Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Ceisteanna (41, 63, 75)

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Ceist:

41. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the steps he will take to ensure that the recurring closure of Dublin beaches due to sewage leaking into Dublin Bay from the sewage treatment plant at Poolbeg is addressed. [28302/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Eoin Ó Broin

Ceist:

63. Deputy Eoin Ó Broin asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government his views on the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, assessment concluding that the Ringsend water treatment plant is not big enough to properly treat all the wastewater that it receives; the conversations he has had with Irish Water on the recent discharges of large volumes of untreated sewage into Dublin Bay; the steps which will be taken to ensure that the State is not in further breach of the urban wastewater treatment directive due to these ongoing breaches; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37633/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Thomas P. Broughan

Ceist:

75. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government the steps he is taking to protect the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, designated ecosystem of Dublin Bay, Baldoyle Bay and the wider Dublin coastline following continuous overspills from the Ringsend wastewater treatment plant; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35807/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (17 contributions) (Ceist ar Housing)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 41, 63 and 75 together.

  This summer, Dublin has experienced above average rainfall and some periods of exceptionally heavy and sustained rainfall.  As a result, there were sewage overflow issues at Ringsend and at West Pier pumping station in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown.  Specific and temporary bathing prohibition notices were issued as a precautionary measure for a number of Dublin beaches during the summer to protect people pending water test results. Overflows are designed to ensure that sewers do not back up and flood streets, businesses and homes which would be a much more serious threat to public health. 

There are other multifaceted sources of pollution that impact on bathing waters in Dublin Bay, many of which are outside Irish Water's remit, including sewer misconnections to surface water drains and streams, wildlife and dog fouling.  In these cases, the Dublin local authorities are working together to diagnose the root causes and put programmes in place to solve these issues. 

As these events happened, I was in contact with Irish Water through my officials. My Department maintains close contact with both Irish Water and Dublin City Council on the issue.  A meeting is being convened in the coming weeks with Irish Water, the EPA, the HSE and the Dublin local authorities to discuss bathing water in Dublin Bay. I have signalled the need for clear communication and better early warning systems.  The EPA has agreed to work with my Department and the other partners on examining ways of further enhancing the communication to bathers regarding potential water quality issues, including early warning systems in the event of weather alerts. The EPA recently reported an overall improvement in the quality of our bathing waters nationally.  Some 94% of our bathing waters meet the required standard and almost 86% are classified as either "good" or "excellent".

It is well established that our wastewater networks and treatment plants require investment to bring them up to the required standards. Ringsend wastewater treatment plant was originally designed to treat wastewater equivalent to a population of 1.64 million and is now overloaded. Irish Water is undertaking a major upgrade of the plant at a cost of more than €400 million to ensure the wastewater is treated to the required standard and to improve the water quality in the lower Liffey estuary.  This staged upgrade will increase the capacity of the plant to the equivalent  of a population of 2 million to deliver compliance with EU law by the end of 2022.  Planning permission was granted for the project in April of this year.

Following a judgment in March 2019 by the Court of Justice of the European Union on Ireland's non-compliance with the urban wastewater treatment directive, my Department, accompanied by Irish Water, met Commission officials and proposed a programme of measures to ensure this case is resolved.  My Department will maintain close contact with the Commission while the case remains open.

Dublin Bay is a unique amenity for Dublin city residents and visitors. The investment in wastewater infrastructure which this Government is providing will help protect the bay and its biosphere designation for future generations.  Under the national development plan a total of €8.8 billion will be invested in public water services over the ten-year period to 2027. Investment in wastewater infrastructure has been prioritised in the Irish Water strategic funding plan for 2019-2014, with an estimated investment of €1.9 billion planned in wastewater projects over the period, including investment in the Ringsend plant. 

The Dublin Bay UNESCO designated biosphere reserve comprises Dublin Bay, north Bull Island and adjacent land, including parts of Dublin city. It is managed in partnership by communities, non-governmental organisations and relevant public bodies at local and national level.  Dublin Bay is the only biosphere reserve worldwide which includes a national capital city within its area. This adds to its value and importance.

The Dublin Bay biosphere partnership's biodiversity conservation and research strategy 2016-2020 recognises the need for a research project to assess environmental pressures on the bay, including the contamination of rivers and bathing waters and the impact of climate change driven effects on water pollution.  This project is now under way in the form of the INTERREG-funded Acclimatize research project at University College Dublin. My Department will consider the outputs from that study once it is completed.

I thank the Minister. The problem is this. Irish Water's explanation of the discharge of raw sewage into Dublin Bay is that the wastewater treatment plant is functioning properly.

That is, when one gets an adverse weather event and in order to cope with the additional water flow and the mixing of surface water and sewage, there is a natural discharge into the sea. The problem is that because we are having an increase in the number of adverse weather events these instances are becoming more prevalent. It is not just that they are inconvenient; they are causing huge damage to our local environment. It was only this summer that the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, said the Ringsend plant had repeatedly breached its standards and that it was not in line with its wastewater discharge licence, and the EPA is urging the Government to do more. How long is it going to take before that plant stops discharging large volumes of raw sewage into Dublin Bay? What additional investment will be made to ensure that takes place as quickly as possible?

