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'Slaughtering the Liffey': The long battle to monitor Ireland's largest water treatment plant

Due to a quirk in planning regulations, the only agency providing oversight for discharges from the plant in Ballymore Eustace is Kildare County Council.

BALLYMORE EUSTACE, A Co Kildare village through which the River Liffey flows, used to be “one of the best salmon spawning spots” in the whole river, according to longtime angler Tommy Deegan.

“When I was a schoolboy we used to come down and try and catch the salmon with our hands – we never managed it, but that’s how common they were when spawning in shallow water,” he told Noteworthy.

Deegan, as the honorary secretary for the Ballymore Eustace Trout and Salmon Anglers’ Association, has been fighting for decades to get regulations and enforcement tightened for Uisce Éireann’s Ballymore Eustace Water Treatment Plant located a few hundred metres up from the village.

It’s the country’s largest water treatment plan – supplying water to approximately 50% of the population in Dublin city and the Greater Dublin Area – but due to a quirk in planning regulations, the only agency providing oversight for the plant is Kildare County Council.

Reports carried out by Uisce Éireann, after the urging of fishermen, found that aluminium from the plant is settling on the bed of the Liffey upstream of Ballymore Eustace Bridge.

The environmental scientist behind those reports told Noteworthy that these chemicals “sit on the bottom of the river bed and clog up” the river, damaging habitats for marine life.

Ballymore Eustace-102 Tommy Deegan of the Ballymore Eustace Trout and Salmon Anglers’ Association has been fighting for tighter regulation for decades. Niall Sargent / Noteworthy Niall Sargent / Noteworthy / Noteworthy

Noteworthy, the crowdfunded community-led investigative platform from The Journal, supports independent and impactful public interest journalism.

‘Lack of action’ on discharges

Kildare County Council only became a regulator after Deegan and fellow anglers made submissions to An Bord Pleanála in 2008 when a new treatment plant was proposed.

In 2009, An Bord Pleanála granted planning permission for a new sludge treatment plant in Ballymore Eustace.

Attached to this were the conditions imposed by An Bord Pleanála, which were sought by anglers, requiring Uisce Éireann to not exceed certain limits on the volume of chemicals being passed into the river.

However, this past year the council has found the plant breached regulations for its ejections into the River Liffey on several occasions

It contacted Uisce Éireann in September seeking a report on how it intends to improve its systems at the plant, but it’s still awaiting a response as of December.

For Deegan, it’s been a source of much frustration as he feels strongly that many agencies have not provided the necessary level of oversight for the plant.

A former ESB engineer, he maintains the flow is not strong enough and a result, it cannot dilute the nutrient-dense material from the plant.

It means it’s “slaughtering the Liffey” in this part of Co Kildare, he alleged.

But the concerns go back much further according to Deegan.

He produced correspondence dating from 2019 to 2022 where the anglers association expressed its unhappiness about the monitoring of the plant.

In May 2019, it expressed concern at “what appeared to be a lack of action” by Kildare County Council regarding the plant’s discharges to the Liffey at Ballymore Eustace.

Later, in late 2022, Deegan accused the council in an email of “turning a blind eye” to the plant’s discharges, also alleging that the plant was “non-compliant on a daily basis” with regards to the maximum daily spillway volume from the facility. This is a structure designed to ‘spill’ water from the plant into the Liffey.

The maximum allowed is 3,697 cubic metres, but for October to December last year (2022), this was recorded as ranging from 10,900 to 12,500 cubic metres – multiples of the maximum daily spillway volume.

Neither the council or the plant responded directly to this point when contacted, with the county council insisting it has always monitored the plant.

Uisce Éireann did tell Noteworthy that it has undertaken measures to meet its planning conditions. It said this involves “optimising” chemical and physical treatment process onsite to “improve the quality of the process waters discharged” to the River Liffey.

“This is an ongoing process,” it said.

Ballymore Aerial The treatment plant is right next to the River Liffey. Google Maps Pro Google Maps Pro

Trying to enforce planning ‘only now’

While the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) carries out oversight of drinking water treatment functions, the plant’s discharges into the River Liffey fall outside the watchdog’s brief.

Deegan said that the council has “written to Irish Water twice this year telling them they need to show how they’re going to be compliant, but the planning requirement goes back to ’08 – that’s how far back it goes”.

“It’s only now they’re really trying to enforce the planning regulations.”

During the discharge process, Uisce Éireann states that each of the plant’s 38 filters is back washed or cleaned every 30-48 hours. A spillway guides the backwash down the river into Ballymore Eustace.

Noteworthy observed on a visit to the site that the water turns an ashen colour as this process takes place.

The backwash water is then further treated to remove particulate material before being discharged to the Liffey, according into Uisce Éireann.

