Water Quality and Infrastructure and Small Town and Villages Growth Programme: Discussion

I welcome members and guest to the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage, and remind them to mute their microphones. We are here this morning to discuss water quality and infrastructure and the small town and villages growth programme. We are joined by Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh, assistant Secretary, Mr. David Flynn, principal adviser, and Ms Joanne Walshe, principal officer, water division, Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage; Mr. Niall Gleeson, managing director; Ms Margaret Attridge, asset operations; Mr. Gerry O’Donoghue, asset management; and Ms Kate Gannon, connections and developer services, Irish Water; and Mr. John McLaughlin, chief executive of Donegal County Council and Mr. John Mulholland, chief executive of Laois County Council, who are representing the County and City Management Association, CCMA. The witnesses are welcome here this morning.

Opening statements from the Department and Irish Water have been circulated to members. We do not have an opening statement from the CCMA, however, it has said it will answer any questions submitted by members. I will first go to the Department for its opening statement, followed by Irish Water. Members will then be invited to ask their questions. I will apply a strict six-minute time slot to include questions and answers. I will cut the members off after six minutes; if they take five minutes to ask a question, they will only have one minute for the answer. I need to do that because other Oireachtas Members wish to join this meeting, and to leave time for questioning at the end, I will need to stick to six minutes per member.

Members attending remotely from within the Leinster House complex are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the presentations they make to the committee. This means that they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they say at the meeting. However, they are expected not to abuse this privilege. It is my duty as Chair to ensure that this privilege is not abused. I remind members of the constitutional requirement that they must be physically present within the confines of Leinster House to participate in the public meetings. They are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

The opening statements submitted to the committee will be published on the committee website following the meeting. I now invite Mr. Ó Coigligh to make his opening statement on behalf of the Department.

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

I hope the Chairman can hear me.

Yes, I can hear you.

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

Gabhaim buíochas leis an choiste as deis a thabhairt dom labhairt leis-----

Unfortunately, we seem to have lost the connection to Mr. Ó Coigligh. The connection is now back. Will Mr. Ó Coigligh commence from the start? We lost you at the opening line.

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

I am sorry about that. It seemed to work well yesterday. I will start again.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an choiste as deis a thabhairt dom labhairt leis inniu ar na dúshláin atá romhainn maidir le cúrsaí uisce. I am joined by my colleagues Mr. David Flynn, principal adviser, and Mr. Joanne Walsh, principal officer for rural water. Can you still hear me?

There seems to be a problem with Mr. Ó Coigligh's connection. I invite Ms Walshe or Mr. Flynn to take over the opening statement, if possible.

Mr. David Flynn

Can you hear me?

Yes, I can hear you, Mr. Flynn. Will you present the opening statement?

Mr. David Flynn

Yes, I will continue from where we last heard Mr. Ó Coigligh.

Ireland has a very high standard of drinking water quality, but we have seen in recent days a serious impact on people’s health and, indeed, a breach of trust when the proper operation of our water services breaks down. While the incidents at Gorey and Ballymore Eustace will properly be the subject of discussion today, it is important we set out the broad challenges facing Ireland in ensuring the quality of our drinking water, the water we swim in and the health of our rivers and lakes. They are all part of the same ecosystem.

The programme for Government states, "Water infrastructure deficits impact on the provision of safe and secure drinking water, lead to pollution and environmental damage, and present a challenge to achieving sustainable development across urban and rural Ireland". The programme sets out a range of commitments to address infrastructure deficits, the need to adapt to climate change, and to progress institutional and regulatory reform in the water areas.

The past decade has seen a significant period of institutional reform in the approach to the delivery of water services and the promotion of wider environmental protection. However, complex and pressing challenges remain and it is crucial the reform that has taken place since 2013 is built upon to meet the challenges now being faced. First, institutional reform must be completed to ensure Irish Water is in a position to deliver on its potential as a world-class public utility to serve the current and future needs of the Irish people. Reform of the delivery of rural water services must also be progressed to support rural communities. Second, a sustained high level of investment is required to ensure Ireland can meet its obligations to comply with EU water and wastewater requirements, to ensure our infrastructure is resilient to cope with the challenges presented by climate change, and to support housing and regionally balanced economic development in line with the national planning framework. Finally, we must protect our rivers, lakes and groundwater by modernising our legal framework and by working across government to address the causes of dispersed pollution, including through actions that coincide with, or support, national objectives in addressing climate change and biodiversity loss.

Recent Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, reports, including the most recent report on the state of the environment in Ireland, have shown a concerning trend of decline in the quality of the waters in our rivers and lakes over the past 10 years. It is also worrying that this is impacting on rivers and lakes of previously excellent or high water quality. Key actions must include credible management measures to address agricultural discharges and investment in urban and rural wastewater infrastructure, which are the two most significant pressures on waters.

I will turn to the Government policy on institutional reform. Last February, the Government published the paper entitled Irish Water - Towards a National, Publicly-Owned, Regulated Water Services Utility. The paper set out clearly that Irish Water must evolve to take full control of the water services workforce and of its assets. The paper pointed out that unnecessary risks would arise to the safe and effective delivery of water services unless further service integration was progressed. As the paper states, a fully integrated national utility provides "clear and effective lines of authority, responsibility and accountability. In particular, the necessary alignment between [the] operational control and statutory responsibility [will be] ... achieved, thereby minimising risks to service delivery."

Local authorities and their staff have worked closely with Irish Water under the service level agreements established to get Irish Water up and running, but the limitations of this model are clear. A process commenced under the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, to seek agreement on new arrangements that give Irish Water full control of service delivery. Formal talks took place in July and further talks are scheduled for next month. However, it is clear, in light of the EPA findings of "abject failure of operational management" at Gorey and Ballymore Eustace in recent times, more immediate steps are now required to improve operational management and to rebuild trust in the delivery of our water services. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, set out a number of steps regarding his expectations in this regard last Saturday when we met with managers of Irish Water and the local authorities.

On investment, Irish Water, backed by sustained high levels of Government funding, is well-placed to develop the systems and services Ireland needs to serve our citizens in the 21st century. In the immediate term, as part of budget 2021, the Minister secured funding of more than €1.4 billion to support water services. This includes €1.3 billion in respect of domestic water services provision by Irish Water, being met by the Exchequer from the Department’s Vote. This overall investment will deliver significant improvements in our water and wastewater services throughout the country, including rural Ireland, and support a range of programmes delivering improved water quality in rivers, lakes and in the marine area.

In the medium term, the recently published Housing for All strategy recognises that investment in our water infrastructure is vital to reaching our target of 300,000 new homes by 2030. In respect of domestic water services investment, there is a commitment of €4.5 billion to be spent on vital infrastructure in the period 2021 to 2025, including on projects focused on supporting growth and future development, with particular focus on those supporting housing delivery. Irish Water is continuing to work closely with local authorities across the country, ensuring that investment supports the growth of identified settlements where these are prioritised in line with their development plans. My colleagues from Irish Water can give more detail on investment priorities, including town and village investment.

Through local authorities, the Department is working to deliver €95 million of capital investment in the rural water programme for the period 2018 to 2021. We are examining the wastewater requirements of villages and similar settlements that do not have access to public wastewater infrastructure serviced by Irish Water and are engaging with local authorities to quantify and qualify the number of villages and similar settlements that may be supported by this new scheme. This process is at an advanced stage and will feed into the development of proposals for consideration by the Minister.

We also need to respond to the challenges of climate change, biodiversity crises and ensuring that our waters are well protected. We would be doing the taxpayer and citizen a disservice if we undermined our investment in water infrastructure by not protecting the sources of our drinking water. The measures required to take this overall approach to our water environment are set out in our national river basin management plan. The Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, will launch a new six-month public consultation and dialogue on the draft of our new six-year plan next week. It might be of interest to the committee to discuss that plan at a future date.

I thank members for their time today. We will be happy to take questions.

I thank Mr. Flynn for stepping in. I do not know whether we have Mr. Ó Coigligh back.

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

I hope that I am back in terms of sound, if not vision.

Yes, we have Mr. Ó Coigligh back on sound.

I will move on to Irish Water, whose opening statement is approximately ten pages long. If Mr. Gleeson synopsised it a little and stuck to six minutes for his contribution, it would be helpful.

Mr. Niall Gleeson

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-----

I am sorry to interrupt you, Mr. Gleeson, but I need to move on to give members time to ask questions. Members have been circulated with the opening statements, have read them and, I am sure, will refer to them, and the witnesses will be able to take questions on those opening statements. I thank both Mr. Flynn and Mr. Gleeson for their opening statements. Mr. Gleeson has outlined the complexities and challenges of managing a water system from abstraction to discharge to receiving waters and everything in between. It is a complex system and involves a lot of challenges, but I note the commitment in the programme for Government to the €8.5 billion required for the capital investment committed to under Project Ireland 2040.

I will move on and give members an opportunity to put questions to the witnesses. I will move first to the Fianna Fáil slot. I will be strict on six minutes. It will be six minutes and members will be cut off and I will move on to the next person. I invite the Fianna Fáil representative to identify himself.

This is Deputy Flaherty. You are ruthless today, Chairman. I will stick to the six minutes, you will be relieved to hear. I thank everybody for coming.

Reference was made to farmers. Every time one comes into a committee meeting, reference has to be made to the farmers, the discharge and all that. It is important we put on record that no sector of society has paid a bigger price or makes a bigger contribution to water quality and the environment in this country than farmers, who are facing into it again in terms of climate action targets and the nitrates directive. Ultimately, responsibility for water quality rests with the EPA, Irish Water and, obviously, the Department.

