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View from the exit point for the stream linking up with a popular beach in Dunmore East. Eoghan Dalton
coming clean

Waterford council confirms it plans to stop bleaching its rivers following heavy criticism

The use of the chemical was roundly condemned by agencies during the summer.

THE CONTROVERSIAL USE of bleach as a method to “disinfect” rivers near some of Waterford’s most popular beaches is to come to an end.

The local City and County Council has confirmed to The Journal that – following outcry at the practice – it has decided to look at “alternatives” to the chemical.

This will involve working with NGO Coast Watch Ireland to develop a different method to cleaning the river, but also tracing the source of its pollution.

The council said it has been bleaching the Dunmore East river since 1988, in response to an “unidentified” source of pollution upstream. This has been done typically from May to September each year.

Following queries, the council previously said it was unable to conduct a screening assessing the impact of the bleaching on local habitats in Dunmore East, due to “the fact that the area downstream of the chlorination is largely culverted”, that is, a tunnel-type structure carrying the stream beneath the ground.

dunmore east wide View of Dunmore East bay Sue Burton Photography / Shutterstock Sue Burton Photography / Shutterstock / Shutterstock

The latest news marks a U-turn by the council, as it previously maintained the chemical would not affect flora or fauna “as much as some beach users leaving their rubbish” behind them near the rivers.

A spokesperson has now confirmed that the council is “currently investigating alternatives to sodium hypochlorite”.

‘Serious concerns’

Its use during the busy summer season was condemned by an environmental NGO and a state agency amid “serious concerns” over its use, while other local authorities categorically ruled out using bleach on their own rivers.

Previously, Waterford City and County Council said it applied sodium hypochlorite to its streams near Dunmore East and Tramore in the summer bathing season, “primarily because children tend to play” in the streams, in an attempt to sanitise the water.

It said it commenced the practice following several cases of serious illness arising from children ingesting the water at the stream including “one near fatal incident involving a small child” in the summer of 1988.

It said this took place between 6.00am and 10.00pm at “levels deemed safe for food processing and household use”. 

The local authority also said that “Milton baby bottles washing solutions contain 2% sodium hypochlorite” in their makeup as part of its explanation for the use.   

Following reporting by The Journal in August, which saw Coast Watch Ireland and Inland Fisheries Ireland set out their concerns about the bleaching of Waterford’s rivers by the council, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sought a report from the local authority on how and why it was using the chemical.

At the time, the EPA told this publication that it was “not aware of this practice taking place” in other counties.

It can be used to treat water supplies and, as outlined here by Irish Water, is not considered harmful when used for household water supply.

The use of the chemical can be controversial, as it is considered harmful to flora and fauna by a number of groups.

A number of other local authorities have told The Journal they avoid using the bleach. 

Wexford County Council called it “extremely toxic for aquatic life” while Cork City Council said its use risked “destroying habitats”.

Recently, this website’s sister site Noteworthy reported on concerns arising out of its intensive use at a power station upriver from Dunmore East.

Karin Dubsky, national coordinator of Coast Watch Ireland, said the group will begin working with the council in spring to find an alternative. 

“We are delighted that the the council is looking at alternative arrangements and that they are to stop bleaching. We think it is absolutely essential for life in the stream.

“The alternative here is to clean the stream up. In the interim we can have an alert system so that when it is polluted you tell people, in real time.”

Meeting with council management 

Green Party councillor Jody Power said he met with council chief executive Michael Walsh to discuss the bleaching, where the offer was extended to develop an alternative with Coast Watch.

“It’s a headache for the council and they’re looking for help from an external source to try rectify the situation at the council’s expense.

“The first thing is to find where contamination is coming from – it’s for welfare of the stream and people in Dunmore East.

“It’s a positive in the sense that there is a willingness to do it now because we can’t keep doing what the council is doing for the past 20+ years. That’s crazy stuff in this day and age.”

He added that all houses in the area are connected to the municipal sewer system which means finding the source of pollution could take some time.

When contacted, the EPA said it received a report on the use of the bleach from Waterford City and County Council and that this is currently under review.

“We will respond to Waterford City and County Council in due course,” an EPA spokesperson said.

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