Trade unions contest plans to have staff work directly for Irish Water

Irish Water told of community illness three days before EPA notified, says

Four trade unions representing more than 3,000 local authority workers have taken issue with proposals that staff at drinking water plants should work directly for Irish Water.

Currently staff at more than 800 water plants across the State remain employed by local authorities, although Irish Water has legal responsibility for the running of the plants.

As a result, the plants remain operated by local authorities under a “service level agreement” with Irish Water.

But following recent “abject failures” in the production of drinking water, as described by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Irish Water and the Department of Housing said staff should work directly for the water utility.

Irish Water managing director Niall Gleeson has acknowledged some difficulties with the transfer. He told an Oireachtas committee on local government on Thursday that some local authority staff did not see a career path for themselves at Irish Water.

But he rejected suggestions that Irish Water had plans to outsource the running of the plants to the private sector. He said it was the utility’s intention to train and keep their own staff.

At the same meeting the assistant secretary general of the Department of Housing Feargal Ó Colgagh said local authorities and their staff have “worked very closely with Irish Water” under the service agreement “to get Irish Water up and running.

“A process has commenced under the Workplace Relations Commission to seek agreement on new arrangements which give Irish Water full control of service delivery.”

Following the meeting on Thursday, unions Fórsa, Siptu, Connect, and Unite issued a letter to the committee rejecting the move.

The unions said they do not accept “Irish Water’s view that recent service shortcomings occurred as a result of the absence of a single national water authority”.

The unions said in discussions at the Workplace Relations Commission, they had sought movement on four broad strands: the structure and governance of the proposed single water utility; employment and industrial relations issues that arise from the proposal; the need for a constitutional referendum on public ownership of water services; the future sustainability and revitalisation of local authority services.

The letter to the committees said: “None of these issues has been resolved at this stage of the WRC engagement”. The unions said they would appreciate the opportunity to present to the committee.

Meanwhile, the utility acknowledged that Gorey locals contacted Irish Water about illnesses in the community three days before it formally told the EPA and the Health Service Executive (HSE) of problems.

Addressing the committee, Mr Gleeson said that on learning from Wexford County Council disinfection facilities at the drinking water plant at Creagh had been “compromised”, the utility notified the HSE and EPA on August 26th.

When asked by Cork TD Thomas Gould if locals had notified Irish Water of a problem before August 26th, Mr Gleeson replied that they had been in contact about illness in the community on August 23rd.

Irish Water had also received contact from the HSE about a spike in community illness around that time. Some 52 members of the public became sick as a consequence of last month’s problems.

Mr Gleeson said an incident occurred at the Creagh treatment plant between August 19th and 24th where the disinfection process at the plant was compromised.

He said Wexford County Council completed a repair by August 24th and Irish Water “was notified of the issue on the August 26th and immediately notified the EPA and the HSE was also consulted on this date”.

He said “complaints” to the Irish Water customer support line had been received on August 23rd.

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is an Irish Times journalist