Moving on from that, I wish to hone in on two specific points and I am happy for the witnesses to come back with the responses at the end or whatever the Chairman directs. In the Irish Water contribution it is stated that Irish Water has prioritised a knowledge audit of the 20 largest water treatment plants in the country. This arises from the meeting with the Minister at the weekend. I do not think that is sufficient. If Irish Water is saying 20, and even if one goes on the basis of one per county, there is a large tract of the country where Irish Water is not carrying out an audit. Particularly as there is an imminent handover of the service from local authorities to Irish Water, there should be a full and complete audit of all treatment plants right across the country. Can we get a list of the 20 plants? Why is this audit not being completed across the entirety of the network?

I wish to raise a second point. I agree - I think everybody does - that while we might not have agreed with Irish Water at the outset, it is critical now that we move very fast to a single-purpose utility. I appreciate there are industrial relations issues at the moment, and those need to be resolved. However, the kernel of the point I wish to make is that I believe there is undercapacity in terms of the number of staff working within the local authority network at the moment. How engaged is Irish Water with those employee numbers? Has it had much engagement? Where there are existing vacancies within the network, for example, will it be Irish Water's view that ahead of any transfer over to Irish Water, those vacancies will need to be filled? More than anything, it reads true on what Mr. Gleeson said about the incident at the weekend. This was human error. Human error in the main happens because facilities and services are not properly staffed, and it is very clear and evident that that was largely at the core of what happened at the weekend.

To summarise the question, how aware is Irish Water of understaffing at the various treatment plants? I do not want to go into specifics because I know there are other members to come in. Can Irish Water advise the local authorities to fill those roles? If this service transfers over to Irish Water, these roles certainly will not be filled afterwards. Therefore, if it is the case that this is transferring over to Irish Water, I want to see a situation whereby optimum staff levels transfer over and we are not transferring over at 90% or 85%.

Mr. Niall Gleeson

I will answer those questions. The Deputy raises some good points. Human error is a large problem in these situations and we do need to make sure there are sufficient resources on site. We certainly support the local authorities. We know there are vacancies but we are supporting the local authorities in filling those vacancies. There are certainly no budgetary issues behind those vacancies. We are struggling with the local authorities to fill some of those vacancies. Because of the current set-up, people do not see a career in water services, and I believe the single public utility will address that. We will certainly try to fill all those roles before they transfer, and when people transfer we will continue to fill roles. There is no great drive to reduce numbers. We do want to bring in some efficiencies, but the first thing we need to address is public safety and public health. That is my priority and it has always been a priority of Irish Water, so budgetary issues will be secondary to that.

I might bring in Ms Attridge on the audit situation. We will start with the top 20 and will do that within the next two weeks, but we have 800 water treatment plants around the country so we are moving those audits further out. We will do those over time, but just getting to 800 plants will take time. Ms Attridge might give us a little more detail and context on those audits. I think Ms Attridge might be on mute.

Ms Attridge's microphone may be on mute but there is only 30 seconds left to answer that question.

Mr. Niall Gleeson

I will take it while she is working on that. As I said, we will roll out a complete audit to each plant over time, but getting to 800 plants will take us time. In the meantime, we have rolled out training-----

I am sorry. I know Mr. Gleeson is conscious of the time constraints. Can he circulate the details of the 20 plants that are being analysed?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

Certainly, yes, we can.

I thank everyone for coming in. I have a number of questions I wish to ask, and if I could get short, concise answers, I would really appreciate it.

The first question I have is as a result of what happened in August. What will Irish Water do to ease people's minds and build up confidence again in water quality and in Irish Water? Many people are very upset.

Second, what has Irish Water done about contacting hospitals and GPs to see whether something like this has happened with other water treatment plants?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

I will take the second question first if Deputy Gould does not mind. We are in constant contact with the HSE and have very good links throughout and with the HSE, so as soon as illness might be detected in the community we react straight away and check plants. That communication process is ongoing. Likewise, if we detect issues at plants, we will inform the HSE, so there is a continuous communication between Irish Water and the HSE through very formal structures - not through hospitals or GPs but through the HSE's own structures. We have very good communication. In fact, we detected the Wexford issue partially because of communication from the HSE when it reported illnesses in the community. That system exists.

On that point, from what I can gather, when local politicians and others raised the issues in August they were dismissed. People were coming to them saying they had tummy bugs and people were feeling ill. Some had to go to hospital. How could what Mr. Gleeson outlines have happened then?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

Certainly, when the HSE contacted us with issues we reacted straight away.

We had some customer contacts, who came directly to us. We investigated those issues. Is Ms Attridge back online to talk about that incident? No, I am still not hearing her. When those issues occurred, we immediately went out and worked with the Wexford local authorities. We went out to the network. We believed there had been work ongoing on the networks so we believed there was a network issue at that time. The engineers went out to the individuals who had complained, flushed their networks and believed that there was a network issue. When we got further calls from 26 August, we then escalated and went back to the local authority. My understanding is they went back to the plant and then the issue was solved.

In the last 12 months how many other notifications has Irish Water received from the HSE or from people who felt ill because of drinking water and water quality issues?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

I do not know the number offhand, but it does happen and we investigate it. However, they are quite rare and they typically turn out to be, perhaps, a localised issue with a connection to a house that might be leaking. We do not have issues such as this. The reason the public can feel that the water is safe and try to renew trust in the water services we provide is that we have hundreds of dedicated professionals around the country who daily look after those 800 water treatment plants, and it is their work that ensures the safety. The systems work. Normally, we are notified when there are issues. We contact the HSE and the EPA and we put on boil water notices. People see them coming on at times in small towns where there are issues.

With regard to carrying out audits, three of the 20 plants identified are in Cork - Inniscarra, Lee Road and Glashaboy. When was the last time audits took place there? When will the findings of all the audits be out? Will they be made public? How long is it expected to take the 20 audits to be completed? There are 175 facilities in Cork so could we have a timeline? Mr. Gleeson said there are 800 nationally, and I appreciate that is a lot of work. However, we are trying to give people confidence again. With regard to the audits being carried out in Cork, how long will that take and when will it be made public?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

As I said, the first 20 audits, the knowledge audits where we go into sites to ensure that the staff understand the reporting protocols and the supports that are available, will take two weeks. That is the top 20 plants. I will have to refer back to the Deputy with a timeline on the rest of the plants.

Ms Margaret Attridge

Can Mr. Gleeson hear me now?

Mr. Niall Gleeson


Ms Margaret Attridge

My apologies for the sound issues. I could not come in earlier. In response to Deputy Gould regarding Cork, there is an audit planned for Inniscarra this week. That will cover Inniscarra. On the Lee Road scheme, Irish Water and Cork City Council, because there is development taking place there on the construction of the new Lee Road treatment plant there is very close management and auditing of the performance of the very old treatment plant that is currently in operation there and integrating that with the new treatment plant. Cork is quite secure in respect of risk management of the supplies in Cork city.

That concludes Deputy Gould's six minutes. I will give Ms Attridge a minute because a question on the auditing was put by Deputy Flaherty and Ms Attridge had technical problems. Does she wish to answer that question? There are 20 under audit and 800 to go.

I am sorry, Chairman, but the question we can come back to later is whether the EPA inspectors will be involved.

Deputy Gould, I am being strict on time. I will give Ms Attridge a minute to answer that one, if she wishes.

Ms Margaret Attridge

I have a very quick answer to that one. Yes, the EPA is doing a follow-up of audits on the top 20 sites in the same two-week period after Irish Water does its initial audits. There is very close scrutiny by both the EPA and Irish Water.

I will return to Deputy Flaherty's question earlier. As Mr. Gleeson said, our initial focus is on the top 20 sites. We want to get an initial audit done of all those treatment plants by 1 October. With the resources, we are limited to getting to the top 20. That will cover 60% of all customers. With the remaining 700-plus treatment plants, our plan is to roll out the refresher training to all local authority management. The request there is for the local authority management to cascade that training down to all the plant operators on the remaining sites. We will then, over time, get to all those remaining sites and carry out an audit of the remaining treatment plants, but that is going to take some time.

Thank you. Senator Cummins has six minutes.

I thank our witnesses. While people will focus, understandably, on the issues that arose in Wexford and Dublin, this meeting request was made before that. It is important that we focus as well on infrastructure and constraints, particularly with reference to the small towns and villages growth programme which is geared at delivering in areas of growth potential which otherwise would not be a priority for Irish Water, given the understandable focus on big urban delivery schemes. However, investment in this area is key if we are going to meet the targets in Housing for All. Connections is a key barrier that is raised with me consistently by stakeholders in the construction sector. Some €97.5 million has been approved by the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, for the scheme and councils across the country were asked to prioritise their areas of investment. Realistically, we are only looking at the first priority area in most of the counties, including in Waterford. The frustration is with the glacial speed at which these projects are moving.

I will give a local example, not to be parochial but because it speaks to the wider issue. There is a developer in Waterford who is ready to break ground today for 19 family homes in Lemybrien in County Waterford, but there are issues and constraints with water and wastewater that have been identified by Irish Water. These issues were identified in July 2019. It was shown that studies and tests needed to be carried out with regard to both water and wastewater, which are still not completed. I was assured they would be completed during the summer, and now I am assured they will be conducted in October. I accept the bona fides of people in that regard. However, with regard to what needs to happen here, and this is a direct question for Mr. Gleeson, is there a resource issue in this area? Second, can he reallocate funding across to this area so we can progress with the design of the priority two, three and four areas in the local authority? Then they would be shovel-ready projects and we are not looking at developing designs two years hence which ultimately will not go through the planning process, funding phase and build phase until five years' time. Can we get many of them progressed at design stage if we front-load money into the scheme, to speed up the process both in the scheme in Lemybrien and in other areas? Can Irish Water do tenders for such schemes in tandem with the planning process so we can look at streamlining the process? It is a massive constraint, and it will be over the next number of years if we do not grasp this nettle.

