Private Notice Questions.

Water Supply Contamination.

Acting Chairman

We now come to private notice questions to the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government regarding the quality of water in County Galway. I will call on the Deputies who tabled questions to the Minister in the order in which they were submitted to the office of the Ceann Comhairle.

Michael D. Higgins


Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to outline the steps he is proposing to take to deal with the continuing and escalating threat to public health in Galway arising from contamination of the public water supply by the cryptosporidiosis parasite; the further steps he is taking to ensure that the people of the Galway area will have access to clean and safe drinking water; if he will release the necessary funding to allow for the remedial work required to ensure the safety of the system; if he will allow such human resources as are necessary to be put in place; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Trevor Sargent


Mr. Sargent asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the steps he will take to release the funds to Galway City and County Councils to upgrade their water treatment facilities; and if he will lift the staff embargo on local authority recruitment in the Galway area, Galway city having the lowest staffing per capita in the country, to ensure work is carried out urgently to avoid further damage to the health of people and to the economy of the region.

Paddy McHugh


Mr. McHugh asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if he will make a statement on the quality of water in County Galway.

I propose to take all of the questions together.

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue which is of extraordinary importance. As we are at this advanced stage in our development as a nation, it is simply not acceptable that 90,000 people in Galway are in the position they are in. Drinking water in modern societies is provided through a complex production process. It is fundamental to this process that pollution and health risks to consumers are monitored, systematically measured and dealt with through proper treatment. To ensure the rigour and uniformity of standards in this matter, drinking water quality requirements are prescribed in both EU and national legislation. In Ireland monitoring of these standards is carried out at primary level by local authorities. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, recently commented on the performance of local authorities in that regard. This primary monitoring is carried out in co-operation with the Health Service Executive. In turn, local authority performance is monitored and reported on by the EPA.

The risk to water consumers from cryptosporidium is well recognised and there is much literature on the issue internationally. In November 2004 the National Disease Surveillance Centre also published a report on waterborne cryptosporidiosis. This was circulated to all local authorities by the EPA with the request that they update their risk assessments based on the revised methodology of the report. To be fair to local authorities, this has been done, with nearly 400 risk assessments carried out in response to the EPA's request.

My Department has also produced very detailed guidelines for local authorities on minimising the risk of cryptosporidium in water supplies. The guidelines were prepared in consultation with the Department of Health and Children and the EPA, with the express purpose of providing clear advice to assist local authorities in preventing cryptosporidium getting into water supply systems and infecting consumers. They cover all aspects of water supply management, including source protection, monitoring, treatment processes, storage and distribution.

Galway city and county issued a boil water notice on 15 March, on the advice of the HSE, in response to people becoming ill as a result of suspected cryptosporidiosis. Since then, the three agencies have worked closely to deal with the issue and established an incident response team made up of environmental and water services professionals.

The presence of cryptosporidium in Galway County Council's Headford water scheme was confirmed on Tuesday, 20 March and in the city council's old Terryland plant which is part of the Galway city water supply scheme on Wednesday, 21 March. I understand no indication of cryptosporidium has been found in the council's second and more modern treatment plant, also in Terryland. Fortunately, cryptosporidium at the old Terryland plant has decreased to well below critical risk levels, although understandably the boiled water notice still remains in place and will remain until the issue is dealt with.

Inadequate filtration capacity at the old treatment plant in Terryland is at the centre of the problem with the Galway city supply. Funding has been in place for some time under my Department's water services investment programme. The funding, available for almost five years, amounts to €21.5 million and is intended to upgrade the plant which will minimise future risk of contamination of the supply. I understand the city council will be submitting a brief for the appointment of consultants to prepare a preliminary report for the scheme to my Department "as soon as possible." It cannot be soon enough and the brief will receive immediate attention when it arrives.

The Headford water supply scheme is a small stand-alone one using raw water from Lough Corrib with a disinfection process only. A €29 million extension of the Tuam regional water supply scheme to Headford which is also being funded under my Department's water services investment programme is under construction and commissioning is expected to take place next August. In the meantime, I understand Galway County Council has secured an alternative supply that could be in place within a week or so, from the Caherlistrane-Kilcoona group water scheme which has had a new €4 million treatment plant installed last month. This is good news and, again, the funding came from the rural water programme.

