Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Water Supply Contamination

Tá mé buíoch den Cheann Comhairle as ucht an deis a thabhairt dom an t-ábhar tábhachtach seo a ardú anseo sa Dáil. Is ábhar an-tábhachtach é do 600,000 duine sa tír seo. I believe this week's boil water notice is the largest in the history of the State. We are obviously glad that we were told to boil our water if we lived in a particular area for safety reasons, but this raises a number of questions.

First, I ask the Minister to update the House and the people on the situation and when this boil water notice is expected to end. I also ask him to answer some of the other questions that have been raised regarding previous problems in the Leixlip treatment plant this year, including EPA investigations and HSE involvement. Last year, there was a very serious incident of over-chlorination in a particular stretch of the water supply in Kilcloon in my constituency.

The Minister met Irish Water on Monday. I believe this problem was discovered on Monday but it took a full 24 hours for the boil water notice to go into effect. Can the Minister clarify that? What did Irish Water tell him on Monday? Was the 24-hour delay in the boil water notice necessary? I ask him to clarify what he and the Taoiseach said.

The Irish Water website is clearly a matter for Irish Water, but I hope it will learn lessons from this. If 600,000 people are on a boil water notice, its website needs to be able to handle significant traffic. In addition, there was much confusion about which areas were and were not included in the notice, particularly in outlying areas such as my constituency. The local authority information indicated that Dunboyne and Kilcloon were affected. We now know that the issue is the old Dublin Corporation water supply in Leixlip, which is now under Fingal County Council. That is its water supply. Rural parts of Ashbourne were also included in this water supply, which was not clear to residents or the local authority. Conversely, Stamullen in County Meath was highlighted as being affected in various news reports when it was not, although it is better to be careful.

Those are not the most important issues - public safety is the most important one. I accept that if there is a question of public safety, we have to get to the bottom of it. However, citizens are entitled to an update on what is happening. They are also entitled to reassurances that systems are in place to ensure that a safe and drinkable water supply is provided to a huge proportion of this country.

Unfortunately, the ongoing boil water notice continues to cause serious disruption, worry and major inconvenience for more than 600,000 people and for many businesses in the areas affected in Dublin, Meath and Kildare. It important to note, however, that the problem at the water treatment plant was identified and the fault is now resolved. The water treatment plant is now, I am informed, producing water in compliance with all quality requirements.

However, for a period of time on Monday partially treated water entered the system and this needs to work its way through the network. Given the incident that occurred a precautionary boil water notice was put in place. The results of water testing are now available to the regulators and are being examined by Irish Water, the HSE and the EPA.

I was informed when the scale of the event and the issue were known and it was clear there was a public health risk. My Department and I have been in constant contact with Irish Water since then and I have been in direct contact with the managing director of Irish Water. My priority is to ensure that people's health is protected. We want to see this notice lifted without undue delay, but only when our water supply has been confirmed safe by the HSE and EPA.

In the meantime, Irish Water's guidance to all users, including those in the healthcare, school and tourism sectors, is to follow the advice in the boil water notice. Once water is boiled in line with this guidance, it will be safe to use and to drink. Lifting the boil water notice will be a matter for the HSE, as the public health authority, along with the EPA, as the drinking water quality regulator. This will involve confirmation of water analysis results currently being examined; the result from today's EPA audit; and verification that any partially treated water has been entirely flushed through the water network.

Irish Water, the HSE and the EPA are all working to ensure this happens as quickly as possible and are keeping me and my Department informed. I will, in turn, keep the Government and this House informed. More generally, the EPA reports that the quality of drinking water in Ireland's public supplies remains high but there are risks associated with our current water system.

Our water and wastewater systems require substantial and sustained investment to bring the systems up to the quality and resilience standards required of a modern service, to provide for population growth and to build resilience in the face of climate change. The Government has approved the Irish Water strategic funding plan 2019-2024, comprising a €6.1 billion investment in infrastructure and assets and a €4.9 billion investment in operating costs.

To answer the Deputy's specific question, I know he is well aware of how Irish Water works with local authorities because we have worked on issues particular to his constituency. He is aware there was a previous fault in the Leixlip plant. Remedial action was meant to have been taken following that fault and an audit was being done. Part of the investigation now under way involves seeing what happened when Irish Water got the report on the work done and then reported to the EPA on what systems had been put in place to ensure the fault could not happen again. I cannot say whether it is the same fault because I do not know that yet. That is exactly what is being investigated.