Mr. Niall Gleeson

It is a very good point. We have budgetary constraints across the system. If we give to one budget, we take from another. We have very good funding, but there is a huge amount of work to do. We can certainly look at some of the ideas the Deputy has raised. The €98 million is a significant figure out of our overall funding and it will address many of those issues. I know people perceive delays in our ability to deliver. Typically, between planning, land acquisition and just developing and tendering, it takes us anywhere between three and five years to develop new infrastructure. That is frustrating for people, but that is the reality we have to deal with.

That needs to be taken into account when we are planning. Mr. O'Donoghue from asset management is here. Does he have any comments on the Senator's points?

Mr. Gerry O'Donoghue

As Mr. Gleeson said, we have many different priorities to achieve. If we prioritised what is normally at the top of the list, we would spend much money on large towns, on wastewater compliance and such. Many smaller towns and villages would fall off the end. It was appropriate and far-sighted to hive off a certain budget specifically for this important purpose to support national rural strategies. The issue is that there is much work in deciding what to do. The initial communication with local authorities was last year. Much work has been done on that. We are trying to advance everything as soon as we can. Some 15 projects have been approved and there will be another tranche shortly. There is much work in getting those ready, and making sure that we have the right priorities, we do not start on a project that will ultimately prove undeliverable for some reason and we have a good understanding of what it might cost. It is only the tip of the iceberg with regard to the overall demand but it is a start. The issue is getting the balance right. If we spend a lot of resources developing plans, we do not get work done.

I am sorry. I have to interrupt Mr. O'Donoghue there and move on.

I thank the Chair and witnesses. The witnesses referred to boil notices in different areas. I am from County Limerick. I have been involved in construction all my life and I understand the process of building houses. Fedamore, County Limerick has had a boil notice for 18 months and it is going round in circles. Those 18 months have cost people in houses there between €40 and €50 to bring fresh water into the house for a family of four. That is not acceptable. That is my first question. It is on the record of the Dáil since I have already said this.

I had an open, frank meeting with Irish Water four weeks ago, relating to a site in Croom, County Limerick. The site is delivering 56 houses, a nursing home and a crèche facility. Croom recently got a €20 million new school, a primary care centre and an extension to its hospital. It is an expanding town. All that is needed to progress these 56 houses is a service agreement from Irish Water, which has been delayed for the past six months. Irish Water yesterday received €4.5 million in its account to provide the water supply that is needed from Limerick to Croom. The company stated that it will have this delivered by 2023. All I need from Irish Water is a service agreement that there will be water in Croom by 2023, which it told me at the meeting would be provided. Houses will not be built overnight. I can have 56 houses ready for 1 January 2023 and have people in them. I can have vulnerable people who want to be in nursing homes in one in 2023 and all that is required from Irish Water is a service agreement. The services are on site. The sewerage systems have been laid by the local authority and the contractors for years. They are waiting. All Irish Water has to do is a service agreement. It is holding up 56 houses, a nursing home and a crèche facility.

All I want from the first frank meeting that I have ever had with Irish Water is connectivity between Irish Water and us, and to get answers. I want answers about the service agreement for Croom and when the boil notice will be lifted, after 18 months, in Fedamore, County Limerick, and will come back in later.

Mr. Niall Gleeson

We have reduced the number of boil notices around the country significantly but we still have challenging areas. I know it is frustrating and that 18 months is a long time but we have structural challenges. The vast majority of these long-term challenges are tied up in planning or infrastructure improvements.

Ms Margaret Attridge

I have an update on the Fedamore boil water notice. Unfortunately, the people of Fedamore have had a boil water notice for a lengthy period. There was an issue with the capacity of the borehole to deliver water to Fedamore. We had to install new infrastructure. The works are now complete. We have drilled a new borehole. That is going through commissioning and will be operational soon. As the Deputy knows, in that area of Limerick, the supply is from groundwater, which is at its lowest at this time of year. We are making sure, before we lift that boil water notice, that the new borehole is resilient. It will be a matter of weeks before that boil water notice is lifted. I know it has been a long time but we are nearly there with the Fedamore solution.

What about the agreement for 56 houses in Croom?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

Can I come back to the Deputy personally on that? I will follow it up. I do not have the exact details on that. All I will say is that we carefully study every application. We cannot put in new houses where it might be to the detriment of existing houses. We have capacity registers for the entire country now so we will be able to tell developers and people where they should build houses, where we have capacity-----

Can I cut across Mr. Gleeson there? There is planning permission for the 56 houses. I have spoken to Irish Water on this. We have clarified everything that is needed and we know that the water supply will be there by 2023. All I need is a service agreement based on Irish Water's own admission that it will be there by 2023 so that I can build the houses now, with a 12 month lead-in time so that they are ready. All I need is a service agreement.

If the witnesses cannot answer my next question now, I will come back to it in the next session. Oola, County Limerick is at full capacity. Irish Water states that it will upgrade systems in towns and villages around Limerick but that it will not increase capacity in these areas. It is no good to me if I cannot rebuild my towns and villages because Irish Water does not provide additional capacity, including in Hospital, Oola and Dromcolliher. All these areas are waiting for additional capacity but Irish Water says that it will upgrade existing systems and not increase capacity except if a place is within 15 minutes of Limerick city. That knocks out much of County Limerick.

Mr. Niall Gleeson

I may have to come back to the Deputy on those specific issues. We do not have a public network in many of these places at present. Irish Water's remit is currently not addressing those towns and villages. We would need to work on policy with the Department to address those issues and the towns that do not have sewers at the moment. It is an expensive proposition. We are quite happy to engage on this but it is not within our remit at present to enter towns that do not have an existing public sewer network. Would Mr. Ó Coigligh like to come back in?

I have to interrupt there. I think Deputy O'Donoghue is coming back in for the second round of Independent slots. We move on to the Green Party slot, which I will take. I have a general question for Mr. Gleeson. Regarding the arrangement with Irish Water and Ervia, and the service level agreements in place with local authorities, do the witnesses feel that their hands are tied in many situations? Would the creation of Irish Water as a stand-alone public utility, funded for full staff and resources, speed up the delivery of many projects and help us to manage our water and wastewater treatment infrastructure?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

The system works well at present. We have good co-operation with the local authorities. The water is delivered safely the vast majority of the time. The issue in Wexford raises gaps that we cannot afford. Bringing in a single public utility would allow for a single organisation to be responsible for water and wastewater services in the country, with simple lines of communication, a clear command and control structure, and national support and procedures for staff on the ground. The biggest risk at present is with communication, reporting, and training at a national level. As testing gets stricter, standards get higher and equipment becomes more sophisticated, we need to bring in that national approach.

A single public utility is the answer. Given the structure we have now, everyone is making a good effort to make it work, but it works despite the structure, not because of the structure.

I will move on to a question on asset management. Does Irish Water have standard maintenance plans for all its plants? If I took a plant operator from Limerick and put it in a plant in Wicklow, would it know the standard operating procedures and maintenance procedures that are required, or is it very much local knowledge and local plant operation?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

The context around this is how the plants were built in the first place. There was not much consistency in the way plants were built from local authority to local authority, so the equipment that was installed varies vastly from one plant to another and, again, there are 800 plants around the country, so there are big differences. We had introduced standard operating procedures but an operator would not necessarily be able to go from one plant to another and identify issues immediately. Ms Attridge might want to come in on that.

I might add one or two questions before Ms Attridge or Mr. O'Donoghue come in. In terms of alarm systems, Mr. Gleeson said Irish Water has a good relationship with the HSE and that the HSE will notify it. Illness and sickness should be the very last indicator of water quality, and there should be many layers above that, including alarms, critical alarms and procedures that fall into place when those alarms are received. Is there an alarm system process whereby, if there is a motor failure, a dosing failure or whatever it might be, the system that is monitored and there are reaction times to deal with those alarms? I am interested in how a failure can happen but nobody seems able to react quickly enough, or has reacted quickly to it but has not passed it along.

Mr. Niall Gleeson

It is a very good question. To clarify, the question on the HSE was whether we are in contact with it. We certainly do not rely on the HSE to tell us how our plants are operating. We have very strong lines of defence before it ever gets to the HSE. Ms Attridge might give some context on how the plants operate.

Ms Margaret Attridge

On the alarm systems, our treatment plants are alarmed so if there is non-compliance, an alarm would issue to the local authorities countrywide through the SCADA system and the message would be issued to local authority caretaking staff, perhaps to their mobile phones if it is out of hours, in order for the local authorities to respond. In the long term, the vision is that all alarms would come in to an Irish Water national system and we would have a national control centre, which would allow for management of alarms. At the moment, the alarms are managed locally.

In both of the incidents in Gorey and Ballymore Eustace, alarms did go off and the caretakers did respond. However, in the findings the EPA has informed us of so far, the main issue was the actual response post alarm, and the escalation is where the system failed.

Is there a graduated alarm? There may be an alarm that is non-critical and is an operational issue that needs to be addressed within 24 hours, 48 hours or whatever it might be, but are there critical alarms that say an incident needs instant action, right now?

Ms Margaret Attridge

Yes, there is, and that is part of the training we are doing with caretakers. We are increasing their awareness and knowledge of what are notifiable drinking water incidents and increasing their knowledge of bacterial compliance and crypto compliance. Part of the training will be to give examples of incidents and what to do in each case, and to make sure that each caretaker on each site knows what to do and how to respond.

There are standard operating procedures at quite a high level and most sites would have site-specific standard operating procedures. Part of our audit will be to check what is in place on each site.

I am going to put a question to Ms Gannon, although I do not think she will have time to answer it. This session came about from the previous discussion we had on planning, planning permission and infrastructural deficits on some sites. The Construction Industry Federation, CIF, indicated that the removal of water and wastewater services from the remit of local authorities in 2017, together with the lack of funding forthcoming for Irish Water, means that significant infrastructural upgrades are required on many sites, and could add between €25,000 and €30,000 per unit. I will submit that as a written question and Ms Gannon might come back to me. I would like to know how Irish Water prioritises the supply of infrastructure to certain sites around the country.