It is astonishing, given this repeated and outrageous environmental vandalism of our UNESCO designated bay and all the associated waters, that the Minister and Irish Water would say that it is normal when one has storm water overflow then sewage will be pumped into Dublin Bay. Our great beaches of Dollymount and Sutton end up with an unbelievable smell and with contaminated waters. It is totally unacceptable. The Minister said it is a UNESCO designated bay, and it is the only one in a capital city on the whole planet, and yet he is not protecting it or taking the necessary steps. Everything seems to be future based. We have had discussions about the second sewage-wastewater plant. Irish Water appears to be determined to go ahead with placing that plant in the wrong location. It will exit into Baldoyle Bay, which is part of the Dublin Bay ecosystem. Nobody wants that plant located there. It should be based further north. I put it to the Minister that we need strong and urgent action that there will not be a recurrence of this. It is disgraceful.

I thank the Deputies for their questions. The previous Fianna Fáil and Green Party Government did not invest in water and in wastewater treatment like it should have.

Of course, this overflow is not normal but unfortunately the discharges have been necessary because if the discharges had not occurred into the sea they would have occurred into the streets and into people's businesses and homes. The health repercussions of that would have been far more significant than what we have seen.

There are other complex pollution issues happening in Dublin Bay currently. There are sources of algae that are not as a result of these discharges and that have led to distressing sights and smells for people. These have coincided with the timing of some of the discharges but they have been an ongoing problem in Dublin Bay for several years, before the recent events of this summer.

We have committed €400 million to this plant upgrade, which is incredibly important. Planning permission was achieved earlier this year, which means that they can now commence on site. I have visited the plant and it will be a very significant upgrade. It will not be completed until the end of 2022. I have had direct contact with Irish Water to tell it that early warning systems are to be put in place. When, for example, a yellow weather alert for rain is forecast a warning will go out to bathers that until we have had sufficient time to test the quality of the water not bathe in it. These are the types of things we can proactively do to protect citizens.

As I said in my initial reply, there will be a meeting in the coming weeks between the different stakeholders, such as the EPA, Irish Water, the local authorities and the HSE, to see what we can do in the interim before the actual plant works are completed. The other important project, on which the local authorities are leading, relates to sewerage pipes that are not connected properly to the sewerage system.

The Minister is correct that investment in wastewater treatment was very low under the Fianna Fáil Government, but it was the actually the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government that cut capital investment in wastewater treatment to historically low levels. That was the reason the European Commission initiated the infringement proceedings. That is why there was a case brought to the European Court of Justice, and why the Government still faces the possibility of very significant fines. The most recent word from the European Commission is that it is not satisfied with the progress to date. Having said all that, Ireland's own Environmental Protection Agency says that this plant is failing to meet the requirements of its wastewater discharge licence and is failing to meet Ireland's legal obligations. Irish Water has said that the upgrade should be complete by 2023. Is that the Minister's expectation? Is he saying that the residents of Dublin city and the users of Dublin Bay will have to wait for three full years before these discharges stop, or does he believe it can be done sooner? What is the Minister doing to assist Irish Water in that?

It is correct. The Minister's Government cut capital investment to below the depreciation rate and we could not even maintain the systems we had at the Ringsend plant and at other facilities. Will the interim measures proposed by the Minister ensure that we do not have a repetition, week after week, of noxious pollution of our beautiful bay? The Minister represents the bay area on the south side, and I represent it on the north side. It is a jewel. It is important for the whole cultural life of the city. I am aware that currently the sewerage plant deals with the sewage from the whole of mid Leinster, or half of Leinster. The other facility is needed but at this stage the Minister should be looking to Irish Water to forget about the plan to base a treatment plant in Clonshaugh in the suburbs north of the city. This would provide further emissions into the ecosystem at Portmarnock, which is totally intolerable. This plant has to be moved further north to cater for Swords and the rest of Fingal.

Yes, capital investment was cut to protect current expenditure investment. It was not Fine Gael's reckless policies that drove the economy off a cliff. We wanted to protect schools, hospitals, nurses, social welfare payments and so on. We cut the capital spending-----

What about the children's hospital or the broadband plan-----

-----but we are investing €8.8 billion into our water infrastructure between now and 2027. This is very important.

-----and the €300 million worth of tax cuts?

The biggest issue that I am dealing with at the Commission is the fact that water charges were taken off the table by politicians in this country, which means we are not dealing with the effective treatment and use of water that we should be, as happens in other EU countries.

That is not true. It is the failure to comply with the Water Framework Directive.

Can we let the Minister speak without interruptions, please?

I will be honest with the public. Planning was achieved this year for a major €400 million investment that will be done between now and the end of 2022. That is the timeline for the investment, but the meetings that will happen in the coming weeks will see what it is we can do to minimise, prevent or alleviate any future problems we may have when there is substantial rainfall and capacity difficulties, specifically at the Ringsend wastewater treatment plant. When those meetings are concluded I will be able to inform the public in Dublin as to the outcomes of them.

We have time for one more question. I believe the next question, in the name of Deputy James Browne, will be asked by Deputy Darragh O'Brien.