Q&A tainted water: What happened at two treatment plants?

Problems emerged at Ballymore Eustace in Kildare and Creagh in Gorey, Co Wexford

Sedimentation tanks at the Ballymore Eustace water treatment plant in Co Kildare. File photograph: PA

Sedimentation tanks at the Ballymore Eustace water treatment plant in Co Kildare. File photograph: PA

 

What happened to the drinking water?

There were two big problems late last month that led to two treatment plants not doing their jobs properly – that is to say, supplying households possibly unfit to drink. One affected the plant at Ballymore Eustace, which serves 877,000 people across parts of Co Dublin. Problems at the Creagh treatment plant affected Gorey, Co Wexford.

But was this just another alert without any real problems?

No, a lot of people became ill. According to the Health Service Executive at least 52 reported illness, but the real number would be difficult to ascertain. Dublin was not affected but GPs in Gorey began to notice some nasty gastroenteritis-like illness, with diarrhoea and vomiting, from early September. And because e-coli is involved other more serious illness such as hemolytic uremic syndrome was also possible, although no cases were reported. No disease was associated with the Ballymore Eustace failure.

But how could this happen?

Well in the case of Gorey, it followed a power failure and a chlorine pump failure which meant water leaving the plant and entering the public supply without proper disinfection. Ballymore Eustace produced unsafe drinking water for up to 10 hours in August due to the loss of a cryptosporidium treatment barrier compounded by inadequate disinfection.

Irish Water has apologised but has also made clear that there was an inexplicable reporting delay by Wexford County Council staff on the ground. It is not clear yet what the council thinks but that is likely to change over the coming days. Investigations are ongoing but what appears certain is that a chain of communication for such emergencies needs to be revamped.

So what are they going to do about it?

Well a lot, by the looks of it. But then there are a lot of agencies and a lot of investigations. Irish Water has come out to say it will meet with local authorities and refresh their training on how best to communicate problems with treatment plants. It is also going to audit plants countrywide – the last thing anyone needs right now is another major failure. The Environmental Protection Agency and An Fórum Uisce will also have their own inputs.

Why so many agencies. It’s just water

Yes, but there are legacy issues at play. Efforts to bring all of the water system under the command of one utility is ongoing. Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien said (in the aftermath of this mess) that there were “limitations” in the current working set-up between Irish Water and local authorities which was “impacting on the delivery of services”. Work is under way at the Workplace Relations Commission to untangle this but the issue of potentially moving staff who have traditionally worked on water services in local authorities to Irish Water has proved a major headache.