I thank the witnesses for the answers to those questions. I call Senator Rebecca Moynihan.

I thank our guests for attending. I have a couple of questions on staffing levels, although I understand the witnesses might not have the figures to hand. Could I have an indication of the differences in staffing levels in the wastewater treatment plants between 2011 and now? Has there been a significant reduction since Irish Water was established from the position when this was managed by the local authorities? I understand that comes from the local authority side of things.

Mr. Gleeson said that when the issues happened in the Gorey treatment plant, the HSE said it was not necessary to put out a boil water notice. What was communicated to the HSE and did it indicate its reasoning at that stage as to why it did not feel it necessary to issue public warnings following the incident? There has been a great deal of discussion about the creation of a single utility and it was stated that having everything fall under Irish Water service level agreements with local authorities will no longer be the case. I recall that when Irish Water was set up, it was said that local authorities would still retain a certain capacity and that service level agreements could be in place. Will Irish Water indicate that if staff from local authorities fall under Irish Water, the management of wastewater treatment plants will at no stage be given out to private operators to manage to generate efficiencies? We know what people will say at this stage of the process but we do not know what is going to happen in ten years. Local authorities and State companies have a good way of essentially contracting out some of the core services. Can we have a guarantee that if staff come under Irish Water, there will be no contracting out to private entities of the management of the wastewater treatment plants?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

I will take the last question first. We currently have quite a number of water and wastewater treatment plants that operate under design, build and operate, DBO, schemes, and they are operated by private entities. Irish Water's aim is to move those plants back into the organisation and to operate them with direct hire staff. Our main aim will be to recruit a direct workforce trained by Irish Water and held accountable by Irish Water. We are not aiming to bring in contractors to run services; we will use contractors to supplement. Where there are outages, where there are additional problems around leakage or where we have a plant issue that needs additional resources to fix a particular problem, we will use contractor resources. That is a good model. I agree we do not want lots of contractors in the plants. We want a dedicated workforce that is trained by us and overseen by us. That is the way we intend to operate with regard to water and wastewater treatment plants going forward.

As far as the number of staff is concerned, we have not reduced the number since we took over. If vacancies have gone up, as I said previously, that is a problem of recruitment because people do not see a future in water services because of the current organisational structure.

The Senator might remind me of her second question.

Ms Margaret Attridge

I will take that question in regard to the incident and liaising with the HSE. The incident was reported to Irish Water on 26 August. Our SCADA trends show that the repair was completed on 23 August and that the water was fully compliant and going back into supply on 24 August. When we actually contacted the HSE, the water going into supply was fully compliant so, at that stage, the HSE did not consider it necessary to issue a public health notice. I hope that answers the question.

It does. I just found it strange. Thank you.

I thank the Senator for sticking to the time. I call Deputy Cian O'Callaghan.

How is it possible that staff working in treatment plans would not know how to respond to alarm systems going off?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

We are still investigating that. We understand this was an experienced operator but we have not got the full details. Wexford County Council is investigating and we are supporting it in that. It is hard to understand and if there is a failure with our equipment or the alarm system we will certainly investigate that. To go back to the point, people will make mistakes and equipment will fail. It is in reporting those issues, where things have gone wrong, that we can work with the other authorities to ensure we protect water supplies going into the system. Mistakes will be made and things will go wrong. That is an important thing to remember. We cannot fix everything but it is about making sure the operators, the local authority staff and our own staff understand the protocols around communicating incidents with the stakeholders and getting messages out to the public as quickly as possible.

The alarm system was working, it is just that the staff did not know how to respond to it. Is that the understanding?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

Again, we are still investigating. It may be more complicated than that. The operator may have thought he had resolved the issue and did not need to report it. Every day these operators - and there are hundreds of them around the country - go out and make judgment calls about how plants operate. We have a structure that has not had good investment for 60 years. It is not high-tech. It relies on the skills and knowledge of very experienced professional people in the water services. That is where we get our protection. These incidents are very rare. What we are emphasising here is that when things go wrong we need communication with Irish Water so we can consult and get messages out to the public and prevent incidents.

As things currently stand, Irish Water does not know what went wrong in terms of equipment or processes. Is that the situation?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

We have the details but it is the subject of investigation with individuals. We have not got all the facts at this stage so I cannot comment exactly but we will issue a report at the end of it and I would be quite happy to come back and discuss the findings of that report later on, if necessary.

How often are the alarm systems checked?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

Ms Attridge might come in on the exact protocol around checking alarms.

Ms Margaret Attridge

The plant operators would check the trends daily. Even if alarms do not go off they should check the trends daily just to make sure the plant is operating within compliance. At local authority level, the local authority management would have oversight of the local authorities' SCADA systems to check remotely the performance of the treatment plants, so that would be carried out periodically as well. As part of our training procedures we will be going through the checks that are to be carried out on-site and at a local authority management level with all local authority staff.

To be clear, are the alarm systems checked daily in our water treatment plants?

Ms Margaret Attridge

The performance of the treatment plant would be checked on the SCADA trends daily. The operation of the alarms would be checked periodically.

How often is periodically?

Ms Margaret Attridge

How often something is checked depends on the piece of equipment and how critical the alarm is.

These alarm systems are of critical importance in terms of our public water. Do we know how often they are checked?

Ms Margaret Attridge

As I said, if the alarms are not-----

It is just that periodically does not mean much. Periodically could be anything.

Ms Margaret Attridge

A chlorine alarm could be checked on a weekly basis. The point here is that the alarms are not going to go off unless there is something wrong with the treatment plant. It is the SCADA system that provides us with the information on the performance of the treatment plant and we can monitor that the chlorine levels are operating within compliance on a continuous basis. It would be one of the duties of the caretakers to check that on a continuous basis, irrespective of the alarms working or not.

Okay. Will the audits on the 20 plants that are being done now be published? If so, when?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

I see no reason why we would not publish them, although we had not planned to because they are internal Irish Water reports. The EPA reports that will follow will be published because it does that as a statutory body but we are quite happy to publish our reports. We will not be hiding anything, that is for sure. These audits are knowledge audits so it is our assessment of the knowledge of the operators and their knowledge of the reporting procedures. If we are concerned, we will put Irish Water staff on the site and keep them there until we are confident that that knowledge exists.

I thank the witnesses.

There are 30 seconds left in this slot. To follow up on Deputy O'Callaghan's questions on the alarm systems, are they monitored alarm systems? In other words, if the alarm system fails to function, does that in itself generate an alarm locally or remotely?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

I will again ask Ms Attridge to come in on that. We are getting quite into the technicalities of how plants operate. A lot would depend on the configuration of individual plants because they are not all consistent.

Ms Margaret Attridge

There would be a number of alarms in treatment plants so if one alarm failed there would be another alarm some place on the system. We would not normally rely on one chlorine alarm, for example, exiting a treatment plant. There would be a number of them on the network. Similarly, high turbidity levels would be another of our critical alarms because turbidity interferes with the disinfection process so if the turbidity alarm fails it will impact on chlorination and trigger an alarm on that. Each alarm is supported by other alarms on the system.

Deputy Stanton is going to take the second Fine Gael slot.

I am not a member of the committee but I am substituting today. I welcome the guests to the meeting. I acknowledge the very fine work that has been done in my area in the last number of years. A fantastic treatment plant in Youghal in County Cork was opened a number of years ago, which has meant that the Blue Flag beaches have been retained and the Ironman event was able to take place down there, and will take place again, thanks to the work of Irish Water. Carrigtwohill also has a fantastic treatment plant, one of the most modern in the country open with great capacity. Of course the big one, which was opened very recently by the Taoiseach, is the Cork Lower Harbour main drainage scheme, which took 44,000 wheelie bins of raw sewage per day out of the harbour. I want to acknowledge the good work that is being done there and thank the witnesses for that.

On the flip side of this, which is the reason this meeting has been called, is the infrastructure for the small towns and villages growth programmes and the constraints that exist. Some colleagues have suggested that Irish Water is acting almost as a planning regulator because people cannot build houses and go ahead with their plans for housing because of the constraints. That is very evident in my own town of Midleton. Very recently there was a CPO of land to put in a pipeline and build two pumping stations. As regards CPOs, does Irish Water rely on voluntary agreements rather than going through the process? My understanding from talking to local people is that if you can get voluntary agreements on CPOs, for wayleaves in particular, it is a lot faster and cheaper but there is another process going on that is far more formal and legalistic. That is something the witnesses might take on board. If Irish Water sat down and talked to the landowners and developers who control or own the land and try to get voluntary agreements it might be a lot cheaper and faster.

I have a question for our guests from the Department. With respect to CPOs and planning, it seems to be a bit frustrating that Irish Water is CPO-ing land for wayleaves and pumping stations and then it must wait for that process to be completed before it can start applying for planning permission. Mr. Ó Coigligh in particular might be able to tell me this. Are there plans to speed up that process by allowing utilities to apply for planning at the same time the CPO process is under way? Does the legislation have to be changed to allow that? It would speed things up enormously if that were the case.

The other big town in my area is Mitchelstown. I know there is some work ongoing there but the witnesses might come back to me on that. We are back to the reason this meeting was called, which is constraints. We cannot build a doghouse in Mitchelstown because of the constraints. It has been highlighted locally and there is a lot of frustration there. In Castlemartyr, there is a developer ready to go.

Until he gets clarity and some kind of understanding or perhaps an agreement with Irish Water, however, he cannot even start the planning process. There is one village and two large towns in my area where developers and builders want to build. There is an unbelievable demand for housing, yet they cannot proceed because of the constraints and because of Irish Water's wastewater treatment capacity issues. I am told it will be 2023 before a pipeline to pumping stations will be ready in Midleton. Again, that sound like an awful long time. It seems to take forever for plans to get done. I am told it would only take a couple of months to do the physical work but the CPO process, planning, tendering and all that stuff seems to take forever. Is there any way that can be speeded up? People are frustrated about it.

