A Ceann Comharaile I welcome the opportunity to raise this issue about the provision and management of the public water supply.
In Ireland, 83% of drinking water originates from surface water such as that from rivers and lakes with the remainder originating from groundwater and springs. According to the EPA this is particularly so for public water supplies whereas group water schemes and small private supplies tend to be slightly more reliant on groundwater or spring water. At this stage we do know that surface water is much more susceptible to Cryptosporidium.
It would appear from the EPA report on The Provision and Quality of Drinking Water in Ireland 2006-2007 that in the country there are a total of 64 treatment plants serving 135,000 persons which take their water from rivers or lakes and have inadequate treatment to prevent Cryptosporidium from getting into the public supply.
While many other plants have some form of treatment in place, the local authorities charged with their operation do need to be vigilant and improve treatment and operational practices to prevent the Cryptosporidium from getting into the water supply if it is present in the original raw water. The Minister must not merely react as in Ennis and Galway. The time has come to identify and deal with those plants which pose a risk to the public. I ask the Minister what communication he has delivered to local authorities in relation to dealing with Cryptosporidium and what funding he has put in place to lessen the risk at the 64 treatment plants I have already mentioned.
The EPA has stated that drinking water results should be made more accessible to the public by the local authority. In this regard they have recommended that local authorities post up-to-date results of their monitoring on their websites on a regular basis. Could I ask the Minister if he is aware how many local authorities are following this recommendation and if he has plans to make this worthwhile recommendation more binding?
Section 58 of the Environmental Protection Agency Act, 1992-2003 states that local authorities must submit the results of monitoring carried out in accordance
with the relevant drinking water legislation to the EPA by a specified date.
Interestingly 14 out of 34 local authorities did not submit their drinking water monitoring results for 2006 by the deadline of 28th February 2007. This again does perhaps indicate the seriousness with which local authorities may be taking their responsibilities in this matter. I would urge the Minister to inform local authorities once again of what it is that is required of them in this regard.
There has been an interesting development in the supervision of the Irish drinking water in that as of March 2007, the local authority has been designated the supervisory body in respect of private water supplies, which includes group water schemes. As the supervisory authority, the local authority can now issue directions to water suppliers to prepare and implement action programmes. The local authority may also issue directions to the water supplier to secure compliance with the relevant water quality standards.
Furthermore, it is now an offence to fail to comply with a direction issued by a supervisory authority. A person guilty of an offence under these Regulations is liable to on summary conviction, a fine up to €5,000 and/or imprisonment for a period up to 3 months or on conviction on indictment, a fine of up to €500,000 and/or imprisonment for a period of up to 3 years.
In a nutshell what we have here is a supervisory body that can jail someone for up to 3 years. So Mr. X or Ms. Y acting in a voluntary capacity in their Group Water Scheme can face imprisonment if they do not fulfil their duties and responsibilities. I very much doubt this threat hangs over the heads of Co. Managers or Co. Engineers in the execution of the very same duties. This is an anomaly that needs to be corrected.
Local authorities must notify the EPA where there has been a failure to meet a quality
standard in accordance with guidelines issued by the EPA.
In January of this year the EPA warned Clare Co. Council that the Ennis water supply was at risk of another outbreak of cryptosporidium. Council Officials could have informed people of this, they chose not to. At the time of the last outbreak, I called on the Council to implement proper forms of relaying information to the public after it became clear that the release of a boil notice at that time had somehow stalled for two days. This view of mine reflected and continues to reflect the recommendations from the EPA.
The handling of the water issue in Ennis has not been good. The public should at all times be adequately informed about what is going on. Public safety must dominate all other concerns. It is not good enough to paint me and those that share the same concerns as scaremongers. What I am talking about here is a total change of attitude and philosophy from those that are in charge.
Even withstanding the budget of €3 million for a temporary water treatment plant in Ennis, the EPA’s audit of the system in January revealed that just under 20% of the water entering the public water supply was not being treated for cryptosporidium.
Tests of the water supply found high levels of cryptosporidium in the water supply on February 29th, March 3rd and 10th prompting the EPA to issue a directive to Clare County Council instructing that all water be treated for cryptosporidium by May 1st. As far as I am aware this has not been complied with.
It is worth noting that the 2007 Regulations do not provide the EPA with powers to prosecute a water supplier such as Clare Co. Council for supplying water that causes illness or water that is not clean and wholesome.
In general, the powers available to the EPA under the new Regulations relate to the performance of the local authority in respect of any EPA direction. In other words the EPA may prosecute a local authority only if they fail to comply with an EPA Direction. To me this seems like a gesture, create the appearance of doing something, and continue with the endless merry-go-round. Until somebody has to take absolute responsibility, until their job is on the line, until they answer for their actions we will continue as we are, passing the buck from Local Authority to HSE to EPA to Dept. of the Environment.
Our new Taoiseach has made much of reform of the Public Service; issues such as this are as good as any place to start