At this point I want to specifically refute any suggestion the current problem in Galway has to do with failure on the part of my Department. It is time we stopped acting the fool and looking for explanations when local authorities, or any public authority, do not deliver. I have clarified that funding of €21.5 million has been available for some time for the Terryland upgrade and that formal proposals are still, five years later, awaited by the Department. Work on the extension of the Tuam regional scheme is being funded, as I mentioned, to the tune of €29 million under the scheme and is nearing completion. The interim supply for Headford from the Caherlistrane-Kilcoona group water scheme has also been made possible by the provision of departmental funding.

On a national level, unprecedented investment is being made by my Department in new and improved water supply schemes, with those potentially at risk from cryptosporidium a particular priority. The fruit of this investment is borne out by the EPA whose latest report verifies the fundamentally high quality of Ireland's drinking water in general. I fully appreciate that this does not allay the real distress of the people and businesses affected in Galway by this extremely unsatisfactory position but it is also the case that this is an exceptional incident.

I have had private discussions with Deputies in the House, particularly those local to the problem, including Deputy Michael Higgins. I intend to travel to Galway tomorrow and will bring with me senior personnel from my Department. I intend to ask for an explanation of why there has not been more urgency and ambition in delivering the water scheme.

On the specific recruitment issue, I assure Deputy Sargent it has nothing to do with this problem. It has been indicated——

The local authority has the lowest number per capita in the country.

I will give the Deputy a factual answer.

That is a fact.

We should stop this nonsense.

Is the Minister saying it is not a fact?

I will answer any supplementary question asked. I wanted to volunteer additional information but clearly Deputy Sargent is not remotely interested in it.

I have been listening all the time.

I intend to travel to Galway tomorrow with senior personnel from my Department. The objective will be to ask why we have not seen progress on the scheme to date. We will also put in place measures to provide the interim supply which is apparently available and to ensure this happens in the shortest possible time. We will request the council to sit down and get through the basic provisions which are required by this House for the handling of public contracts and deliver a normal water supply for the people of Galway sooner rather than later.

Tá mé an-bhuíoch díot, a Chathaoirligh, as ucht seans a thabhairt dom an cheist seo a chuir chuig an Aire. Tá tábhacht ag baint le truailliú an scéim uisce i gContae na Gaillimhe agus tá ceisteanna le freagairt maidir leis. Tá sé níos tábhachtaí fós iad a chur chuige chun leigheas a fháil ar an scéal chomh sciopaí agus is féidir. I will list a number of questions. It is important that the people of Galway, following the Minister's visit tomorrow, receive clear answers. For a start, it is unsatisfactory that officials of Galway City Council would not attend a meeting attended by the vast majority of councillors.

Hear, hear.

There is a considerable problem with trust and information on when, for example, this problem was first discovered.

Taking into account the 2004 guidelines and the study distributed, the State accepts responsibility for the provision of clean drinking water. Responsibility for management and compliance is divested to local authorities. Will the Minister tomorrow ensure the city council puts into the public realm the number of tests carried out to date and the dates and frequency of these tests in order that people will know how this problem arose. They may, in turn, be able to plan for avoidance of a similar problem in the future.

There is a reasonable doubt that the cause of the lethargy in applying for funding might have been the Water Services Bill which is stuck on Report Stage. The city council may have been anticipating privatisation or a public private partnership to manage water and wastewater services. The Minister might agree that if we were dealing with a privately managed water or wastewater service, we would be dealing with a nightmare with no accountability. It is important that people be reassured in the short term and that interim measures be taken.

The Minister answered one of my questions, but if the €21.5 million was allocated five years ago, when was it communicated to Galway City Council? Is the water infrastructure investment programme document required under law to be placed before the council's elected members for discussion and so forth? How did the delay come to be and did it have something to do with understaffing in the local authorities? In responding in the short and medium terms and in enabling all three phases of the capital programme response to be implemented in the interests of the people, will the Minister release permission tomorrow if additional staff are needed?

I thank the Deputy. I have contacted him, Deputy Grealish and other local representatives.

Deputy Michael D. Higgins knows the water services investment programme is a public document and is notified to all local authorities. The idea suggested during the course of the day that the local council was not aware that €21 million was available to it is patent nonsense.

It was stated by a Government councillor.

Not only is it a public document communicated to the council, but the announcements about County Galway were well covered in the excellent journal, The Connacht Tribune. I ask Deputy Higgins to forgive me, as I do not have specific notes on the matter, but one can find a full-page report on the matter dated 19 May 2002, possibly on page 2 or 3. However, that is not the issue. We can start to examine how the breakdown occurred after the event has been resolved, as it is more important to put all of our energy into solving the problem.

I have had discussions with all of the Deputies from the area. Not only is this issue critical to the affected families, but——

It is a disaster.