A builder is ready to go in the village of Glanworth in north Cork. The wastewater treatment plant there is not fit for purpose and needs an upgrade. He is going to contribute, in proportion, to the amount that would be linked to the houses he wants to build and yet he is finding it difficult to make any progress. It needs to be done because it is in bad condition. That is another small village in which a builder wants to build houses. He is ready to go and wants to build but cannot because of the constraints. I am sure colleagues all over the country have similar stories.

The witnesses might come back to me, although maybe not today because I know they are questions about specific locations. Perhaps the suggestion with regard to CPOs, planning and even tendering could be telescoped together to make things move a lot faster. They are the issues I wanted to raise. I wanted to impart the frustration people have and highlight the significant demand for housing, and the fact that Irish Water is being seen almost as another planning regulator, and, practically speaking, in many instances, it is another planning regulator in this regard.

Mr. Niall Gleeson

I thank the Deputy. I will just answer some of the-----

I am sorry. There is approximately one minute to answer that so we might get written responses to the Deputy on the three locations.

Mr. Niall Gleeson

I was just going to say that we will come back to the Deputy with details on the specific locations. I know Midleton is scheduled for 2023. It goes back to my point that it does take us between three and five years to put in infrastructure due to planning, tendering and all those processes. We are reviewing that. We are trying to go quicker.

On the CPO side, we always engage on a volunteer wayleave. That is where we start. Typically, however, we end up in the CPO process. It just turns out that way for whatever reason, especially in the areas of wastewater treatment. People want wastewater treatment in their towns or village. They just do not want it near their house and we have challenges around that. We use the CPO process as a last resort but we do have to use it. Does Mr Ó Coigligh want to come in there?

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

Everybody acknowledges the complexity of the planning system, which has become more complex as the enactments have been amended over the years. The environmental obligations have also become much more stringent. That is, therefore, a challenge.

The Housing for All plan, which the Minister published in recent weeks, contains a commitment to review and update the planning codes to try to streamline it. On the issue of the CPO, again, there are enactments going back to the 19th century that govern all of this so it is a very complex area. I am not sure what the position is in terms of the CPO legislation generally. In terms of the overall streamlining of planning, however, it is an objective of the Department and the Government under the Housing for All plan to try to streamline the process. As Mr. Gleeson said, I think they can be progressed in parallel. It is a judgment call as to whether it makes sense to progress planning and CPOs in parallel.

I thank Mr. Ó Coigligh. I will move on now to Deputy Ó Broin.

I thank Irish Water and the Department for all the information provided so far. I want to broaden the discussion a little to water and wastewater quality. It is a bit disappointing that the Department did not include in its opening statement an update on the ongoing European Commission enforcement for our failure to meet adequate wastewater treatment standards at a number of locations. As attendees will know, the most recent EPA report identified 19 urban areas, towns, villages and cities where we were in serious breach of the wastewater treatment directive.

First, can we get an update on where the EU enforcement is at? How many of those agglomerations are still in breach? What is the revised timeline for when they will all be brought into line with the directive?

Second, with respect to Irish Water, the most recent EPA report identified 113 wastewater treatment plants at risk of falling outside of adequate standards on a number of indicators, including more than 30 that were pouring untreated sewage into our rivers, lakes and waters. A total of 52 public drinking water supplies are at risk of not meeting adequate standards. Will Mr. Glesson update us on the number of wastewater treatment plants and drinking water systems that are currently at risk?

This question is addressed to both the Department and Irish Water. I know that colleagues have rightly been raising the need for new water supplies. We have 556 residential areas, mainly in rural Ireland, that still have not been connected to the public water supply. Can we get an update on what levels of increased funding will be provided for those? It seems that until the existing residential areas in those counties are connected to the water supply, it will be difficult to provide new infrastructure for new housing.

On a final point, I note that in both statements, there is an argument that what happened in Vartry and Gorey strengthens the case for the move to a single utility. I am a bit sceptical and the reason is that all the figures I have quoted would be the same tomorrow if there was a single utility. This is not, therefore, just about the governance structures; it is also about the level of investment and the responsiveness to the at-risk water and wastewater treatment supplies. I would be interested to hear how a single utility will advance any of those. I presume the timelines for addressing all those problems will be the same whether we have the service level agreement to 2025 or whether we have a single utility.

Mr. Niall Gleeson

I will answer and perhaps Mr. Ó Coigligh can follow up. On the single public utility and implementation of projects, we work closely with the local authorities, but, in effect, Irish Water is fully in control of capital projects at this stage. The single public utility, therefore, is much more applicable to the operational issues. As far as implementation, however, the single public utility is to a fair degree already there. Irish Water directs all of the asset delivery type works with the co-operation of local authorities in certain areas but it is very much under our control.

The issues around delivery very much relate to planning, CPOs and so on we discussed earlier. Once we get boots on the ground, we can deliver. We will have to get back to the Deputy with all the figures he requested for this year because they do get updated. We will perhaps be able to supply those by the end of this session or at least by the end of the week.

We will start work on 11 of those untreated agglomerations where raw sewage is going into the sea. They will start this year with boots on the ground. We will deliver those on schedule and we will have the vast majority of those untreated agglomerations completed by 2025. We have reduced that number. The volume of wastewater that was entering the seas and rivers has been reduced by 60% since 2014.

We have, therefore, made an awful lot of progress. Our systems and processes are there, but, as I said, our greatest challenge is probably the planning and judicial review process. That is where most of the projects are held up. Once we get in there and get boots on the ground, we deliver well and we are generally on time and on budget.

Mr. Ó Coigligh may wish to come on with some comments on the Deputy's original question.

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

It was difficult to cover everything in the seven minutes that were given to us. In the Department's response, however, I pointed to the general water environment issues and the fact that we would publish our draft water basin management plan next week. That sets out the strategic challenges and approaches we will take to the overall water environment in the coming six years.

Mr. Gleeson outlined the progress that has been made with regard to the urban wastewater treatment directive and that judgment against us. We liaise closely with the Commission. We sent our report to the Commission in recent weeks. One of the highlights, for example, was the completion of the Shannon wastewater treatment plant last April.

Two weeks after we forwarded the report to the Commission, as the Deputy Stanton, the Taoiseach opened the Cork Lower Harbour drainage system, which is a huge step forward in one of the most difficult areas in terms of untreated sewage given the complexity of the landscape there. A massive milestone was the turning of the sod on the Arklow wastewater treatment plant, which will cost more than €100 million and has been the subject of controversy for at least 20 years. Huge progress is being made.

Thank you, Mr. Ó Coigligh.

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

Just on the single public utility, from the Department's point of view it is clear that the WRC and the Government policy report pointed to risks that would arise if we do not move to an integrated model. We are very certain of that. These incidents show that these things can happen.

I will move to the second Fianna Fáil slot. I call Senator Fitzpatrick.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations and for attending today. My colleague, Senator Malcolm Byrne, will talk about the specific localised contamination issues and Deputy Cathal Crowe is also here. I wish to talk about Irish Water in a broader context. While recognising the significant improvements and progress that have been made and also recognising the challenges, we need to have this conversation in the context of the social and economic challenge with housing and the housing crisis that is affecting everybody of every age. One of the big concerns of the general public is that it is eight years since the establishment of Irish Water and in that time there was a decade of undersupply of housing, which we are now trying to respond to with Housing for All. However, what concerns me is that I do not see in the presentations today how the organisation is geared up to deliver on Housing for All. When I talk to people and councillors in every local authority around the country, from County Donegal to County Kerry to County Louth, there are issues with water quality, contamination issues, boil water notices and capacity issues in the water supply and in wastewater treatment. I am repeatedly told by local authority members, members of the public and stakeholders in the construction industry that one of the greatest barriers to increasing housing supply is a lack of water and wastewater treatment infrastructure. I will send Mr. Gleeson an email afterwards as I will not go through every example I have, but I can give multiple examples of housing developments of 15, 30 or 100 houses that are being held up. Representatives of the CCMA are present and I want to hear from them in reply as well. The CCMA and the local authorities will complete housing needs assessments this year for every local authority. That is a very important development in helping us to understand where the housing need is and, most importantly, where housing delivery is going to be targeted.

I want to understand from the three parties represented today. For the Department, there are the planning delays. Three to five years is unsustainable. That is basically saying we are adding three to five years to the housing crisis. We need a plan to reduce that timescale. We need to know in respect of the housing needs assessments that are being completed by every local authority that Irish Water and its capital plans are tied into that, so there is an understanding in every local authority of where it can plan and deliver homes. I want a response from the three bodies on that issue.

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

I will start with the Department's point of view. The Senator is absolutely right that the provision of water services is critical to housing delivery. It is stated in the Housing for All document that we will not build the houses unless we provide the water services. The Government is providing €4.5 billion for investment in water services over the period of the plan. That is significant investment. Mr. Gleeson will speak to this in more detail, but there are a couple of positive developments happening here and it speaks to the strength of Irish Water as a national utility. Irish Water has for the first time produced wastewater capacity registers and water capacity registers, so there is clear sight to all involved of where there is sufficient capacity in the system, or about to roll into the system, to facilitate the development of housing. That feeds into the local authority development plan process. There should be agreement between local authority ambition and the strategic approach to planning and the ability of Irish Water to service that development.

One will always hear stories about where development is held up because of a lack of capacity or some delays. I was speaking to Mr. Gleeson in recent days and Irish Water has some powerful, graphic information on its ability to service the housing demand. When one looks at it as a whole, the vast majority of development is serviced, and in a timely way. Perhaps Mr. Gleeson will speak to that point.