For the first time, given that this is an exceptional event due to the number of people on the precautionary boil water notice, the EPA will report directly to me on this so I can be clear about what is happening. I was already in engagement with Irish Water for a period of time on Monday as part of the regular engagements we have. There is a new managing director in place. We met in what I call the crisis room - I am not sure what it is called - because it is where we did a lot of work on the drought the summer before last. It was only after that engagement that this event happened. The point I made in the Chamber was that I have a sustained engagement with Irish Water and have spoken to the managing director directly since then. My officials have also been in touch.

What happened will be in the report and I do not want to get ahead of it. At approximately 10.15 p.m. on Monday, the shutdown was ordered at the plant by the plant manager. The plant came into service slowly at around 11.30 p.m. on the same evening and then reached normal service levels at about 5 o'clock. From then on, we had engagement with the EPA and HSE to examine what happened and the potential risk and things escalated from there. The plant was fixed very quickly, but what is known as a slug of water made its way into the system.

The Deputy's point on the map is a fair one. The difficulty we have when we have reduced pressure in the water system after an incident is that it is not an exact science. It is not like turning off electricity after which everything stops. The water has to work its way out of the system and sometimes we cannot be absolutely sure where it is in the system. I can tell the Deputy that further testing was done today which is quite encouraging. I hope to be able to make a further statement early tomorrow. I will do so based on the recommendation of the HSE, because as the health authority it will make a decision in conjunction with the EPA. I said yesterday that the boil water notice, as a precautionary measure, might be maintained for a much smaller part of the sector, but I will be able to clarify that in due course.

What householders in the area affected, including Dunboyne, Kilcloon and rural Ashbourne in my constituency, want to know is why when dirty water entered the system on Monday the boil water notice was issued on Tuesday evening? That is the issue. People will accept a boil water notice if it is necessary for the protection of their health.

The Minister said that the problem identified last March was meant to be fixed. That is not reassuring. I presume he has been advised by Irish Water about this. We are talking about the health, safety and lives of the citizens. A problem with dirty water affects them. The Minister said the problem was meant to be fixed but he need to go back to Irish Water as soon as possible to clarify the position. It is extremely worrying if that is the way repairs are dealt with in our water system. It is not like me meaning to fix a leak in my car which might not do any damage to anybody except cause an inconvenience to me or mean I use more fuel.

If the water system needs to be fixed to ensure people have safe drinking water, that has to happen, and a system and people need to be in place to make sure that happens. I want to know why it took 24 hours for the boil water note to be issued and I would like more information on the events that happened earlier this year.

The Deputy is correct that more information is needed, and that is why we are carrying out an investigation. When it has been completed we will be able to talk in detail about exactly what happened. I want to stress that this is a precautionary boil water notice. The water that went into the system was not dirty; it had been treated. The cleaning and purification process had commenced, but had not been completed. As a precaution and due to the potential for certain types of bacteria that may survive a chlorination process and possibly remain in the water, a precautionary boil water notice issued. That was the safe and smart thing to do. I know it is a major inconvenience and I am very sorry for it, but we want to be 100% sure that the water is safe and clean to drink.

The alarm event in March was fixed at the time. From that point on, there is no question about clean water. Were the necessary steps put in place? I would have had confidence that had been dealt with until this happened. Maybe they were not put in place in the right way, but I do not want to prejudge the report. We need to see what comes from that.

This is urgent.

It is. Minor incidents happen in operating plants, be they water or production plants, all the time and are corrected very quickly. Once what happened was noticed and the plant was shut down, the EPA and HSE had to be brought in in order to carry out the testing needed to determine whether there was an issue, the scale of the likely public health concern and whether things needed to be escalated. That decision cannot be made quickly because it is not a small thing to put 600,000 people on a boil water notice.

At the same time, to not put them on a boil water notice is not a small thing either. They had to take some time to get things right and make that call. I trust their judgment on making that call. Now it has been made, we are doing testing which is looking positive. I do not want to be too precise. I do not want people to take unnecessary risks and I hope to be able to give greater information to the public on this issue tomorrow. It is an important issue to raise and we will talk about what happened when I have the EPA report.