Irish Water has pleaded guilty to breaking environmental laws following the discovery of sewage pollution at treatment plants in Dublin, Limerick, Galway and Cork, writes Tom Tuite.
The company, which is being prosecuted by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), pleaded guilty at Dublin District Court on Wednesday to 11 charges under Waste Water Discharge (Authorisation) regulations. Irish Water had been prosecuted twice previously by the EPA and the court could hand down fines of up to €5,000 per offence, Judge John Brennan noted.
He adjourned the case for two weeks to consider what sanction he will impose.
Prosecuting solicitor Maeve Larkin said the EPA was proceeding with three charges in connection with a waste water treatment plant in Athenry, Co. Galway. This facility takes in waste water for treatment and then discharges clean water into the Clarinbridge River.
It failed to complete required upgrades by the end of 2015 and had released water with excessive pollutants into the river and failed to report an incident. EPA inspector Una O’Callaghan said Irish Water had indicated to Irish Water that the required work to reduce ammonia and phosphorus in water had to be done by the third quarter of 2015.
Irish Water told the EPA it would comply by April 2016, then moved the date back to the second half of 2017 and Irish Water now says the upgrading work will not start until 2018 and is not expected to be completed until the following year.
Tests of the discharge showed excessive emissions of ammonia, which can kill fish, as well as phosphorus, which can be a risk to the aquatic environment, the court was told.
The EPA inspector agreed with Ms Larkin that from July 20, 2105 until August 2016 there were 11 occasions when pollutant levels breached regulation limits. Judge John Brennan heard that ammonia levels varied between 10 and 73 times the limit. During the same period phosphorus levels were between four and 23 times the limit.
Irish Water failed to notify the EPA about a mechanical failure led to a breakdown at the plant on May 4 last year when 40 per cent of the waste water taken in court not be treated.
The EPA inspector agreed with defence counsel Eoghan Cole that there was no risk to public health, fish kill at this site or need to carry out an acute clean up. Due to lack of procedures in place staff did not notify the EPA, he said, adding that a training programme has been rolled out for them.
Mr Cole asked the court to note that Irish Water intend carry to out a €5m upgrade at the Athenry plant.
The next case involving four charges related to sewage overflowing at three waste water pump stations in Balbriggan, in north Co. Dublin last year. These led to a minor fish kill in a local river last May and Skerries beach being closed for the June bank holiday weekend last year.
The EPA learned about the beach closure from media reports and it had not been reported to them by Irish Water as required, said EPA inspector Brendan Kissane.
“Do not swim notices had to be put up”, he told the court.
On May 17 last, the Dublin Road pump station also overflowed onto the road and into the Bracken river resulting in five dead fish. Irish Water had taken over two of the pump stations from local authorities in 2014 but the third only became operational in 2015 when they were in control.
The EPA official agreed with Mr Cole that Irish Water was co-operative.
Judge Brennan was told the next case related to two offences at a waste water treatment plant in Botherbue, in Co. Cork. EPA inspector Patrick Chang said upgrade work was required by EPA to be completed by the end of 2014 but it is not going to happen until 2019.
Discharges to the Brogeen River, which leads to a tributary of the Blackwater, contained pollutants which were a toxic to fish and could affect salmon reproduction. However, he agreed with defence counsel that there was not danger to public health and significant upgrades are planned.
Ms Larkin said the last case related to two offences at Dromcolliher, Co. Limerick, at a 1940s built water treatment plant. The charges were for not commencing the first phase of urgently needed upgrade work by a Dec. 31, 2015 deadline and discharging water with excessive pollutants, said EPA inspector John Feehan. The first phase of the upgrades will not be completed until 2018, the court heard.
It is now trying to deal with seven times the amount of water it was designed to handle, the court heard.
Prior to Irish Water taking control of the facility in 2014 the Department of Environment had set aside the funds for the work.
Judge Brennan also noted that Irish Water was co-operative with the EPA and will pay prosecutions costs. The guilty plea meant a trial as long as a tribunal had been avoided, he remarked.