I thank the committee for the opportunity to address it on the matters of water quality, infrastructure and the small towns and villages growth programme. The submission is long, so I will try to abridge it as I go through it, but there is a great deal to cover. I will do my best.
I am joined by Ms Margaret Attridge from asset operations, who will provide support in respect of queries on operational issues, including the recent events at Gorey and Ballymore Eustace. I am also joined by Mr. Gerry O'Donoghue from asset management, who will address queries on the small towns and villages programme, and Ms Kate Gannon, who is head of our connections and developer services and will address the Housing for All programme.
Since we are here to address the issue of drinking water quality, and given the recent events at the Gorey and Ballymore Eustace water treatment plants, I would like to begin by briefing members of the committee on those drinking water failures. I will then provide an overview of Irish Water's investment priorities and outline specifically how we are delivering the small towns and villages growth programme and supporting related investment.
I will provide some background to the incident at the Creagh water treatment plant in Gorey, County Wexford. An incident occurred between 19 and 24 August where the disinfection process at the plant was compromised. Wexford County Council, which operates the plant on behalf of Irish Water under a service level agreement, dealt with the issue on site and completed a repair by 24 August. Irish Water was notified of the issue on 26 August and immediately notified the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and the HSE. The HSE advised that a boil water notice on the supply was not necessary at that point, as the incident had passed and the plant was operating correctly.
On 23 and 26 August, Irish Water customer services received complaints relating to discoloured water and potential illness in the community in the Gorey area. On Thursday, 2 September, an increased number of reported illnesses were notified to the Irish Water customer contact centre. The HSE also confirmed that there were reports of multiple illnesses in the community. Irish Water issued an update to elected representatives in the Gorey area and updated our website advising customers that an issue had occurred and to contact their GPs if they felt unwell.
Given the seriousness of the failure at the Gorey treatment plant and the potential impact on public health, Irish Water activated its incident management protocols as soon as we became aware of the problem. All relevant staff have now been briefed on the correct procedure in respect of reportable incidents. Key systems and daily plant checks are being reviewed and a programme of works is in place. Plant staff have received immediate refresher training and will receive further training in the coming weeks to avoid any recurrence of an incident like this in future.
I will provide some background to the Ballymore Eustace water treatment plant incident. On Friday, 20 August, outside of normal business hours, the coagulation dosing system at the plant partially failed, meaning that the cryptosporidium and disinfection barriers were compromised for a number of hours. Dublin City Council, which operates the Ballymore Eustace plant on behalf of Irish Water under a service level agreement, did not report the incident to Irish Water at the time it occurred. The issue came to light on 30 August on investigation of related issues at the sludge treatment facility at the plant. As soon as Irish Water became aware of the issue, it notified the HSE. As the incident had passed, immediate public notification was not required. Irish Water also formally notified the EPA of the incident and the site was audited on 9 September with the EPA, HSE, Irish Water and Dublin City Council in attendance. Irish Water activated our incident management process and we are carrying out a post-incident and process review. Irish Water has placed personnel on the Ballymore Eustace site to review the escalation and response protocols. Staff retraining is being provided by the Irish Water compliance team to plant engineers and supervisors on how and what water quality incidents should be notified to Irish Water. Dublin County Council management and plant staff are working in collaboration with Irish Water in a joint response to the issues.
I will outline some of the actions being taken following both incidents. The protection of public health is a priority for Irish Water and 99.9% of the water we produce meets or exceeds the required standards and is safe to drink. We rely on sampling and alarms to maintain high-quality standards, which is why when something goes wrong, it should be reported immediately so that we can take corrective actions or, where necessary, stop production and put out a boil water notice.
Irish Water has been proactively engaging with key stakeholders since becoming aware of these incidents. We have been keeping the HSE fully apprised of our response to date in respect of its role as statutory consultee to Irish Water in matters of public health and we are co-operating fully with our environmental regulator, the EPA, to review both incidents and to implement measures to avoid any recurrence of similar incidents. This is ahead of receiving the full findings of the EPA audits. Our customer service staff at our contact centre have been fully briefed and are proactively following up with customers who have contacted us to discuss concerns that they may have and to deal with specific customer complaints that may have arisen. Irish Water briefed elected representatives in Gorey at a councillor clinic on Monday, 20 September.
Following a meeting on Saturday, 18 September, with the Minister for Housing Local Government and Heritage and the chief executives of Wexford County Council and Dublin City Council, we have implemented the following immediate additional measures: we have prioritised a knowledge audit of the largest 20 water treatment plants in the country, which includes site visits and meeting relevant staff to ensure that proper processes are in place to deal with and escalate any future incident; we have proactively communicated with all local authority chief executives and directors of services nationally on the critical need to report incidents in a timely manner at all of the plants they operate to allow for risk assessments to protect public health; refresher training of all relevant water services staff nationally is being accelerated; and we will audit all water treatment plants over time to ensure that knowledge of all protocols is in place. Where appropriate, Irish Water will also put staff on site in water treatment plants to ensure the continued safety of water production.
I would like to apologise again for both incidents. While equipment failure and human error can occur, the late reporting of issues relating to the process failures at the plants left us unable to react and compromised water quality.
I will outline the implications of these incidents for the single public utility that my colleagues in the Department mentioned. The current service level agreement, whereby Irish Water works alongside 31 local authorities to deliver water services, is no longer fit for purpose. The issues that have arisen at the water treatment plants in Dublin and Wexford clearly show the limitation of the present ways of working and emphasise the urgent need for change. Irish Water has legal responsibility but no direct control over water treatment plants around the country.
The Government's water sector transformation policy paper sets out the necessary transformation to a single public utility model where public water services will be controlled and managed by one national organisation. We need to be clear that this is not a criticism of the thousands of experienced water services professionals working in the local authorities.
We want to address structural issues in order that the individual on the ground can avail of clear lines of communication and national support systems that a single organisation can provide. Drinking water incidents can and will occur, and it is essential that we put the best possible structures and systems in place to reduce the frequency of such incidents and to deal with them effectively when they do occur.
It is critical that moving to the single public utility is progressed as a matter of urgency. Irish Water is fully committed to the talks process under way at the Workplace Relations Commission, with further engagement to take place next month.
I will move on-----