Irish Water to audit all water treatment plants following unsafe water incidents

Wexford Treatment plant failure led to 52 confirmed illnesses, number of hospitalisations

Minister for Housing and Local Government Darragh O’Brien said the failures were ‘concerning and unacceptable’. Photograph: iStock

Minister for Housing and Local Government Darragh O’Brien said the failures were ‘concerning and unacceptable’. Photograph: iStock

 

Irish Water is to conduct an audit of water treatment plants across the country, following two serious incidents where unsafe water entered the public drinking water supply in recent weeks.

A failure at a treatment plant serving Gorey, Co Wexford, resulted in unsafe water leaving the plant over a five day period, which led to 52 confirmed illnesses and a number of hospitalisations.

Minister for Housing and Local Government Darragh O’Brien said the failures were “concerning and unacceptable”.

Mr O’Brien met with senior figures from Irish Water, Dublin City Council, and Wexford County Council to discuss the matter on Saturday morning.

In a statement following the meeting, the Minister said: “In the immediate term Irish Water will now undertake an audit of the water treatment plants across the country.”

Irish Water would be prioritising audits of the largest 20 treatment plants. This would include visiting the sites and meetings with staff, to ensure “proper processes are in place in terms of dealing with and escalating any incidents which may arise,” he said.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wrote to Mr O’Brien this week, informing him about “serious incidents” recently uncovered at two water treatment plants.

‘Abject failure’

The regulator stated there had been an “abject failure” in management oversight, operational control and responsiveness at the plants, which had allowed “unsafe water to enter into the public drinking water supply and endanger public health”.

The plants concerned were at Ballymore Eustace which serves parts of Co Dublin, and a plant in Wexford which serves Gorey town.

The Department of Housing stated “these incidents have been rectified and the water supply from the two plants is now safe to drink”.

Both Irish Water and the two local councils had committed to fully co-operate “to put in place the urgent and necessary corrective measures,” Mr O’Brien said.

“Irish Water will also work with each local authority over the coming two weeks, conducting refresher training on incident reporting for all plants,” he said.

If required the national water utility would be placing technicians on site to ensure safety standards at treatment plants.

In a statement, Irish Water managing director Niall Gleeson, said it was clear both incidents were “unacceptable”.

In both cases delayed notification of the issues at the the plants had “potentially put public health at risk”.

He said there was an agreement at the meeting that measures would be taken “to ensure there would be no re-occurrence” of the issues.

Chlorine pump

At Gorey, the recent incident arose from a power failure and a chlorine pump failure, resulting in water leaving the plant and entering the public supply without the appropriate level of disinfection for a five day period (August 19th-24th). The incident was not notified to the EPA and the HSE until the 26th August. “To date there has been 52 confirmed cases of illness associated with this outbreak,” with a number of associated hospitalisations, the EPA said.

The Ballymore Eustace plant, which serves 877,000 customers in the greater Dublin area, produced unsafe drinking water for a period of up to 10 hours on 20th-21st August, due to the loss of a cryptosporidium treatment barrier compounded by inadequate disinfection, the EPA said.

The incident was not notified by Irish Water to the EPA or to the HSE until 1st September, “preventing a timely risk assessment of the impact on drinking water quality and to allow interventions to be taken that could have protected public health”.

Meanwhile, Wexford TD Verona Murphy said a constituent had reached out to her on September 2nd complaining about water quality issues a few weeks previously.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Saturday with Katie Hannon radio programme, Ms Murphy said she had raised the issue with Irish Water which responded by saying local water “may have been” affected but that the issue had since been resolved. It advised anyone experiencing symptoms to contact his or her GP, she said.

“It is only today that we learn, from what the EPA has said, that actually it is an abject failure on Wexford County Council’s behalf that they did not notify Irish Water on time,” Ms Murphy said. She queried why a boil water notice had not been put in place.

Explain

The chief executive of the council must now come out and explain to people “why this happened, what happened, when it happened and what he is doing to ensure that this doesn’t happen again”, she said.

“This is serious, very very serious… It is paramount that people have confidence that drinking a glass of water is not going to make them sick,” she added.

Minister of State at the Department of Health Mary Butler said the Minister for Housing, Heritage and Local Government reacted “so quickly” to the news by holding a meeting on Saturday morning to “put steps in place to ensure no repeat of these incidents”.

Social Democrat co-leader Róisín Shortall said there are “undoubtedly” questions to be answered about why proper procedures were not followed.

“We need to know where was the breakdown between Irish Water and the local authority, and there need to be consequences for this,” she said, adding that the matter is a “serious issue”.

Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane said it is “unacceptable” that swifter action was not taken. There was a breakdown in communication, he said, and Irish Water and the local authority must explain how this happened.

“We have known for decades that there has been underinvestment in our wastewater treatment plants,” he said.

Co Wexford-based Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne said local politicians had been raising concerns about people getting sick from the drinking water in Gorey, but were not taken seriously initially.

Senator Byrne said he did not believe Wexford County Council or Irish Water “took the issue sufficiently seriously at the start,” and the priority now was to “determine how it happened and to get assurances that it will not happen again”. He said he would be meeting officials from Irish Water, along with local councillors, to discuss the matter on Monday.