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'Abject failure' led to 900,000 water users being without boil notices after two contaminations

There were 52 confirmed illnesses after contaminated water entered the public drinking supply.

Updated Oct 14th 2021, 2:10 PM

THE ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION Agency has said that incidents at water plants which led to 52 people falling ill were an “abject failure of managerial oversight, operational control and responsiveness” by Irish Water and the local authorities overseeing the sites. 

The EPA’s Dr Tom Ryan told the Oireachtas Local Government Committee that it was also a failure by the bodies to fulfill their roles “to deliver safe and secure drinking water” for their local areas. 

The incidents occurred in August at the Creagh Water Treatment Plant in Gorey, which is operated by Wexford County Council, and the Ballymore Eustace Water Treatment Plant, which is operated by Dublin City Council. 

Contaminated water had entered the public drinking supply, leading to dozens of confirmed illnesses. 

  • Read more here on how you can support a major Noteworthy project to investigate areas impacted by poor water supply.

 The “failure to report incidents” between the local councils and Irish Water prevented a timely risk assessment of the incidents, resulting in “unacceptable delays” in notifying the EPA and HSE, according to the agency. 

“In particular the failure to consult with the HSE as to the risk to public health during the incidents, meant that there was no opportunity to issue a boil water notice to approximately 900,000 consumers of both supplies, which would have served to protect public health until issues at the plants were resolved satisfactorily,” the Ryan said. 

The EPA’s director of the Office of Environmental Enforcement (OEE) said that the two issues were “preventable”.

“If the incidents at the plant had been escalated in time, there would have been an opportunity to do a risk assessment and in both cases, to place boil water notices on the public supply, so that public health would have been secured and safeguarded,” he said. 

Boil water notices are an inconvenience to the consumer but they do safeguard and protect the consumer or allow them to protect themselves while the issues at the plant are being resolved.

Common audit findings at both Ballymore Eustace and Gorey

Audits of both water plants were undertaken following the incidents at both water treatment plants and a number of common issues were identified: 

  • A “basic lack of awareness and understanding” among operational and management staff as to the significance of the incidents and their impact on the drinking water quality and risk to public health
  • A lack of awareness of “the requirement to communicate” such an incident to Irish Water preventing the opportunity to assess the need for a boil water notice and to protect public health
  • A lack of critical alarm settings to inform operators of deteriorating water quality
  • “No documented alarm” or incident response procedures
  • No automatic shutdown of the plant in the event that critical alarms are activated. 

During audits carried out at water treatment plants, the agency’s inspectors uncovered “additional unreported incidents” which supports the EPA’s view of incident management by Irish Water and local authorities and their “seriousness as a risk to public health”.

‘Not isolated incidents’

tom ryan The EPA's Dr Tom Ryan, director of the Office of Environmental Enforcement. Source: Oireachtas.ie

“Unfortunately, these incidents are not isolated and have been evident in other audits conducted in other parts of the country,” Ryan said in his opening remarks to the committee. 

“It is clear to the EPA that the current arrangements for the delivery of safe drinking water in terms of managerial oversight, operational control and responsiveness are not working satisfactorily and are placing unacceptable risk on public health by failing to ensure safe and secure drinking water.”

Responding following the incidents, Irish Water said it had “legal responsibility but no direct control over water treatment plants around the country”, and believes the current system where the sector is overseen by it and the local authorities is “no longer fit for purpose”.

In a statement this morning Irish Water said it would be assessing the findings from the EPA audit reports, “and will identify the required actions and timelines to address them”.

The statement added:

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“Ahead of the audit reports we have been working with our partners in the local authorities to address all the issues identified during the audits by the EPA and to implement all the recommended actions to ensure there is no recurrence of these issues at either of these plants.

“In addition to this we have carried out detailed reviews of our top 25 water treatment plants which included the provision of training to plant operators on drinking water quality criteria and incident management.

“Furthermore, refresher training on incident awareness and notification requirements was provided to water services engineering and technical staff across all 31 local authorities over the past three weeks.”

Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage Darragh O’Brien also said that he had received confirmation from the utility provider that the country’s 25 largest water treatment plants had been audited in recent weeks. 

“Irish Water has assured me that both treatment plants at Gorey and Ballymore Eustace are stable, operating normally and are producing clean water,” he added. 

“I am pleased that Irish Water and the local authorities are working together in full cooperation to put in place these urgent and necessary corrective measures.”

- With reporting by Rónán Duffy

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