Dirty Drinking Water


The scandal of rural water pollution and of poor quality drinking water continues. The Environment Protection Agency has, at last, released its report on drinking water supplies for 1999 which found that almost one in ten of the State's public drinking water supplies was unsatisfactory, with many group water supplies being grossly polluted. The report is certain to strengthen the case at present being taken against the Coalition Government at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. There, the European Commission has cited the Government for its failure to adequately protect water quality.

One of the most worrying aspects of the report is that, in spite of pressure from Europe and a series of commitments made by the Government, little has changed in recent years. Between 1998 and 1999, there was no change - at 92 per cent - in the overall percentage of public water supplies reaching acceptable European quality standards. And there was only a marginal improvement, from 58 to 62 per cent, in the number of rural group schemes that reached the required standards. Drinking water was frequently polluted by faecal matter, slurry run-offs, septic tanks and by nitrogen enrichment.

Six years ago, there was something of a public scandal when the Environment Protection Agency found that up to 2,000 group water schemes produced water of an unacceptable quality that could cause serious human illness. But little has changed. And while the Government has pledged to spend £420 million in improving drinking water schemes over the next six years through the National Development Plan, the overall quality of surface water continues to deteriorate. The Government has failed to give effect to a farm nutrient management scheme, involving VAT charges and rebates, advocated by the Economic and Social Research Institute. And proposals for a tax on household detergents containing phosphates were also ignored.

A millennium report produced earlier this year by the Environment Protection Agency insisted that more radical measures were required of the Government if there was to be any hope of arresting declining water quality, growing air pollution and poor waste management. It advocated the restriction of intensive farming near highly sensitive lakes and rivers; the imposition of tax on fertiliser sales; and phosphorous removal facilities at all waste water treatment plants discharging into inland waters. If left unchecked, it warned, present trends could rapidly make this country one of the most polluted in Europe.

A recent three-year study of algal blooms in Irish lakes found nine kinds of cyanobacteria, which are among the most lethal substances known. They have been responsible for many animal deaths and, when found in drinking water, can cause skin conditions, vomiting and diarrhoea in humans. In spite of all that, the Departments of the Environment and Agriculture are still playing a perverse game of "pass the parcel" where tough, anti-pollution decisions are concerned. Local authorities have been given the responsibility, but neither the manpower nor the finances, to monitor and enforce water quality. And the Government appears to be sleepwalking towards a damning judgement of its handling of these matters before the European Court of Justice. It's just not good enough.