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Raw sewage from 33 towns and villages is flowing into our environment every day

Half of Ireland’s urban wastewater is still not treated to the basic EU standards, according to a new report.
Nov 3rd 2021, 12:15 AM 57,867 40

THERE ARE 33 towns and villages in Ireland where raw sewage is released into the environment every day because they are not connected to treatment plants, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report has found.

The EPA’s report on Urban Waste Water Treatment in 2020, published today, estimates that one-third of these areas will not receive treatment until after 2024.

In 2020, 34 towns and villages were without wastewater treatment plants however Cobh in Co Cork was connected to a treatment plant in August 2021, bringing the current figure to 33.

In its analysis of urban wastewater treatment last year, the EPA is critical of Irish Water’s “unacceptable delays” and says the pace at which essential improvements in wastewater treatment are being delivered is too slow. 

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Snag_1772683 Source: EPA

The report also found that treatment at 12 of Ireland’s 172 large towns and cities, including Dublin and Cork, failed to meet EU standards set to prevent pollution.

The report states that this is “unacceptable as the final deadline for Ireland to comply was 15 years ago”.

These include Ringsend and Malahide in Dublin, Arklow, Cobh, Cork City, Lahinch, Ennis South, Shannon, Mitchelstown, Rathcormac, Ringaskiddy-Crosshaven-Carrigaline, and Moville. The ‘overloaded’ plant at Ringsend treats almost half (43%) of Ireland’s urban wastewater.

The environmental regulator said that while Irish Water has made some progress in resolving environmental issues, there is “still a long way to go” to bring all deficient treatment systems up to standard.

“These areas generate more than half of Ireland’s sewage, with most of this produced in the greater Dublin area served by Ringsend treatment plant. The Ringsend plant is overloaded and cannot treat all the sewage it receives to the necessary standards. A major upgrade of the plant is ongoing,” the report states.

The EPA said that Irish Water’s extension of the time frame to eliminate discharges of raw sewage is of “significant concern” and that the delays are prolonging risks to the environment and public health.

“It is unacceptable that 15 years after the final deadline to comply, half of Ireland’s urban wastewater is still not treated to the basic EU standards. There are repeated delays in providing proper treatment at many areas, and this continues to put our environment and people’s health at risk,” Dr Tom Ryan, Director of the EPA’s Office of Environmental Enforcement, said.

According to Ryan, Ireland will need will still need substantial investment over many years to bring public wastewater treatment plants and public sewers up to standard: “Irish Water must deliver the essential infrastructure in as timely a manner as possible and resolve the underlying causes for the delays in upgrading treatment systems.”

The EPA identifies 97 priority areas around the country where improvements are needed, ranging from Ireland’s largest treatment plant at Ringsend in Dublin to small towns and villages where wastewater is “adversely affecting the local environment”.

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The report recommends three key actions for Irish Water to address the shortcomings:

  • Direct resources to priority areas and ensure there is a clear plan and time frame to resolve the environmental issues at each area.
  • Resolve the underlying causes for delays in upgrading treatment systems and deliver upgrade works in as timely a manner as possible.
  • Complete the impact assessments for shellfish waters and address the information shortfalls on the condition and performance of collecting systems.

EPA Programme Manager Noel Byrne it was “very concerning” that Irish Water has “no clear action plans” setting out when and how it will improve treatment at many of the priority areas where wastewater is threatening the quality of rivers and coastal waters.

“It is essential that Irish Water improves treatment to resolve the environmental issues highlighted by the EPA and provides clear, site-specific action plans and time frames to carry out this work.”

In a statement, Irish Water’s managing director Niall Gleeson said it has been prioritising areas where it can support housing and development and have the greatest environmental impact, “particularly in locations where raw sewage was discharged into our rivers and seas”.

There is no doubt that challenges remain. Much of the infrastructure for safely collecting and treating wastewater around the country has suffered from decades of under-investment. And in some instances planning and other statutory processes, which are outside Irish Water’s control, have impacted on delivery timelines.

“But Irish Water has a plan in place to address these challenges and we are making real progress. Continued investment will be required in the coming years to build a modern, fit-for-purpose wastewater network but we are confident that we are on track to achieving that aim.”

Gleeson added that Irish Water is investing over €500 million in the staged upgrading of the Ringsend plant. 

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