Private Notice Questions. - Water Supply Contamination.

asked the Minister for the Environment and Local Government the investigation which has been held into the circumstances in which a well supplying water to homes in Baltinglass, County Wicklow, was found to be contaminated with uranium-238; the steps being taken to ensure the safety of the water supply in the area; the plans there are for testing of other water sources in the area to determine their safety; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

asked the Minister for the Environment and Local Government the plans he has to update the national drinking water regulations in view of the finding of uranium-238 in the public supply at Baltinglass, County Wicklow; and if he will make a statement on the matter

asked the Minister for the Environment and Local Government the steps he intends taking to address the issue of high levels of radioactivity in wells; and if he and the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland will work with local authorities to assist in the monitoring and prevention of radioactive contamination and provide householders in high radon risk areas with free monitors to measure radon levels.

As part of its national groundwater monitoring programme, the Environmental Protection Agency identified the presence of uranium-238 in groundwater samples taken near Baltinglass, County Wicklow. In consequence, Wicklow County Council, following consultation with the South-Western Area Health Board, yesterday discontinued service from a particular well at Lathaleere which served the Baltinglass area. The EPA and the RPII are now assisting the council in follow-up action to determine the extent and implications of the uranium presence and what remedial measures would be necessary or appropriate.

The agency is providing laboratory facilities to permit more extensive testing of samples from the affected source. In the meantime, the supply in question will remain out of service and alternative arrangements are in place for the supply of drinking water to the affected consumers. On the recommendation of the EPA, the council is also making arrangements to undertake a more generalised survey of public and private water supplies in County Wicklow to monitor uranium levels. The RPII already offers a radon measurement service to householders and recommends that such measurements should be carried out, especially in high risk areas.

While there are no specific national or EU standards for uranium in drinking water, the current legislation prescribing standards for the quality of drinking water in Ireland, the European Communities (Quality of Water Intended for Human Consumption) Regulations, 1988, as amended, includes a provision that "a sanitary authority may consider parameters other than those included in Part I of the Schedule . . .". The new drinking water regulations, which come into operation on 1 January 2004, strengthen and expand this provision. Section 7(5) of these regulations provides that "a sanitary authority shall ensure that additional monitoring is carried out on a case-by-case basis of substances and micro-organisms for which no parametric value has been specified in Part 1 of the Schedule, if there is reason to suspect that such substances and or micro-organisms may be present in amounts or number which constitute a potential danger to human health".

The regulations transpose the new EU Drinking Water Directive, 98/83/EC, which encompasses monitoring for radioactivity, but the methods of monitoring and the list of radioactive parameters have yet to be finalised. When finalised, the directive will be revised and Ireland's implementing legislation will be amended accordingly.

I thank the Minister for his statement. Does he accept that it is a cause of great anxiety for households in the area directly affected, which contains a hospital, that the water supply they have been depending upon contains high levels of uranium, a material which is both toxic and radioactive? One of the questions that has been asked, which I now ask the Minister, is the reason for the time lag between the EPA becoming aware that the water was contaminated and the local authority closing the supply yesterday. Is the Minister satisfied the county council has the facilities and wherewithal to carry out an inspection of both public and group water schemes in the county and to deal with any findings it might unearth? Will the Minister ensure resources are provided by his Department for the inspection and to enable it to deal with the serious failings in the water supply, not just in Baltinglass but also in Arklow and Blessington where boiling notices are already in place because of e.coli contamination? Can he ensure resources will be made available to research the possible damage to people's health that may have occurred in the past 15 years so we know the full extent of what has happened? Uranium can damage the kidneys and cause kidney failure.

I agree that an issue of this nature will cause great anxiety to those who have been using this water source. The delay was caused because the research had to be carried out. Laboratory testing had to take place and the health board had to be consulted. The issue was moved on as quickly as one could have wished for in terms of confirming the results to the council. It is important to point out that this is naturally occurring and has been in the water in the area for aeons, it is not something that has happened in recent times. The EPA and the RPII will assist the local authority now in every way.

The EPA is providing the local authorities with laboratory facilities and assistance with the testing to ensure the public can be reassured as quickly as possible. I am not sure what resources the local authority might need but I will asses the requirements when I have all the information.

I thank the Minister for his reply and I acknowledge that it would be difficult for him to have all the answers today. Of immediate concern, however, is a request to the Minister to instruct the EPA to carry out tests as a matter of urgency on the supply in Baltinglass. It comes from three different sources. One area supplies 20% of the water that has been shut off but the remaining supplies come from two separate sources, one in Banogues and the other in Tinoran. The levels in one of those supplies are over the recommended WHO levels and it may still be in use.

We know very little about this. Will the Minister follow up the inspections with the establishment of a group to examine water supplies throughout the State? I tried to find out about this but information is very limited in the EU, Australia and Canada and, as a consequence, it is not covered by our water regulations. The EPA started testing ground water in 1995 but did not have the ability to test for uranium until 1999. Will the Minister check if the EPA has the ability to check only for uranium?

