Removal of lead pipes could take up to 60 years, says EPA

Dublin water supply again on a knife-edge as situation ‘worse than the 2018 drought’

Vartry reservoir in Co Wicklow. Irish Water is meeting the OPW, the Department of Housing and Met Éireann to review the current hosepipe ban. Irish Water said the “exceptional situation” had been alleviated only slightly by rainfall of the last three weeks. Photograph:  Niall Carson/PA

Vartry reservoir in Co Wicklow. Irish Water is meeting the OPW, the Department of Housing and Met Éireann to review the current hosepipe ban. Irish Water said the “exceptional situation” had been alleviated only slightly by rainfall of the last three weeks. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

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A significant reduction in work planned by Irish Water to remove potentially harmful lead from public supply connections means it could take until 2080 for the job to be completed, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said.

Commenting on its report on drinking water supplies for 2019, published on Tuesday, EPA programme manager Andy Fanning said disinfection was the most important step in water treatment in keeping water free of harmful bacteria, viruses and parasites.

“Lead presents a different problem where the only remedy is to remove the lead pipework. With the reduced programme for removing lead pipes the EPA estimates it could take Irish Water up to 60 years to remove all public-side lead connections,” he said.

Consumption of lead can affect the brain development of children and infants, and it may also harm kidneys and contribute to high blood pressure. Although 10µg/l is the legal limit for drinking water supplies, the World Health Organisation advises that there is no safe level.

The EPA identified six priorities for Irish Water to address. These included progressing action programmes for all schemes on its “remedial action list”; prevention of long-term boil water notices by providing robust disinfection systems; and minimising harmful disinfection by-products such as trihalomethanes, which arise when organic matter in water combines with chlorine disinfectants.

No treatment barrier

It acknowledged improvements in identification of cryptosporidium in water sources but there was no treatment barrier at 10 out of the 22 supplies that had detections of the parasite which causes diarrhoea.

A total of 67 boil water notices and eight water restrictions were in place in 2019, affecting more than 700,000 people. E. coli bacteria was detected at least once in eight supplies, compared to 12 supplies in 2018. Trihalomethanes limits were exceeded in 46 supplies, compared to 54 in 2018. Pesticides limits were exceeded in 27 supplies, compared to 34 in 2018.

Irish Water noted the report recognised the continuing high quality of public water supplies with over 99 per cent of samples in compliance with bacterial and chemical limits across 900 supplies.

By the end of 2019, Irish Water had assessed 811 of the 864 plants in the national disinfection programme and completed upgrades at 230 plants. Work is underway at a further 35 sites.

“Water leaving Irish Water’s treatment plants is lead free and our records show that there are no lead public water mains in Ireland, ” it said.

‘Legacy issues’

Irish Water is working on replacing lead pipes under a €500 million leakage reduction programme. Progress on replacing lead connections decreased in 2020, against a backdrop of significant progress made in 2019, where 15,000 connections were replaced against a target of 9,000. Commenting on the EPA report, Irish Water’s general manager Eamon Gallen said: “Given the size and scale of the legacy issues and condition of some of the water treatment plants, Irish Water is pleased that this is a solid base from which to build.

“During 2019, we made major investments in new and upgraded plants as well as improvement programmes delivering key upgrades within operating plants,” he said. The utility is investing over €65 million in the disinfection programme.

“The building, repair and upgrading of Irish Water’s water treatment plants, wastewater treatment plants, water and sewer network will require a multibillion euro investment programme over many years,” Mr Gallen added.

Meanwhile, the Dublin region is once again on a knife-edge in terms of water supply with the balance between production and demand in early June “worse than the 2018 drought”.

Irish Water is meeting the OPW, the Department of Housing and Met Éireann on Tuesday to review the current hosepipe ban.

Irish Water said the “exceptional situation” had been alleviated only slightly by rainfall of the last three weeks. Demand had shrunk to about 560 million litres per day, partly as a result of Covid closures of businesses, but also because fewer people were visiting tourist destinations.

In areas where water is taken from bore holes, as opposed to rivers or lakes it will take longer for that rainfall to work its way through the ground and into supplies, according to Tom Cuddy, Irish Water’s asset operations support services manager.

If the weather improved in the greater Dublin area demand could easily rise above production levels of 576 million litres per day, he said. When that happens the supply network is “balanced” by taking water from reservoirs.

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