EPA criticises Irish Water for sewage treatment failures in Dublin and Cork

Raw sewage discharges likely to continue in 31 areas into 2021

Irish Water has come in for sustained criticism in the latest Environmental Protection Agency report on urban waste-water treatment.

The report criticises its failure to ensure adequate treatment of sewage in Dublin, Cork and other larger towns and cities, and for persistent delays on infrastructure projects. The EPA lists sewage-treatment facilities still not compliant with legally binding EU regulations that came into force in 2005, including waste-water plants in 50 large urban areas that account for almost two-thirds of national waste water collected.

Despite progress in some areas during 2016, “there are still long delays in building many of the treatment plants needed to eliminate discharges of untreated waste water”, the report adds. “These delays mean that 31 areas are likely to continue discharging raw sewage into 2021. Many of the projects to provide treatment are running three years behind schedule.”

In Spiddal, Co Galway, a problem with raw-sewage discharges into the sea was identified in 2014; a treatment works to process this waste water will not be operational until 2021. Only 44 per cent of improvement works due between 2009 and 2016 were reported as complete at the end of 2016. Capital investment in 2016 was €172 million – nearly €100 million less than the average spend each year between 2000 and 2011, it notes.


Legal action

In response to delays in carrying out "essential work", the EPA has scaled up legal actions against Irish Water for continuing to discharge untreated waste water into the environment and has secured its first convictions against the utility; before 2016 the Probation Act was applied in all instances.

Irish Water was fined €13,600 for discharge of untreated sewage from a pump station in Cork city that caused a fish kill, and €9,700 for a similar discharge in Balbriggan-Skerries, Co Dublin. It was fined more than €30,000 for failing to carry out overdue upgrades to treatment plants, resulting in inadequate treatment, in Athenry, Co Galway; Boherbue, Co Cork; and Drumcollogher, Co Limerick. Seven other cases are before the courts.

The EPA spells out improvements needed in 148 urban areas to comply with EU treatment standards, to eliminate discharges of raw sewage, to protect human health and prevent pollution of rivers, lakes and bathing areas. It also highlights defective sewage-collection systems in 13 large urban areas where there is no guarantee that waste water will get to treatment stage. “There are unacceptable losses of waste water from the sewers in these areas.”

There is a significant lack of information on the performance of collection systems, while 24 treatment plants were found to have no maintenance programme in place. “Irish Water must target improvements in the operation and maintenance of waste water systems, where this can improve performance and effluent quality.” Meeting EU standards is a key step in protecting the environment from the adverse effects of waste-water discharges, it points out.

The European Commission is taking Ireland to the European Court of Justice because of ongoing failure to ensure that waste water is adequately collected and treated. "It is essential that Irish Water completes all infrastructure and operational improvements needed to bring Ireland into compliance," the EPA says.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times