Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Questions (22)

Eoin Ó Broin


22. Deputy Eoin Ó Broin asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the information he received regarding the failure of Irish Water and Fingal County Council to fully implement the recommendations of the March 2019 drinking water audit report relating to the Leixlip water treatment plant prior to the alum dosing incident that resulted in the issuing of a boil water notice for 615,539 persons on 21 October 2019; and the action he will take in view of the findings of the October 2019 Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, drinking water audit report regarding the Leixlip plant, which indicated the October boil water notice. [45363/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Housing)

As the Minister knows, we have had two significant boil water notices issued for the five local authorities in Dublin, Kildare and Meath. Today, representatives from Irish Water, the EPA, Fingal County Council and the City and County Management Association, CCMA, appeared before the Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government. What actions has the Minister taken since the two boil water notices were issued? What reassurance can he give to the public that the current boil water notice will be dealt with as quickly as possible and that additional measures will be put in place to ensure that this does not happen again?

I thank the Deputy for the question. Leixlip water treatment plant is publicly operated by Fingal County Council through a service level agreement with Irish Water and not a private operator. The EPA report of the audit of the recent incident at the Leixlip water treatment plant, published on 30 October, found that the recommendations of the EPA's previous audit of the plant in March 2019 were not implemented. The audit noted that, in particular, the failure to install automatic shutdown when critical plant alarms were not responded to was a contributory factor to the incident on 21 October which resulted in a boil water notice for over 600,000 consumers.

I am extremely concerned that the lessons and corrective actions required following the audit in March were not fully implemented, and that once again so many people are today affected by a boil water notice.

The turbidity issues now arising are linked to the need to upgrade this treatment plant to reduce the risk of contamination. The EPA has identified in its audits that the filters at the plant need to be upgraded without delay.

Since the October incident, Irish Water and Fingal County Council have implemented automatic plant shutdown on high turbidity if there is a failure to respond to an alarm within 15 minutes.

In the case of the current boil water notice, the plant operators reacted quickly, even before alarms were activated, and shut down what is known as the old plant at Leixlip.

I have spoken to the managing director of Irish Water and the CEO of Fingal County Council and will meet them to discuss these issues in detail.  I have also requested that the EPA provide me with a full report on the incident in addition to its audit report. This will include the EPA's view on the causes of the incident, if and how it could have been prevented and the responses of Irish Water and Fingal County Council.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Two things became evident from today's hearings. The first is, obviously, very significant systems failures and management failures between the incident that took place in April and the EPA audit in March and the event in October. Not all of the eight recommendations the EPA made in March have been fully implemented. The EPA has made another nine recommendations to Irish Water and is awaiting a response in that regard. I would like the Minister in his supplementary response to give us an assurance that he will take a hands-on role in this, now that the extent of the problem has become manifest, to ensure that Irish Water and Fingal County Council fully implement all the recommendations from the two EPA reports as quickly as possible.

One of the disturbing things about the November incident - the Minister is right about this - is that Irish Water made very clear that what happened yesterday was not a plant failure and that everything that was meant to have been done was done in accordance with proper procedure. The difficulty is that we still have a boil water notice affecting more than 615,000 people in six local authority areas. While capital funding is in place to deal with some of the filtration issues the Minister spoke about, installation of the ultraviolet system the EPA is now recommending would require, in Irish Water's words today, tens of millions of euro of additional money and could take two to three years. Can the Minister give us a commitment that if that is required to reduce the level of risk at this plant, he will actively explore it with Irish Water as well as Fingal County Council?

I thank the Deputy for the follow-on question. When we read the EPA audit of the October event, if we want to call it that, and the March event, and now we have a November event, I think we were all pretty shocked by what was not done between March and October. It was a very detailed report and I thank the EPA for the work it did very quickly as a result of this boil water notice being put in place. This is a critical piece of infrastructure and we now see the importance of ensuring that when these audits happen they are responded to in a timely fashion and that the investments that need to be made are made without undue delay. I thank the members of the committee for the lengthy engagement they had today over a number of hours with the relevant stakeholders. Yesterday I myself spoke to the managing director of Irish Water, the chief executive of Fingal County Council and the head of the EPA. I will visit the Leixlip plant tomorrow. In this instance I have requested a special report from the EPA that follows on from and will build upon the audit. That will come to me very shortly, after which I will engage with all the relevant stakeholders to ensure we have a proper understanding of what needs to be done regarding the operation of this plant. Irish Water finds itself in a difficulty in that it is legally responsible for the plant but not in operational control of it. Certain things which should have been done and which Irish Water wanted to do after the March failure were not done. They have now been done but it should not have taken the October event for them to be done. I need to review, based on the information I get following this third incident, exactly what new measures might need to be taken regarding not just the long-term treatment issues and investments - the Deputy talked about the issue of UV - but also the operational control of the plant itself.

I thank the Minister for his response. I wish to press him, however, on the issue of the ultraviolet filtration system because, if that is necessary, it will require additional capital investment over and above what has already been allocated for this plant. Therefore, while I am not asking him to commit to that expenditure, I am asking for reassurance that if it is required, he will look on it positively.

The other issue that arose today is that while non-domestic customers of Irish Water will get rebates to go some way towards compensating businesses, it is not the same for domestic householders, who in many instances have had to pay very significant sums of money for bottled water. Bizarrely, Irish Water said it would provide bottled water for vulnerable households but it has no criteria for determining what a vulnerable household is and just provides the water on request. Surely, given the frequency of the boil water notices we are seeing, not just in Dublin but elsewhere, some fairer system could be put in place to provide bottled water to householders in instances in which they are not able to drink the water coming through their taps.

I thank the Deputy for his follow-up question. If he has the opportunity to visit a water treatment plant and see a UV system in operation, he will see how it works and its benefit. My understanding is that even if a UV system had been put in place, it would not have prevented what has happened in this third incident, so it is important to separate that out. My immediate concern is to ensure we can get the type of work we need to do done on what is called the old part of the plant in order that the threat of a boil water notice does not hang over all these residents indeterminately into the future. That is the first piece of work we must do and the most important. There are other elements in the audit, including UV lighting and so on. We must look at this because this is a critical piece of infrastructure. It serves far too many households, supplying one third of Dublin's drinking water, I think.

The list of vulnerable users maintained by Irish Water has worked very effectively when we have had various incidents in the past. The Deputy will remember that in 2017 a very large pipe broke, which affected thousands of households, but Irish Water was able to target those vulnerable households unable to get out to the water tankers with bottles to fill with water. There were two choices here: cut off the water supply to treat the plant, or let water go into the system and put in place a boil water notice. Since we have done the latter, people can still shower and wash clothes, but when it comes to drinking, cooking, brushing their teeth and so on, they need to boil water. They therefore do not necessarily need to go out to get plastic bottles of water, which has other impacts. They can still use the water coming out of their taps. I know boiling water is a massive inconvenience, but the inconvenience of having no water at all would have been much greater. I therefore support the call made by the authorities on that.