Mr. Niall Gleeson

The capacity registers are extremely important and a big development. Not only do they point out where we have capacity, but also where we do not have capacity and where we are looking to build infrastructure. I will make one point. We will work with developers on this. If we know infrastructure is going to be built in 2023, we will work with them because we know it takes time to build houses. We will give the go-ahead in 2022 because we know that their completion will be in line with our completion. We do work with them. We also work with developers on diversion of storm water so we can increase capacity. On a working level, with our connection and developer services teams we work very hard with developers to try to get those applications through and get the sites built. What one does not hear are the success stories, one just hears the negative ones.

Ms Kate Gannon

Mr. Gleeson, can I come in there? To follow up on that for Senator Fitzpatrick, as Mr. Gleeson outlined, we have capacity in the vast majority of towns and cities. Irish Water has distributed water and wastewater registers that will indicate where they are to people. They have been issued to the local authorities, the EPA, the CRU, the Department and approved housing bodies. We are trying to direct people to where capacity is immediately available. We also have growth programmes running in our capital investment plan, such as the networks extension programme and the local network reinforcements programme, as well as the local housing activation fund that specifically targets existing bottlenecks in our networks. Where we have local constraints we work with developers and our customers to try to find local solutions while the long-term capital programme is being delivered. As Mr. Gleeson said, it can take three to five years, but in practically all instances we can find local solutions, such as surface water removal, on-site storage and attenuation and so forth. To put that in context, in 2020 we were in a position to approve connection offers for 34,579 homes and we were only in a position to refuse 125 connection offers for homes. I fully understand that sometimes it can take a little time to come to a local solution, but the numbers are that, in 2020, 34,579 homes received a connection offer and we were not in a position to facilitate connection offers to 125 homes. We do everything we possibly can to facilitate and find local solutions.

Thank you, Ms Gannon. I call Deputy Duffy.

I can confirm that I am on campus. I am grateful to the witnesses for attending. I understand the complexities of the topic and, therefore, I thank them for their statements and the information presented. It is both insightful and alarming at the same time. Considering the housing crisis and the Housing for All plan, the Government has set in place the provision of legislation and funding to mitigate the housing crisis. However, there are a number of logjams in the system, including labour, to meet our construction projects, but bigger than this is the provision of water and wastewater infrastructure, as we have been discussing.

It is of paramount importance that the first thing to happen is a national audit to realise the capacity issues. I have heard concerns today and on numerous occasions in the Dáil about how wastewater is stalling connections in housing construction all over the country, especially in towns and villages. I can offer an example of a new estate in Dublin where wastewater is stored in an industrial-scale tank and removed by a slurry tanker at least weekly. It is shocking to me, as a practitioner in construction, that this is allowed to happen. It does not seem appropriate in our towns. I question its compliance in a planning context.

The Land Development Agency has, as we all know, maps of State lands to identify development sites for social and affordable housing. Our local authorities also have sites to procure. Have the stakeholders here met with the agency and local authorities to assess the logjams in the water and wastewater systems? If they have, is there a plan in place to allow housing to proceed where there is capacity, and a mitigation plan to open up capacity where required? It was noted earlier that there is a capacity register. Can that be made available to us? I would be interested to see where the capacity is and where the logjams are. If it is possible, I would like to put my questions to all the witnesses, starting with the CCMA. I thank them in advance for their answers.

Mr. John Mulholland

The Deputy referred to meetings of local authorities and the LDA with Irish Water. It is a regular feature of our business. Going back to an earlier question, it is part and parcel of our spatial planning. We have to look at capacity in different areas with regard to zoning and so on but when it comes to the crunch, with builders ready to go on-site and the time requirements, it adds pressure to the dynamics of supplying housing or business development in particular areas. In dealing with 31 local authorities, Irish Water and the main businesses in the Dublin, Cork, Limerick and Galway areas, with teams out in the various regions, we have regular meetings about these matters and pressing demands of services. Apart from the operational requirements of water and wastewater treatment plants, this occupies a much larger space on our agenda, if the Deputy understands what I am saying, because of the demand for infrastructural development, the programme for housing, Housing for All, and so on. I cannot speak about the LDA. I would not be familiar with it in my neck of the woods in Laois. It is not a big player in the area. I ask Mr. McLaughlin if he has any experience of that.

Mr. John McLaughlin

I thank the committee for the invitation. Even though we might not be speaking much, we will take the lessons learned back to our system. I do not want to go over earlier issues again but for local authorities and the CCMA, the top priority is always public health and public safety in everything we do, not just water. We have an escalation process and well-established systems. We appreciate that further investigation is happening. We will take the lessons learned by Irish Water, the EPA and so on seriously, and apply them around the country. There is no doubt that our role in water services has changed over the past eight years and that has been well covered.

I will go back to the question of County Donegal in particular. I might comment on that with regard to Housing for All. There is no doubt that we have capacity in certain locations for water and wastewater but we hear over and over again in our council chamber that we are driving people into towns where there is capacity, when they want to live elsewhere. In many villages and towns, we consequently hear that they end up closing schools or reducing teacher numbers, have reduced numbers for GAA teams and so on. These are practical, social issues to think of throughout society. What will our public policy response to that be? That is a wider issue. We are now working on an action plan for the new Housing for All scheme. It was welcome for small towns and villages in Donegal when it was talked about last year. Irish Water and our own water services and planning staff worked well together to come up with those lists and prioritise what was needed to tackle something that was probably considered to be a poor relation in the water system for many years, with some legacy issues.

To address the scale in Donegal, €8.6 million is the likely grant. Those small-scale works could take several years. That includes the first 11 on the list. Another six have no sewers at all but the need is great. That feeds into some other contributions.

There is no doubt that we will need to work closely again with Irish Water on Housing for All and the practicalities of delivering on the Government's programme. There is much work to be done in the locations that people want to live. That will require investment. I have no doubt that we can do it, provided the money is there. Mr. Gleeson used the phrase "boots on the ground". There is time to do that if we start now and get the plans correct.

I am sorry. I have to interrupt Mr. McLaughlin there. I apologise to Mr. Gleeson because we have misspelled his name and people have been mispronouncing it. I am sorry and should have clarified that earlier.

I thank the Chair for facilitating me. I will understandably, given that I am from Gorey, focus on recent events. I am grateful to Ms Attridge and the team who met with me and local councillors in the area on Monday. What has happened has been well publicised. It is critical that we restore trust in the public water system. Trust has clearly been damaged, not just among elected representatives but more seriously among the wider public. I have a number of questions about the timeframe from here. I appreciate that Irish Water has agreed to meet with me and local councillors once the information becomes available. We are currently awaiting a factual report from Wexford County Council and Irish Water about what happened. A number of people have to be interviewed and the detail gone over. I appreciate that a number of things have to come together. Have we an indication of when the completed report by Irish Water and Wexford County Council will be ready and made publicly available?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

I might ask Mr. McLaughlin if he has any indication. Irish Water is waiting for some information from Wexford County Council, so as soon as we get that, we will be able to compile the whole thing. It should be a matter of weeks. I understand there are some difficulties with the operator involved and getting in touch. That may be part of the delay. We will provide it as soon as possible.

I understand that. I am aware of some local difficulties. It is essential that we have that report as soon as possible to restore public trust. If I asked within two weeks, would it be fair to say that a report would be available that would be made public?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

I do not see any reason we could not commit to that, unless there is something that is not foreseen now.

Mr. John McLaughlin

I do not have that answer but I will get it and send it. Wexford County Council is working on that and it has clearly been a top priority. There is no point in me indicating a timeframe when I do not know it. When I get it, I will send it in.

I appreciate that. It is important that it be made publicly available in the next two weeks to restore public trust. I appreciate that and the commitment to meet with me and local councillors. There will also be a HSE report on the scale of the illness, which we anticipate will be produced soon. I understand that when we have both of those, the EPA will review what has happened. Will the witnesses confirm that that is correct?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

It will produce an overall report on the incident, including an audit of the site. I cannot speak for it but I assume it will include the HSE information.

That will be the independent review. Contrary to what some people have said locally, there is independent oversight of what has happened. I am conscious that we need to make sure that this does not happen anywhere else.

Is there an indication of the timeframe for the audit of the largest 20 sites the Minister has requested and then the 800 other plants around the country? We have to ensure such an incident does not happen anywhere else in the country.

Mr. Niall Gleeson

We will conduct the audit of the top 20 sites within the next two weeks. Ms Attridge might want to give an indication on audits on the follow-on sites. Getting around 800 sites-----

I appreciate it will take a bit of time.

Mr. Niall Gleeson

Will Ms Attridge comment on the interim measures as well, and the training roll-out for the local authority?

Ms Margaret Attridge

Our priority in the short term is getting the message out to as many people as possible. Other than the top 20 sites, we are using the local authority management teams to cascade the information with regard to instant management response down to all the plant caretakers. Our first touchpoint is to get the messages down to the caretakers.

Concerning the other sites, as part of our audit of the top 20 sites, we are doing an alarm and inhibit or alarm and shut down review of them. That review will be rolled out across all 800 sites. We have a long-term plan, where we are doing drinking water safety plan assessments of all our treatment plants across the country. This comprises a full asset audit and operations performance audit of the plants. It will take a number of years to get to the entire 800. We are taking the alarm-inhibit piece of the drinking water safety plan out and doing it in advance. We will start programming works over the coming months to carry out that review to make sure all the alarm inhibits are working properly and all site staff have awareness of how the controls are working.

I thank Ms Attridge. There is one concern if we are moving towards a single utility and this is an important question. In the past, if we had a failure or problem with water, as local councillors we were able to call the chief executive of the council or local water engineer to account. If we establish a single utility and an event such as this happens again, which I hope it does not, what guarantees do we have of accountability on the part of Irish Water before elected representatives? If something like this happened when a single utility was created, what commitments do we have from Irish Water that it would be accountable to local elected representatives in the area?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

I have accepted accountability for this issue as head of Irish Water. I am responsible for water services for the vast majority of the country. I have taken that responsibility and, in a single public utility, that will be our responsibility. There is no question about that. I do not see that changing.

