Pádraig Hoare: Irish Water must urgently fix 'hazards' in public water supply, EPA says

Irish Water says it has "a solid base" to work from, but the Environmental Protection Agency is not so sure, writes Pádraig Hoare
Pádraig Hoare: Irish Water must urgently fix 'hazards' in public water supply, EPA says
Irish Water needs to urgently examine and remedy the underlying causes for the delays and shortcomings, says the Environmental Protection Agency.

Irish Water says it has "a solid base" to work from, but the Environmental Protection Agency is not so sure, writes Pádraig Hoare

The Environmental Protection Agency -EPA- has not held back in its damning assessment of the current Irish water supply, with utility firm Irish Water coming in for trenchant criticism.

The EPA has issued a withering rebuke of Irish Water for what it says are “unacceptable” delays in fixing key elements of the national water supply.

In its annual water supply report for 2019, the EPA took aim repeatedly at the water utility firm over disinfection of water, lead contamination, and delays in securing water supply infrastructure.

By the end of 2019, Irish Water had assessed only around a third of approximately 140,000 hazards across all public supplies, the report said.

While work on eradicating the risk posed by cryptosporidium parasites in the water was praised by the EPA, the agency said progress on other hazards has been slow.

“Irish Water needs to progress the assessment of the remaining hazards (approximately 93,000) across all public water supplies. Over 10,000 high and very high-risk hazards have been identified so far through assessments as part of existing programmes and processes. The EPA is concerned at the slow rate of progress by Irish Water in taking action to reduce the most significant risks at public water supplies,” it said.

The EPA said identification of the risks associated with each hazard is a critical step in the development of drinking water safety plans, but that it was not seeing the progress needed.

“It is only by doing these assessments that Irish Water can move to a stage where it is proactively addressing hazards and associated risks before they become critical and impact on the safety and security of water supplies.

As importantly, the EPA has yet to see evidence of how the risks identified are prioritised for investment so that they can be addressed in a timely manner. Irish Water must ensure that this risk identification is matched with investment to address the risks, starting with those that pose the greatest risk to public health, and that this is done without delay.

In regards to lead contamination, the EPA said the lead replacement could take 60 years, and not six as planned, if maintained at the current pace.

“Based on current replacement rates for lead connections, the target date of 2026 for complete removal of public-side lead will not be met. The planned rate of replacement of 7% over the next five years indicates a lack of urgency in dealing with this risk. At this rate, it could take up to 60 years to remove all lead connections. The delay in addressing this issue is again unacceptable,” the report said.

National disinfection measures were also falling way behind, the EPA said.

“Effective disinfection is the most fundamental part of the water treatment process and the part with the greatest potential to impact on public health. In 2019, the completion date for the National Disinfection Programme has been delayed until 2022, three years later than the original date originally specified by Irish Water. This again highlights an issue of delay in delivering secure drinking water for consumers,” it said.

File photo.
File photo.

Irish Water needs to urgently examine and remedy the underlying causes for the delays and shortcomings highlighted in the report, the EPA said, and “prioritise investment to ensure that public supplies are safe and secure, and that public health is protected”.

In response to the report, Irish Water touted its successes in 2019, pointing to areas where it said significant progress had been made.

“The EPA has recognised the continuing high quality of the public water supply in its annual Drinking Water Quality Report 2019. The report notes that over 99% of water samples were in compliance with bacterial and chemical limits across Irish Water’s 900 drinking water supplies. The report also shows Irish Water’s progress in relation to reducing the number of supplies on the Remedial Action List (RAL), improvement works completed in 2019 allowed 11 supplies to be removed from this list,” it said.

The utility highlighted its work on eradicating cryptosporidium threats, saying the EPA had praised its work in the area.

The EPA highlights the work Irish Water has done on cryptosporidium risk assessments and called out the importance of carrying out these assessments in reducing the likelihood of cryptosporidium breaking through and causing illness or of a boil water notice being required.

“As a result of these measures, the EPA noted a decrease in the number of E.coli, Giardia and Cryptosporidium detections and also a decrease in the number of THM failures in 2019. Remedial works were completed on a number of drinking water supplies and action plans and completion dates have been submitted for the remaining supplies.” Irish Water insisted it had any lead problems in the country under control.

“Water leaving Irish Water’s treatment plants is lead-free and our records show that there are no lead public water mains in Ireland. On the public side, Irish Water is currently working on the replacement of all known public side lead. There are some 180,000 lead service connections in Ireland and Irish Water is replacing these as part of our €500m Leakage Reduction Programme.

“As detailed in the Lead Mitigation Plan we are also looking at the feasibility of adding orthophosphate to water supplies. This is a food-grade additive that coats pipes and thereby reduces the risk of lead in drinking water. A pilot scheme was introduced in the Clareville Plant in Limerick and we are looking to roll this out to other plants during 2019.” It was behind in 2020 because it had actually exceeded its own targets in 2019, Irish Water said.

“The progress on replacing public side lead connections and service pipe has decreased in 2020, against a backdrop of significant progress made in 2019, where 15,000 connections were replaced against a target of 9,000.” General Manager of Irish Water, Eamon Gallen, said in 2019 public water supplies overall were 99% compliant which is an “extremely high level of compliance” with the drinking water regulations.

“Irish Water welcomes and fully supports the work of the EPA as an independent regulator in its reviews of our work and the outcomes being achieved...Given the size and scale of the legacy issues and condition of some of the water treatment plants, Irish Water is pleased that this is a solid base from which to build.

“The report is clear, however, that much more remains to be done. The building, repair and upgrading of Irish Water’s water treatment plants, wastewater treatment plants, water and sewer network will require a multi-billion euro investment programme over many years.”

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