.”

Cllr Joe Sullivan commended Minister Darragh O’Brien for taking the incident seriously and said ‘we can’t take our eye off the fact that the health of 46 people was affected’.

Cllr Fionntán Ó Súilleabhain said that, in his view ‘we need to treat the source rather than the symptom’ and queried whether water quality in source streams can be monitored. Mr Hore said that he believes that sampling of rivers and streams may be in place next year. Cllr Ó Súilleabhain also commented on the ‘over-chlorination’ of water in Gorey, saying that many people he has met opt for bottled water as a result, while he also commented on the use of fluoride in the water Senior Engineer Fionnuala Callery informed him that upgrades for Creagh include a UV system that will allow for the amount of chlorine in the water to be reduced. Mr Hore noted that the issue of fluoride is a national issue.

Regional Operations Manager of Irish Water, Jim Fitzgerald was in attendance at the meeting, where he apologised on behalf of Irish Water for the incident. He said that there have been ‘huge lessons learned from the Creagh incident’. He explained that Irish Water has now set up ‘Project Connect’, which involves the 25 biggest water plants in Ireland plus Creagh. The Wexford plant’s inclusion in the project will mean that it will be prioritised and that changes that occur in the top 25 plants will also occur there.

"This incident has brought a huge amount of focus on Creagh,” he said.

Many of the councillors sought clarity on whether the changes made in light of the incident and subsequent report would be enough to prevent such an incident from happening again. This included Cllr Devereux, who said that the public are going to want ‘straight blank answers in the coming days’.

"I can tell you with absolute certainty that this will not happen again,” said Mr Hore.


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