VICTORIA WHITE: Irish Water continues to get a raw deal, but the public are to blame

The final deadline for meeting EU standards was 2005, fully eight years before Irish Water was established. Picture: Press 22

What use is a utility, if not as a scapegoat? Except that the scapegoat is now so starved it can’t carry the load, writes Victoria White.

TO hear Morning Ireland berating Irish Water this week for its “shameful record”, because the equivalent of 120,000 people’s raw sewage enters the environment every day, was surreal.

Hold it now. This utility has been hounded to within an inch of its life by every media outlet, including RTÉ, since the day its then CEO, John Tierney, divulged it was spending €85m on consultants.

You need IT experts to set up a new utility with a complex billing structure. But the word “consultant” conjured up fat cats riding on gravy trains and that was enough for the populist press and politicians to run with.

Rushing to have Irish Water abolished were Sinn Fein, AAA/PBP, the Social Democrats, and, latterly, even Fianna Fail, who, initially, agreed to set it up.

Imagine what all this must have done for morale among the keen new recruits who had come in wanting to make a good job of Irish Water?

In the end, it was Fine Gael’s Phil Hogan, as environment minister in the Fine Gael/Labour coalition, who added that they had made a dog’s dinner of the fat cats on the gravy train. A huge march in 2014, ostensibly against water charges but also against the pain that each individual was feeling as a result of “austerity”, put the frighteners on Labour.

Botch-up followed botch-up. My personal favourite was the water conservation grant of €100 given to anyone who registered, even if their taps were on all day and even if they did not pay their water charges.

The return of paid water charges will happen before Christmas and will cost the State €170m. Meanwhile, Irish Water has been starved of the support, political will, and funds it needs to sort out our appalling water system.

But still, the dirty water, which the EPA says poses a risk not just to the environment, but also to public health, is all Irish Water’s fault. Morning Ireland asked Irish Water’s head of asset management, Sean Laffey, if he “fully” accepted responsibility? He said he did.

Well, what use is a utility, if not as a scapegoat? Except that the scapegoat is now so starved and scarred that it can’t carry the load of blame without looking and sounding completely ridiculous.

It really is quite some load of blame. The Environmental Protection Agency’s latest report on the discharge of urban waste water shows raw sewage being released into the environment from 44 urban areas, while wastewater treatment facilities in 50 large towns and cities fail to meet EU standards.

Improvements are needed at 148 urban areas to comply with these standards. Apart from the stink, the unsightliness, the threatened annihilation of the freshwater mussel, and the contamination of shellfish, there is a consistent threat to the water supply in our homes.

The final deadline for meeting EU standards was 2005, fully eight years before Irish Water was established.

Ireland is being taken to the European Court of Justice for not treating waste water properly. Fines, which could run into millions, may be exacted — Greece was fined €1m, plus €20,000 a day, for a similar environmental breach a decade ago. These fines could make the €85m bill for research, at the setting-up of Irish Water, look like a bargain.

Counties Cork and Donegal make up half of the offenders in the treatment of urban waste water, though the current EPA report is for last year and there have been some improvements since then: The new treatment plant servicing Ringaskiddy-Crosshaven-Carrigaline has, it seems, “significantly reduced” the amount of raw sewage entering Cork Harbour, which would be a relief if it weren’t outrageous that any raw sewage at all should enter the harbour.

Famous blackspots in Youghal, Belmullet, Rush, Bundoran, and Killybegs, all important for leisure and tourism, are expected to be connected to treatment plants by the end of this year.

But the delays in upgrading our water system mean that 31 areas are likely to continue to discharge raw sewage into 2021. Many of the projects are three years behind schedule.

This is all Irish Water’s fault, as well, I suppose.

It has absolutely nothing to do with the dire handling of the utility by its paymasters, the politicians? The media’s love of a handy punchbag? And our determination, as a people, to avoid paying taxes to invest in infrastructure, particularly environmental infrastructure?

It is truly shocking that only 44% of water-treatment improvement works scheduled for between 2009 and 2016 were completed by the end of last year.

Yet, it is not surprising, when you consider that capital investment in 2016 was only €172m, which is nearly €100m less than the averaged spend each year between 2000 and 2011.

Certainly, Irish Water’s record is not perfect. The EPA found that three areas, which the utility misreported as receiving primary treatment, were discharging raw sewage last year: Glin and Foynes in Limerick, and Newport in Mayo.

Works in 16 areas, which Irish Water had the funding to complete by the end of this year, won’t be finished for another three years. This is very disappointing, but perhaps not surprising, when you consider the political chaos and outright public opposition which have attended the utility since its inception.

Sean Laffey says spending on water infrastructure will soon reach a historic high of €325m a year and will stay there. But, last year, the EPA initiated five prosecutions against the utility for breaches of wastewater discharge authorisations and the fines amounted to €56,205. Seven more cases are pending.

Well, the fat cats can just dip their paws in their gravy to come up with the money, can’t they? Except, hold on… it’s our money, isn’t it?

To protect our health and welfare, the EPA is taking Irish Water to court. The State is exacting fines from Irish Water, even though the State refuses to adequately fund Irish Water and protect our health and welfare.

It’s great fun altogether. And the main advantage is that, as a people, we don’t have to face the fact that we, the citizens of this democratic state, have conspired to miss by 12 years the EU’s final deadline for fulfilling a basic requirement of a civilised country: Clean water.


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