Raw sewage from the equivalent of 86,000 people is flowing into Irish waterways every day, a health threat the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says is not being dealt with quickly enough.
In a submission to the Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government, the EPA said on Thursday that more is needed to tackle waste water, one of the principal threats to Irish rivers, lakes and estuaries.
"Ireland is not addressing the deficiencies in waste water treatment infrastructure at a fast enough pace and, consequently, our health is continually exposed to risk," it said.
The agency said the threat was a reflection of “a legacy of under-investment” in infrastructure. The most pressing needs, it said, are to eliminate untreated waste water and to ensure it does not cause pollution.
The committee was told Ireland has suffered a 3 per cent decline in good water quality between 2016 and 2017 and a continuing long-term decline of high quality rivers.
Most pollution is caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus from human activity, primarily from farms and urban areas.
At the same hearing, Irish Water said with drinking quality having been prioritised in recent years, the wastewater network is now in “extremely poor condition” and will require “many years and hundreds of millions of euro” to fix.
In Cork harbour, 5,000 tonnes of untreated sewage is pumped into the sea every day, although this volume was halved last year.
The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government submission noted European Commission infringement actions have been taken against Ireland in relation to water quality generally, but that most urban wastewater treatment would be compliant by 2021.
At one point in the meeting Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Mick Barry castigated the panel of eight men for not including a single female participant and asked each for a breakdown of women in senior management positions.
Irish Water managing director Eamon Gallen said six of 12 senior managers are women. The EPA's Dr Tom Ryan said two of its six executive board members, including its director general, are women. Feargal Ó Coigligh, assistant secretary at the Department of Housing, said three of seven assistant secretaries are women.
Mr Barry said his point was not pedantic but that the situation “tells a story about what goes on in this place far too much”.
He took issue with a "seating restriction" that necessitated Irish Water's head of asset operations Katherine Walsh remain in a row behind the main committee panel. At Mr Barry's request to address the imbalance, she pulled up a seat beside her colleagues.
However, his frustration was not universally shared. Fine Gael Senator Martin Conway, who is visually impaired, told the panel he could easily ask them similar questions in the area of disability employment but would not do so.
“It certainly isn’t appropriate to embarrass public servants who are just doing their job,” he said.
Meanwhile, the committee heard that the level of forthcoming “excess water use” charges would be decided following a public consultation process due “shortly”.
Responding to questions from Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin on excessive use and the cost of repairing leaks, Mr Gallen said Irish Water’s interest was conservation.
“We certainly don’t want to be penalising elderly people for a leak inside their house they can’t repair,” he said. “We want to avoid people paying these charges not to enforce them.”