I doubt that Wicklow County Council has the wherewithal to comply with a request from the EPA to do a survey of public and private water supplies in the county. There are, however, thousands of supplies and it must be done. Will the Minister examine the role of the EPA, the local authority and the health board? There already have been delays in this case. Will the Minister outline the role of the EPA in water testing throughout the State and will this discovery result in a change of policy?

To reassure all Deputies from the county affected, a full and comprehensive review of all water sources is being undertaken and all bodies are working together on this. I am not sure how expert the county council is in the area but the EPA is directly involved and working with the local authority to carry out the survey as soon as possible.

Ironically, this occurred when ground water, not drinking water, was being tested and someone suddenly discovered it. In previous tests the uranium did not register. I cannot answer the Deputy's question about the equipment but I will let him know when I find out. There are high levels of uranium granite in the soil in a number of counties and they have been identified as areas of concern and testing has been carried out in them.

It is important to point out that research on this is not readily available in Ireland or elsewhere in the EU. That is why we are working towards the directive to pin this down. Some figures were bandied about during the day but the EPA has stated that to be of radiological significance, levels of naturally occurring uranium need to be in excess of 100 milligrams. I accept that levels are slightly above that but there is not a massive margin of difference. The WHO considers its figure of two milligrams as being unrealistic and will revise it substantially upwards.

Research is under way and the RPII and the EPA are liaising. All the information is being filtered to complete the European directive and I will make that available.

We are all aware of the fine work the Radiological Protection Institute of Ireland has done on naturally occurring radon gas. There are detailed maps of the concentration of the gas around the country. It typically occurs in granite and thus Wicklow is a prime candidate for it.

Where there appears to be an absence of knowledge is in the differential health risks between naturally occurring radon within homes and dwellings and naturally occurring uranium within water supplies. Facts are needed to establish the relative health risks of uranium-238 in water and naturally occurring radon in the air. I assume there is a fair amount of information on this, perhaps not in Ireland, but certainly abroad. There are many examples abroad of high levels of naturally occurring radioactive substances within the soil or in the air as a result of geological activity.

In terms of radon there is a simple testing mechanism that can be left in a house for one month and then returned to the RPII which may come back later with a readout. Will the Minister of State determine whether such a measuring mechanism is available that could be used for testing water and, if so, whether it could be made available to those in charge of municipal water supplies, group water supplies and to individual householders with their own wells? It is important to concentrate on the hot spots around the country and to proceed not only with testing but action to change the source of water supply where necessary. Will the Minister of State ensure that the Environmental Protection Agency or the RPII take urgent steps to determine the significance of this find in one well in Wicklow, whether it is repeated around the country and, if so, if it is a matter of concern to the general public?

All the information being assessed in Wicklow will be channelled and, hopefully, the information the Deputy seeks will emerge. Obviously that will teach us some lessons in regard to the specifics of Wicklow and it may be possible to transpose it into other areas based on the geological formations that exist. Perhaps some generalities can be drawn from those conclusions.

In the case of the RPII I have read some of its documents on radon research in which it had been involved. The Deputy is familiar with that. What we are dealing with today specifically is uranium-238 which I emphasise is naturally occurring and has existed for possibly hundreds of years. I am not saying that is an answer to the questions raised by the public but it is important to reassure people at this stage that we will get to the bottom of the position in Wicklow. Hopefully, there has been no damage to health. At EU level we can maximise and pool our input and find out the totality of information that is available. The best way of doing that is through the formulation of a directive, as is being done, and pooling that information which will feed back into the system in Ireland.

Acting Chairman

The Minister of State, Deputy Roche, has indicated that he wishes to be associated with the concerns expressed here and is interested in asking a supplementary question. I regret to inform him that Ministers and Ministers of State are not permitted to ask supplementary questions at this time.

The Minister of State might have to resign.

Acting Chairman

However, his concerns are noted.

I will not resign, I will speak privately to the Minister.

I will ask one on his behalf.

I have waited years for this.

A moment of note.

I wish we were discussing something less serious. In relation to the measurement, will the Minister accept that while the limit set down by the WHO is 100, the figure discovered is significantly above that level.

The WHO figure was two and the EPA figure was 100.

I accept the Minister's point. I will speak about the other figure because it is significantly above even the EPA figure. My other question relates to small schemes, group schemes and individual schemes. In this instance we are talking about one well providing a public supply but there are obviously many small individual schemes around that area and in other parts. I also have concerns about County Carlow. In relation to the EU water framework directive, which is significant in terms of ensuring Ireland lives up to its commitments on surface and groundwater quality, will the Minister comment on the progress being made? Is it the case that contracts should have been completed in terms of getting work started on assessing the quality of groundwater and surface water, to lead to management plans being prepared for local authorities to take over in 2006? Will he give an undertaking that that work will be done given that his Estimate has been slashed? I understand there is a reduction of 2% in the Estimate for the Department of the Environment and Local Government. Commitments made at European Union level are now endangered. I ask for an assurance that the commitments made by Ireland in relation to the quality of ground and surface water, which was the origin of this discovery, will be honoured.

