Two incidents of drinking water contamination went unreported, EPA finds

Breaches uncovered at Wexford and Kildare plants by Environmental Protection Agency audit

Unreported incidents of contaminated drinking water have been uncovered by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in audits conducted following two serious breaches in Kildare and Wexford.

Last August, the Gorey Creagh treatment plant, serving 7,241 consumers, pumped inadequately disinfected water into the public supply for a week.

Many became sick from E coli, Campylobacter, Cryptosporidium, Giardia, Shigella and rotavirus. A number of those affected were hospitalised.

Similarly, a pump failure at Kildare's Ballymore Eustace plant, the largest in the country serving approximately 877,000 consumers across three counties including Dublin, led to water being contaminated.


The controversy sparked several investigations, particularly given the delays in reporting the contamination to other agencies including Irish Water and the EPA.

Addressing an Oireachtas Housing Committee on Thursday, EPA director Dr Tom Ryan said additional unreported incidents were uncovered by its inspectors during the subsequent auditing process.

“Unfortunately, these incidents are not isolated and have been evident in other audits conducted in other parts of the country,” he said.

The EPA identified a number of common issues in the Kildare and Dublin incidents including “a basic lack of awareness and understanding amongst operational and management staff as to the significance of the incidents and their impact on the drinking water quality and risk to public health”.

Dr Ryan also outlined a lack of awareness around the importance of communicating and escalating such issues to Irish Water, which could ordinarily prompt an emergency boil water notice.

The audit also found a lack of critical alarm settings to inform operators of deteriorating water quality; no documented alarm or incident response procedures; and a failure to provide for an automatic shutdown of the plant.

The EPA has described these incidents as an abject failure of managerial oversight.

‘Unacceptable delays’

“These unacceptable delays in reporting and in particular the failure to consult with the HSE as to the risk to public health during the incidents, meant that there was no opportunity to issue a boil water notice to approximately 900,000 consumers of both supplies, which would have served to protect public health until issues at the plants were resolved satisfactorily,” Dr Ryan set out in his opening statement.

The EPA believes the current delivery system for safe drinking water in terms of managerial oversight and operational control is “not working satisfactorily” and “placing unacceptable risk on public health”.

Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin asked what comparison there were between the two incidents in August and an episode at the Leixlip plant in 2019. In the latter case four alarms relating to increased cloudiness went unheeded, leading to a boil water notice affecting 600,000 people.

Dr Ryan said they were “very similar issues with different outcomes”, namely that in the Leixlip incident, there was an opportunity to put the boil notice in place.

Fianna Fáil TD Paul McAuliffe asked if the EPA was concerned about the potential for deliberate poisoning of the Ballymore Eustace water source, given the size of the population it serves, or a potential terrorist act.

Dr Michelle Minihan, EPA senior inspector, said she would expect Irish Water to have appropriate physical and cyber security procedures in place.

“There is certainly a directive in place from Europe around information systems to ensure that any vulnerabilities, particularly around critical infrastructure such as water treatment plants, isn’t compromised,” she said, adding that in the event of such an unlikely scenario it was important to have alarm procedures in place and understood.

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times