It could take another two decades to stop waste water being pumped into rivers, lakes and seas but Irish Water has “no clear plan” on how to get there, the environmental watchdog has said in a damning new report.
Ongoing “unacceptable delays” mean dozens of towns and villages across the country continue to pollute.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the delays in fixing the problem have put public health at risk, and significant investment is now required despite some progress in recent years.
It estimates, based on current investment levels and rates of infrastructure delivery, that the issues will require two more decades to fix.
"It is unacceptable that 15 years after the final deadline to comply, half of Ireland's urban waste water is still not treated to the basic EU standards," said Dr Tom Ryan, EPA director of environmental enforcement.
While the protracted issue of water quality is not new, the agency’s 39-page Urban Waste Water Treatment in 2020 report published on Wednesday sets out myriad ongoing problems.
In total, 34 towns and villages continue to release raw sewage into the environment every day and “further delays” mean a third of those will continue to do so after 2024.
The report notes that 12 large towns and cities have failed to meet treatment standards set to protect the environment in areas that generate half of Ireland’s waste water.
EPA programme manager Noel Byrne said that, despite some progress, Irish Water "has no clear action plan" on when and how improvements can be made in several priority areas.
Among a number of essential tasks set out by the agency is the need for direct resources targeting priority areas, plans to tackle delays in upgrading treatment systems, and the completion of impact assessments for shellfish waters.
Some progress is acknowledged. Last year saw a reduction from 19 to 12 large towns failing to comply with EU standards and the discharge of raw sewage from Killala, Co Mayo, ended thanks to a new treatment plant. The number of larger urban areas falling short of standards is down from 28 in 2017 to 12 in 2020.
However, several problems continue, notably Dublin’s Ringsend treatment plant which is, according to the report, “overloaded” and unable to sufficiently treat all of the sewage it receives. A major upgrade of the plant is ongoing.
In broader commentary on efforts to cut raw sewage output, the report notes that the “changing nature of Irish Water’s plans is a significant concern and the delays are prolonging risks to the environment and public health”.
Sewer systems in seven priority areas must be upgraded, it said, to address the findings of a judgment issued by the European Court of Justice, while Irish Water must also complete “overdue assessments” of the condition and performance of all sewers.
In response to its latest quality report, Irish Water struck a more sanguine tone, denying a lack of strategy and noting “consistent progress in upgrading wastewater treatment” benefiting communities and enhancing the environment.
It said that in the last six years it had prioritised areas that support housing and development with over 60 per cent of raw sewage discharges having been eliminated.
"As a result of the targeted investment in wastewater infrastructure, communities around Ireland are now reaping the rewards of a cleaner environment, safer bathing waters and greater opportunities for the development of new homes, businesses and tourism," it said.
An estimated €650 million is committed to infrastructural investment. By the end of this year, it said, construction will have started on new treatment plants in 14 locations with a further eight projects due to get under way next year.
“This means that over 95 per cent of raw sewage discharges are on track to be removed by the end of 2025,” it said.