What we pointed out in the statement we put out is the factual situation around reporting. We have not tried to absolve ourselves from accountability. We have just pointed out the sequence of events. The responsibility sits with us and it is up to us to fix this problem. Like I said, issues will happen, mistakes will be made and equipment will fail. We need clear reporting lines so we can react quickly in future and ensure the untreated water does not get into the system. We are accountable today and will be under the single public utility.

I thank the witnesses. Following up the earlier comments I made, I am looking forward to hearing directly from them about the service agreement for Croom.

A survey was done in 2019 of the waterways and I will use Limerick as an example. It showed the biggest polluters in Limerick are the local authorities. Enforcement notices have been served on people by the local authorities. They have been served on farmers, businesses and householders. They are being penalised through the courts for polluting waterways. When it comes to the local authorities, it is now shown they are the largest polluters in Limerick. On one hand, we are penalising people, rather than investing and encouraging them to upgrade their systems, while, on the other, local authorities are the largest polluters.

I turn to Askeaton, County Limerick, which I visited last Friday. I watched first hand raw sewage going into the waterways. Askeaton has been looking for a sewerage system upgrade for 33 years. Through successive Governments, people have been looking for the treatment system to be upgraded in Askeaton. We have been hearing about boil notices that can go on for 12 or 18 months but we have 33 years of Askeaton looking for a sewerage system and I have witnessed raw sewage going into the local waterway. I have also witnessed water extraction being done when the water was at its lowest. That caused further problems because the sewage that went into the waterways in Limerick was left there. There was nothing to wash it away because there was water extraction done further upstream.

I want a commitment from Irish Water to meet me in Askeaton in order that we can address some of these problems and make a plan. I recognise things cannot be fixed overnight but I want a plan with dates in it so I can help, one by one, to fix the historic issues in Limerick. The witnesses have inherited many of these problems but I want them to meet me and go through the issues. If we can name five and work off a list of those five, we will have accomplished something in my term in office. I want a commitment from Irish Water representatives that they will come and meet me in Limerick to do that.

Mr. Niall Gleeson

I can give the Deputy a commitment that someone will meet him on those issues. I do not know the exact date for Askeaton but I know it is one of the untreated agglomerations where raw sewage is going out. We have a plan in place and it will be completed by 2025, along with all the other systems. It has taken us time to get around all of those challenges, including planning and CPOs. Once we get on the ground, we deliver, but it is a challenge to get out there.

Ms Margaret Attridge

We are aware of the issues with overflows in Askeaton and we are working with Limerick County Council to increase the maintenance of the sewers there and upgrade local restrictions in the sewers to stop blockages. We are engaging with local businesses on source control and ensuring those businesses have grease traps installed. These are short-term measures. It is not being ignored and we are talking short-term measures to address the issue in Askeaton while we wait for the upgrade of the treatment plant.

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

I ask my colleague, the principal adviser, to comment on the overall issue of the water environment, untreated waste water and the quality of our rivers generally. It might be helpful if Mr. Flynn said a few words.

Mr. David Flynn

I thank Mr. Ó Coigligh. Early next week, we will open a consultation, as we indicated in the opening statement, on the next river basin management plan. As part of that, the EPA has looked at water quality impacts more generally across the country. Urban waste water features as an impact, as one would expect, but it is improving in comparison to previous reports.

There has been mention of raw sewage. When Irish Water took on water services, there were 45 or 50 discharges of raw sewage. That is now down to 30 and by 2025 they, will be largely addressed. It is the same on compliance with the urban wastewater treatment directive and on priority areas for action that the EPA lists. Things are improving but there is still a lot of work to be done. It is now the fourth most important issue-----

In Askeaton, a five-tank system that was used. When the sewage came in, it went from one tank to another, allowing for settlement of sewage before it went back into the waterways. That has not been used in the past two years. There is a system that can help the raw sewage going in but the system has not been used.

That is why I want a representative of Irish Water to meet me in Askeaton so that we can look at and address the issue with a view to coming up with a temporary solution until the system is back in place.

Can Irish Water commit to a representative meeting Deputy O'Donoghue on site at some point to look at Askeaton?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

Certainly. We can commit to that.

We have now reached the Fine Gael slot. Senator Cummins and Deputy Stanton are going to take three minutes each.

We will share time. To take it up where we left off, the timeline of three to five years has been mentioned multiple times. I ask the CCMA how that compares to the timelines that it operated on when it had control of both water and wastewater. Obviously, it had the ability to use Part 8 to deliver infrastructure. What were the timelines on both water and wastewater? I know it differs from project to project, but I am speaking in general terms. Three to five years has been mentioned multiple times today and that is a general term as well. On the constraints, if the capacity register be provided to the committee as a whole, it would be useful. I am particularly interested in my own county of Waterford.

Mr. John Mulholland

I will come in on part of that at least. It is very difficult to compare timelines because the law, procurement and the engagement of expertise have changed. The delivery of water services infrastructure was never speedy. It was never a quick exercise. There are plenty of examples over the years, from Mutton Island, County Galway to Arklow, County Wicklow and various other schemes. Such schemes would have taken up to a decade and even longer in some cases, depending on the challenges. It concerns dealing with areas that are not within the control of those who are designing, planning or funding schemes. It is about the opportunities for people to participate in the planning process, more recently, under the Aarhus convention and the like, freedom of information, the planning appeals system and the European Court of Justice. A timeline of three to five years would be typical.

Would Mr. Mulholland acknowledge that Part 8 was useful in that context?

Mr. John Mulholland

Yes. Part 8 would be useful, but there are very few schemes for which we would use Part 8, except very small ones, because, generally, they involve a Natura impact statement or an impact on a special area of conservation, SAC, which brings us on the route to An Bord Pleanála.

In the context of the growth programmes for small towns and villages that we are speaking about in particular, does Mr. Mullholland agree that Part 8 would be useful in speeding up delivery in light of the constraints in our rural towns and villages?

Mr. John Mulholland

Yes, indeed. That is a point. Depending on the level of expenditure and the simplicity of the scheme, Part 8 can be very useful and can deliver quickly, if, for example, the work involves the laying of pipes or the installation of a small pumping station or treatment plant. That can be done quite simply. It was done for many years under the small schemes programme. It was done quietly and without too much controversy over it. However, we all have to accept that we are in a different operating environment now. I take the Senator's point. Part 8, local decisions and discretion by local members is a very useful way of delivering planning for smaller schemes.

I will bring in Deputy Stanton.

I wish to return to the issue of the CPO process. In his response, Mr. Gleeson stated that he prefers voluntary arrangements but they invariably end up as a CPO process anyway. My understanding, from talking to people on the ground, is that the system is not satisfactory. Can he outline how the voluntary arrangements work? Who sits down with the landowner, for instance, in the Midleton scheme, where many developers control the land that is required, along with others? How does it work? Who sits down with the landowners and tells them they want to CPO the land and get a wayleave on the land, for instance? Who asks them if they will sign up to it and how much compensation they require? Who does that in the first instance?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

I might ask my colleague, Mr. O'Donoghue, to respond to that question. Perhaps he is familiar with the process.

Mr. Gerry O'Donoghue

I was afraid I would be asked that. I do not know the answer, because it is an asset delivery area. Obviously, it is people within the organisation that are involved in both the evaluation and negotiation on those.

Apologies for interrupting; my time is very limited. I ask Irish Water to have a look at that, because my understanding from dealing with people in the ground is that it is quite cumbersome and legalistic, and involves solicitors, estate agents and so on. Perhaps it would be more efficient if one person were to go and sit down across the table from the landowners and negotiate a deal with them. That would speed the process up. It is frustrating. Landowners in my area are anxious to engage with Irish Water and want to make a reasonable arrangement, but cannot, because they do not who to talk to and nobody has knocked on their door. I make that suggestion.

Mr. Niall Gleeson

In those cases to which the Deputy referred, are those lands that have been identified by Irish Water as sites for treatment plants?

No, they are not. The treatment plant is there. It is about putting in a pipe. The landowners only want a few metres added to a pipe. It is a small job. Overall, in respect of Midelton, I am talking about taking wastewater from Midleton to Carrigtowhill. The plant has been built. All the landowners want is to put in a pipe that is a few kilometres long and build two small pumping stations. I have been told it will take until 2023 to do that. Part of the reason for that is nobody is talking to the landowners across the table. It might be helpful and perhaps it is something that could be looked at. I do not want to be critical here. I am just raising an issue that has emerged from my engagement with people on the ground.

I have another question. As a utility, is Irish Water able to borrow money?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

No. We are fully funded by the Exchequer.

Irish Water is not allowed to borrow money, then.

Mr. Niall Gleeson

No. I will come back to the Deputy and the Senator on the CPO issue and the capacity register. We commit to issuing the capacity register to the committee. It is a useful document. We will also include some information on what has been achieved in respect of connection and the development of services. I think it shows the 30,000 offers versus the problems we face. We are talking about a small number of areas where we are facing challenges. That is not to discount those areas, but we are doing a lot of work in the background that does not get talked about.

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

The capacity register relates to the capacity of the treatment plants themselves. Sometimes there can be issues with the networks that can also cause problems. We are working on developing network development plans and engaging with the local authorities to help inform their planning processes into the future as much as we can.

It would be good if all that information could be provided.

I have a follow-up question on the capacity register and I think Deputy Ó Broin wants to come in. First, I welcome Deputy Cathal Crowe to the meeting. He has six minutes.

I thank the Chair and his colleagues for facilitating me. I wish to engage with the representatives from Irish Water and to thank them for the good work they are doing. I will try to start and end on a positive note and raise my concerns in between. Works are almost concluded on upgrading a major water mains in Milltown Malbay, County Clare. Members will be glad to hear that our good Oireachtas colleagues, the Healy-Raes, have the contract for this work. They have done a good job. The work is nearly finished and the local people seem to be quite happy with it. I thank Irish Water for its involvement there.

