Further water contamination inevitable if strict policy not adopted to protect resources

 

With the rate of cryptosporidiosis higher in Ireland than in any other EU country, another Galway-type outbreak of 2007 is likely, writes FRANK McDONALD, Environment Editor

IRELAND’S WATER is not as clean as we would like to think. The rate of cryptosporidiosis here is four times the EU average and higher than any other member state, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. “Another Galway-type outbreak is inevitable,” warns Friends of the Irish Environment (FIE).

Hundreds of people became ill in 2007 before Galway city’s water supply was shut down for five months due to contamination by the dangerous pathogen cryptosporidium as well as E.coli bacteria and localised lead pollution. Water had to be boiled for human consumption and many residents had to rely on tankers or bottled water.

Water expert Dr Frances Lucy, of Sligo Institute of Technology, agrees that we will see more of this. “For years, we have taken our waters for granted and, while attitudes are changing, unless we plan properly now for the coming decades, water crises such as the cryptosporidium epidemic in Galway in 2007, will become more frequent.”

A 2009 study of Lough Arrow, in Co Westmeath, where two sewage treatment plants were so ineffective that they were serving as “factories” for the distribution of cryptosporidium spores, led Dr Lucy and her colleagues to warn that the use of the lough for drinking water and recreation “poses definite public health risks”.

Ongoing studies of cryptosporidium in surface waters, involving the river Liffey and Lough Gill, in Co Sligo – due for completion next year – found the parasite in “almost every sample”. The results were “worrying”, and Dr Lucy advised that anyone who feels ill following water sports on rivers or lakes should contact a doctor.

Our drinking water contains “substances . . . that make people ill”, an ESRI report warned in 2009.

“The water we drink should be safe. The cryptosporidiosis outbreak in Galway in 2007 reminded us that it sometimes is not. But bad water quality does not only cause acute health problems. It also causes chronic ailments, including cancer.”

FIE has been doing its own research. With the help of retired computer engineer Malcolm Coxall, it built an Oracle database of water quality data held by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It was Coxall, incidentally, who made the Ballycroy, Co Mayo, water pollution complaint that led to a major EU ruling against Ireland in October 2009.

With the aid of its new database, FIE can analyse trends and changes in testing rates and water quality. “The data was a mess,” according to Tony Lowes, the body’s west Cork-based co-ordinator. “It took two people many, many days to standardise things like the names of water supplies (including names in Irish one year and English the next) and remove closed supplies. But it is up and running now.”

Incredibly, given the relatively small size of the State, Ireland has no less than 952 large public water supply systems that provide treated drinking water to 88 per cent of the population while 1,500 small group water schemes supply a further 8 per cent and the remainder are probably getting their water from private wells.

FIE’s analysis of the agency’s water quality data shows a 40 per cent reduction in testing for carcinogenic trihalomethanes (THMs) – a byproduct of chlorination – over the last three years.

“We have since analysed the cryptosporidium situation and can show that they have virtually stopped testing for this parasite,” according to Lowes.

“We have sought from all the local authorities . . . the location of their water abstraction points and drinking and wastewater treatment plants. The EPA refused the information on abstraction points on security grounds – and is still refusing us access to Eden, the new standardised database, telling us we have to wait for their report.”

Every year, the agency collects and analyses more than 250,000 local authority monitoring results for drinking water supplies and publishes a report assessing their safety and security, which is generally good. It also maintains a “remedial action list” for supplies found to be not compliant with drinking water quality standards.

When remedial action needs to be taken, and the issue is not trivial, consumers must be notified – for example, if E.coli is detected. The EPA insists that this is the responsibility of local authorities. But FIE maintains that as the supervisory authority compiling the remedial action list, it’s the agency’s duty to ensure that the public is notified.

“Unless the public knows, people cannot protect themselves,” Lowes says. “Examples include THM-laden water for pregnant women and crypto-vulnerable water for the immune-suppressed. And, of course, if the public doesn’t know, people will not bring pressure to bear to act and will dismiss environmental lobbyists as ‘fringe lunatics’.”

How many of the 1,153,732 people consuming water from supplies on the last remedial action list were aware of that, he asks. “This is a key issue because the Commission closed the water case against Ireland this year on the understanding that the public is being informed . . . when in fact only three councils do so and 14 do not provide any data whatsoever.”

Yet investment in drinking-water treatment accounts for only a quarter of the funding provided annually under the water services investment programme. Capital allocations for this programme fell from €500 million in 2001 to €417 million in 2005 before slowly returning in 2010 to match the 2001 figure. This year, €435 million is being provided.

“Notwithstanding the level of investment, the EPA results show little significant improvement over the period 2004-2007 with public water supplies static at 98 per cent of the minimum standard, and private water scheme compliance improving by 2 per cent to 95 per cent,” according to a 2009 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

“On review, it is clear that a key requirement . . . was for an adequately empowered independent entity or separate departmental arm to exercise supervision and enforcement and thereby to ensure that the benefits in water quality expected from the exchequer investment were not negated by any subsequent failure,” the report said.

Ireland is obliged by the EU water framework directive – adopted more than a decade ago – to “get polluted waters clean again, and ensure clean waters are kept clean”, as the commission said. This applies to surface waters, groundwater and drinking water and requires member states to achieve “good status” for all waters by 2015.

