Should new threat to clean water be tackled by a tax increase or user charge?

Irish Water has plan to deal with carcinogen risk facing nine counties

 

The latest health alert, prompted by warnings of fines from the European Commission, involves the elevated presence of “possibly carcinogenic” THMs in public water supplies affecting an estimated 400,000 users. This is in addition to the 200,000 people whose health is at risk because of lead pipes. Then there are the communities exposed to seasonal “boil water” notices because of cryptosporidium. It doesn’t stop there. Raw sewage is pumped into water systems in 43 urban areas and a quarter of operating treatment plants do not meet EU standards.

Such health risks have been recognised for many years and limited progress has been made. Before the establishment of Irish Water, local authorities operated water and sewage systems and – lacking investment and strict oversight – the result was an expensive, dangerous and disjointed mess. The need for a national utility is now widely accepted. And a report recommending the Exchequer should pay for normal household usage, with only “excessive usage” attracting a charge, has gone to the Oireachtas. A Dáil vote is expected in March.

This Exchequer-based approach amounts to repeating past mistakes, but expecting different outcomes. Successive governments refused to provide local authorities with funds to supply safe drinking and wastewater services in the past. Why should a national utility be treated any differently? Of course it won’t! Drinking water issues and pollution will be well down any government’s “to do” list, unless the EU becomes involved. This Government is currently reviewing its capital programme, in anticipation of a population surge over the next two decades. Additional education, transport, health and housing services are receiving priority, rather than water services.

A plan to deal with the THM health risk, which arises from an interaction of chlorine with organic matter in rivers and reservoirs, has been drawn up by Irish Water. Nine counties are affected. As with the replacement of lead pipes, a significant injection of public funds is required. Should there be a tax increase, or will the user pay?

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