I am seriously concerned that there are still 35 small towns and villages from which sewage drains out into rivers and indeed, the sea. This has been criticised time and again by the EPA. Looking at it in respect of Government and Irish Water, there has been non-compliance with the EU wastewater directive for the past 16 years. We keep hearing that various schemes are being designed and are progressing. There is a parlance in Irish Water. I have heard it being used by Irish Water and other State bodies are using it. I refer to, for example, "Q1: design" and "Q4: procurement". It moves like this. Let us call the Q1s, Q2s, Q3s and Q4s what they are. They are seasons. It is about kicking things down the road. There are many Q1s and Q2s over a period of 16 years. We need to deliver on them.

In County Clare, there are several small towns and villages that are without sewers. If you flush a toilet in these towns and villages, it goes down to a gravel soak pit, into a stream, down to the local lake, and ultimately, the population is consuming that same water from their taps somewhere along the food chain sometime later on the same day. In County Clare, villages such as Broadford, which the Minister visited just a few weeks ago, Carrigaholt, Doolin, Cooraclare, and O'Brien's Bridge, have no sewerage infrastructure.

There is a need for a mindset that extends far beyond Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Galway and the other major cities and towns. We need to deal with this. I have been speaking extensively on this issue to the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath. In the context of the review of the national development plan, there is a hope to provide a mechanism for funding these villages without sewers on a pilot scheme basis. It is to be hoped that will be handed over to Irish Water. We really need it to step up to the plate in that regard. This is an issue on which Fianna Fáil is leading in government.

Mains water in Limerick comes from a reservoir in Castletroy that serves a considerable portion of the city. My concern is that it also serves a population of approximately 10,000 people in County Clare. That is one tenth of the population of the county, so it is sizeable. In the past year, there have been 15 major outages on that trunk main. It is a 12-inch main that leaves Limerick city and crosses Athlunkard Bridge. It serves communities such as Westbury, Shannon Banks, Parteen and Ardnacrusha. The pipe continually bursts. It is a mish-mash of old asbestos piping, cast iron piping and modern plastic piping. It is an absolute disaster. The issue was considered in quarters 1 and 2. We need to hear something firm, definite and clear from Irish Water at this stage.

I am not sure which of our guests wish to respond to my questions. I do not mind who answers so long as the responses are positive.

I refer to malfunctioning sewerage plants. When I was a pupil in junior infants, the classroom was in a prefab. When I returned to the school 20 years later as a teacher, I was back in that prefab. It is the same with the local sewage treatment plant. We were all told that, like the prefab, it was temporary and would be gone in two or three years. Lo and behold, 25 years later the sewage treatment plants in villages such as Meelick or Ardnacrusha in County Clare are still functioning and breaking down. They have to be reseeded, pumped and desludged. Worst of all, they have to be masked with odour-suppressing chemicals. This issue is also before Irish Water. Again, it is not moving quickly enough. I hope our guests can somehow encapsulate some of those points and maybe give me some positive answers.

Mr. Niall Gleeson

We are well aware of the untreated water or sewage going into the systems and we have addressed that issue through the Chairman. There are approximately 30 such villages left. We have boots on the ground this year on 11 of those and we will have the vast majority of them sorted out by 2025. The systems are totally unacceptable and I agree that it is hugely disruptive locally. I opened a new system in Killala recently. Its impact on the community in terms of having clean water and clean swimming areas was significant. We are well aware of the issue and we are pushing as hard as we can in respect of those areas.

I think we are doing work on the Askeaton pipeline. Ms Attridge may be able to provide more information on that.

Ms Margaret Attridge

As regards the water mains in Limerick city, I am fully aware of the issues with the crossings in the Cratloe area in County Clare.

I asked about the Parteen area. It is a different branch of it.

Ms Margaret Attridge

My apologies. Funding has been approved for the replacement of lengths of the mains there. I do not have the exact detail on it but I know that, subsequent to the most recent breaks, funding has been released. We will revert to the Deputy with details on that.

He referred to Ardnacrusha and the odour issues with which we are dealing there. As he will be aware, Irish Water is taking interim measures to deal with the loading at that treatment plant and the subsequent odour issues but it is not an Irish Water asset. It is going through the taking-in-charge process, so the investment in that is not currently in our programme and will not be until it is taken in charge.

I asked a lot of questions of our guests and I do not expect them to have the minutiae on these issues with them but I would very much appreciate if I could be emailed concrete details in the coming days. People cannot be expected to put up with fire trucks coming in to fill up water canisters or with odour suppressants being applied. It is not a modern, 21st century network in my locality. It is inhumane and it is bad from a public health point of view. I ask that Irish Water respond on this in the coming days. I thank our guests from Irish Water for their time and forbearance this morning.

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

If there is time, I will ask my colleague, Ms Walsh, who works on the rural water programme, to comment on the villages that currently have no wastewater treatment service. We are considering a scheme in that regard. I am not sure about the position in respect of the unconnected plants but there are legacy issues relating to plants that were put in but not connected to the mains system, which are causing difficulty. Those sins of the past have come back to haunt us. It is about ensuring we do not repeat those mistakes in current service provision. We have a scheme to try to address those issues.

Deputies and Senators have questions regarding individual plants in their constituencies and localities and I ask that they write to Mr. Ó Coigligh or Irish Water for written responses on them. Deputy Cathal Crowe referred to a few such plants. I know Senator Garvey, who was due to attend the meeting and intended to ask a couple of questions regarding County Clare, will also write to our guests. However, we are out of time on that slot and almost out of time for the session.

I want to go back to a question asked by Senator Malcolm Byrne in respect of Gorey. When there were not dissimilar problems at the Leixlip wastewater treatment plant in October 2019, one of the issues was the non-detection of several alarms. The EPA was very critical of that when its representatives came before the committee in December that year. As Irish Water is now going to conduct a review, can our guests tell us what lessons arose from the review following that technical failure at the Leixlip plant, which affected 600,000 households? Is there a concern that the lessons that should have been learned did not get translated across the State, which is why there is a not dissimilar problem arising in Gorey several years later?

Mr. Niall Gleeson

There is a difference between the two problems. We discovered the issue in Leixlip. We were notified of it straight away. Unfortunately, we had to put a boil water notice on the system but, in the end, public health was protected because we were able to react quickly. In that case, there was an operator error or an operator failure but it was communicated quickly and we got the boil water notice on and protected human health. In Gorey, the failure related to a lack of communication. The lessons learned are a little different. Obviously, we provided retraining for all the operations staff in local authorities after the Leixlip incident but, as I said previously, people will make mistakes. Relying on single individuals on night shifts to be solely responsible for delivering water is an area of risk. It is an area we are trying to address through further investment in infrastructure, telemetry, better systems and better processes. That will not happen straight away but, in the meantime, the public can be assured and have trust in us because the people who deliver the services for local authorities do so day in, day out, They provide a good service and delivery and they work incredibly hard to ensure the water quality is good. We are working to prevent these incidents and they should not happen, but they are quite rare in the context of the millions of litres of water we supply around the country every day.

I thank Mr. Gleeson. We concentrate a lot on supplies and the use of water. Do any of our guests see any reasonable and practical use of localised water storage or grey water harvesting systems in houses as we deal with a finite supply that is under great demand in terms of sustainability management? Do Irish Water or the Department have a view on that? Is it a practical solution? Many people suggest storing and harvesting water. Every drop of water that comes into houses from the public water supply, whether it is used for washing clothes, showering or to flush toilets, is high-quality drinking water.

Mr. Feargal Ó Coigligh

In terms of sustainability, those are things we would encourage. However, the full and separate reuse of grey water systems are quite complex, particularly in the context of building regulations. We need to encourage people to conserve water and to be careful in terms of its use. There is an education issue in that regard and Irish Water is doing a good job in trying to push out those notices with limited tools in terms of encouraging people to save water.

Perhaps Mr. Flynn would like to comment on that.

Mr. David Flynn

It is extraordinarily difficult to retrofit existing stock. It is something that could certainly be looked at for new stock going forward. There are complexities in that regard. There are also safety issues. If a system is used within the household, grey water and potable water should not cross.

From Ireland's point of view, where we have good water resources albeit not always in the places they are needed, we need to ensure our supplies are sustainable in terms of where we extract the water being used, we do not lose a large volume of water as it is delivered through the network, and we fix leaks and reduce leakage overall; and reduce the amount of unaccounted water. In addition, the use of water needs to be efficient through the use efficient equipment in houses and industry, and so forth. It is a feature of future thinking, but it is far from being the only solution or area we can look at.

On the new river basin management plan, we will ask Irish Water to look at the water services strategic plan. That will address all the issues in respect of climate change adaptation going forward. There is also a climate adaptation plan for water services that addresses some of these issues.

I thank Mr. Flynn. We have reached the end of our allocated time. I thank all the witnesses for their attendance this morning. Their contributions were helpful and interesting. We all appreciate the need for good quality water for safe and reliable drinking water systems and for wastewater treatment plants not to damage the receiving waters into which they discharge. We are aware there has been underinvestment in the water infrastructure and network for many years. Irish Water has inherited a system that has many legacy issues. There is a commitment in the programme for Government to provide €8.5 billion capital investment in water infrastructure to upgrade plants and drinking water systems.

There are many issues we did not cover today, such as the leak reduction programme; the investment in the network itself and not just in the wastewater treatment plants and drinking water plants at either end of the pipes, but the pipe system between plants; and meeting our requirements under the water framework directive. We would like to invite the witnesses back at some point in the future so we can further address those issues. We will also invite the EPA to appear at some stage to discuss water quality and the reporting thereof. I thank everybody for their time this morning.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.43 a.m. until 12.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 28 September 2021.