The Deputy has made a couple of important points which I am happy to answer directly. The quality of drinking water here is very good. We know this from travelling abroad to major European countries where we cannot drink the water but have to buy bottled water. The Deputy is correct, I would not be satisfied, nor would the Government, that we have got to the end of a process. There are a large number of group water schemes. As I stated was my objective during my tenure of office, I and my officials have been trying recently to rid us of this issue once and for all. Notwithstanding the difficulties in the public finances I intend to provide the necessary resources. The reason for some of the delay is that instead of assessing one scheme in an inefficient and less than cost effective way we have consulted with various group water schemes with a view to bringing them together. I opened a scheme recently which commenced during my tenure of office, in County Mayo near Kiltimagh. It is a tremendous scheme which is very cost efficient. I was amazed at the level of plant put in place and what it was producing. This is a good example of a number of schemes coming together with one proper plan to deal with all the issues arising.

The House can be assured that one of my objectives is to resolve the water quality issue. The big difficulty lies with the group water schemes which the Deputy has identified. Where there are different schemes – I am not suggesting there are some in Wicklow – I want to bang heads together so things are not done on a scheme by scheme basis but together so as to maximise the resources available. Where we have stated that people have come forward quickly and agreed that the way forward is to bring different groups together. That is the key message in getting the schemes completed and my officials are working with local authorities and the local group schemes to put these together with a view to completion. The Deputy can be reassured regarding resources that as far as I am concerned the commitments I have given and the large schemes we have been able to instigate and implement are proceeding. I intend to finish the group water schemes as well.

Will the Minister try to get a test on the present supply as there are concerns about it? While he mentioned a figure of 100 for the EPA as opposed to the WHO figure of 2, will he agree that the figure used in the US is 30? It is important to realise that issues such as this are emotive. Factual information often goes out the window and it is difficult to approach things in a logical fashion and understandably so. Will the Minister request the EPA or his Department to issue a statement to the effect that U238 is a stable form of uranium that should not be confused with U235 and U234? People are naturally frightened when they hear mention of the word "uranium". Does the Minister agree that it is difficult to comprehend how society gets excited about issues such as this and incineration matters given that radon is being released into many homes in this country? There is a scheme in operation for the testing of houses for radon but many households do not participate in it. Perhaps the Minister could take another look – previous Ministers have done so – at readvertising the availability of testing for radon in one's house.

Current water supplies in Wicklow must be tested. We should also release a simple document dealing with this issue as soon as possible. The press statement released by the health board left a lot to be desired and by the time the instruction from the EPA to Wicklow County Council filtered down to the man or woman in the house it held no meaning for them.

I reassure the Deputy that all water supplies in the Wicklow area will be tested by the local authority in conjunction with the EPA as quickly as possible. Regarding the issuing of a statement of facts, I am always in favour of reassuring the public and imbuing in people confidence in the system. I will await the information flows which come back to me in this regard and if I feel there is enough information available to make a worthwhile statement, I will do so. As soon as I have some hard facts, I will communicate them to local Deputies to assist them in getting information out. It is important that we deal with the facts. I appreciate the tone and approach of Deputies which is helpful. It is a positive contribution towards getting facts into the public domain.

I appreciate the Minister's commitment. We are all aware that certain forms of naturally occurring radiation can pose a significant threat to human health. Radon gas can cause lung cancer. Current building regulations regarding the construction of new dwellings ensure a radon barrier is used in high risk areas. I am sure the Minister is aware – if not, he should be – that many areas in the west such as Sligo, Ballina, Tuam and down through Ennis and Tralee are situated in high radon areas. We need to know whether there is a link between radon and U238 and whether U238 in water poses a degree of risk to the human population. I suspect it does if it exceeds the World Health Organisation's guidelines. We should issue a background paper on this through the Minister's office in conjunction with other agencies mentioned. I appeal to the Minister to get more facts into the public domain so the general public can be reassured that the levels of naturally occurring radiation in water supplies are not a threat to human health.

I wish to confirm that it is the toxicity of the U238 as opposed to the radioactivity that has been identified as the difficulty by the EPA in this case?

Yes. If there is correlation between the two issues as outlined by Deputy Cuffe that will be made public knowledge. I have no doubt the EPA is looking at the different aspects be it radon, naturally occurring uranium, etc. If a relationship is established and if it is adding to the difficulties, that will emerge. I will issue the facts as quickly as possible. I recognise the independence of the EPA and its role in this regard. I am sure it will understand it is imperative that we get clarity in the public domain as quickly as possible. I will endeavour to do so.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.