I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this matter, which I submitted last week on publication of the Environmental Protection Agency report. I appreciate having the opportunity to address it today.
I thank the Minister of State for coming before us today. However, I must express my disappointment that the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is not available.
That said, I will start by referring to the report of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, which has generated a number of headlines such as "EPA says decade of action needed on environment" or one from today - I thank the newspapers for covering this issue - "Bad air day: pollution in Dublin reaches levels of smoky coal era 30 years ago". According to the EPA, up to 1,300 premature deaths are caused by pollution in the Republic of Ireland each year.
I wish to focus on the aspects of Irish Water and our local authorities, which explains why this issue is being put to the Department for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. The outlook for Ireland's environment is not optimistic unless the implementation of solutions across all sectors of society is accelerated, as stated by EPA director general, Laura Burke, who, in a recent contribution to RTÉ's "Morning Ireland" programme, stated that national vision and a decade of action was needed to put things right. She went on to state that there is an issue with compliance and although Ireland is good at signing up to directives, the aspiration does not really meet the reality. She stated "We need to speed up, we need to scale up, and we actually need to deliver."
Our watercourses and seas are polluted to our collective detriment and, indeed, to the detriment of our health. Fifty years or more of the failure of this State to invest appropriately in water supply and waste management treatment has resulted in overflows in dozens of locations, including at the country's largest plant at Ringsend. Back in 2019, the Minister of State will probably recall the scenes of booms being placed around certain places in Dublin Harbour, and subsequent to that, beaches like the one at Sandymount were black-flagged, and swimming is now prohibited there as a result. The event generated headlines like "Ringsend treatment plant will continue to fail treatment standards" or that the EPA warns plume will continue near Ringsend wastewater plant until upgrade works are completed. A constituent of mine commented online:
Plans to build another wastewater plant around Dublin have been mired in the usual nimbyism. Until politicians grow up and are responsible to all citizens, it will remain the same.
I completely agree with those sentiments.
The comprehensive EPA report, which was published last week, examines a wide range of impacts on the environment and highlights that there are severe issues in respect of the quality of water in Irish rivers, lakes, estuaries and near-coastal waters. In short, water quality in Ireland has declined and this is being driven by three factors, namely, agricultural and physical changes led by development and how we treat our waste water. Nearly half of all of Ireland's surface water bodies are not meeting quality goals set by EU directives and climate change is driving temperature change and is increasing the amount of water flowing through these bodies of water, which is exacerbating pollution in our water and is critically endangering our biodiversity. Raw sewage is being discharged to waters from 35 towns and villages up and down the country and we only have 20 pristine river waters left, compared with more than 500 in the 1980s, which is not too long ago.
I think this underscores the importance of developing modern and effective drainage and wastewater treatment systems that will address these issues. The plan for a plant, for instance, in Clonshaugh, not too far from my constituency, has been delayed due to the failure to consult with the EPA. This is an example of the problems that exist within our system that the Minister of State should address.