——it is a potential disaster for Galway city and I want to see it overcome. We can either spend our energies fighting one another or solving problems.

My trip to Galway tomorrow, at some inconvenience, arises because I want to spend time bringing together people from the Department, the county and city councils and the health authority and anyone else who is necessary to resolve the problem. There are solutions and our energy should go towards resolving the problem rather than being wasted in examining its history.

I agree with Deputy Michael Higgins that intermediate measures must be taken if there is to be an increase in public confidence. Obviously, the original Terryland plant must be taken out of commission. As the Deputy knows, the plant has filter beds and, if one watched the "Six One News", one would see the plant would not be an advertisement for how our country should be in 2007.

What about staffing?

That matter is a canard introduced to deflect attention from the fact there has been no progress. It is not an issue. Major programmes put a strain on local authority staff, but the House is continuously advised that we must keep public service numbers in control. To give credit to the local government sector, it has kept control of those numbers. Where the staffing issue arises in respect of a specific project, it is possible to incorporate the project team in the overall capital issue.

I do not understand why the scheme has not progressed and I would be angry were I a councillor. I will ask that question tomorrow, but it will be the least of my questions. I will be concerned with how to resolve the problem in weeks rather than months.

I thank the Minister.

It is good to know the Minister will go to Galway tomorrow, as it is important that progress be made by the visit. Will the Minister clarify what he meant when he stated that money was in place? Is it in place in the Custom House and the Minister is waiting to release it?

That is correct.

It is not in the Galway coffers.

May I respond?

I want to clarify what the Minister meant and I understand he must release the money. However, my statement was true. We can argue why it is true or what the situation should be, but is the fact that Galway City Council has the lowest local authority staffing level per capita not an alarm bell? Perhaps it is not related to the water problem. In light of developments in Galway, this issue must be addressed to avoid another problem that must be dealt with in a fire brigade approach.

Given the Minister has focused on where he believes the fault to be, namely, in the west rather than the east in the Custom House and that we are in the twilight of this Dáil, does the Water Services Bill 2003 not need to be enacted quickly? It would provide an inspectorate with greater power, provide for the regulation of water group schemes and prevent a recurrence of what we are witnessing. In as much as the Minister can promise to implement the Bill, given that it should already be enacted, he should take the idea with him to Galway.

Does the Minister accept that a message must go to some of his colleagues on the council who have been quick to develop the built environment in the Galway area at a rate of knots? Water capacity in Galway is at 100%. Tomorrow, will the Minister give his colleagues the message that if we are to prevent further strain on the overstrained system, we must upgrade the water supply before more development takes place?

We all want to be constructive about this. On the eve of an election, it is tempting to start kicking political footballs around and I hope the Minister will resist that temptation, as I will try to resist it due to the limited time available. My colleague, Galway's mayor, Niall Ó Brolcháin, has tabled a five-point plan on the priority of providing fresh water through filters, finding the human source — Oughterard and Claregalway are still discharging raw sewage into Lough Corrib — a temporary engineering solution in terms of ozone treatment, putting in place a modern regional treatment plant and consolidating the agencies. The Minister mentioned three agencies, but I understand we are dealing with approximately nine agencies, such as the fisheries boards, the EPA, the Department, the HSE and the local authorities. Perhaps tomorrow's visit will provide a consolidated framework through which to address water quality needs.

I thank the Deputy for his comments. He asked whether money is in place. Money has been earmarked for this scheme. As every Deputy in the House knows, this process does not involve sending a cheque to a local authority, it involves telling the authority that it can draw down a certain amount of money after it has finalised the relevant scheme. That is how moneys are made available. Money is available to the scheme in question in the same way as it was available to the 399 schemes throughout the country which are being progressed, including those in Sligo, Dublin, Cork, Waterford and Bray. I do not want to get involved in the blame game because it will not help to solve the problem in Galway. Other local authorities have drawn down the funds they have needed. I will speak tomorrow about how the local authority in this instance can draw down the money that is needed to get this scheme under way.

I did not mean to interrupt Deputy Sargent in any way when he was arguing that Galway City Council needs more staff. I assured the local authorities late last year that a mechanism was available to them if they had issues relating to staffing. I refer to the method of capitalising staff, in effect, for the building of particular schemes. I will talk to the authorities in Galway about that tomorrow. I do not want to mislead the House in any way by suggesting that I intend to lift the recruitment embargo or the cap on staffing levels, which are in place for good reasons. We are all familiar with the excessive staffing levels in some sectors of the public service. We are not getting value for money in such areas.

