Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Questions (27)

Eoin Ó Broin


27. Deputy Eoin Ó Broin asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government if the cause of the recent boil water notice at the Leixlip water treatment plant was the same as that discovered by the Environmental Protection Agency in March 2019. [45234/19]

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Oral answers (4 contributions) (Question to Housing)

To move on a little bit from what we were discussing earlier, I was not questioning the decision regarding whether to shut down the water supply or to introduce the boil water notices. I understand the logic behind that. I refer more specifically to what happens after the current upgrade works to deal with the turbidity issue are carried out. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, was very clear in both its October audit and its contribution to the committee today that the ongoing work will not be enough to ensure that there will not be a repeat of the kind of incident we just saw yesterday in the future. That is why it has recommended that Irish Water look at a UV disinfection system. On foot of that request from the EPA, has Irish Water decided that is what is required? Will the Minister engage positively with Irish Water to ensure that this additional protection is introduced in parallel with the current capital works rather than waiting until after 2024 to address all of this?

I thank the Deputy for the question. I have a written answer but it is the same as the previous answer so, if it is okay, I am not going to read it out. I hope that will allow us to move through the questions more quickly. The important change with regard to accountability is that the EPA now reports directly to me. The agency is not under my Department's remit. In the course of an audit, the EPA, because it is independent, will audit a plant, make recommendations and will then take Irish Water or any other body to task over the implementation of those recommendations. It has strong powers to do so. Earlier this year in Donegal, the EPA pursued Irish Water in respect of a number of issues. It is very important that the EPA is strongly independent so that it can act without needing to drag in a Minister. In respect of this plant in particular, given what we have seen in the events in March, October and November, it is important that the EPA will now report directly to me. Following on from its report, which is more detailed than the audit, I will engage with Irish Water and with Fingal County Council to see what needs to be done. I will do that very soon. I have seen the revised timelines arising from the March recommendations. I am not necessarily happy with them, although I understand that it is very difficult to change parts of the filtration system without having to cut off people's water supply. I want to see whether there is something we can do to help in that regard.

With regard to UV treatment, given the critical nature of this plant and the increased demands on it arising from an increase in the supply of housing, we have to ensure that the necessary treatment equipment is in place. To repeat my earlier point, the boil water notice currently in place as a result of the November event would still be in place if UV treatment equipment was present. The lack of this equipment did not cause this issue. With regard to the more detailed report the EPA will supply to me and the recommendations that will flow from it, we will have to look again at both the operation of the plant and the investment planned for it.

I welcome that direct engagement. The EPA's audits are very valuable and very useful and are produced in a way that those of us who are not technical experts in the field can fully understand. The Minister is absolutely right. The ongoing upgrading of the filtration system in the old part of the plant which supplies 20% of the water to the greater Dublin area is, as far as we understand, the primary cause of yesterday's event. The EPA, however, said in the recommendations of its October audit and in committee today that even when the capital works currently funded in the programme and under way are completed, there will still be a risk of the kind of event that happened yesterday if we do not move towards a UV disinfection system. When we asked Irish Water about this, we asked how much such a system would cost to introduce and how long it would take. It told us that it would cost tens of millions of euro and take several years. I am not asking for the Minister to intervene in the ordinary day-to-day running of Irish Water or in the work of the EPA, but Irish Water, on foot of the recommendation in the October report, may take the view that it needs an additional disinfection system. This could be introduced in parallel but it would need additional funding from the Minister's Department not this year, or necessarily even next year, but over the next two or three years. It is on that matter that I am asking the Minister to engage positively with not only the EPA, but with Irish Water, so that we do not finish this piece of work only still to risk an event such as that affecting hundreds of thousands of households in Dublin and surrounding counties because we did not introduce the UV disinfection system.

I thank the Deputy for the follow-up question. We still have to get to the root cause of the November event but we can all agree that the level of risk currently inherent in the Leixlip plant is unacceptable. It is not acceptable and it is not fair to all of the houses served by this water treatment plan for this uncertainty to continue into the future. I do not want to get ahead of the process currently under way. I spoke to the head of the EPA yesterday and the process will conclude shortly, although we must recognise that the staff who were preparing this report for me were pulled back in for the November event. This will mean a little bit more of a delay, but there will be no unnecessary delay in providing me with this report. Without getting ahead of that process, I am committing to review the operational situation of this plant and the need for additional equipment to be put in place in the future.