Septic tanks turned out to be the Achilles’ heel of housing sprawl in the countryside. As the commission noted after Ireland lost its case, “poorly managed or controlled septic tanks may cause significant harm to the environment and human health, including through discharges containing bacteria such as E.coli and pathogens and parasites.”

Following the 2009 European Court of Justice ruling and a subsequent formal notice by the commission, which was “not satisfied with the slow pace of progress in complying with EU requirements”, Ireland faced the prospect of having to pay a lump sum penalty of €2.7 million and daily fines of €26,173 “for as long as the infringements persist”.

Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan pledged that an inspection regime would be put in place for septic tanks – of which there are now 440,000 throughout the countryside – and hinted that householders would have to pay a fee for the privilege; this led deputy Fianna Fáil leader Éamon Ó Cuív to say he’d prefer to go to jail than pay it.

In September, Mr Hogan responded by announcing he would introduce a “risk-based approach” to the inspection of septic tanks. Although all householders with on-site sewage treatment facilities will have to register with local authorities, on payment of a €50 fee, inspections will be limited to environmentally sensitive areas.

The legislation published last week may not be enough to meet the terms of the European Court’s judgment, which appears to require that all septic tanks are not only registered but also inspected at periodic intervals. “The omission of a requirement to inspect septic tanks in new dwellings and those being sold is particularly irresponsible,” FIE said.

The most recent EPA water quality report, published last February, found 30 per cent of Ireland’s watercourses were not in “good” condition and that the most widespread cause of pollution was still nutrient enrichment resulting mainly from agricultural run-off and discharges from technologically backward town sewage plants.

Yet last November, then minister for agriculture Brendan Smith TD (FF) caved in to the farming lobby and – with the EU Commission’s agreement – renewed Ireland’s “derogation” from the nitrates directive, allowing intensive farmers to spread chemical fertilisers on land up to 2m (6½ft) away from watercourses.

Rather than just having river basin management plans, as the water framework directive demands, FIE believes the only sustainable solution would be to adopt a strict policy of protecting water resources. “If a valuable resource like water is at risk of contamination, then common sense demands that you protect the resource from the risk.”

'The whole experience makes me mistrustful of the water supply'

CASE STUDY:Anne Egan and her family live in Mervue, Galway, and have experienced several issues with their water supply in recent years

“OUR WATER problems would have started in August 2008. One of the people in the area got her mother’s water tested, and that is how it all came about. They found out there was 106 micrograms of lead per litre in the water, and the safe level at that time was 25 micrograms per litre.

We noticed from time to time there would be a very strong smell of chlorine from the water. But, prior to this we were drinking, washing, showering and cooking with the water.

The first thing we did was to get a committee together. I’m involved in the senior citizens’ committee and we informed our local politicians. The mayor at the time was very involved. We held meetings and mobilised ourselves.

We couldn’t drink the water, so we were buying water I’d say for about four to six weeks. We were fighting for water to be provided for the elderly and indeed into every house.

There were 251 houses involved and we were delivering four two-litre bottles of water to each house every Friday night. The corporation would pull up and we’d load up our car boots.

In the course of a week we went through dozens of two-litre bottles. It was a huge amount of water because you couldn’t even boil the [tap] water and use it as the lead would still be in it.

There are two children in our family. Niamh was six and Saoirse was about 14 or 15 years old at the time, so we couldn’t let them go near the tap. In the end we decided to get a water filter system into the house. It wasn’t that expensive. I’d say it cost about €250, but it meant we could then drink the water as there was a lead filter system in it.

What was happening was that in many houses in the area lead was getting into the supply because pipes put down years ago had some kind of substance on the inside. That substance corroded so the lead came through . That is how it got into the water supply. We had to get our pipes replaced and a company came in to do it and we had to pay €500 per house up-front to have that done.

All this wasn’t done until over a year after the problem arose.

What they did then was outside our front gate they bored a hole down and went under the foundations of the house. They then drilled to where the original supply was and replaced all the pipes from there to the kitchen tap. There was debate over who was responsible for certain parts of the supply.

Some houses did get grants, but you were means-tested on this and as far as I remember the corporation paid 60 per cent for some houses and the occupant paid 40 per cent. It didn’t apply in our case.

The whole experience makes me mistrustful of the water supply. We use a private filter system, as I still wouldn’t drink the water. I use it for boiling the kettle or for cooking vegetables but that’s about it.

When I think back on the whole time, we were supplied tankards of water by the local corporation. But the taps on these were so low that dogs were peeing up against them. Then they put in stand pipes and these are still around.

We were told a lot of pipes in the area were leaking when the problem first arose. I’d like to know if they are still leaking? Hopefully they are all shut off. We still have lead pipes in our gardens, though.

You must remember that before the lead problem, we also had the issue with cryptosporidium the year before. At least, though, with that outbreak you could boil the water and use it. With the lead issue, you couldn’t.

We’re still worried about the pipes they didn’t replace in the system. Will they have to be dug up again in the future? Will they have to dig under the foundations of our houses again?

We shouldn’t have to have a private water system for drinking, but we do. Our trust with regards the supply is gone, and if we now have to pay for water coming into the house that we are still not 100 per cent certain about, it seems unfair. It was all very disruptive.

People are talking now about water metering next year. If you have good clean water coming into your house, I suppose you don’t mind paying for it. But we feel like we have been stitched up for long enough already.

– In conversation with BRIAN O'CONNELL