I agree with the point Deputy Sargent made about the Water Services Bill 2003. This important legislation has been around for a long time. As the Deputy knows, it has been the subject of lengthy discussions in this House. I will push the Bill over the hurdle and get it through with the co-operation of the Deputy, his party and the other parties.

We are willing to co-operate to that end.

I am grateful to the Deputy for that undertaking. I accept that the spokespersons of the Opposition parties have encountered certain difficulties. Some committee meetings could not be held at times when I would have liked them to be held. I am not pointing the finger in any way in that regard as all the Members of this House are very busy. I agree with Deputy Sargent that the Water Services Bill 2003 is fundamental legislation. If we do nothing else between now and the date of the general election, we should put that legislation in place and we can do so. I am willing to work with all Deputies in this House to that end.

Will the Minister, who is responsible for making the final decision in that respect, talk to the Chief Whip?

The Bill in question is one of those I designated as priority legislation. With this exception, all the Bills on my priority list have been enacted with the assistance of the Members of the House. The Houses completed their consideration of the Carbon Fund Bill 2006 and the Electoral (Amendment) Bill 2007 this week. The Water Services Bill 2003 is the last of my priority Bills to be passed by the Oireachtas. When it has been dealt with, I will be in the happy position of being one of the few Ministers to have competed his or her entire legislative programme during the lifetime of this Dáil.

The Labour Party Whip is asking for the Bill to be brought before the House.

I do not mean to be negative when I point out that it was reported in the media today that a letter containing a five-point plan had been sent to me by the Lord Mayor of Galway. I wish to make clear that I have not received any such correspondence from him. I will give it respectful attention when I get it. I had to visit the Green Party's excellent website before I came to the House to learn what is mentioned in the five-point plan.

I can give the Minister a copy of the plan if he wants it.

I am grateful for that, but it would have been rather nice——

I am sorry the Minister does not have it yet.

I have seen it now. It would have been nice to have had an opportunity to receive the document from the Lord Mayor of Galway before he went on television and contacted the other media to say he had sent it to me.

He thought the Minister had received it.

He did not send it to me.

I congratulate the trustees of the Caherlistrane-Kilcoona group water scheme, which is the scheme in my area, for agreeing to provide a water supply to the town of Headford to ensure that its residents have a potable water supply until this problem has been solved. Is the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, who has referred almost exclusively to Galway city and its environs in his comments this evening, aware that this problem is not confined to those areas? It is affecting a large section of County Galway, including Headford, Tuam, Corofin and Athenry. Does the Minister agree that the words he has uttered about this problem have not contributed to reaching an immediate solution? He has focused on the allocation of the infamous €21.5 million and claimed that Galway City Council has not responded adequately. His approach has not helped to find the short-term solution that is needed in this instance. Given that the buck stops with the Minister — he is ultimately responsible because the local authority is under his control — will he provide the leadership that is needed?

Does the Minister, Deputy Roche, agree that the pollution of the water supply of a large portion of County Galway represents a serious emergency? Does he accept that the full weight of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government needs to be brought to bear in these circumstances? Does he share the view that all available expert opinion needs to be used by local authorities if they are to deal with this problem? Given that there have been similar outbreaks in Belfast and Milwaukee, will the Minister and the local authorities seek advice from their counterparts in those cities? Will the Minister look for details of the action that was taken in those cities to get their problems under control? For example, we need to learn more about the measures that were put in place in Belfast and Milwaukee to prevent a recurrence of such outbreaks.

The Minister has criticised Galway County Council by claiming that it has not acted to modernise its water treatment facilities. Does he wish to make further criticisms of the council, or is he satisfied with its handling of the situation? Is he satisfied that the council has used the resources provided to it for water schemes and water treatment facilities in an expedient manner? Is he aware of the cause of the outbreak? Has the source of the outbreak been identified? If not, have any possible causes been eliminated as a result of investigations? Will the Minister explain how the problems being experienced in County Galway, which are like those that exist in Third World countries, have been allowed to develop at a time when we enjoy all the benefits of modern technology? Are we applying the best technology that is available to us?

I would like to correct the Deputy in one respect, I have not been critical of Galway County Council.

I meant to say that the Minister has criticised Galway City Council, rather than Galway County Council.

That is correct. I was correcting the Deputy because he referred to "Galway County Council".

I am sorry.

I do not mean to score a point but to ensure that the Deputy's comments are factual. I will not be critical of Galway City Council until I travel to Galway tomorrow to see why it did not take action.

The Minister was critical of Galway City Council last night.