“It seems that the original local authorities didn’t need a license to discharge from a water treatment plant so there was very little in the way of oversight in the ’80s,” Deegan added.

“When they started here first, all they were abstracting at the time was between five and 20 million gallons a day, and now it’s up to 70 million gallons a day, the Dublin demand for water is so high.”

The impact of these chemicals and waste sitting on the river bed in Ballymore Eustace is what it makes it harder for fish to spawn.

Dr Martin McGarrigle sets this out in a report on the plant and its effects on the river, which he carried out in 2018 following discussions with Uisce Éireann and the angling association.

His environmental consultancy company was commissioned by Uisce Éireann to undertake an investigative assessment into the condition of the River Liffey in the
vicinity of Ballymore Eustace, based on reports by Deegan and fellow anglers.

Ballymore Bridge Ballymore Bridge in the Co Kildare village, just downstream of the Uisce Éireann plant. Niall Sargent / Noteworthy Niall Sargent / Noteworthy / Noteworthy

The report examined the nearby Blessington wastewater treatment facility, Golden Falls Lake, along with the River Liffey at Ballymore Eustace and the Ballymore Eustace plant.

An initial survey, conducted in 2017, showed that there were “significant deposits of a white material, apparently emanating” from the Ballymore Eustace plant.

“These may arise from the active sludge treatment process and/or from the erosion of older deposits from the sludge lagoons,” McGarrigle wrote at the time.

After he produced a study showing heavy levels of aluminium in the river, McGarrigle said Uisce Éireann sought to change its systems. Speaking in recent weeks, he told Noteworthy that he did a follow up study in 2018.

“They did actually reduce the amount of these materials that was coming out by quite a bit and had improved things. If go back 30 years, there’s no comparison to what’s happening now compared to what it was like in the 1980s and before that.”

However, the recent monitoring results produced by the plant and handed over to the county council has resumed concern about the plant.

When asked about the results arising from the county council’s monitoring, McGarrigle said: “If they’re now in breach of the regulations then obviously they need to go further again.”

Water pollution prosecution

Noteworthy reported yesterday that there continues to be issues with the plant. It breached regulations several times in 2023.

In addition, Uisce Éireann was prosecuted last summer for water pollution offences related to discharge from the plant.

This came about when, in June 2022, Deegan’s son Stephen was out for a stroll with his dog by the Liffey in Ballymore Eustace when thought he smelled chlorine, or bleach. He soon found a series of dead fish.

“Having heard me always going on about it for all those years, I think he ended up being more wise to it than he could have been otherwise,” Deegan said.

The instinct proved right. Inland Fisheries Ireland (IFI) was notified and it investigated, eventually prosecuting Uisce Éireann in Naas District Court. The company was fined €5,000, and ordered to pay an additional €5,500 in costs and expenses.

Ballymore Eustace Plant Uisce Éireann was fined €5,000 and ordered to pay €5,500 in costs and expenses for water pollution offences in July 2022. Niall Sargent / Noteworthy Niall Sargent / Noteworthy / Noteworthy

Uisce Éireann told Noteworthy that its disinfection system at the plant had “failed” in the June 2022 incident, leading to the effluent discharge.

It said it has undertaken an upgrade in light of the court case which will see the plant modernised and improved the water treatment process at the plant, “ensuring raw water continues to be treated to the water quality standards” as required by EU regulations.

When contacted, IFI said it has directed resources to “assessing and addressing potential risks posed to fish populations by discharges from the Ballymore Eustace water treatment plant” in recent years.

“IFI has received a number of communications from stakeholders in recent years about water quality in the area.

“The agency is involved in a number of ongoing ecological monitoring programmes and investigations in the Ballymore Eustace area,” it said, adding that it’s currently collaborating on initiatives in the River Liffey catchment with a view to “maximising the sustainability” of all fish and their habitats.

The agency also pointed to a large-scale River Liffey catchment fish stock survey it carried out in July 2021.

It showed that the River Liffey section immediately downstream to the discharge from the Ballymore Eustace water treatment plant was characterised as having “poor numbers” of brown trout and salmon – but these fish populations “improved further downstream of the plant”.

“The agency continues to monitor the situation in this area, and is working with all stakeholders to protect, conserve, and manage our inland fish populations in the most sustainable way possible,” the IFI said.

Kildare County Council told Noteworthy that it continues to wait for a report into how Uisce Éireann intends to resolve the highlighted issues.


Read how the treatment plant breached regulations several times last year >>


Is discharge from Ireland’s largest water treatment plant wrecking the Liffey?

By Eoghan Dalton for Noteworthy

Noteworthy is the crowdfunded investigative journalism platform from The Journal. This project was funded by our readers alongside support from our investigative fund. It was conducted in collaboration with The Journal.

What’s next? We also want to dive into river water abstraction rules and investigate why they are so lax for big business. Help fund this work >>

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