We do not need to quibble about that. We do not have to go to Milwaukee, Sydney, Northern Ireland, Britain or any other part of the world to find examples of problems of this nature. There have been major problems in this country — Ennis is a case in point.

We have had 400 cases, including some in the midlands.

There are problems in County Kildare and, famously, in Mullingar, and solutions were found to many of these problems within a short time. That is one of the issues that will arise, and in respect of which I will seek an explanation, when I travel to Galway tomorrow. I disagree with Deputy McHugh's first point in so far as I believe that those in office are responsible for telling people the truth. If it is a fact that money was available but was not drawn down, the people have a right to know. There may have been debates in Galway City Council about why the money was not drawn down. I do not know and I have not inquired. If such debates have not taken place at council level, where stewardship in this matter lies, we need to ask why not.

The Minister is talking about the city, but this problem is widespread in the county.

I will deal with that specific point. There is concern about the boiling water notice that has been posted in respect of the Tuam scheme, with which Deputy McHugh is familiar. The notice has been posted even though cryptosporidium has not been identified in the samples that have been taken. It has been posted with the precautionary principle specifically in mind. It was decided that it made sense to take such a precaution in case water was being drawn from a scheme in a similar position.

The Deputy asked whether all available expertise will be brought to bear. When I travel to Galway tomorrow, I will be accompanied by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government's top experts in this area, as well as the assistant secretary who is responsible for the financial side of the Department. We will find out how we can help the authorities in Galway to overcome the difficulties being experienced in the area. We will examine the interim solutions. Galway City Council, which was mentioned by Deputy McHugh, will have to be part of the solution. We will have to find an alternative supply somewhere in the Galway County Council area to be diverted to the Terryland plant. As Deputy McHugh knows, such a supply cannot be found within the municipal area. The various authorities in the Galway area will have to make a joint effort to reach a solution to this problem. I assure the Deputy that the available expertise will be brought to bear.

I have corrected the Deputy's slip of the tongue, when he suggested that I had criticised Galway County Council. I am prepared to come to the House next week to outline the exact solutions which are to be put in place. We should put our collective energy towards resolving this. Deputy Michael D. Higgins, Deputy Grealish and others who live in Galway have conveyed a real sense of concern about the upcoming season. Deputy Grealish provided me with information about bookings for the Easter period being cancelled. We cannot allow that to continue and we must focus on the solution. When the solutions are in place, we can learn the lessons. I am not critical of a particular local authority but it is unacceptable that funding provided by the taxpayer is not drawn down.

Since I took over this portfolio I have issued instructions to clear the bureaucratic hurdles and red tape that existed. I have given clearance for schemes under €5 million after one visit to my Department. The local authorities then have responsibility to deliver. They cannot be expected to allocate limited staff resources to filling in forms.

In the case of the larger schemes I have truncated the number of necessary steps.

This is a larger scheme.

I hope it works and I hope that someone does not tell me in the future that I released funds that were not properly stewarded.

I am a firm believer in local government. I disagree with Deputy McHugh in that I believe local government has very limited powers and responsibilities in Ireland. It should exercise them in full and not seek to pass the buck.

The Water Services Bill is not scheduled for next week. The Minister should return with that Bill next week.

Deputy McCormack cannot be present and I will ask supplementary questions on his behalf. Has a preliminary design been completed in respect of the augmentation of water treatment plants? Has this been sought by the Department or the relevant local authority?

Has any work been done on identifying the source of this problem? Technology is readily available and applicable in cases of this nature. In view of the serious health threat posed by contamination of the water supply, have tests been carried out? It could affect another area next week. Local authority officials generally know possible sources of such contamination and can proceed to the source. They can apply dyes to the water. Has this been done or will it be done?

Before coming into the Chamber I heard the director of services state that full source testing is taking place. In this problem area it is difficult to trace the infection. This is the critical time of the year because the lambing season is closely associated with it. Faecal contamination and afterbirths contribute to it and this causes the contaminant to enter the system.

As well as the failure to set up a management scheme for the Corrib.

That is a bigger issue that Deputy Higgins has discussed with me previously. We should avoid the temptation to waste time.

Cleaning the Corrib would not be a waste of time.

Both Deputy McHugh and I know that it will not be possible to do that in the weeks ahead, but it will be possible to help the people of Galway. The responsibility of anyone in public life who cares a whit about public health is to focus on restoring a clean water supply to Galway.

Deputy McCormack discussed the matter of a preliminary design with me last night. No preliminary design plan has been received and that speaks for itself.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.